Conner Youngblood Is a Beautiful Weirdo Who Likes Places More Than People
We sit down with the singer to discuss the roadmap to his emotional travelogue 'Cheyenne.'
Conner Youngblood can’t stop thinking about yellow. It’s been ringing out to him, he says, and certain shades have been on his mind—a glow that comes through his songs “Los Angeles” and “12 lbs,” or the spectrum embedded in the names of others, like “Yellowknife,” “Lemonade,” and “Sulphur Springs.” Which is also why he put the color on the cover of his long-awaited debut album, Cheyenne, its title emblazoned in a sunflower-hued sans serif across a panorama of Montana’s Glacier National Park. In the bottom corner, a diminutive Youngblood throws up a peace sign.
“I’ve been so drawn to yellow, I don’t know how to explain it to you, or where to go with the feelings that it evokes,” Youngblood says the day after his Cheyenne release party in LA. “There’s an overall brightness and kindness to it, but it's kind of creepy at the same time. It’s a color that’s just turned on all the time, always a little too much and overdoing it. It’s something in nature that sticks out.”
He pauses for a moment and looks around at nowhere in particular.
“I think that's where a lot of my head's been at,” Youngblood continues. “There’s a side of nature to all these songs, and wanting lyrics, imagery in the songs themselves to be a little more vivid than just subtle or flat. A little more spark to it. Yellow does that.”
Cheyenne—out now on Counter Records—doesn’t have much to do with the Wyoming capital, or with any one subject in particular; it’s named as much for Youngblood’s travels through Western sprawl as for a dear friend whose name, he admits, he also liked the sound of.
“It embodied people and places in one thought, in one word,” he says. “On most of the songs I try to find that balance, and that one, the name itself, was the perfect way of expressing both of those.”
It’s this kind of impressionistic, pastiche approach that defines Youngblood’s otherwise sonically and thematically sprawling debut album. Cheyenne is a mosaic, comprised of Youngblood’s elastic, honeyed croon, found sounds, samples, effects, and unlikely combinations of upwards of 40 live instruments (expect to hear accordion, bongos, and clarinet alongside beats and guitar). The resulting collection of 13 songs is lush and unfamiliar, veering from lilting and frenetic (“Red.23”) to wrenchingly delicate (“Cheyenne,” “My Brother’s Brother”). Together, it amounts to a work of reverberating intimacy.
If the record’s sound is less about genre than feeling, its emotional context is less about a time, or people, than place. Some of those places, like “Los Angeles,” are rooted in real experience, a snapshot of the physical permanence left in the wake of an ephemeral connection. Others, like “The Birds of Finland,” or “Yellowknife,” are about exploring places to which Youngblood had never been, imaginary sojourns from reality’s emotional confines.
“You can almost express more if you don't know something too well, rather than have limits and borders on your perception of what it's supposed to be,” Youngblood says. “I still don't like talking too much about my emotions and I'm pretty shy. I’m still hiding all these things inside of metaphor, and I've been placing these people inside of places as a coping mechanism to discuss my feelings.”
Youngblood, who was raised in Dallas and now lives in Nashville, spent six years meticulously chipping away at the sounds and experiences that would eventually take shape as Cheyenne. He’d release tracks haphazardly, one at a time, uploaded to Soundcloud nearly as soon as he’d finish them. Those outputs soon earned him a hungry following, as well as the attention of artists like Janelle Monae, SOHN, and Julia Stone, all of whom he’d join on tour. With a handful of EPs now under his belt, Cheyenne—which is entirely self-produced, with only an engineer friend for assistance—marks an arrival of sorts for Youngblood, a cohesive foundation for the 28-year-old artist after years of itinerant output and wandering, literally and otherwise.
“Traveling's always resonated with me,” Youngblood says. “Even traveling home is an extremely nice and comforting form of travel, and it counts. Traveling to home is probably more fun than traveling away from home. Home is a feeling. It’s the people you’re with. It’s a place.”
Noisey: Your process seems very improvisational and meticulous, like it’s about adding sounds and not necessarily following a certain pattern or process or traditional “way to make music” that you follow.
Conner Youngblood: A good example of that would be “Yellowknife.” Or “Los Angeles.” There's a bunch of songs that remind me of the color yellow for some reason, and those two particular feel especially yellow. Both ring out yellow to me. For “Los Angeles,” I wrote the lyrics to it first, as a poem, which I very rarely do. Then I started crafting a beat later on that had nothing to do with that poem, out of a sound from a previous song that was just an accidental metallic clicking noise from an accordion that I had, and I didn't use any of the actual accordion playing. So it was just the click, and I started building a beat out of that into layers, layers, layers. Later I was like, what do I do with this? And I started singing that poem in different melodies, and it doesn't even rhyme. It had no chorus, and I just started force fitting it on top of the beat until it worked. That one took me, on and off, over a year, but even when I've thought it was done, I came back to it probably a year later and it switched out the entire ending section.
Why do you think you’ve been so drawn to yellow? That feels very synaesthetic.
My favorite color in general is orange, but my favorite color to look at has been yellow. It’s slowly catching up to orange as my favorite. It’s spoken out to me lyrically. It’s been in my thoughts. I wrote like three or four songs that evoked yellow imagery from me. Even “Cheyenne,” yellow's a big theme in that one. Even “12.lbs,” somehow. I don't know how to explain it to you. That one's yellow to me.
What sort of feelings or emotions sit around that for you, when you’re drawn to it?
I think compared to other colors, it always speaks out. Like if you put yellow on red, you notice the yellow on there. You wouldn't see red. You notice the yellow on top of almost any other color, yellow’s the bit you're going to be drawn to and that affects you. I've taken that idea and run with it in my creative process somehow.
Do you consider home Nashville or Dallas right now?
That's a tough one. When people ask me where I'm from, I say Dallas every time. And I guess when people ask me where I live, I say Nashville. If you have to say home is where the heart is, home is where my dog is right now. He's with my mom and Dallas. Home is really a feelings. It’s the people you're there with. One of my favorite parts about living in Nashville at home is the house itself. I love that I barely leave the house. I never go out of of the house and that people that I live with. That's pretty much my home in a nutshell. Just a physical thing.
But the whole album in recorded in Dallas, actually, so I went back home to specifically a comfort level of where I've recorded everything before, and had the engineer that I've used in the past. It was kind of a comfort in that I find it hard to work on music with friends as a distraction. If I was going to my house every night or hanging out with my friends during the whole recording process, something about it would have been way, way harder. In Dallas, I'd come home, maybe my mom was still awake or not, and then just watch a movie, or to take notes on the songs, and go to bed and do that the next day, and that was it. I barely saw any friends from even high school over that couple of years of doing that. I'd go back and forth to Nashville just to take mental breaks.
That's interesting, because you think like naturally Nashville would be a good place to record, and there’s no shortage of studios. W hat is it that's keeping you there then, if it’s not making music as a musician?
That's a good question. I honestly don't live in Nashville at all for the music. That was the entire point that I moved there for, like “I'm going to be a musician and move to Nashville,” and now I just like it for the nature and the people. The friends, it's just relaxed. I live maybe 15 minutes outside of the city in like the woods by the river, and it's just a very good time because it feels like I'm not near any music industry at all. I like being away from the music where I'm living, and that's why I don't live in LA. It just make life feel like work all the time, which, I'm supposed to be a full-time working musician, mind you, but sometimes it's nice to not feel like one.
You mentioned you wanted to make an album in part out of musical tradition, which seems important to you—you wrote your thesis at Yale on The Band, right?
Yeah, I majored in American Studies after not getting into architecture, which I wanted to do. I wrote my thesis on The Band, specifically, their song, “The Weight.” I wrote about both the storied history and the musical history of where that song came from. So within the lyrics and within the music stylings, how that song came about. It was about 20 something, 30 pages, I don't remember exactly, but it was a lot to write about one song.
That was my favorite song at the time, and I’ve started getting a little sick of it since living in Nashville, because every single night you go out to any bar, they'll play that song 20 times—every band at every honkey tonk. It sucks! So maybe it’s no longer my favorite song, but it's a great song.
What drew you towards wanting to to pick that apart?
They honestly were, and still are, one of my favorite bands of all the time. I've always been drawn to those lyrics and just whatever the story was that the lyrics were telling, and I’ve always found The Band to have a very interesting sound—a collection of influences that you can't really pinpoint, especially when you hear that they're from Canada, writing these songs about the Civil War, Southern pride, country stuff. I wanted to dig deeper into that.
You could say the same for your music—the influences are not immediately traceable.
A lot of the influences you probably can't even hear, or I can't even hear, but that just means everything that I've ever enjoyed is technically an influence. A lot of my favorite music, I would never realize how something subconsciously influenced how I wrote that, how I produced this and that. My favorite bands growing up were Taking Back Sunday and The Used, so somehow that's in there. I don't know where, but it's in there somewhere.
When you were making the album, were there any kind of active influences that you were drawing on, or processes you were thinking about?
It honestly does change from song to song, but an example would be “Cheyenne,” the title track, was very specific. There was a song from a Willie Nelson album, Redheaded Stranger, that I wanted. I wanted to do something like that, and that was on the checklist of things to try. I want to make a song Willie Nelson, but like me at the same time. Then I wanted something that sounded like it was off In Rainbows by Radiohead, which I tried on the song “Red.23.” The last track, “Yellowknife,” I remember specifically wanting to do something like Cocteau Twins and go shoegaze.
I'd say those were the key ingredients to those songs, but then the ingredients list, if you read the back of the bottle, so to speak, probably had 30 other things that were, you know, 20 percent this, 10 percent that. But yeah, the album overall, it's just such a mix of things. It ranges from some weird, weird stuff. There's hip hop things. I love that I splice in subtle country things, other singer-songwriter, indie things, that are probably more apparent, but when you put it all together I hope is it just sounds like me.
Anybody creating anything inevitably has some influences that kind of pinballs the choices they make, whether that’s deliberate or not.
A lot of it has to do with the fact that I have no idea what I'm doing, really. I’ll admit it at the end of the day. I've never worked with any other producers, so I when I started, it's just, “I'm going to try to make sounds,” and after doing that process for ten years, the only way I know how to do it is my way. I think it’s a pretty original attempt at doing that. I don't know. I like the way that I'm doing it, it does just sound like me, and I don't know how to even make it sound like the people I'm trying to make it sound like, so.
Your process sounds less like making music, traditionally, than how some other kinds of art are made, ones that are more solo or insular. It seems more like painting in a way.
Exactly. It’s not typically a big collab project on a painting. You just do it until you think it's done, and then you show people, or you don't. That's it. I've thought about that in my head before too—that's my retort to when people when they’re like “You got to do this, you’ve gotta work with a producer or something,” and I’m like, no, like a painter would never care that they need another person contributing to what they’re trying to put out.
On “Red.23,” for example, literally I was cutting up syllables, and you can't tell from the vocal sound, but there are some words that I word to word flip-flopping in the sentence from different takes. It's all over the place, and that session was so hard organizing my thoughts, because there was no organization, and I didn't have an ending until I really encountered the person it was about. It was a really random, weird twist of fate kind of thing.
It sounds like for a lot of these songs, they were worked on in patches and fits and starts over the course of several years. Was there a general kind of evolutionary arc or theme for what was happening over those years?
Yeah. Because even with songs that I ended up scratching out and starting over and rebuilding, there's always something that I was originally trying to write about, whether or not I found the right way to express it. So there's always an end goal in my head of what I'm trying to achieve, whether or not I realized it yet. And so on that one, yeah, there was a specific person and a very specific emotion that I was trying to convey. I went through different lyrics and different instrumentals to get there. But there was definitely a path that I was trying to find my way through the whole time, and I was hoping to get to a very specific area. And there are a bunch of different destinations in that area that I could find out. I would've been happy with any of them, but I found it’s a very wide hoop to throw the ball in, and I just wanted to get the ball into the hoop.
It became more of a truth that I had to realize, like I learned more about myself and the lyrics as I was writing and producing the songs, and realizing that it's like studying and learning more about myself through the process itself.
What did you discover about yourself?
Let's say I'm writing a song about someone that I thought I didn't like, and you thought you felt one way about her, and then as you're producing the song and singing and trying to get out of various certain emotions, you realize what's not working is because you're not writing about the actual way that you feel about her. And then you start twisting the lyrics a bit, and shifting things around, and next thing you know, you wrote a song about how much you miss her, or something like that. That happened a couple of times, and you keep adjusting the lyrics until they appropriately reflect the way that you actually feel, versus what's written on paper.
Andrea Domanick is Noisey's West Coast editor. Follow her on Twitter.