Tell us about your path to becoming a musician. All of my formative years were spent in Colorado Springs: I moved there from the Bay Area when I was 11, right before the pivotal moment of entering the sixth grade. Music wasn’t a big part of my upbringing, but I sang along to Stevie Nicks, Diana Ross, Motown groups like the Four Tops, and gospel music that my mom played in the car. I was in choir in high school, and I bombed a couple talent shows. (laughing) I taught myself how to play instruments by fumbling around with an acoustic guitar and a shitty keyboard, and playing along to albums like Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head.
I didn’t start playing music seriously until college, which was around 2008. I originally went to a small school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to play soccer, but I fell out of that as a freshman. When I realized that I wasn’t going to have a career in sports, I decided to pursue music full-time. I didn’t think about being a musician professionally; I just wanted to devote myself to becoming better. My skills were pretty marginal at the time, so I started recording crappy songs in my dorm room and went from there.
When I was 18 or 19, I transferred to Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s known for having one of the best music programs in the country, but I hated it. It was formulaic, rigid, and dry, and I was having a hard time in my songwriting classes. I wasn’t learning anything about the music industry, so I dropped out. I took a job as a server and continued to live in Nashville to pursue music.
So you’ve been a professional musician since then? I’m not a professional musician by any stretch. I don’t really make a living with this, so I’ve been supporting myself with odd jobs all summer, cleaning out koi ponds and doing demolition work. At the same time, I don’t really think about music as a career: I do this because I love it. If people like what I make, that’s awesome, but I’d still be doing this whether or not anyone gave a shit.
“I didn’t think about being a musician professionally; I just wanted to devote myself to becoming better. My skills were pretty marginal at the time, so I started recording crappy songs in my dorm room and went from there.”
Some say that working a day job allows you more creative control over what you make because you’re able to support your passion with a steady income. That may be true, but I’m sure most people don’t want to have to work a day job. Do I want to clean a pond full of fish shit? Do I want to carry rocks to the dump? No. I’d much rather be in a nice studio hanging out with Kanye West. (laughing) But you have to do what you have to do. You need to have a positive outlook on it. Not many people are investing in or being patrons of musicians or artists these days, so those who take an avant-garde stance end up having to work day jobs they hate because that’s where our society is. We’ve been perpetuating a pretty shitty culture at the mainstream level, but it’s definitely getting better.
Was there an “Aha!” moment when you realized you wanted to pursue music? The biggest “Aha!” moment was when Night Beds signed with our record label, Dead Oceans. Before that happened, I knew I wanted to be in a studio making records, but I didn’t think about the business side of it. I just wanted to afford myself the opportunity to make cool shit, so I took out a loan in order to fund my first record, Country Sleep, which came out in February 2013.
Your new album, Ivywild, comes out August 7th. What can we expect from that album, and what was the inspiration behind it? My first record had more country and Americana influences, whereas this new album is more R&B. While we were on tour for Country Sleep, I remember wanting to play with electronic drums and bass and create songs that were more funky, melodic, and experimental. I was tired of making run-of-the-mill, sad-sack bullshit. (laughing) I started going into record stores to find obscure sounds to play around with, and Ivywild is a byproduct of what I was jonesing on: artists like J Dilla, Panda Bear, Flying Lotus, and Aphex Twin.
This album is a lot more collaborative; it wasn’t a singular experience. I hung out with my friends and my brother, Abe, while making it, so it has a communal vibe. The name Ivywild actually comes from the neighborhood in Colorado Springs where we all grew up playing music in church together. I actually consider my brother to be the executive producer of the record. It took three years to make, and Abe was definitely the driving force during that third year. There are a lot of songs on Ivywild, so there were a lot of different studios and people involved in making it. At the time, I was running out of steam and running out of answers, so Abe came out to California and stayed with me for nine weeks. It was just the two of us, and he hoisted the project onto his shoulders and carried it across the finish line. I definitely credit him with helping this record come out.
Have you had any mentors along the way, musically or otherwise? My parents have been very inspirational, and the people I grew up with mentored me musically in a lot of ways. I still keep in touch with my friend, Matt Wilcox, who I started Night Beds with back in 2007, and he’s still one of my biggest influences. Growing up, my friends were all talented musicians, and they were the ones who introduced me to cool shit like Radiohead when I was 16. They’re the ones who hand-hold me through what’s cool and what’s not. I like to run things by them, which makes me feel more confident in what I’m making.
Are you creatively satisfied? I’m less dissatisfied than I was three years ago, before I started this. My brother and I already have two more records done as far as material goes; we just have to finish them. We’re starting to find our footing in what we want to do and how to do it, and we’ve started implementing ideas that have been stuck in our heads for a long time. Those ideas are finally manifesting themselves, which is a huge blessing. We’re more comfortable with who we are as artists, but we’re still pretty user-friendly people. We feel secure in what we’re doing right now, but we want to take it further and get better at it. We want to make more sonic architecture, and we want it to sound incredible and weird as fuck.
If you were to give advice to a young musician starting out, what would it be? Don’t let people dissuade you from doing what you want to do artistically. It can easily happen. Steve Jobs said, “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people who were no smarter than you.” A lot of times, younger musicians will become influenced by what they see in Pitchfork or something, but they shouldn’t give a shit about what anybody thinks. It might sound cliché, but it’s so freeing to do exactly what’s in your head. Commit yourself to expressing what you know to be true internally, because that’s where real transcendence comes from. Don’t let anybody fuck with that.
I wish I had known that four or five years ago; it would have saved me a lot of trouble. It’s a waste of time to get caught up in what everybody else is doing. You should break all the rules, even the ones you may have imposed on yourself. Just do dope shit that makes you happy. If you’re blessing yourself, then you’ll be able to bless other people in the same way.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave? I would like people to remember me as a genuinely nice, kind person. No one shows up to your funeral for your art: they show up for who you were as a human being.
About Night Beds
Colorado Springs native Winston Yellen, better known by his stage name, Night Beds, garnered much acclaim for his February 2013 debut album, Country Sleep. Winston returned to the studio the following year to record his second record, Ivywild, a collaborative effort named after his childhood stomping grounds. Ivywild with its otherworldly R&B melodies and soaring vocals releases on August 7, 2015. After splitting his time between LA and Nashville, Winston now calls Portland, Oregon, home.
Ivywild can be ordered here.