A Conversation With Pete Yorn

After almost 20 years on various major labels, Pete Yorn is finally doing things for himself. It’s quite the feat for any “mature” artist to experience that sort of industry-financed longevity—especially these days. It’s also worth noting that Caretakers (Shelly Music) is Yorn’s most overtly catchy set of tunes since musicforthemorningafter. Even so, it’s a very different record from his 2001 debut—one more apiece with 2009’s Back & Fourth, minus that effort’s earnest indie-folk leanings. For Caretakers, Yorn got together with Day Wave’s Jackson Phillips, who nudged him in a prolific direction while encouraging him not to sweat the simple stuff—and even revel in it. The result is a wistfully introspective album that finds an effortless common ground in classic ’60s pop and ’80s new wave. Prior to heading out of Los Angeles for a vacation with his wife and young daughter, Yorn provides additional juicy details on an album that almost didn’t happen.

So how’s family life treating you?
My daughter’s going to be four at the end of this month, and it’s moving along. It’s definitely the greatest joy of my life.

From the beginning, you’ve always found interesting folks to partner with: R. Walt Vincent, Frank Black, Saddle Creek’s Mike Mogis. And there’s your side project with Scarlett Johansson.
Looking at the whole picture over the years, I prefer it when it’s me and one other person running the show, and we bring in a few people here and there. I like the tightness, and I move really fast that way. The flow I instantly got into with Jackson on this new album was reminiscent of those early sessions with Walt—getting hyper-creative and building the songs up.

How did you and Jackson hook up?
We meet at a birthday party in the fall of 2017. It was date night, and we got a babysitter. It was late, and party was way out in Malibu. My wife left, and I stayed. Things got blurry after that because we started doing shots. I met Jackson there, and we hit it off. His older sister was crankin’ my stuff when he was a teenager, and I was familiar with Day Wave. We talked about getting together at his studio in Echo Park, where all those young hipster kids hang out. [Laughs] A few months later, I went out to his house and we talked about recording an EP.

Apparently, it turned into more than that.
Before we knew it, we had more than an EP, and we were having such a great time working together, basically recording a song a day. We have 25 songs we’re really excited about, and this is just the first installment. We’d say to each other, “Let’s just keep going until we make something we hate.” And we’re still going at it.

In terms of sound and mood, there’s a unified feel to Caretakers.
It’s us playing everything—very focused. I’d typically get there at 11 a.m. Then I wanted to be home at 7:30 each night to tuck my girl in bed—and I live in Santa Monica, which is a 40-minute drive. We almost always had a new song at the end of each day. So, in that regard, it was very fast. But we worked over a long period, starting in January 2018.

Is it true that this album almost didn’t get made?
We started recording three days after I told my brother at lunch that I wasn’t looking to make any new music. I was really focused on my daughter. Then, out of nowhere, I got an email from Jackson’s team.

There is a bit of an age gap between the two of you—he’s in his 20s, and you’re in your 40s. How did that play into the creative process?
There’s this tendency—unless you really go out of your way—to listen to less and less music as you get older. Sometimes it takes a younger person to remind you about stuff you used to be into. Jackson is such a huge fan of music. If you were to ask me what his influences are, I wouldn’t be able to tell you, because he listens to so much different stuff. He’s always digging around on Spotify and those endless playlists. I remember he was playing something that reminded me of Guided By Voices, and he didn’t know that much about them. We really bonded over GBV. 

—Hobart Rowland