Pete Yorn: The Zen of the Little Things

Music Features Pete Yorn
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Pete Yorn: The Zen of the Little Things

Pete Yorn has a buoyant, bubbly new track of which he’s almost parentally proud, called “Quesadilla Baby.” And it’s infused with the quirky lyrical observations and keen ear for pop hooks that has characterized the New Jersey-born singer’s work since his jangling musicforthemorningafter debut back in 2001. “It’s kind of a reggae-inspired number that goes on to talk about chicken quesadillas, and how we don’t like corn tortillas, we like flour tortillas, and we don’t want the chicken to be undercooked—the chicken must be well-cooked, otherwise we’ll get salmonella,” he snickers. “The song is filled with all sorts of good stuff like that.” But unfortunately, his fans will most likely never hear it.

“Quesadilla Baby” was penned for a very specific audience of only one—Yorn’s eight-month-old daughter Ellington Bee, who smiles and giggles adoringly when dad serenades her daily with nonsensical sing-alongs on his acoustic guitar. Sure, he has a great new album to promote—ArrangingTime, on which he re-teams with his original morningafter studio cohort R. Walt Vincent to recapture that record’s ephemeral spark. “But that’s the music I’ve been writing the most, if you really want to know—just making up songs on the spot for her,” he admits. “Those seem to fly out of me, just silly, goofy songs. And when I play guitar for her, it’s easy, and she always chills and has a good time.” The process, he adds, “has just continued to open me up more, which is always good for my creativity.”

Yorn’s latest is easily his most contemplative, altogether cathedral-chiming work in ages. It opens on the lonesome, finger-plucked childhood reminiscence “Summer Was a Day,” then segues into the shambling “Lost Weekend,” which encapsulates the wide-eyed teenage years he spent in the family’s New Jersey basement, watching his brothers Rick and Kevin (who went on to become a famous talent agent and entertainment lawyer, respectively) rehearse Judas Priest and Iron Maiden covers with their cover band. “Is there anybody out there/ Is there anybody waiting/ Getting sick of your surroundings/ All you want is some attention,” he warbles in his personable drawl, tapping into the initial fanboy ardor that made him want to start making music himself. From there, ArrangingTime keeps picking up speed, through the smoky “Halifax,” a thumping “In your Head,” the New Wave-vintage “I’m Not the One,” the craggy-riffed “Screaming At the Setting Sun,” a lilting “Walking Up,” and the alt-country-ish lament “Roses,” which sketches a blossoming romance against a distinctly L.A. backdrop of Sunset Boulevard. And its hook is a deceptively simple intoned chorus of “la la la”’s, which is Yorn’s skill in a nutshell—turning the mundane into the majestic.

But the man is a different songwriting animal today than he was 15 feral years ago. He’s settled down, for starters—in 2010, he married his longtime sweetheart Beth Kaltman, and the two are inseparable. And she has the distinct honor of getting to hear everything her hubby composes before anyone else, but—since she was never one of his rabid acolytes—she rarely offers commentary. She doesn’t really obsess over his productivity, or the fact that six yeas have passed since his last eponymous effort, he says, and he likes it that way. “And now I’ve got a new baby, and it’s awesome—she’s like a dream come true,” he enthuses. “And I guess I’ve been preparing for this for a while, slowly mellowing myself.”

Ellington is, in fact, sitting next to her father for the duration of this 45-minute interview, watching him with fascination as he occasionally pauses to address her. Driving two hours from their home in the Santa Monica mountains, the Yorns have just arrived in Palm Desert, Calif., where the whole clan—including Rick and Kevin—maintain a rustic family retreat. “And we’re always hoping she’ll sleep in the car, and she did. She slept all the way, pretty much,” he reports. “And now she looks all smiley—we call her Elly Bee, Elle, whatever—I call her 10 different names before noon. And I’ve been posting pictures of her on Instagram over the past few months because she’s so super-cool.”

Yorn’s adoring baby talk soon descends into a more adult-serious discussion of his wife’s health. Over Christmas, she twisted her knee so badly, she required emergency meniscus surgery, then a lengthy stretch on crutches. At present, she is still recovering and can barely walk, but she’s a trooper who never complains, he praises. “And it’s been good for me, because I’ve had to go full-on double duty,” he says. “I have to take care of the baby and her, and it keeps me down to my fighting weight. I mean, she carried a baby for nine months, so I can do the heavy lifting now, no problem.” And this new appreciation for the little things in life—the fleeting everyday blessings that many overlook or take for granted—is exactly where this 41-year-old is coming from on ArrangingTime, his first release for Capitol, whose very title implies his new Buddhist-basic awareness of being present in each passing moment. So characters in this record might be looking backward in serious reflection, or forward with trepidation or excitement, he explains. But they’re all trying to figure out how to simply exist in the here and now.

Listening back to morningafter—and catalog classics like “Black,” “Strange Condition,” and his ching-chinging breakthrough single “Life On a Chain”—Yorn still loves the material, written when he first moved to Los Angeles in the late ‘90s and was offered both a contract with Columbia Records and a film-scoring gig for the Farrelly Brothers’ Me, Myself and Irene. As he clearly comprehends now, “When I think about those old songs, I think, ‘Wow! Whoever I was when I was writing that, that guy was stuck in the future—he was not present at all.’ I just did not know how to process the future. So it’s interesting to look back and go, ‘Where was my head at with that song?’”

But the composer is very clear on the origins of ArrangingTime. The cutting edge on “Screaming at the Setting Sun,” he says, came from the anger he was feeling at the time—he had partied too hard, and his excessive holiday seemed to go on for days. “And then it all just feels like mush, and you’re like, ‘Oh, what the fuck?’” he sighs. In “Shopping Mall,” he notes that we are “Born to be discarded.” But it’s not as despairing as it sounds, he adds, “because then very quickly I add that ‘I don’t mind.’ Because what are you going to do? And of course, some part of me minds, but at the end of the day, you can’t ruin your day worrying about that or you’ve missed the ride.”

As on morningafter, Yorn played almost every instrument during the sessions, often starting songs on keyboards instead of his customary six-string. “And it was Bowie who inspired that,” he explains. “He was making a record once, and he hired a classical keyboardist—Rick Wakeman from Yes—and I remember him saying that he wanted to approach songs from that piano place, because it really is different. And it really is. When you start from that space, it takes you to a different place, so I did a bunch of songs like that, and it took them in a slightly different direction than if I had just started on guitar.” Some tracks, like “I’m Not the One,” which he wrote with ex-Wire Train alum Jeff Trott, began life on acoustic, then switched to keyboards in the studio.

After dabbling in diverse side projects like his recent spinoff combo The Olms and his Bacharach-classy Break Up duets album he made with Scarlett Johansson in 2009, could he and Vincent feel that old black magic returning during the new sessions? Yorn laughs. “Walt’s never the guy who’s going to high-five you in the studio,” he replies. “But there’s something that I tried to instill in the characters—or whatever’s going on within each song, where maybe I do like to inject whatever I think I’ve learned over the years into it. And it seems to be about not getting too caught up in stuff you’ve done before, or stuff you might do in the future. I keep going back to this resent-moment thing, but it really is such a cornerstone of the way that I live my life.”

Bottom line? We don’t have forever, Yorn now understands. Before his grandfather passed away at the ripe old age of 103, he asked him a key question: Was there one particular day when he woke up, looked in the mirror, and recognized that he’d gotten old? “And I was expecting him to say, ‘Yeah, back when this happened’ or whatever,” he recalls. “But he said, ‘No, not really—I actually still feel just the same.’ And I just started laughing. He had a hard life, but he was a really special guy and he had a great attitude. My oldest brother turned 50 this year, and I just turned 40, and obviously, growing older is better than the alternative. But for the first time, I feel like I’m kind of older, but I still feel no different than when I was a teenager. But I feel like I’ve had experiences that help me manage myself better. And I’m able to appreciate it—that’s the biggest difference.”

Yorn catches himself before he says too much. After all, he’s a rock and roller, not a self-help guru. But he does rely on pocket-sized daily affirmations now to get him through. He’s not even considering sculpting the foundations for an ArrangingTime followup, he swears—he just wants to jerry-rig some impromptu material that keeps Ellington Bee happy. “And I really take pleasure, a lot of joy, in the little things,” he declares. “Like preparing bottles for my baby, washing her bottles, or doing stuff around the house, like making the bed or laundry stuff that people don’t even want to hear about. And it might be a zenlike thing, but I’m able to step out of myself while I’m doing it and just really enjoy the process of that.

“And if I can enjoy stuff like that? I feel like I can really take that to a concert—in my performance and my songwriting—and take all of that up to a whole other level. I think that’s a much more interesting way to live.”