Like any creative discipline, the craft of songwriting takes time to develop. But in the fickle world of today's music industry, artists are rarely given enough time and room to grow.
Since sales are the bottom line, the labels' "what have you done for me lately" attitude influences every artistic decision for better or worse.
That's why it's refreshing to hear about Pete Yorn's artistic growth and the consistent support of his label, Columbia Records. After a three-year recording hiatus, he released his third record, Nightcrawler, last summer. It's the last chapter in a loosely-bound trilogy that began in 2001 with his heralded debut, Musicforthemorningafter, and followed with the less successful, both critically and commercially, Day I Forgot in 2003.
From his tour stop in Las Vegas, Yorn says, "I was just looking for a way to tie all my work together for myself. I saw myself exploring similar themes from a different perspective — that's the metaphor I see there title-wise, a day in the life. But the concept is really loose."
When we discuss the long break between records, Yorn explains, "I took my time making this one.
I wanted to get some normalcy back in my life after touring so much the last few years. I've been writing songs, reworking some, and I've got the label behind me. Now everything is in order, and I'm ready to go for it."
It's not like Yorn struggled to come up with a new set of songs. He says he's always been a prolific songwriter.
"I've got a back catalog of 400 songs," he says. "I'm always writing. I recorded like 40 or 50 songs for Nightcrawler, and I chose what worked well together as a piece. We had a whole different record made of fun stuff with more experimental production — I might put that out at some point, too."
Like his earlier work, Nightcrawler combines muscular but melodic Pop/Rock tunes with a few Folk-tinged ballads. Production-wise, the songs feel busier, with more layered and darker textures than before.
He recorded the first single, "For Us," with his friend Dave Grohl on drums, and it's a requisite rocker. The multi-instrumentalist Yorn got his start playing drums and still occasionally plays them on record; in concert he prefers guitar.
Last year Yorn also released an EP called Westerns, which showcases his more acoustic material with a slight twang.
"That's just another thing I wanted to get out there for the people," he says. "I thought it would be a cool thing for the fans."
In support, Yorn played quite a few solo acoustic shows at record stores and even taped a few of those for limited-edition live discs.
The past year has been a veritable grab-bag of delights for Yorn fans. He even showed up with a co-writing credit on the Dixie Chicks' Grammy-winning last record, Take the Long Way Home. They returned the favor by harmonizing with Yorn on "The Man," a Roots-laced ballad from Nightcrawler.
Besides honing his facility for writing Pop hooks, Yorn rightly keeps his voice front and center in the Nightcrawler mix. His husky baritone still resonates as a contender, recalling both the grainy timbre of Eddie Vedder's powerhouse vocals and the more ragged strains of Paul Westerberg's bourbon yelp, though Yorn's voice contains more polish.
Ironically, it's the latter artist's voice that Yorn mimicked in his first-ever public concert way back in high school. A longtime Replacements fan, Yorn sang their "Talent Show" as he drummed his way through a school audition. That wasn't the end of his connection with the legendary 'Mats main man either.
No stranger to contributing songs to movie soundtracks, including ones for Me, Myself, and Irene and Spiderman, Yorn also recorded a Westerberg original, "I Belong," for Open Season, a recent Disney animation flick. Disney hired Yorn to pad out the cracks left by Westerberg in his own solo version of the song. After all, it's damn hard, if not impossible, to reconcile an ex-Replacement with the Walt Disney Co.
"I didn't understand what they needed me for," Yorn says of the project. "I heard Paul's version and thought it was amazing, but I guess they just wanted some diversity."
Or it might be mean that the movie studio wanted a more commercial, airbrushed rendition of the song than Westerberg was willing or able to provide. Both versions show up on the soundtrack, and both interpretations reflect each singer's respective strengths.
Yorn has always enjoyed covering others' songs, so this is nothing new for him.
"I'm not shy about giving credit to my influences," he says. "It's fun to play other people's songs sometimes."
He proves this both on record and on tour. Nightcrawler includes his cover of Warren Zevon's "Splendid Isolation," while in concert he regularly plays a range of covers, all the way from Elvis' "Suspicious Minds" to his fellow New Jersey native son Springsteen's "Atlantic City."
Depending on a concert's location, Yorn also tries to oblige local fans with a custom cover. For instance, at a recent San Francisco gig, he says, "I opened with an acoustic 'Friend of the Devil' at the Fillmore for all the Deadheads out there."
Maybe if we're lucky we'll hear Yorn tease us with an Afghan Whigs cover (or something else that smacks of the Queen City) when he plays here early next week.
PETE YORN performs with Aqualung Tuesday at Covington's Madison Theater.