A Singer Darkly
Winston Yellen rockets to success with his majestic Americana outfit Night Beds
Nashville-based band Night Beds, the primary vehicle for Colorado native and singer-songwriter Winston Yellen, is a jumble of paradoxes. That eerie band name, for one, might hint at a doom metal band, not a majestic blend of folksy Americana, chamber pop and country music.
And what about that whole country claim, reinforced by the fact that Yellen recorded his debut album, "Country Sleep," while holed up in a house once owned by Johnny Cash? Actually, the first thing that jumps out about songs like "Even If We Try" and "Ramona" isn't Night Beds' rural crackle — instead, it's Yellen's gorgeous voice and the tasteful orchestral arrangements he so adeptly layers behind it.
How about Night Beds' future, which has rapidly evolved from shooting Jack Daniels in dingy dorm rooms to impressing family members to touring the world wowing critics and fans? Well, Yellen's already prepared to leave his measured, embellished past behind. Folio Weekly tried to pin the rambling, rousing and riveting 23-year-old down.
Folio Weekly: Your debut album, "Country Sleep," came out earlier this year to fairly universal acclaim. Did the reaction exceed your expectations?
Winston Yellen: I'd say so. The bar I set for it was pretty low. I just finished it and handed it out to friends — hoping that my uncle would like it was about as far as it got for me.
F.W.: Have you always been aware of your impressive vocal gift?
W.Y.: I don't really have any technical background because I started singing late — around the end of high school. It's still something new for me. I've taken a couple of voice lessons in the last month just because the road is taking it out of me. So I have to figure out how to train a little bit, so I can sing every day for long stretches of time.
F.W.: You've talked a lot about injecting the gritty honesty of old country and blues into Night Beds' music. But "Country Sleep" is a downright majestic recording. How did you combine raw and refined?
W.Y.: For me, it was like taking an approach to a form that I didn't know a ton about. I didn't grow up with old country and blues. But I started buying records and throwing them on [without] knowing the artist, just to hear how their voices sounded. Yeah, I wanted to emulate that — adopt or steal from old country and blues. But I also had a [more refined] aesthetic that's stayed the same for as long I've been doing Night Beds. It's hard to get away from something when you do it intuitively.
F.W.: You wrote the songs by yourself but had a full band help you fill them out, right?
W.Y.: Yeah, I wrote them alone and then brought 'em to three of my friends to help me make the record. It's nice having a group of guys do them with me. And the live lineup has grown every tour — now there are five of us, although we might be at maximum capacity.
F.W.: Much has been made of your writing and recording in Johnny Cash's old house. Does that feel as important now?
W.Y.: It's something that I never really think about until I'm asked about it. It's something cool that's easily romanticized, and I'm totally into folklore origins and stuff. There are definitely intangibles that influenced it, but I wasn't pinching myself every day — that would have just gotten in the way of doing the work. But the experience is something I can look back on as a fond memory. And it was a really pleasant place to make a record versus making it in my apartment.
F.W.: Does life as a Nashville songwriter feel different, now that you have a successful record out?
W.Y.: When I got here five years ago, I was drinking Jack Daniels in a single dorm room, flunking college. So in that sense, I guess it's an upgrade.
F.W.: Has the commercial side of being an artist changed your outlook on the creation of music?
W.Y.: Business is just part of it. But you definitely have to push it away as much as possible if you're going to create. Part of the problem now is that there are schedules, demands and expectations. That's something I'm trying to take in stride.
F.W.: Don't forget interviews.
W.Y.: It's fine — I just don't like talking about myself. [Laughs.] But as far as how I perceive making music or how I go about it, nothing's really changed.
F.W.: Including the type of music Night Beds might make next?
W.Y.: Well, I'm not at all excited by the idea of me holding a guitar and writing an acoustic song, then trying to dress it up with embellishments. The approach now is a lot more spontaneous. More about just creating things that sound interesting to me. But I do it because I love it — no other reason. If it starts turning into something else, then I'll quit. Go be a cabdriver or something.
F.W.: Is Night Beds fully providing for you right now?
W.Y.: Barely. [Laughs.] I'm just skating by.