On Friday, Feb. 13, WorkPlay will host American singer-songwriter Pete Yorn. His current tour, entitled “You and Me Acoustic,” features a solo acoustic version of Yorn’s signature sound, offering fans a chance to hear rare cuts — some even by request, thanks to Yorn’s unusual way of selecting songs.
Weld had a chance to sit down with Yorn and talk to him about his beginnings, his collaboration with Scarlett Johansson, the You and Me Acoustic tour and his highly anticipated next album.
Weld: So, you started playing music in high school?
Pete Yorn: Yeah. The first time I played live in front of anyone was at a talent show at my high school in Montville, New Jersey. I was the drummer. I sang from behind the drums, but we didn’t place. [Laughs] That’s a fun memory. Thanks for bringing that up.
Weld: What made you switch to guitar?
PY: Natural progression, I think. I started playing drums when I was about 9. My older brother taught me. He’s a really good drummer. At some point there was just a natural pull to start writing songs, and I figured guitar might be a better place to start. We had this old guitar sitting around our basement — I think it was a leftover from when my mom played in the ‘60s. It only had two strings. So, I kind of figured out how to play bass lines on it.
I remember, around the summer when I was about 12 or 13, I was away at summer camp up in the Catskills, and there were all these English counselors. They were really influenced by bands like the Smiths and Britpop stuff. Some of them played these Smiths songs and I was like, “Wow! That’s really cool!” They showed me some chords, and I don’t know, I just kind of took to it.
Weld: Did you grow up in a musical household?
PY: Before I was born, my mom did piano lessons for some of the kids in the neighborhood. She did try to give me lessons once when I was like 5, but I was too hyper and had no interest in sitting there and trying to learn the theory and all that. My parents were never like “Hey, you gotta play instruments.” So we just kind of passed things around. My middle brother was a great drummer and my parents were very tolerant of loud noises coming from our basement. They would just let my brothers bash away all day and night. They’d let their friends come over with these big Marshall amps all the time, playing Judas Priest covers and Iron Maiden covers. I would sit down there and watch them, no ear protection or anything. [Laughs] I think that’s what really got it going for me.
Weld: You have a huge body of work. Have you always been such a prolific writer?
PY: When I first started writing, I did write a lot. I remember writing a couple of songs a day for a while. I never really thought about it. I wasn’t like, “Oh, I gotta write a song today.” It was never a work ethic thing. These songs were just popping out of me, some better than others. I go in spurts. Sometimes I go through periods where I don’t really write at all. I’ll record little ideas into my phone, but I won’t really work at them. I’ve got hundreds of ideas on my phone, and a lot of songs come out of that. If an idea comes, I’ll stop what I’m doing, go off into another room, get it down and check it out later.
Weld: Back and Fourth, Break Up and your self-titled came out within 15 months of one another. Was that one of those “on” spurts?
PY: [Laughs] Yeah, during that time period I was writing a lot and I just wanted to get it all down. A lot of it has a really different flavor. I just had to get it all out, and that’s what I did.
Weld: Break Up is a really poignant album of duets with Scarlett Johansson. How did that partnership come about?
PY: I met her when she was really little. My brother was managing her, and my other brother was her lawyer. So, after I put out my first record, I met her at a club one night. She was like, “Hey! You’re Pete, right?” She was really young; I don’t even know what she was doing in the club. [Laughs] She must’ve been like 14, I don’t know, but she was super nice. So I always knew her as she was growing up. Then when I had this idea to make a record of duets, I thought she was perfect for it. So I hit her up and she was down for it.
Weld: A lot of people don’t realize that she has a wonderful voice. I know that I had no clue until she did Anywhere I Lay My Head, that album of Tom Waits covers.
PY: Oh yeah, she’s amazing! She’s a superstar, and she’s as cool as everyone says she is. I’m really proud of that record and am psyched that people keep discovering it.
Weld: So Pete Yorn came out in 2010. Since then, you’ve been touring solo and with your full-band side project The Olms. Should we be looking forward to a new album soon?
PY: I’ve recorded about 40 new solo songs and am just in the process of picking songs for the next record, which should be out this year. There’s more coming!
Weld: Are you planning on playing some of that new material at the show Feb. 13?
PY: I’d like to think so, but the only rule for this tour is that there is no setlist, so I can’t really tell you where the show is gonna go. I play this game; I’ve got a songbook. It’s this little black songbook filled with hundreds of songs that I play on acoustic. Each page is numbered and each line is numbered. So I play this game where I pick a number one through 10, then a number one through 22. So, say, six-fifteen. That would be page six, line 15, and whatever song is on that line, I gotta play.
So, sometimes one will come up, and I’ll be like “Oh, that’s a cool song! I feel like playing that!” and then other songs I’ll think, “I don’t feel like playing that right now.” But I gotta play it, because that’s that the number that came up. I always find that if I just start playing it, and I keep an open head about it, usually I end up surprising myself and really getting into it. Sometimes songs will take on completely new meanings for whatever I’m kind of thinking about in my life now. That’s one of my favorite things about music. Yes, there’s an element that certain songs will always take you back to a time and a place, which is really cool. But there’s this other thing where you grow with the songs and they can tell you something about, you know, your life now.
Tickets are still available for You and Me Acoustic — An Evening with Pete Yorn on Friday, Feb. 13 at WorkPlay. Tickets are $30 in advance. Doors open at 8 p.m.