It might seem counterintuitive for any musical artist to be in the midst of a busy period during these quarantine times. And yet Pete Yorn is enjoying one of the most productive stretches of his career. Yorn, who burst onto the scene with poised and potent songwriting at the turn of the millennium and has been a steady presence on the scene ever since, has been seemingly all over the place lately with new performances, songs and albums, even as he lives the sedentary life in California with his family.
Yorn spoke with American Songwriter about the flurry of activity, which includes a pay-per-view live stream event on Sunday where he’ll revisit his 2003 sophomore album Day I Forgot. Here are some of the highlights of our interview, edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been busy doing live streams really since the beginning of the lockdown, and they’ve evolved from these informal things to where you’re doing full albums. How did that happen and how has the response been compared to what your original expectations were?
There was a whole series I did for free. I called them the Quarantine Livestream Sessions. It was the early days of the quarantine and everybody was feeling isolated and weird. If you watch the first one, you’ll see me like “Is this thing on?” (laughs.) And then I just started playing tunes. It was cool because you see everyone’s comments coming up live. Right away, you could tell that people were stoked, and I was having a good time. It felt like a good way to get outside of my lockdown that I was in, and it seemed to help other people as well. It was a fun way to sing songs and connect.
At some point, I thought let’s do one where we actually sell tickets, since I can’t tour right now. I take the lockdown part of this very seriously. We just lay low. We’ve been in the desert since March. When I’m asking people to pay for it, I go into a whole different headspace: “I hope it’s great. I hope people like it.” With the free ones, it was just like “I just want to play some tunes. If you want to watch, watch.” Now I’m asking them to pay and I want it to be great and I want it to work. Like “What if the Wi-Fi goes down?” At some point you just have to throw caution to the wind and say we’re doing this and whatever happens, happens.
I’m excited to do them. It’s something to look forward to in this weird kind of floating-in-nowhere mode that I feel like I’m in sometimes. I’m psyched that I’m able to do this and hopefully the internet gods will work with us. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I think people have an expectation where they’re not expecting a Pink Floyd laser show at the planetarium (laughs.)
You’re going back to Day I Forgot, your second album, for a live stream show on Sunday. That album came out in 2003. When you go back to an album like that, do you always recognize the guy who was writing those songs?
It’s nice to revisit them and think about where was my headspace then. I have a lot of years of perspective now from 2003 when that record came out. So it’s cool as a songwriter to look back and see. What did that mean to you then? What does that mean to you now? Is there an overlap there? Does something still resonate with you? Does it resonate with you in the same way as it did then or in a new, more interesting way? And that’s the stuff that I find most interesting to dig into it a little bit.
You’ve also been steadily releasing new music. Tell me about your new single “The World,” which, I understand, you kind of unearthed not long after Kobe Bryant’s death.
That gutted everybody. And then, randomly, I was going through some material that I had and it just came on, this little voice demo of this song that I had on my phone. And I thought that it fit. It sums up the way that I feel. There’s so much awesome stuff and beauty and I try to focus on that. And sometimes horrible shit happens that doesn’t seem to make any sense in the moment. It’s just the totality of the world. You have to take the good and the bad, as hard as it is sometimes. Some people choose to focus on the negative and sometimes it’s hard not to do that.
The song took on a heavy resonance. And then a few weeks later, the COVID thing hit and that took it to another level. But ultimately, the song is not choosing sides or anything like that. It’s just me calling it as I see it. As soon as you think things are gonna go one way, the older I get, the more I realize that you know nothing. You got your plans and then all of a sudden something happens and it goes the other way. And you’re like, “Whoa, I didn’t see that coming and I gotta go with it.”
You also released the single, “Jeannine,” which was inspired by the story of the so-called Singing Nun, Jeannine Deckers, and the hardships she endured after her fame had passed. Yet you don’t talk specifically about the story in the song. You just kind of cover the emotional terrain of it. What about that process seemed like the right way to honor that story?
If you go through my music, I’m never an on-the nose songwriter. I’m more suggestive in my lyrics. The story was in my head, and that’s how sometimes it happens. A lot of times I’m not even looking for it and it will just be in the back of my head and it just comes out in a song. For me, that song is from her point of view. And beyond her, it’s someone who just feels uncomfortable in their own skin, feels underappreciated.
Like I know, from research, she battled depression. She wasn’t even allowed to express in her songs her sadness. Some of my favorite songs are sad songs. To be shut down that way artistically would be painful. On top of it, trying to navigate her sexuality, it seems like that was difficult for her. All I know is that it was a story that resonated with me and it’s really about acceptance at the end of the day.
These two songs are separate from your album Caretakers, which you released a year ago and is still going strong in terms of airplay and attracting new fans. Do you like the idea that, in this musical climate, you can release songs when you write and record them without having to wait for an album cycle?
Definitely. I came up at the very end of the pre-file sharing days. My first record came out in 2001 but it was done in ’99. Now, when you have a new song, you’re excited about it, you kind of want to share it with the world as soon as you can, and not be stuck in this record-cycle thing. More than anything, I feel like if I have something I want to express and it’s ready to go, I could share that with the fans instantly. These two songs, we just felt really strongly about. I feel like they’re the first two pieces of the next full-length that I will put out.
This past June you also released Live At The Troubadour, which captures an amazing live performance where you really hit every part of your career at that hallowed venue in California and told stories about the songs. Listening to it was like hearing a biography in song. How did the idea for that performance come to the fore?
That goes back to the five years of the acoustic tours that I would do. I didn’t know if I was going to like doing it, because I thought it would be too scary. But then I kind of wanted to do it because the idea of it was scary, and I wanted to push through that. My agent at the time was like, “How many shows do you want to book? 15, 20?” And I was like, “Just do five. Let’s see if I could get through five.” (laughs.) And we did five and I was like, “These are really cool.”
There was only one rule for the acoustic shows: no setlists. Not only was I playing alone, but I was having to make up the setlist in the moment. And that’s what happened at the Troubadour. There was no planned setlist. It was just making it up in the moment. For some reason, I grew to love that. It reminded me why I started playing music when I was a kid. It was just about freedom. There were no rules. I want to play what I feel like playing in the moment. I like spontaneity.
I like having a guide, and the guide is just preparation, knowing how to play as many songs as I can. I like being able to move on a dime, follow my mood, follow the vibes of the room. I don’t like being locked into anything. I feel like when it becomes too locked in, it loses some of its spirit for me and my inspiration. When I finish one of those shows, it gives me the biggest fulfillment, because it was like, “Wow, I didn’t know how that was going to happen.”
I feel like there is so much gratitude from your fans for you at this point, but is there is a reciprocal thing going on, where you’re grateful for the fact that you can reach out to them at this weird time?
It’s a scary time for artists. I’m just at this point where I’m trying to build the best life I can for my family. Most of it is just about quiet time and being together and appreciating that. Being in that moment, not missing it. One of the cool things is that I am around so much, pretty much 24/7, to be with my wife and five-year-old. She just turned five yesterday. I know that normally I would have been on tour or she would have been at school when that happened. All this time that we have is really special.
As far as being able to have the technology that we have now, you know, 10, 15 years ago we don’t have the tech to do these Zooms, or Facebook Live, or live streams where we could see people and connect with them very easily from home. I’m very grateful, one, for the technology. And two, that anybody wants to hear me play or sing a song.