By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious
Trevor Powers has always operated in the smaller, darker spaces of the human psyche.
Since breaking onto the national scene with 2011’s The Year of Hibernation, Powers has used his project Youth Lagoon to offer a unique perspective on the deeply personal. Over three albums, including the recently released Savage Hills Ballroom, he has maintained an off-kilter vulnerability that has resonated far beyond his native Boise, Idaho. His songs are delicate, gorgeously written passages, with the universal feel of confessions that most people only allow themselves in their quietest moments.
It’s been an especially heavy couple of years for Powers. As he has discussed in previous interviews, the singer-songwriter returned home to mourn the untimely death of a childhood friend and found himself withdrawing from much of the outside world. He canceled a European tour, choosing instead to grieve in the city where he grew up, surrounded by family, friends, and loved ones. But back in a safe space, Powers eventually began channeling those emotions into the songs that became Savage Hills Ballroom.
“In some ways, I feel more unhinged than I’ve ever been,” he shared over email earlier this week. “My approach on this record was one that focused on direct songwriting. It’s something I had to try, and I’m glad I’ve made the decisions I have because they’ve pushed me further along in my journey to find what I’m looking for in music.”
While Savage Hills Ballroom may be rooted in tragedy, Powers has once again hit upon the perfect alchemy necessary to affect broad audiences. And for this small-town artist, there is inspiration to be found even in the deepest moments of despair.
You once said, “If I feel like I’m writing from an agenda, that’s when I throw something away.” At the same time, you’ve talked about writing Savage Hills Ballroom with the idea of an “album” in mind. How did that affect your approach to these songs and what you ultimately made?
I actually talked about Savage Hills Ballroom in the way of not having an album in mind. I knew I was making a record, but I didn’t even think about that. I just wanted to write songs that could function completely as individual units but use it as an experiment to see how well things would tie together in the end.
In that, things naturally started making sense. I noticed I had a lot that had been weighing heavy on me that kept coming out in different forms but when I put the songs together, there was an innate unity to them.
You’ve cited David Axelrod’s Songs of Experience as source of inspiration for these songs. What was it about his music you find compelling? How do you think that filters through your own work?
That was just one source of inspiration. I’m into the blending of both sides of the spectrum – the bizarre with the relatable. Although, I’ve been more interested in the bizarre lately.
I think Axelrod really hits that idea on the head in a way that few artists can. It’s near impossible to point to what exactly influences you or pushes you in any certain direction because we as people eventually become our surroundings, to one degree or another. If you surround yourself with something or certain ideas, it’s only a matter of time before you become them.
With that in mind, you have to be cautious on what you choose to involve yourself with because you’re essentially deciding what you will become.
From an outsider’s perspective, your lyrics have always come across as profoundly sincere. How do you go about not only processing and making sense of your emotions, but presenting them so openly?
I have treated the Youth Lagoon project as my journal in a lot of ways. I see it as therapy for me in a lot of ways. Some people see the music I’ve made with this project as me, but it’s not at all. It’s not even who I am musically, only a small portion of it. If people have gotten to know me a little bit more after listening to an album, then I feel like I’ve succeeded.
Even though your music has always been grand in scope and ambition, was there any trepidation in sharing it in massive and impersonal spaces like festivals or arenas?
There was some hesitancy at first, but after doing it a couple times and seeing that it can still translate in those sort of impersonal spaces, I’m mostly fine with it. It’s just more of a challenge. I really just sing to the back row… and if they can hear me, everyone can.
What’s kept you – and now your family – in Boise? What are the things that make it feel like home for you?
I was born in San Diego and my family moved to Boise when I was about three, so I’ve literally been here my whole life so far. It’s been important to me to stay in tune with those relationships and everything that I have here. Touring as much as I do can be complete chaos, so it’s worked out staying in Idaho because it’s an easy place to disappear on my breaks.
Wondrous Bughouse is a record that felt unhinged in a way; one focused on anxiety and instability. Do you find yourself in a better place these days?
It’s not that I’m in a better place at all, it’s just Savage Hills Ballroom is such a different record. In some ways, I feel more unhinged than I’ve ever been.
But my approach on this record was one that focused on direct songwriting. It’s something I had to try, and I’m glad I’ve made the decisions I have because they’ve pushed me further along in my journey to find what I’m looking for in music.
How involved were you in the concept for video for “The Knower?” It’s interesting to note that the retirement home shares a name with the album – a “golden, grand, exuberant” place.
I was extremely involved. I found Lucas Navarro’s work online way before I even started recording the album and pitched the idea to him, and when he was into it we just started brainstorming on the approach.
He and his friends are all still in school for animation, and when they took on the project, I sent them demos of “The Knower” and they had to start animating to the demos. They worked on that video for over eight months and actually had most of it completed before they even heard the final version of the song.
I just had to make sure the final studio version stayed the same length, same tempo, and had all the same cues as the demos since that was all they had to animate to.
When you look back on Youth Lagoon’s success – and jump in exposure – in the wake of Year of Hibernation, is there anything you wish you had done differently? (Is there anything you’ve since “corrected” or adjusted for?)
There’s always things you can look back on and would do differently now, but that’s part of changing and growing as a person. That being said, there’s nothing I’d change.
Additional contributions by Philip Runco.