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March 9, 2011

Pete Yorn on his new album, soul-crushing winters, and leaving law school behind

Pete Yorn performs at the 9:30 Club Monday and Rams Head Live Tuesday. Contributor Benjamin Opipari spoke with him about Syracuse, his failed plans for law school and his new, self-titled album.

I spent four years in upstate New York. The real upstate, near Syracuse, not the upstate that's 60 miles north of New York City. The winters are long, cold and soul-crushing. But ask Pete Yorn about his time as an undergrad at Syracuse University, and he'll tell you that if it weren't for all that snow, he might not have become a songwriter.

How did majoring in communication and rhetoric at Syracuse prepare you as a songwriter? I don't know that it affected my songwriting, at least consciously. If anything, I was taking that major - it was speech communications at the time - because I planned on going to law school and I thought it would be good preparation. I had to give a lot of speeches and address a lot of audiences. At the beginning, I was petrified of getting in front of a group, so it helped a lot in that respect. It was a good way to work through that.

I lived in the Syracuse area for a few years. I found the winters there soul-crushing. Yeah, but as bad as the winters were there, it was the biggest catalyst to my writing. I had to stay inside all winter. I couldn't leave, so I would just write all the time. That was the start of my writing. And I credit those winters!

Do you get to do a lot of writing on tour? I put so much emphasis on wrapping my head around being a performer and on the shows that by the time I get a moment to chill, writing songs isn't really on my radar. I've been fortunate in that I haven't had to worry about that, because when I go home, things die down and I start writing again. I have two modes: home is writer time, and touring is performing time.

How active are you when it comes to seeking the muse when you write? Balance is everything. There are days I'll tell you that I can't even begin to explain any of it. It's about a feeling for me, like if I have my guitar and find a chord I like, or if something pops into my head. It's almost like it's transmitted from another planet through me.

Many songwriters tell me that they never revise the lyrics that come from that unconscious place because those thoughts are the purest. Is it possible to revise too much? If that was never a problem, I wouldn't be human. But you have to rely on what feels good. There are times when I lay vocals down on a song that I love, then a week later I have to change something. So I change it, then change it back to what it was originally. You do have to be careful of stepping on what you have. Hopefully you create enough material that the ones that work well you can keep, and those you are wrestling with you can set aside and revisit at a different time.

Is there an environment where you get your best writing done? It doesn't really matter, but I need to be alone. If I get in a flow and someone distracts me, it pulls me back into the current time and I'll get sucked out of the flow. I'll tell people I'm going to Hawaii for a month, and they'll say, "You're going to write some great songs hanging out on the beach!" And I'm like, "I don't think so. " I don't even think of it like that.

Pete Yorn performs at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place Tuesday. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets, at $25, are sold by calling the venue, or on its website.

Ben Opipari interviews writers and songwriters on his blog, Songwriters on Process. He has written for the Washington Post and academic journals. He last interviewed Ra Ra Riot for this blog. Erik Maza edited this post.

Photo: Pete Yorn Myspace

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Posted by Erik Maza at 11:45 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Music News


The world can certainly use one more musician as oppose a lawyer. Good for you.

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About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.

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