Haslemere is a town that sits on the southern fringes of Surrey, and it was once a hotspot for writers trying to escape the hysteria of inner city London. Nearly 200 years ago, legends of 19th century literature like Arthur Conan Doyle would flock to the sleepy, green refuge in an attempt to clear their heads. Nowadays, not much has changed: Haslemere still harbours some of that old alchemy, and it’s doing something to artists who still find inspiration in the big, barren landscapes. 19-year-old George van den Broek, better known as the psychedelic indie rockstar Yellow Days, happens to be one of them.
“Yeah, people used to go down there to ‘get five’ before there were airplanes and shit, man!” he laughs, recounting the history of his hometown to me. We’re sitting outside a chain coffee shop in central London, a backwards jaunt to the big city for a small town songwriter, and he’s rummaging in his pockets fruitlessly for a pre-made rollie. He’s tired. So tired, in fact, that he feels it warrants an apology—but you can hardly blame him.
The past month has seen him play shows to crowds of hundreds just about every night, with only intermittent days off to take a breather. “To be fair, this is one of my weak days,” he croaks. “Today is the kind of day I find everything a bit too much, but for the rest of the month I’ll feel absolutely fine.” George pieces together a new rollie and turns to ask the woman sitting behind us for a lighter: “In fact, now I’ve got this cigarette I instantly feel much more like a human being!”
Just three years ago, the froggy, Surrey-raised musician was loitering around Haslemere (where he still lives), “upsetting smart people” and spending every moment outside of his college schedule writing soul-searching, plaintive songs in his garden shed. “Those were some of the best times for me,” he reminisces, running his finger across the bristly, blonde hair growing in a patch on his chin. “I’d go buy a bag of weed and wander round the fields and shit, thinking about my music or whatever I wanted to do.” Even then, a feeling of displacement imbued everything he put on record, but it was paired with a coiling, mellowed-out funk sound rather than the moans of a man screeching out his sadness over an acoustic guitar. His voice, many say, sounds like somebody who’s lived a life: smog-thick and scratchy, often overwhelmed by the deft, mature way in which he channels emotion. Every song in his catalog is a testimony to that.
A few solo sessions and Soundcloud uploads later, and fans started to resonate with this fairly unknown kid writing piercingly honest songs about the ebb and flow of small-town life and falling in love. Soon after, indie label Good Years (the team behind BANKS and Francis and the Lights) reached out to sign him, and under their guidance, he’s leanly navigated his way through two major releases. His somber debut EP Harmless Melodies, released in November 2016, gained love from kids on the internet; the jangly and ruminating full length follow-up, Is Everything Okay in Your World?, came soon after.
But barely three years into his career, Yellow Days has found himself at the head of a new movement for fractured young teens finding solace in music. As he tours the world, playing songs that started in a makeshift studio at the bottom of his garden, he’s confronted by the way his work touches people other than himself. “It doesn’t matter at all, but it means a lot at the same time.” George argues, when I ask if the concept of people knowing his work affects the end result. “Suddenly I go out and see all these kids singing the words, and I realize: ‘Shit. This matters to other people too’. Does that matter to me? That it matters to them? I love that kids love it, but it’s always from the soul, man. Maybe I’ll challenge myself to improve a skill because I know that audience is there. I might try and make some prolific smooth shit or learn new chords later, but it’s always all from the heart. I just stick it out there and just see what the hell happens.”
His thoughts are scattered—he is tired, after all—and you get the sense that he’s stuck in a difficult place when it comes to these potent, slightly loaded reactions. “I’ve had kids tell me that they nearly killed themselves last year,” he says, shaking his head. “[After shows], they’ll tell me they’ve been depressed for years, put the onus on you and say that you’re the reason they feel better. I saw a tweet where a girl had tattooed my initials into her arm and wrote ‘You’re the reason I didn’t kill myself’.”
George seems like the kind of man who’d rather ask himself questions than be interrogated by those around him. He’s introspective: even today, as he jokes and laughs his way through our conversation, you get the impression that he’d be most comfortable somewhere else in total solitude. The experience of writing about his life—a bored, lovelorn, emotional stoner in rural England—maybe wasn’t meant to touch anybody other than himself. After all, that constant flitting between gratitude and liability towards your admirers is a major thing for anybody—never mind a 19-year-old musician—to carry on their back.
And so, unsurprisingly, he’s dealt with the pressure in the only way he knows how to: turning it into a song. Lifted from his forthcoming second record (that he’s not willing to divulge much information about), "What’s It All For" (listen above) is a bluesy number that sees George confront his fame and the repercussions of it for the first time. “It’s about the strains that I put on my friendships and my girlfriend and the stress it all has on my mental and physical health,” he claims, asking himself: “Is this for me, or have I just completely lost sense of what I’m doing?”
It’s a slightly ironic dance tune that hoodwinks the listener into thinking what they’re hearing is overwhelmingly positive by layering everything over giddy percussion and sax solos. “The instrumentation is almost like a metaphor for dutch courage or a brave face: using a substance to create a front,” he says, rolling another cigarette as he speaks, “But the lyrics are really depressing and get to the truth of it.”
It’s a tantalizing sign of Yellow Days’ fascinating future. The next record, which George reckons is due next year, will be shaped by a funky and upbeat sound that doesn’t detract from his sobering thoughts either. But it comes at a crucial moment in his career. Considering how strongly he prides himself on creating independent, almost entirely autonomous work, his decision to move to major label territory for his next project—Columbia Records, to be exact—might be considered a fragile one for some. And yet George doesn’t have any intentions of being picked apart by the old blokes who now help him shape his career. “I’m not scared of [the idea of] people telling me what to do, because I know what I want and I’m very good at making sure they know that.” He’s so convincing here it’s hard to tell if his confidence is at all fueled by naivety, or if he’s just a headstrong kid whose arm-twisting skills will get him his own way. “That’s the relationship I have with Columbia: what I say goes, because that’s how it should work. I’m the artist, man,” he insists. “I’m the one who’s writing this music.”
The path his life takes might be unpredictable, but the meticulous way in which George seems to have the next few years mapped out is so profound in its particularity. “I know what Yellow Days is gonna be until it ends, and I’m 20% through with it, so it’s still a long journey that I’m looking forward to.” He shrugs off the minor tasks at hand – his major label debut, a world tour that’s mere tickets away from selling out—and hypothesizes what lies beyond that instead. “By the time I’m 25, I’ll be four albums deep. Maybe that’s enough under one name.”
So Yellow Days, the project and moniker that’s carried George from adolescence into adulthood, anonymity towards industry notoriety, is a finite thing? He doesn’t hesitate to dream up an answer; like his music, it comes straight from the heart: “I want to do something else one day, cause I’m young as fuck. There’s so much between now and that moment, but yep! I’m already thinking about it!” He conjures one last optimistic smile: looking forward, perhaps, to everything great that lies ahead of him—outside of Haslemere.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.