Photos by Karlo Ramos
Conner Youngblood is living the dream, and right now the dream has found him in a noodle shop in Copenhagen. Youngblood is a fan of Scandinavia, and he's been drawn to Denmark for a while. Last fall, as he toured the US, he spent his free time in the car teaching himself Danish. It's not a language many people make an effort to learn: The country's population is less than 6 million, and the vast majority of those people speak English. But Youngblood is the kind of person who is naturally curious. Plus, his favorite player in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater growing up was the Dane Rune Glifberg—like Glifberg, Youngblood's strength as a skateboarder is vert skating, like halfpipes and ramps. Learning Danish seemed cool. So he did it.
“I can convince food places, taxi cabs, a few other random small talk things, but then once a word comes up that I don’t know I’m fucked,” he says of his attempts trying the language out in actual Denmark. “But then they’re always impressed.”
Now he's at the tail end of a month-long European sojourn, on a break from a tour with Norwegian artist AURORA. He used the time to visit Iceland and Norway. He shot a music video with reindeer in Finland (for the song “Birds of Finland,” naturally). He ate pizza with bear meat on it. Soon he'll head back out with AURORA before playing a string of solo dates across Europe. And he's finally about to put out an actual record.
“I’m excited to do a full physical, vinyl thing for the first time,” he says, as if the idea just occurred to him, which it sort of did. Until now, he’s self-released all his own music over the internet. The June 24 re-release on Ninja Tune subsidiary Counter Records of his EP The Generation of Lift, featuring a new edit of the jaunty “A Summer Song,” will be the most conventional thing he’s ever put out. Later on he muses, “Should I do CDs? Do people even buy CDs still?”
Stream the premiere of "A Summer Song" below and pre-order
The Generation of Lift
For Conner Youngblood, the digital democratization of music distribution has quite literally enabled his career. His music lives comfortably on Soundcloud, iTunes, and Spotify. There are, officially, three EPs and a collection called Sketches. There are also other songs that used to be online as part of other projects; sometimes fans email Conner asking where to find these, and he'll just send them the mp3. And unofficially, there are any number of Conner Youngblood “albums” because, in lieu of actual physical releases, he'll just burn a bunch of his favorite songs at any given moment onto CDs to sell on tour.
“There’s like a little graphic of a skateboard or feather, but then I just burn mostly like my favorite tracks,” he explains. Then, as he tends to do in conversation, in a way that immediately makes you a confidante, he wonders aloud, “I didn’t know if it felt really cheap or really DIY. I guess it’s a mixture of both, but people bought ‘em.”
That approach could get you thinking really intensely about the ontology of an aesthetic product: In an era where music lives as files on our computer, what significance is there to which songs actually fit on a disk? But you can also just think about it more straightforwardly. In almost everything he does, Youngblood tends to take a common-sense approach that can sometimes defy conventional wisdom: The internet makes it easy to release music yourself, so that’s a good way to release music. You can build a fanbase around the world with the internet, so you might as well use that exposure to tour. One of the best ways to make money as a musician aside from touring is from ad syncs, so you’re better off living off that than worrying about album sales. It’s hard to make a living as a musician, so living in a cheaper city like Nashville instead of the bigger industry hubs of New York and LA is a smart investment. Et cetera.
At a time when people at all levels of the music industry are trying to figure out how it all works, Youngblood has casually, humbly, and matter-of-factly cracked the code. It helps that his music is really good.
“That’s kind of what my whole philosophy has kind of been, like if you do something awesome, like awesome things happen because of it, and you just kind of go along from one thing to the next and like follow like a path that’s creating itself,” he told me the first time we met last fall. He has piercing, honest eyes, and speaks with a humane, reasoned self-assurance. “I’m not very good at creating a set of goals, and like trying to get there, like usually I’m just really focused on the exact thing I’m doing, and then when I release that, or put that out into the world, usually cool things happen because of it.”
Youngblood has always been, as he tells it, discreet and unshowy about his music. As a student at Yale, which he graduated from with a degree in American Studies in 2012, he only played a couple shows, and he was more known for skateboarding and wrestling. In Nashville, where he lives now, he hardly ever plays, and, despite the city’s huge musical community, most of his friends aren’t musicians.
“The second I’m outside of my friends, I’m like ‘oh, it’s me the musician, but when I’m like with my friends, I don’t want music [to be] part of it,’” he explained. “I’d literally rather go play a show in like Knoxville and drive three hours, do that for 100 people and then come back to Nashville and like go fishing or something.”
Growing up in Dallas, Youngblood got his start playing clarinet in the school band but quit when his teacher wouldn’t let him switch to the less competitive oboe (as the only oboe player, he would have been automatic first chair). His birthday is in January, and he was the only boy alongside five sisters growing up, so he would often get unique combination Christmas-birthday gifts. One year his parents helped him build a half-pipe in their backyard. And his senior year of high school, they paid for two weeks of time at a local recording studio, prompting him to try writing songs for the first time. He recorded a project’s worth of songs, since largely discarded, and was hooked.
“It started off as just I had something to say and I was never very good about articulating it, and like talking to people about things,” he recalled. “So it was very personal, like ‘oh I can say it through a song’ and like, put it out in this very public space and it actually means something and I’m not embarrassed by it. And it also sounds cool.”
He still goes home to Dallas to work with the same engineer whenever he wants to record—the weird appeal of drifting between two places is the subject of my favorite of his songs, “T X T N,” which goes “where you’re going / it depends on what you need” and concludes “don’t give up on Texas / don’t give up on Tennessee / ‘cause this cowboy country / is all that’s left for me.” There’s displaced wistfulness and an eager tone of exploration in his music, much of which is grounded in a sense of place.
“It was about traveling in these imagined places I wanted to go or had been, or didn’t really know anything about,” he explained. “Because I tried to write songs about chicks and, like, girls, and I think it’s just kind of boring. There’s so many songs about girls.” Youngblood is drawn to distant places, too, for their, nature and wildlife: His only video so far, for “The Badlands,” was filmed in the actual Badlands, with actual prairie dogs he stumbled across. And “The Birds of Finland” quite literally was born out of researching birds.
“I was bothered at one point about the fact that there’ll be something you’ve seen every day of your life and didn’t know what it was called,” he mused. “For me, it was birds. I’m like ‘I don’t even know what that thing’s called.’”
Melding the sincere folk of influences like Bob Dylan and Elliott Smith as well as the genre-hopping production of his beloved Gorillaz, Youngblood’s music is, much like his approach to it, straightforward: It sounds pretty, it’s electronic and acoustic, it’s sincere, it incorporates instruments that he likes to play. Envisioning his ideal live band setup—currently Youngblood performs alone, with an assortment of instruments—he rattles off drums, a harp, clarinets, brass, and a multi-instrumentalist as things to be included. Because why not? If it’s something that he likes, Conner Youngblood will do it.
What an ideal way to create art! Art should be easy; art should be real; art should be human. For Conner Youngblood, that mindset is pretty much self-evident: “I do it ‘cause I love it,” he reflected last fall. “But I see it going, just hopefully connecting just as many people as possible in a positive, impactful way, you know?”
Karlo Ramos is a photographer based in Dallas. Follow him on Instagram.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.