Ken Yates Values The Little Things In Life For Cerulean
Photo credit: Jen Squires
Cerulean album cover
Ken Yates recently released Cerulean, following quickly on the heels of his 2020 album, Quiet Talkers, and also made with producer Jim Bryson. You’ll notice Yates’ sound branching out sound into more layered directions, while still preserving quite a reflective mood, however, thematically, Yates was actually tackling some of his most difficult subjects yet, drawn from his life dealing with the cancer diagnosis and loss of his mother.
The writing and recording of the album wasn’t at all rushed, but was rather a cumulative process that Yates found was therapeutic for him as a person. With touches of humor and a committed movement toward appreciating the little things in life that we tend to take for granted when we are struggling, Yates makes his way through some bigger questions about how to live better before introducing “Cerulean,” his hopeful closing track.
I spoke with Ken Yates about the part that live performance has played in the crafting of his songs, the ways in which the experience of writing Cerulean was different, why humor and sound elevate the album’s themes, and why grocery stores are probably a very logical place to have a personal meltdown these days.
Americana Highways: How has your experience been performing live lately?
Ken Yates: There’s no replacement for live performance. That’s something I’m realizing after not playing for so long. Being able to see how people react is the best way to see which songs connect with people. I feel like I’m still in the world of the album and it’s still happening in that way.
Writing the album involved dealing with whatever emotions I had at the time, working with that, recording it, then going through the process of releasing it. Having lived in that head space for two years was almost like going to therapy. That, along with actual real-life therapy put me in a way better headspace than I was when I started writing the songs. They haven’t been difficult for me to play, though, which is good to know.
AH: Though you’ve never narrowly confined yourself to one sound, it seems like there’s a lot of development in terms of sound on this album, as well as thematic development. New things pop up and occur in new combinations.
KY: I think how I’m playing music in the world at the time influences my sound. I think a lot of my past music was folkier, and I think that was because I was just out on the road playing a lot of the time, and the way I was playing was by myself, and often in peoples’ houses and basements. That kind of dictated the sound of the records, including Huntsville and a bit of Quiet Talkers. That came from the necessity of having to play them live, but with this record, I’ve gotten to write these songs without having to think about playing them live. I’ve gotten to think about how I want them to sound.
The honest truth is that I’ve never listened to that much folk music, so it seemed funny to me that my records were so folky. I knew that I didn’t want to make a Folk record this time, so this album was more intentional. I wrote a lot of the songs on electric guitar, so that kind of dictated the sound. I worked on most of this record remotely with my producer Jim Bryson, so we took our time and experimented a lot more with guitar sounds and synths. We’d send each other ideas back and forth. Having more time to experiment with sound influenced where things went, sonically.
AH: The sound layers on the album really create a tremendous amount of mood. I have heard other artists saying that they allowed themselves to experiment more and felt less like they had to worry about how to play those songs live. The results are often surprising and very cool.
KY: I have been hoping to play these songs with a full band because some of them really would benefit from having a full band. I do have some full band events coming up, but I am trying to figure out how to play these songs solo, too. Then I’ll have two different versions of some of these songs and I am even considering releasing some of these songs as stripped-down solo performances later in the year.
I’ve also never really had a musical space for myself in my home, and now I have a musical space that I can come back to every day and work. That’s been really refreshing.
AH: I saw that you mentioned online that you had moved further out of a city and had more space. Was that a big shift for you?
KY: My wife and I moved to a little town just north of Toronto. It was out of necessity because our place in Toronto was very small, and basically had no doors, and we were both working at home. Even before that, to record, I’d have to take all the mics out of the closet, set them up to work, then put them back when I was done, so I’d end up not working as much because you don’t want to go through the process of setting up.
Now, having an actual space where I can leave the mics on, and having an actual office where everything’s ready to go, if I’m feeling creative that day, I can sit down and start working. That’s a huge change for me, and I think that influences some of the sound on this record. I’ve been learning more about myself and my vocals, since I did all the vocals from home, and I did a lot of the guitars at home, too. Jim and I recorded this record between lockdowns, and Jim has a studio in his backyard. We found a couple of days where we could be there in his studio, but the rest of it was done remotely. We worked via a live-streaming program that allowed us to hear each other in real time. I learned a lot that bodes well for the next album.
But even just my load-out situation has been improved, having a garage and being able to put things in my car and not have to parallel park on a busy street and walk up three flights of stairs. It’s the little things. You don’t realize these things are stresses, but once you remove them, it’s like a revelation. [Laughs]
AH: It’s like you get to live like a real human being now. Did moving help with the filming of your videos for this album? Many of them are set outside.
KY: Yes, but basically, we had to film them outside due to Covid. We had plans to do indoor videos, but we just couldn’t do it. We had to come up with plans to film outside in the middle of winter, which was interesting. That seemed like a great idea until it was minus 17 outside. It turned out well, though.
AH: That’s a hilarious video for “Consolation Prize.” Now, knowing it was that cold, I’m recontextualizing all the wipe-outs and champagne being sprayed on you. That’s brutal!
KY: Luckily, we had a little trailer where we could warm up. We just had to do it in small bits over the course of two days since it was too cold to do it all in one day. I don’t think my friends knew what they were in for helping me! I knew they liked to ski, so I asked them to do a little skiing with me, but it turned into 7am mornings, working in the cold until 5pm.
AH: This may be the one and only skiing video you ever make. The song really made me think a lot about relationships we have from a young age, like in high school and college, where there’s a kind of entropy. Inside, they still feel important, but in life, there’s a big drifting away over time. It feels really true, and the music keeps it from feeling too heavy.
KY: That song, in the studio, sounded like it would naturally be a quieter ballad, maybe an acoustic one, but I kind of felt like that wasn’t right for the song. I wanted this kind of up-tempo groove for the song, a kind of sleepwalking groove, as I’ve heard someone describe it. That’s what interests me about a song about a relationship—they don’t all have happy endings but I think this one ends with acceptance. Sometimes you have to love someone for who they are, and if it doesn’t come back to you sometimes, that’s okay. You’ll have to learn to live with that.
This song was one where I really turned on the writer’s brain. For a lot of my songs, I tried to turn that off, but I wrote this one as a kind of sequel to my song “Quiet Talkers” on the record before. I felt like the story in “Quiet Talkers” was unfinished and there was more to that relationship that was basically a one-night stand. To me, that didn’t feel realistic, so I tried to imagine how that relationship might look ten years in the future. I thought, “Of course, one of these characters is going to fall for the other one, and what would happen if the other person didn’t feel the same way?” This album is about the search for becoming a better person, so this song asks, “How do you become better?”
AH: Is there any kind of connection between the skiing imagery in the video for “Consolation Prize” and the photos that were used for the cover and back of the album?
KY: There wasn’t really a connection between those two, but I do think the photo for the cover dictated how the vibe of everything else would go. What I like about that cover photo is that it’s just very true to my personality. With the videos, I was just trying to have fun with that. I love being outdoors, and though I write a lot of sad songs, I think I’m still very good at making fun of myself, and I wanted to capture that in the videos. I never feel like a music video needs to tell the story of the song, since the song is there. I want to have more fun with the video. I’ve done a few things in the past that made me look more serious and more polished than I think that I am, so it was fun to let go of that.
AH: I think that audiences are more keyed into appreciating that these days.
KY: I think the audience is smart and they can sense when you’re being true to yourself. That allows them to have a deeper connection with you and I think I’m already noticing that with this album. Even the songs are more personal than the songs I used to write. A lot of my songwriting used to come from general observations of being a wallflower. I was observing other people rather than looking inward before, but with this album, I think that people can connect on a deeper level.
Thematically, this can be a pretty dark album, but sonically I don’t think it sounds that dark. That’s another thing you can do, talk about darker things without sounding super-dark, and I think that’s part of what we achieved with this album. I hope that it’s still an album that people can simply put on in the background. [Laughs]
AH: I notice there’s a kind of arc to the album. Albums often have a kind of journey, like a story arc that starts with things on an even keel, then faces disruption, then achieves some resolution and calms down. One of the interesting things about this album is it starts from a relatively difficult position and all the trajectory feels slightly upward, which is a great thing to listen to. It seems to pose questions about progress, and on the whole, that’s really encouraging to hear.
KY: I’m glad you said that because some people do seem to think it’s really dark. I actually do think that this is my most hopeful and positive album, both sonically, and lyrically, to a certain extent. But it’s basically me going to therapy, so it starts with a hopeless, doomsday mentality, then it’s me working through everything and saying, “You can only control certain things. You can only change yourself and try to get better as a person. What are we going to do? You’ve got good things going on in your life, so let’s try to appreciate that a little more instead of sitting in the darkness all the time.” I think that’s where the album ends up, in a place of hopefulness and a bit more appreciation. To my mind, it ends on a pretty positive note.
AH: The song “Cerulean” is pretty incredible as a positive ending. I even feel like “Grocery Store” has a lot of humor and fun to it. I actually found a lot of humor to the whole album in small ways. This album also very much avoids being preachy.
KY: I do tend to make fun of myself a lot, and that includes on this album. It is a little bit humorous having a panic attack in a grocery store. That’s basically what “Grocery Store” is about, having an anxiety attack while shopping for fruits and vegetables. There’s humor in there for sure. The song “Small Doses” also says, “I suppose I should take a vacation I try to enjoy,” which is basically me saying, “Stop being such a grumpy asshole all the time!” [Laughs]
AH: The thing about having a panic attack at the grocery store is that it’s relatable to at least 30% of the people who I know. It’s something we talk about it, so it doesn’t seem super dark to me. It just seems good to talk openly about it. It’s just so much a part of modern life.
KY: I’ve been introducing my song in my shows recently, and people definitely relate to that song. I think what’s funny about it, to me, is that it’s a grocery store, which is a mundane activity where you’re trying to be an adult. You’re just trying to plan your meals for the week, but sometimes, those kind of mundane daily things are the ones that set off all the anxiety and stress that was there without you knowing. Sometimes it’s something as small as an unripe avocado and it all unravels from there! [Laughs]
AH: But as the speaker in the song says, they don’t even really want to leave the house. But that’s the thing about groceries, they are the one thing that will force you to leave the house. Even if you’re not up to engaging with the world, you might have to do that, then it all falls down.
KY: That’s so true to me. I will stay home under most circumstances until I’m forced to be out in the world, and then once I am, I’m fine. This goes for touring as well. It’s always really hard for me to go on tour, but once I’m out there, connecting with the world, I’m happy to be doing it. But it’s that breaking the connection with your safe space that’s the challenging part.
Thank you for chatting with us Ken! Find more information about Ken Yates, the album Cerulean and his tour dates, here: http://www.kenyates.com/band
Find a review of Cerulean here: Grooves & Cuts: May 2022