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Youth Lagoon: Running Away from Anxiety and Into the Light

Ahead of the release of his third LP, 'Savage Hills Ballroom,' we talked to the Idaho artist about grief, growing up, and trying to quiet an overactive mind.
August 7, 2015, 1:16pm

There's a ghost on the streets of Boise. If you've spent any late nights rambling the suburban sidewalks of Idaho's capital city, you may have caught of glimpse of him: a skinny jogger with a mop of curly hair pounding the pavement in earnest during the hazy pre-dawn period before the first sun beams creep across the horizon. OK, truth is, it's not really a phantom fitness fanatic. It's Trevor Powers on one of his witching hour runs through his hometown. An affirmed night owl, Powers, who makes music as Youth Lagoon, tends to settle into working at 11 PM, continuing through to the early hours, writing and recording music with a bottle of wine or two sloshing in his belly. And then, to quiet his mind, he goes for a run.

Running has recently become an essential routine for the 26-year-old, whose struggles with anxiety have been an omnipresent and well-documented element in his music since the release of his debut 2011 album Year of Hibernation—the recording of which was paid for with funds originally reserved for emotional counseling. Though he's always desired quietude, the need became still more pressing when the unexpected death of a close friend caused Powers to halt the tour for Youth Lagoon's rapturously received sophomore LP Wondrous Bughouse and return home to Boise for a period of grieving and self-reflection. The subsequent revelations that followed during this dark night of soul were stitched through Powers' forthcoming third opus: the somber Savage Hills Ballroom, a gorgeously grim meditation on loneliness, isolation, and the barely-concealed phoniness of the adult world.

"Over the last couple years I've become more in tune with myself and my shortcomings, all the not so great aspects of Trevor Powers," he says over the phone from his home in Boise. "There's a lot of stuff in my life that I've had to work on and none of that stuff is fun to dwell on. I realized I used to pretend that I had things figured out when I didn't at all, and there was a lack of transparency."

Much like the swirling musical tapestries he creates as Youth Lagoon, Powers' brain is always whirring. A former English major at Boise State, Powers stumbled into his music career by chance when Year of Hibernation—originally slated to be released for free as a personal project by a downhearted boy—caught the ear of the underground, eventually pushing into the mainstream consciousness by dint of its originality and sonic daring. Powers is continuously creating connections between the internal and the external, the seen and the unseen, the silence and the noise. Even his singing voice, suspended in the grey zone between male and female registers, combined with a predilection for wordy lyrics, delivered cracked with sorrow in a childlike lisp, projects the feel of a musician in constant flux.

It makes sense, then, that while writing his latest batch of songs Powers would find comfort in a friend's sensory deprivation tank, floating silently in saltwater for an hour at a time. It was during this period that he also discovered physical exercise as an outlet and a means to achieve clarity of thought. "I realized there are certain habits that I had to kick, one of them was not being active enough," he explains. "When you're like that for too long you just get complacent and your mind starts to shut off. The less I was doing the less I could form a complete thought.

"It seems counter-productive, but I would drink red wine and get into this state where I was very absorbed by music," Powers continues. "Then I would just go for runs. My mental state started getting into this brand new place where I still struggle with anxiety, but now I can channel that more towards my artistic endeavors."

Although Youth Lagoon's music has always explored the light and dark aspects of the human experience, the message he channels on Savage Hills Ballroom is unapologetically bleak. Powers' obsession with mortality, something that's been a consistent theme throughout Youth Lagoon's discography, remains; but his understanding of and relationship with death has become more nuanced now that he's experienced its indifferent cruelty firsthand. Whereas on his last record Powers faced the Reaper with artless denial ("You'll never die," he insisted over and over in the chorus of "Dropla"), Savage Hills Ballroom opens with a plaintive plea wrapped in defeat and laid over an unadorned piano line: "All I want is for you to come back home."

Continues below.

If Wondrous Bughouse played like kaleidoscope of sound and color, this follow-up is the equivalent of microscope, slowly and deliberately focusing in on the infinitesimal anxieties, fears, and dreams that burble beneath the surface of every day. It's an altogether quieter affair but its introspection makes for a louder statement. On "No One Can Tell," Powers revels in and reveals the anxiety that has fueled his nocturnal runs: "I live in fear of destroying myself / But no one can tell / No one can tell / I can never feel the way I want to." And yet there's also a newfound sense of resilience, with self-respect taking the place of self-flagellation. "Rotten Human" is an exploration of the many ways we numb our emotions with substances, with Powers proclaiming he won't partake: "I'd rather die than piss away my time… no I won't." Coming near the end of the record, "Free Me" sees Powers' most hopeful observation on death to date: "No one truly dies alone."

His searing sentiments are thrown into sharper relief by the comparatively spare composition and production, with Powers pushing himself out of his comfort zone. "When I started writing the record because I had to sit down and learn a lot of brand new stuff I had no idea how to do before, " he admits. "I realized I needed to learn more stuff before I could communicate what I wanted to communicate. "

Although he wrote this album in Boise, Powers recorded Bristol, England, a city best known for its well respected university and the 90s boom of trip-hop (Massive Attack, Portishead), and drum and bass (Roni Size). Bristol was also HQ to seminal indie-pop label Sarah Records, whose founders pushed out artists like Heavenly and The Field Mice from an apartment in the city's hilly Clifton neighborhood where Powers would go running between recording sessions.

"I feel that wherever you record an album has a massive footprint on the final sound," Powers notes. "I was in Bristol in January and February and it was super gloomy, which was amazing because it gave the record this dark tonality." The long shadow of trip-hop pioneers Portishead is certainly present in the more disquieting, almost evil electronic sounds that punctuate Youth Lagoon's prettiest tracks. "I do feel like a lot of that [darkness] influences all the bands there," he says. "I think that definitely bled into this record."

But it wasn't the darkness or the city's history that lured Powers to Bristol. Rather, it was co-producer Ali Chant whose eclectic credits—including Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhys, Perfume Genius, and PJ Harvey—suited this record, which veers from pop to art rock to experimental electronica, sometimes within the same song. Both also suffered the loss of a close friend in recent years, and the pair quickly struck up a simpatico working relationship hinged on balance and a shared purpose. "We became really close friends," says Powers of Chant. "We were both working towards the same outcome, we both kind of new what we wanted this album to be."

For now, Powers is back in Boise, prepping for the September release of his record and its subsequent tour, something he's very excited to get going. "I'm going to tour my ass off," he proclaims. "I don't understand how people can get used to this sort of job because it's so thrilling! There's a never a dull moment." In the interim he's staying focused and close to home, rehearsing every other day with a three piece band who will accompany him on the road. And he still pounds the pavement on his nightly wine-fueled runs. "Until tour it's all just prep, just getting ready," Powers says with a laugh. "Keeping up with the drinking and running."

Savage Hills Ballroom is out on 09.25 via Fat Possum

Youth Lagoon Tour Dates
09.10 - Bozeman, MT - Filling Station
09.11 - Missoula, MT - Top Hat Lounge
09.12 - Boise, ID - Egyptian Theatre
09.21 - New York, NY - Rough Trade % **SOLD OUT**
10.15 - Salt Lake City, UT - Urban Lounge *
10.16 - Denver, CO - Bluebird Theater *
10.17 - Lawrence, KS - The Bottleneck *
10.19 - Minneapolis, MN - First Avenue *
10.20 - Milwaukee, WI - Turner Hall Ballroom *
10.21 - Chicago, IL - Thalia Hall *
10.23 - Columbus, OH - The A&R Music Bar *
10.25 - Toronto, ON - The Opera House *
10.24 - Grand Rapids, MI - Pyramid Scheme *
10.29 - New York, NY - Webster Hall *
10.30 - Boston, MA - Paradise Rock Club *
10.31 - Philadelphia, PA - Union Transfer *
11.01 - Washington DC - 9:30 Club *
11.03 - Carrboro, NC - Cat's Cradle *
11.04 - Atlanta, GA - Terminal West *
11.05 - Nashville, TN - Mercy Lounge *
11.06 - Oxford, MS - Proud Larry's *
11.07 - New Orleans, LA - One Eyed Jacks *
11.09 - Houston, TX - Warehouse Live *
11.10 - Dallas, TX - Club Dada *
11.11 - Austin, TX - Mohawk *
11.13 - Phoenix, AZ - The Crescent Ballroom *
11.14 - Solana Beach, CA - Belly Up Tavern #
11.17 - Los Angeles, CA - The Fonda Theatre #
11.18 - San Francisco, CA - The Fillmore #
11.20 - Seattle, WA - Neumos #
11.21 - Portland, OR - Doug Fir Lounge #

% w/ Yvette
* w/ Moon King
# w/ Taylor McFerrin

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