Pete Yorn’s amazing adventure

Paul Sand

“Amazing,” says Pete Yorn from Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta. He’s describing his current U.S. club tour, and that’s the only word that comes to his mind. And, honestly, it’s probably the only word that can aptly describe his career right now.

Since being discovered by a movie producer, and consequently scoring a big-budget Hollywood comedy, life has been amazing for Yorn. First opening slots on tours for Semisonic, Blues Traveler and Sunny Day Real Estate, then a critically acclaimed debut album, musicforthemorningafter, that he played nearly all by himself, and now a headlining club tour sponsored by MTV2; it’s clear that the man is talented, but also lucky and believed in by just about everyone around him.

Born in New Jersey to a dentist and a concert pianist-turned-schoolteacher, whom he describes as “always supportive” of his musical endeavors, Yorn had a feel for music early in life. At age nine he bashed away at his brother’s drums, teaching himself to play. He later learned the guitar at 12.

Yorn began writing his own songs and singing during his time in high school. Picked to sing and drum the Replacements’ “Talent Show” at, where else, his high school talent show, Yorn was bitten by the songwriting bug. It wasn’t brilliant from the start though. “When I first started writing,” Yorn says, “I didn’t know how to do anything other than sing with a fake English accent.”

After high school, Yorn attended Syracuse University, first studying accounting because “my dad wanted me to be a tax lawyer,” but later studying and attaining a political science degree. During his junior and senior year he began taking his music more seriously, particularly after playing some songs for his friend and future bandmate Woz, who was blown away at what he had heard. Yorn explains that the frigid New York winter was conducive to songwriting. “It literally snowed everyday up there … I would just be in my room writing songs.”

Moving to sunny Los Angeles to perhaps seek refuge from snowy Syracuse, Pete began performing at Café Largo, a small club in Hollywood. Bradley Thomas, a producer who had worked with the Farrelly Brothers on the movies “Kingpin” and “There’s Something About Mary”, was in attendance at a Café Largo performance. Thomas was looking for some unknown music for Jim Carrey’s crude, new comedy “Me, Myself and Irene” and wanted Pete. Yorn agreed and recorded the melancholy “Strange Condition” with producer Brad Wood (Liz Phair, Smashing Pumpkins) and the bittersweet “Just Another” in his own basement, laying down and singing all the tracks himself. In addition to these two songs being included on the soundtrack alongside some Steely Dan classics reworked by new bands, Pete ended up scoring the entire film.

Yorn recalls his most interesting experience of his brush with Hollywood. “We recorded the whole record in a garage, and when I say garage, it was really a garage. I think the funniest thing was having all these Fox executives come down to this kind of shady part of Culver City to hear the score. We didn’t have enough chairs so there were people sitting on boxes and stuff. We just said, ‘here we go’ and they just sat there looking around with their suits on.”

During his work on “Me, Myself and Irene,” Yorn had begun recording what would become his debut album for Columbia Records in the garage of producer R. Walt Vincent, who produced 12 of the 14 album tracks.

Even though the record was Yorn’s life, he wasn’t confident that Columbia or an audience would like what they heard. He recalls: “I was thinking, ‘this thing is all over the place, they are going to kill us.”

Contrary to Yorn’s reaction, Columbia loved his work, recognizing musicforthemorningafter for what it is – a singer-songwriter triumph. From the honest lyrics of “For Nancy (‘Cos It Already Is),” to the pop-rock stomp of “Life on a Chain” and the folk sensitivity of “On Your Side,” Yorn shows off his unique blend of soul-bearing music. In this world where the single is king and everything else on the album is filler, the album defiantly stands as a cohesive work with a definite beginning, middle and end.

Listing the Smiths and Bruce Springsteen as major musical influences, he is quick to provide an explanation of how these two seemingly opposite forces make sense in his head. “I love how Springsteen is able to create urgency and emotion in his music without sounding sappy about it,” Yorn explains, “but then Morrisey is kind of sappy but has that same kind of emotion.”

For critics, though, the comparisons to Springsteen come easier; Yorn is, after all, a singer-songwriter from New Jersey. Both the New York Daily News and the Asbury Park Press went as far as to run reviews of his recent east coast gigs with the headline, “Yorn in the U.S.A.” Pete doesn’t seem to mind. Maybe it’s because his album sounds nothing like his influences that he is so free to share who they are. In describing his music he even likes to use examples of musicians from his favorite bands. “It’s Mo Tucker’s drumming, and Peter Hook’s bass playing … Johnny Marr’s guitar picking and Lou Reed’s vocal inflections and Springsteen’s urgency.”

Yorn has been covering Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and the Smiths’ “Panic” in concert recently, mainly because it gets him and the crowd fired up. His take on both covers are attempts to make them his own, even going so far as to sing “Panic” “extra American, in a southern drawl.” Maybe subconsciously he knows when he sings Morissey’s line, “and I wonder to myself/could life ever be sane again?” that it doesn’t describe the London club scene anymore, but more fittingly his own life and career.