Songwriters with fragile confidence are in a difficult position. On the one hand you’re out there digging out a bit of yourself onstage night after night, living the life a million night-time noodlers would sacrifice a couple of senses for. On the other, the very act of playing these songs in front of strangers is anathema to your natural personality, the opposite of comfort for someone that has turned to music as a means of elaborating their feelings to the world.
On first listen the songs of Winston Yellen (the man behind the Night Beds moniker) betray the hallmarks of the tortured songwriter, his Country Sleepalbum being a bluesy trawl through an Americana landscape tinged with sadness and spat-on hearts. He sings quietly about girls called Ramona, cars racing by in burning headlights and what it’s like to be 22. He sounds a bit like all your favourite blues and country indebted bands, but with a voice that ensures he’s a lot more than just an Adams/Tallest Man/Fleet Foxes imitator.
Onstage he is defiantly self-effacing, thanking the crowd for giving up their Sunday nights and frequently checking out the dustiness of his brogues. Just before the gig I am standing at the bar of the upstairs room of this Brighton pub, and a fella comes and asks for a “bottle of whisky for the band”. Over the course of the 40 minute gig it becomes clear it’s not so much for the band but for Winston and he puts at least a third of it away. He seems sincerely taken aback by the numbers of people who have come to watch, and there is a genuinely touching moment when he tells the crowd his dad and sister are here, after flying in from Colorado. So far, so unassuming.
Yet, yet, yet, yet, as with all the best ones when his voice is in full flight he seems to be using his fragility as strength, bouncing it right back at an audience who seem more than happy to give him the kind of revered silence one might normally reserve for the pope’s backyard. As on Country Sleep he opens with the a-cappella “Faithful Heights” before (gently) letting rip with his two best known songs, “Romana” and “Even If We Try”, directly after. A bold move to play your all your most recognisable tunes first, but one that more than pays off as he holds everyone rapt throughout, not least the shouting, pissed up goon at the bar who has bears a grin the size of Nashville when Yellen thanks him profusely for coming.
Afterwards we talk outside; Winston’s eyes are whisky red and he’s bouncier than the cagily forthcoming interviewee I meet earlier that only really warms up when I told him my mum liked his record (she does). He’s very complimentary, says that he enjoyed talking and happily poses for pictures with the girl I’m with, who in that moment would happily leave me for dust if he just gave her the nod. I get the impression me going to the gig was proof that I am a real fan-I am- and that because of that (and maybe the booze) he’s happy to let his guard down. As I wonder off home, regretfully turning down his offers to stick around with an early start looming, there’s a cavalcade of beardy men and pretty girls circling round him, laughing, joking, flirting and drinking. To me, it looks like he’s rather enjoying himself.
You’ve just been in Europe and this is your second time in the UK. When you’re not touring, where is home?
Nashville now, I grew up in Colorado Springs but I’ve lived in Nashville for four years. Before that I lived out of my car, slept in a sleeping bag, travelling around the country.
You ended up recording your album in an out-house on the ranch formally owned by Johnny and June Cash. How did that come about?
I just rented a house on the outskirts of Nashville. I had no idea that it was the Cash ranch, I never even went into the house. We lived in the place next to it on the grounds, where we built our own studio.
You’ve spoken in previous interviews about the recording of that album, and that in some sessions you and the other musicians ended up in tears. How important is such a powerful emotional attachment to your music?
I think it’s really important, even if it’s not crying itself, but to get an emotive reaction from what you are doing. You have to believe it; I have a hard time believing people a lot of the time and if there isn’t some sort of emotional authenticity I check out. Like I’m up there and think that if I don’t completely believe in what I’m doing, why would I waste your time?
Who do you believe in?
I believe in Son House, I believe in Robert Johnson.
I love Beach House. We’ve been listening to Flying Lotus in the van. I really like the new Here We Go Magic record.
I wrote an article about 5 songs that made me cry. What songs (other than your own) have made you cry?
“People Grinnin’ In Your Face”, by Son House.. Erm, “Gentle Moon” by Sun Kill Moon. “Salt Water” by Beach House. “Tell Me Why”, and, erm, “Solitude”, by Billy Holiday.
What songs is it definitely not okay to cry to?
Justin Bieber’s “Baby” I guess. “Call Me Maybe”. “Call Me Maybe” is so good though. It’s like “Suit And Tie”; a great tune like that just wouldn’t be right to cry to. Justin’s new album has got like 3 or 4 amazing tunes. We’ve had it on in the van a lot. I like him, he’s goofy. He’s pretty believable.
Do you aspire to anything like that sort of fame?
I’m just not bothered about it, at all. I’m much more concerned about doing a good job for the people that come along to shows, the guys in the band or the people at the label, people that are giving away their lives for this, you know? I feel a real sense of responsibility about that.
What about fame as validation for your art?
It actually just makes me feel insecure, I withdraw. The more people talk about me the more I wana retreat.
You’re about to go on Jools Holland though, which will bring you to a much wider audience.
I know, I mean, it’s flattering, we’ve been getting so much love from the U.K, it’s really humbling. At the same time...I don’t know. I get terrible stage fright at the best of times so I try not to think about it.
How do you control that? Booze? Hefty Valium addiction?
Heroin! Only heroin and nothing else, all day. I’m a purist man, I don’t drink beer but I’ll shoot up some heroin.
You look pretty fresh for someone that does that.
Well, you know, I’ve showered. And I’m joking of course.
What’s coming up next?
There’s the next thing coming out, with five songs. If I’m not touring I’m always recording.
How content are you in the recording process?
Well obviously I enjoy it but it’s hard. I’ll be in the studio from 12 until midnight, in two week blocks. But it’s rewarding, figuring it out. There’s a real brief high you get when something done. But by the time you’re done mixing it and whatever, I can’t listen to that song anymore. I haven’t listened to Country Sleep for a year.
My mum loves your songs. She says she wants me to buy her a copy of Country Sleep for her birthday.
Ah, wow, that’s amazing man! [Big toothy grin]. I like that. A lot of mum’s love it you know? I think thats because my mum has given it to people on her bible studies or whatever. But don’t waste your money on it man, let me give you a copy…