Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Yeo - Home: the album, the interview

“You know… ‘XOXO, Selma Blair.’ And I was just ‘That just happened. Awesome. There’s my first review!” Melbourne-based musician Yeo is recalling his tweet from the Hollywood actress in response to linking her his new single of the same name, “and the song’s got nothing to do with her. I’m not a creep, I’m not just writing about this superstar that I have a crush on. It’s about a break-up, her name is just a vehicle for it.” Driven by deftly-plucked banjo, rolling snare and some speedy acoustic picking, Selma Blair is the first taste of Yeo’s complete stylistic u-turn towards alt-country, folk and classic rock on his third independent record Home (available for free or courteous donation right now).
For many this may seem like standard genre territory, but for anyone familiar with the artist’s previous funk shenanigans, it marks a dramatic one-eighty from his first two albums, the bedroom-bound Trouble Being Yourself and last year’s DIY R&B gem Bag-O-Items. Where they found Yeo exploring his production skill in rubbery home-made soul-pop, Home marks a departure from the mechanical to the organic, shedding any fragment left of his one-man Prince act. Strummed acoustic guitars substitute stuttered, funky bass, squelchy synths are replaced by wonky harmonica and the sleek backbone of funk action has been traded in for whiskey-soaked storytelling.

She Said mourns the ‘time for our friendship to tear,’ across the gentle sprinkling of piano and light guitar. While 10 & A Whiskey deals with relocating, giving away its chief bluegrass influence, but not Yeo’s surprising knack for forging a podding rhythm of sliding blues guitar which then rouses some spacey histrionics (that vaguely recall Pink Floyd’s mellower moments). Elsewhere, the melodic ease of Stitches and Meeting At Sea find Yeo at his most lazily comfortable on record, and certainly his most intimate yet. The new organic musical palette definitely comes as a bit of a shock. Forcing a whole new approach and vernacular in describing it. It firmly posits Yeo as a modal songwriter, a true independent whose style and everyman charm comes through regardless of its genre dressing. 

The dramatic singer-songwriter shift was influenced by, and better suited to, a change in writing to a more honest approach to relationship ruminations. Where previously, on the likes of Good Food, Music & Love, he sounded like the party’s most confident lothario; here, the vulnerability of romance sounds far more heart-worn. No Lines At High Tide is framed by lilting cello and lightly brushed drums. She Said mourning the ‘time for our friendship to tear,’ formed by lightly-plucked guitars, harmonica and gentle sprinkles of piano. All delivered in Yeo’s expressive baritone, in fact it’ll take a few phrases into opener Door Frames before you realise it’s not main Decemberist Colin Meloy wooing you. With its final, diving refrain of ‘put this book to shelf’ it sets the reflective tone for Home.
It’s a subtly daring record, not only in sound but also in delivery, released (today, in fact) for free – or through courteous donation – from his bandcamp page, Yeo is then touring the album with a series of stripped-back solo shows at less-than-typical venues across Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane (tour dates here).

AMR had the opportunity to catch up with the bespectacled performer to talk about his bold new direction. Bonding over a love of videogames and a mutual distaste for the necessary evil that is the realm of retail, we discussed the origins of his new musical direction, its suitably domestic recording process in regional Victoria, and his views on digital distribution.

It’s been less than a year since Bag-O-Items and there’s been a swift and total transition for Home. So which came first? Was it the desire to make a more acoustic, plaintive record or was it that you thought ‘I’m done with the electronic stuff’?
Definitely not done with electronic stuff. I just had these songs building up inside me, what a lot of people don’t know is, one of the tracks from Home [10 & A Whiskey] was originally meant to be on Bag-O-Items. The record label [Other Tongues] said ‘no,’ because it’s just too far removed from the rest of the material. I just went ‘ok, fine, we’ll save it for a later date.’ Then while the record was out I was still writing on acoustic guitar and all of a sudden I’ve got like fourteen, fifteen songs. I couldn’t put them to bed and I couldn’t see myself turning it into the ‘Yeo-electronic’ thing. So I tried to put it out the way it was written and that kind of scared the crap out of me for a little bit. It just had to be done… and I did it. 

So while doing the DIY funk sort of thing, was that a way – of going to the acoustic stuff – of getting away from the crafting in the studio, did it feel good to just pick up an instrument and play?
Definitely. It was a good, good escape. After listening to synths and drum-machines and what have you, absorbing as much of it as I can. I just started listening to stuff that was not that at all – a lot of Okkervil River, Ryan Adams, Townes Van Zandt – that sort of genre. Then it just clicked, ‘ok, this is songwriting in its purest form,’ not relying on tricks or anything. That’s really respectful, another reason I went this way, a few people have criticised my lyrics. I took it on board, I want to be better at that and what better way than to strip it all back? Because there’s nothing to hide behind, in terms of fuzzy guitar lines and synth battles. The first album had a three song section that was just ballads, no beats, and I think that’s kind of where Home is coming from, it’s not completely unprecedented. There was no inkling of that in Bag-O-Items, there was no time to slow down. So because of that, this whole album takes time to slow down. 

It’s so much more focused, just voice and guitar, it forces you to listen to those elements, more so than with the funk and you’re distracted a bit “oh, where’s that groove coming from?” The press sheet talks about home-cooked dinners and whisky, the cozy confines surrounding the recording of Home, which you feel, it’s laidback. Can you tell us more about your getaway cottage and how that environment helped the record?
That’s exactly what it was. We took it, Luke Brennan a good drummer friend of mine, we hired a cottage in Daylesford for five nights and recorded the shit out of it. All I did was begged, borrowed, stole as much gear as I could. I had nine songs, I said ‘let’s just see how many we can get through.’ I was expecting five – one a day – but because we were in such a good frame of mind we just went for it. There’s a fireplace, beautiful weather, a half-acre block so we had lots of space between us and any neighbours. Everyone’s really friendly there. Just a good vibe with no pressure, because I didn’t even know at this stage what I was going to do with it. We would record all day, have a break for lunch, then record all the way up to 8.30/9am then stop out of respect for the neighbours. Cook dinner, eat dinner, start drinking... wake up the next day at 11am and do the same thing. We did it rhythmically, happily, very excitedly. We were buzzing with motivation the whole time to do as much as we could. It was beautiful. 

The environment encourages and influences the record and its songs. Was that conscious do you think?
I don’t think it was, you know what was conscious: the escape factor. I wanted to get away and do it, because if we tried to do five days of recording in the city, our girlfriends would call us, or ‘just pop down to the shop to get this.’ Distractions would overtake it and interrupt it much more frequently. You’re surrounded by lots of commitments which encroach on what you’re trying to do. So that was the conscious choice, to get away from all that and just continuously work. The country worked and it suits the record. 

This new musical world of folk and relaxed rock seems more direct and honest. How much of the material is auto-biographical and how much is fictionalised?
Actually, a lot of it is auto-biographical, there’s maybe three or four which are fictionalised versions of reality. You know how comedians in a sitcom will play a fictionalised version of themselves and a situation will arise? It’s very much the same, my story – what’s happened to me – but I tell it in a completely different time with fictional characters. 

Like the disclaimer: ‘the names have been changed to protect the innocent’
[laughs] totally, it’s the way Coppola did Apocalypse Now, he ‘covered’ Heart of Darkness. Did it his way, in a different time, some of my songs are like that. They still talk about experiences that are actual, but I take a more extreme route to describe the feelings 

It doesn’t have that raw awkwardness in accounting: ‘this is what happened.’
I’ve done that before and that either really speaks to people, the dry tone ‘oh my god, that’s what happened to him!?’ 

Your Damien Rice moment…
Yeah! Or people go ‘nah, he’s too honest” So putting a buffer zone with a story is good. 

You’ve always had a knack for contained narratives, and the likes of Stitches and She Said are essentially storytelling - what was that the driving force to the songs here?
I think the fact that it’s personal was the driving force, She Said is about a friend of mine who basically gets shunted by her family. I’d never seen that or experienced that first-hand, seeing it and seeing the heartbreak involved – I wanted to tell that story. Get it into a package, so you’d feel the rejection I guess. It always stems from a single idea and you want to get that idea across by telling a story, people listen to that, but if it’s rambling on you can lose your focus and your audience. I try and keep it contained. 

Getting away from the songs, this has been a big shift for you in not only sound, but 
distribution. You’ve dealt with the CD process with the label, but now with this set of songs you’re delivering them on the internet for free. There’s been an overriding trend towards making the internet a primary point of distribution. What is it about that model that inspired the decision to release Home for free?
I’m actually not sure I do like it, but I think you can’t fight this monster anymore of trying to get people to pay for music. Even when Bag-O-Items came out, a week later a friend told me they saw it as a BitTorrent. I went ‘Ah, what’s the point?! Why did I even put this out!?’ you know? Then the record label issued me a statement, saying I was indebted to them. I don’t know if that’s ever going to pick up further than that, I’m not really sure how many more albums I’m going to sell. So this time, I didn’t want to wait for a year, the songs getting old, before I put it out. I think everyone should still be made aware of this body of work. It’s not insignificant, I put ten months of hard work into it. It’s also very different, so why the hell not chuck it out there and show people? Then I considered charging for it, but then that’s just one more step that is coming between someone listening to it and not listening to it. So I just pulled it out. I feel this elation that I don’t have to hound people only for them to say “I got no money on me right now… I’ll get it another time.” It’s about cutting the crap and saying ‘have it. if you listen to it, great, if you’ve got the time.” 

It’s a tricky thing, the liberation of music. All the discussions surrounding the value of music today. Do you feel a little like your hand has been forced?
I don’t feel like it’s been forced because I feel so good about it. I just wanted the attitude of ‘hey everyone, just take this. Thank you, for giving me your time’. It’s really nice, so I want to do something back. After Other Tongues collapsed, automatically I become independent again and I have to spend everything myself to get it out there. So I don’t want to wait for another label because that could take a long time. The wait between Bag-O-Items and [debut album] Trouble Being Yourself was so big, I lost a lot of momentum. It’s five years, a long gap between first and second album. So I said ‘no, this has got to come out.’ I don’t care if the timing is bad. I just did it. It’s coming out, for free, you either have enough time to listen to it, or you don’t or not interested. No hating either way, just thank you for checking it out. 

That’s a very egalitarian view on it. Especially the immediacy of it, are you worried about how it will be received?
Shit scared, yeah. 

Because of the change in sound?
Yes, that, and some people are still old-school and like a physical thing to have. Even though most of us transfer it to digital, to change distribution format as well as style is scary. You can look at it and question ‘don’t you think your music is worth pressing?’ Of course it is, but I can’t afford it, it’s a very expensive process right now. Additionally, a lot of people might huff ‘oh, he’s changed his sound now. That’s it, no more funk-pop.’ I’m not done though, the next album is very electronic. I’ve already started the songs, I’m loving it, I’m so positive about music right now. 

That sort of answer my next question too, that Home is not a permanent stylistic setting, but another in a series of creative chains?
That’s right, I’m really proud of how I got it sounding. Doing this kind of record is always harder to get to a finishing point than a ‘production’ kind of record. The mixing process is so difficult compared to doing it ‘in the box.’ So I was really happy with the sonic result.
Some people have even said to me I’m better at the other style of music, I think ‘thanks for listening anyway.’ I’m just happy I was able to give it away. In the past I’ve been so keen on – not money – but trying to battle and survive as a working musician, all of a sudden I care less about that and more about just getting it out there.