Exclusive: Pete Yorn Shares His Songwriting Approach and the Technique He Called a “Temporary Trick”

Critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Pete Yorn might classify some elements of his songwriting approach as a “temporary” fix, but his career has been anything but fleeting. Yorn first burst on the scene with his successful debut LP ‘musicforthemorningafter’ in 2001.

Videos by American Songwriter

Two decades later, Yorn is raising a family in California while he continues to write, record, and tour. (As of 2023, he added “acting in an Oscar Award-winning film” to his resumé when he played Acie Kirby in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon.) Luckily for us, amidst his busy schedule, Yorn has also found time to join the judge’s panel for the 2024 American Songwriter Song Contest.

From melodies delivered by a dream on Valentine’s Day to the best songwriting advice Yorn has received, American Songwriter sat down with the multi-instrumentalist to discuss his experiences with and approach to the songwriting process.

The Iconic Band That Inspired Pete Yorn’s First Song

When speaking with Pete Yorn, he was preparing for a string of full-band shows after a year of playing solo. He noted that while he appreciates the intimacy acoustic shows can provide, he was excited to dig back into the power of a full rock and roll sound—a musical space and energy he’s appreciated since he wrote his very first song.

“I was trying to write a Cure song,” Yorn admitted. “I was very into them when I was first learning guitar.” Even with his prolific career, Yorn said he remembers his first song—and the person he was when he wrote it—well. “Whenever I write a song, I’ll still kind of consult with my seventh-grade self. What he likes, would he do that? Maybe not everything he would do is correct. But I still like to have a sit down with him.”

Yorn said that while songwriting from one’s youth might favor the simplistic (yep, even his), that writing also tends to have a raw, unembarrassed honesty that can be difficult to capture as an adult. Moreover, that simplicity can imbue more mature songwriting with innocence and playfulness when harnessed correctly.

Still, that doesn’t mean Yorn is immune to the occasional cringe at a past lyric or melodic run. “I beat myself up because that first song I remember, I rhymed fire and desire. And for some reason, I was hard on myself for that,” Yorn laughed, adding that he later realized there were countless songs that used the same exact rhyme scheme. Embarrassing lyrics or not, Yorn said he remembers the song fondly. “Sometimes, the simple stuff that you would do as a beginner is really powerful.”

What Pete Yorn Called His “Temporary Trick” To Songwriting

As powerful as that approach to songwriting might be, Pete Yorn said it came with an emotionally taxing price that’s unavoidable—and he definitely tried to avoid it. “When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I was writing these super personal songs,” Yorn explained. “They were…in the front of my consciousness, what I was going through at the time. It was really hard to sing those songs because I just kept going back to the same place over and over with myself.”

To work around this obstacle, Yorn said he switched his perspective from first-person to third, “becoming more of a witness to things going on with other people. That was a nicer way for me, personally, to write from. They made the songs have a lot more longevity for me and kept my interest more.” He said the opposite felt like “writing a diary and reading it every day to the world. I wasn’t too into doing that.”

…until he realized that was still very much what he was doing. “The funny thing is, I came back around and realized it was just a trick I played on myself. A lot of it was really about me at some point anyway,” he admitted. “So, I think I just pulled one over on myself and thought I changed perspective, but it was just a temporary trick.”

How Yorn’s Songwriting Approach Strikes While The Iron’s Hot

In the case of Pete Yorn’s most recent single, “Someday, Someday,” his approach to songwriting is far more spontaneous. The song’s chorus, Someday I’ll, someday I’ll try to forget the look in your eyes, came to Yorn in the middle of the night (3:30 a.m. on Valentine’s Day 2023, to be exact). “I heard this beautiful sound in my head and my dream,” Yorn said. “It woke me up and was really fresh.”

Yorn quickly stumbled to the bathroom, phone in hand, to mumble the line into his phone. He saved the voice memo, went back to bed, and forgot about it until he was looking through his old recordings months later. The original line he groggily sang into his phone was, Someday I’ll, someday I’ll try to forgive the love in your eyes. “Whatever that meant,” Yorn said with a laugh. “That’s how it started, but something about that phrasing ended up in that song.”

When we asked Yorn about significant songwriting advice he’s received over the years, the “Elizabeth Taylor” singer told us about someone who told him early on in his career to avoid trying to imitate the radio. “That’s already behind,” Yorn said. “You’re already a couple of years behind where things are going. I hate to feel like you’re trying to chase a sound like, ‘Oh, I just sound like this to get on the radio.’ I don’t want to catch myself doing that.”

Ultimately, that lightning-in-a-bottle moment is what Yorn is excited to search for as an American Songwriter Song Contest judge. “I know it when I see it,” he told us. “Oh, there. There’s that note when I hear it. I’m like, man, that makes me want to shake that person’s hand.”

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella

Leave a Reply

Charlie Daniels playing guitar

The Charlie Daniels Deep Cut That Sounds Nothing Like Him but Helped Inspire “Devil Went Down to Georgia”

Behind the Album: ‘Turnstiles,’ Billy Joel’s Artistic Leap in His Return Home