Pete Yorn Goes Track By Track Through His Outstanding New Covers Album

performs onstage during day 3 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival Weekend 2 at the Empire Polo Club on April 24, 2016 in Indio, California.

When it came to making a covers album, singer-songwriter Pete Yorn could have played it safe with well- practiced material. But for Pete Yorn Sings The Classics, out now in digital formats (check it out at Pete’s Bandcamp page) and soon to be released via physical platforms as well, he challenged himself.

“They’re not the obvious ones,” Yorn says of the songs he chose. “Over the years, I’ve done so many Bruce (Springsteen) covers and Smiths covers and they’re staples of my live shows. People wonder why they’re not on this album. Well, that would be boring.

“This was one of those projects where it’s no pressure, let’s just have fun and celebrate what we love about music. People tend to forget that sometimes. But I wouldn’t be a musician if I wasn’t a fan first. Everything that goes into the way I play my instrument is because of music that I discovered and loved and affected me. So I wanted to pay tribute to that.”

The affection and care that Yorn holds for the chosen material show up early and often in Pete Yorn Sings The Classics. He recently took the time to tell American Songwriter about his song selections and how he went about interpreting them. Let’s see what he had to say, track by track.

By Beth Yorn

“Here Comes Your Man”
Although the Pixies’ classic fits Yorn like a glove, he says it was mostly a spontaneous decision to take it on for the record: 

“I just started strumming one day. And that’s how it starts sometimes. Out of nowhere I’m singing a song and I think, ‘Maybe I can do this.’ That’s probably why that happened. I’m really happy with the way that one evolved and turned out. And I loved Liz (Phair) singing backing vocals on that, she does a little Kim Deal. I love the energy of it. It’s different from theirs. I try to pay respect to the originals but I try to make them my own.”

“Lay Lady Lay”
Yorn used some surprising horn arrangements, suggested by his co-producer and musical collaborator on the album Doc Dauer, to spruce up this Bob Dylan country smash: 

“The way that all of a sudden evolved into this mariachi horns production was a surprise to me. That came later when Doc had the idea. He said, ‘I got this guy who’s a horn player. Let me send it to him and see what he does with it.’ He put down this beautiful Herb Albert-style, mariachi, crazy composition on top of it. These songs, when I go into record them, they can go in a million different directions, depending on the day I hit the studio and how I’m feeling. It’s just whatever in the moment feels good. And we go for it.”

“Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)”
The Diana Ross original might seem far from Yorn’s style, but when he dug into it, he found something almost on the eerie side which inspired his recording:

“Although I was so familiar with those songs and loved them since my parents introduced me to them as a kid, that and ‘Moon River’ were ones I had to study, in terms of the composition and the chording of them. I had to really lean in and study how to find all the chords for those two. The theme from Mahogany version, to me, it’s spooky. I played drums and bass on it, and, to me, the drums have that kind of spooky Zeppelin feel to it. I’m trying to do some John Paul Jones sort of things on the bass.”

“They Don’t Know”
American audiences might know the version of this Kirsty MacColl track that was a sleeper 80s hit in the U.S. for Tracey Ullman, as Yorn got the chance to tackle the iconic “Baby” exclamation that leads off the final verse. (“I knew that I had to,” Yorn laughs. “I just said, ‘Let’s hit it!’”) He ended up getting some meaningful feedback:

“We were able to get Tracey a copy of the record, and she hit back and she said she loves the version so much and she said she thinks that Kirsty would have loved this version too. She said some other fun stuff. I really liked the feel of the song. When we put the record together and the sequence, that was my favorite for a while. It’s kind of this forgotten song that everyone loves.”

“More Than This”
When finding the feel for this Roxy Music number, Yorn took inspiration from an album he loved in his younger days:

“I remember after we finished it, I was driving in the desert and I cranked it, and it had all the pedal steel on it and the mountains are in the background and I just thought, wow, this is such a desert drive song. And it hit hard. I was really into a record called Teenage Symphonies To God by a band called Velvet Crush in the ’90s. They had all these beautiful songs. They had Greg Leisz, the great steel guitar player, all over that record. And I really wanted to get that kind of feeling on this song. That’s why there’s that long, ‘Layla’-like outro at the end with the pedal steel. I think that thing went on for 15 minutes, just going over and over again, staying in that emotional space. But we trimmed it down and had a nice fade-out. I appreciate a nice fade on a song like that.”

“Surfer Girl”
Yorn found some separation from the well-known Beach Boys ballad by taking on the vocals without any harmonies:

“That song and ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and ‘God Only Knows’ were like my ultimate Beach Boys song. I know that Brian Wilson spoke of it as he wanted to write a song like ‘When You Wish Upon A Star.’ I always heard it as this sad, more emotional song. I did a slightly darker version of it. I was really happy with the way it turned out. To me it has a bit of a dark undercurrent to it that I put into it. I didn’t want it to be flowery.”

“Ten Storey Love Song”
Yorn’s love of the Stone Roses lead to this track, which highlights the album’s versatility:

“That one I just had so much fun with. I said, ‘I’m just going to do my super-Stone Roses thing and just jam and play, let it rip.’ That’s what we did. It’s important that the record gets presented as a whole. It’s not just about one song. It’s a whole picture. A lot of people have messaged me when they see this song on there and the Roses fans are like, ‘Dude, ‘Ten Storey Love Song!’ The ones who know, know. I love that everyone is going to have a favorite and something they are most attached to. That’s the fun thing about it.”

“I Am A Rock”
Yorn identified loneliness of Paul Simon’s lyrics, helping him to capture this track’s desolate vibe:

“That’s the one on the record where I’ve been that guy. When I read the lyrics, it was like, ‘Holy shit, I’ve got to sing this song because I’ve been here.’ In adult life, in some ways, I’ve shaken it off. But for a while, from 30 to 35, I was in a very dark place. A lot of people go through this, but in hindsight, I think I was so scared to commit to something because I was afraid of pain. That song spoke to me in such a brilliant way, that I was like, ‘I just gotta sing this song.’ It’s one of the greatest songs written about fear and cutting yourself off. I’ve lived those emotions, so the song hit really hard for me.”

“New Age”
Doing a Velvet Underground track may not have been surprising, but Yorn went off the beaten path for this song, which once ended up bleeding into his original work:

“I was obsessed with Loaded for a while. I will reveal this now: If you go back to Nightcrawler and listen to ‘Broken Bottle,’ you will hear ‘New Age’ and you will hear how heavily that song influenced me. I don’t even hide it that well, to be honest. That song opened me up lyrically. Obviously, Lou Reed opened us all up into a way of talking about stuff in song and describing things that were very influential to a lot of artists. The song, if you follow it all the way through, it goes to this whole other triumphant place. It’s just a special song.”

“Moon River”
You won’t often hear this standard adorned with backwards guitar, but Yorn found a way to add specific touches like that while still tapping into the melancholy beauty of the original to close out the record: 

“The version of it that really got me, and still any time I hear it will bring tears to my eyes, is when Audrey Hepburn sings it on the fire escape with her little nylon-string guitar in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. I’ve always been a fan of that sparse French feeling, like a Claudine Longet-type of thing, which heavily influenced my song ‘The Party.’ That version of it just crushes me. My grandpa, who lived to 104, would say he loved a sad song, that you could hear in the singer a cry in their voice. I got that from him. It just resonates. There are certain types of songs that make you feel sad but in that good way. The healthy release of emotion or whatever. There are certain lines that are just like hyper-nostalgic lines, like ‘we’re after the same rainbow’s end’ or ‘my huckleberry friend.’ Just flash some family photos in front of me and I’ll be on the floor weeping. And I’m proud of that. It’s a hyper-slow version of it, but we really tried to pull out the feeling, put it in overdrive.”

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