Despite the claims of chat lines and tele-personals, it's absurd to think you can learn much about someone during a short phone conversation. But after interviewing alterna-pop star Pete Yorn, it seemed like I knew even less than when I started -- that his work masks or even erases his own persona. I suspect that, much as Neil Diamond defined the transition from Tin Pan Alley's faceless songsmiths to the singer-songwriter as entertainer, Yorn may represent a transition back to the craftsman ... who just happens to pen moody songs perfect for Dawson's Creek and Spider-Man.
Your career has included lots of music for film and television. As CD sales continue to drop across the board, do those placements become more important?
They're always great opportunities when you can license a song into a film or TV show -- especially one that is good. 'Cause it's very hard to get played on the radio, it's very hard to sell CDs, records, whatever you want to call them. A lot of artists who have beautiful music who haven't had the opportunities I've had, for them to license a song for a TV show or a film could get them a decent paycheck, where they're able to continue to creatively do what they want to do. I'm not only speaking for myself, but for other artists in slightly different situations. Self-released stuff, indie stuff, things along those lines.
What's your writing process like?
A lot of times I come up with my best ideas in the morning right after I wake up, so I'll kinda keep my guitar nearby and this little handheld digital dictation recorder nearby. Lately I'm writing in cars -- not driving, but someone's driving me around, or something like that. It's a very modern style of writing. I basically have all my new lyrics in my Sidekick, which is kinda weird, but then I print them out and I work on them that way. But yeah, my process -- I don't make any real rules for it. My only main rule that I try to keep is, if I've got an idea, don't squander it. Because sometimes they'll come, and I'll forget it and it will never come back.
So, you have "ones that got away"?
Yeah. It's like Tenacious D: "Always record, always record!" [Laughs.] It's really true.
You seem to always choose great cover songs -- is there a trick to that?
The main thing is, lyrically, I'm like, "Man, I wish I'd said that! That bastard -- he just nailed it, he nailed the way I'm feeling in such a great way." ... I imagine it's [like] the great song interpreters over the years -- like Sinatra and the great crooners. Pretty much they weren't singing their own lyrics, but they were great vehicles for those songs, so I try to take that approach.
On your latest album, Nightcrawler, your version of Warren Zevon's "Splendid Isolation" is marvelous.
I actually was only able to get a live version of it, when I first heard it. That song was pointed out to me by Warren's son, Jordan Zevon, and he thought it would be a good song for me to do. I'd never heard it before, but I checked it out and I loved it; I thought it was really funny, also, lyrically. He was absolutely right, so I went for it.
In Nightcrawler's single, "For Us," you say that "maybe this life is like the drug," and also like "your bed" and "your head." What does that even mean? Is everything just a metaphor for everything else?
No. Basically, when you're dealing with people, or dealing with addiction, you need to step away from that and realize that it's an illusion -- you don't really need that stuff. Your life, in itself, could be a replacement for that, and living it to the fullest, and not being dependent on the outside things. When I wrap it up, I say, "this life is like your bed," it's basically like, it's what you make of it yourself; and "this life is like your head" is, basically, how you perceive the world outside of you is what your world really is.
Your perception of your life is your reality?
Exactly. It's weird. When I started writing that song, it was out of concern for someone else in my life. And then it kinda ended up ... being about me, unfortunately. But it's all good.
Pete Yorn and Minibar with Ben Jelen. 7:30 p.m. Tue., Aug. 14. Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead, 510 E. 10th Ave., Homestead. $22. 412-462-3444 or www.homesteadlibrary.org
- Worker in song: Pete Yorn