q&a

Trevor Sensor’s Distinct Voice Is Part of a Midwestern Rock Lineage

We chat to the songwriter about small-town America and his debut album on Jagjaguwar.

by Tim Scott
27 April 2017, 5:15am

This article originally appeared on Noisey Australia

Sterling, Illinois, a small city, formerly nicknamed 'The Hardware Capital of the World', is the setting of Trevor Sensor's latest video "High Beams". It's also Sensor's hometown, so the grain silos, factories, and working class bars that appear are all too familiar to the 23-year-old songwriter. Sensor describes growing up in Sterling as, "a lot of isolation, a lot of sadness. Sterling teaches you that dreams can end, and hard times are never far away."

But "High Beams", taken from his upcoming debut album Andy Warhol's Dream, to be released on Jagjaguwar, is also about hope and what Sensor describes as a dream of escape. "A desire that consumes us," he says, "especially those few born in middle America who look for supposedly greater things beyond the horizon of cornfields and prairies, or the northern factory towns of England – those places where nobody of any pop cultural significance is suppose to come from - for there is only so much room in the camera lens, the television screen, and we must save it for the pretty, plastic people."

Sensor did manage to escape but only as far as Pella, Iowa, a small college town, where he studied literature and philosophy and read Kierkegaard, Proust and Eggars. It in his distinctly coarse timbre that he follows in the tradition of Mellencamp, Tweedy and Oberst, in portraying a literate and working class Midwest, and the album is full of autobiographical tales and characters.

Produced by Foxygen's Jonathan Rado and Richard Swift, and featuring the rhythm section of Julien Ehrlich (drums) and Max Kakacek (bass) from the band Whitney, Andy Warhol's Dream, follows 2016's EP Texas Girls and Jesus Christ and quickly followed that with his Starved Nights of Saturday Stars 12" vinyl EP. Watch the video below and read an interview with Trevor.

Noisey: Has anyone told you that you look like a young Jay Reatard?
Trevor Sensor: No, but this question has lead me to looking him up and reading his story. It is kind of a morbid shroud to cast over the beginning of this interview. It's sad to read what happened to him.

Are you resigned to the fact that you will begin each interview with a question about your distinct voice?
Not really. I mean, this interview didn't start with a question about my voice - and others I've done didn't either - but it comes up. The bigger thing I think one should resign to, when making music especially, is that most journalists will always be making comparisons because that's the associative nature we've boxed ourselves into.

Growing up who were your favourite vocalists?
I was obsessed with Cobain, Corgan and Mangum when I was in high school. I liked that none of their vocal styles aligned with what is stereotypically deemed "beautiful," and that it was more about the energy and emotion of the words rather than the performance itself. It taught me that what you're singing about matters more so than how you're singing it.

I read your Medium piece on SXSW. As a young performer with a manager and a record contract and an upcoming album are you aware of what to expect from the coming twelve months?
I don't know what to really expect, and honestly I try not to expect anything because you just don't know how these things will go. I have my obligations I need to fulfill for this album, but my mind is more focused on the next project, the next song or whatever I'm writing. This album that's coming out, for me, is done - I've written it, labored over putting it together, and now it's time to separate myself from it and send it out into the world.

From the dancers to the guy hanging out in the background, there is a lot of humour in the video. Do you think that people hear the word songwriter and expect serious balladeer?
Growing up I did think that a songwriter should be serious. There is a cultural influence there that I do think pushes that, but it's a bit more complex than just saying "songwriters have to be serious." Humour was a major tool for Kierkegaard, the father of Existentialism, because he asserted that laughter is the one thing we can do that's truly defiant against all of life's horrors. 

I think Kafka also asserted that we can better digest things that can't be spoken of (serous, morbid things) when they're told in the form of jokes. So humour is a good way to get a ideas across. In regards to the music video, though, Ryan Ohm (the director I typically work with) and I just try to make these things fun for ourselves as well as artistically rewarding. I'd rather not play into the whole 'selling myself' thing by trying to look 'cool' or 'sexy' or whatever buzz word that's floating around industry offices. That leads you to start taking yourself too seriously, and there's nothing more ridiculous than an artist who takes himself too seriously.

'Andy Warhol's Dream' is available June 16 on Jagjaguwar.

You can catch Trevor Sensor at these European shows next week:

3 May - Amsterdam at De Roode Bioscoop
4 May - London at St Pancras Old Church

(Image: Ben Rouse)

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