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‘My digestive system was a volcano’: Indie star Youth Lagoon opens up about surviving chronic illness to create a masterpiece | Independent

Nature

Independent

After taking heartburn medication, Trevor Powers remained silent for months, his voice destroyed. He explains how music purged his darkest thoughts

In October 2021, Trevor Powers underwent a routine medical exam and, after complaining of minor stomach upset, was prescribed an over-the-counter heartburn medication. “There are no words to describe the intensity of what this did to my body,” he says today. “It turned my digestive system into this mini volcano. Suddenly I had vision problems… my whole body went completely numb and I could barely move.

He felt trapped in his own body and soon even singing became impossible for him. “I completely lost my voice for months. I couldn’t speak. When his brother visited for Christmas, he recalled, he could only communicate by texting across the room.

But even on his worst days, he remembers keeping a journal: “I refuse to live this experience without it teaching me something. » And, after a succession of tired specialists and symptoms that also robbed him of his vision and feeling, he began to feel restored. “It made the feeling of the wind on my skin better, the taste of the food, the conversations were louder and the music sounded better,” he says. Powers resurrected his singer-songwriter project Youth Lagoon and wrote one of the best albums of 2023, Heaven Is a Junkyard, which brought a rich new sweetness to Powers’ broken tales of lost souls and seekers ; her fragile alto voice and delicate piano supported by a warm bass that bring an almost lullaby consolation even to the harsh ballad of domestic strife that gives the record its title.

Powers is video calling from a parking lot near a Target branch just outside Phoenix, Arizona, en route to Santa Ana and the next date of a marathon U.S. tour that reaches the U.K. and l Europe this month. “Deep, empty America,” he says, explaining the exhilaration of being back on the road “very beautiful and rewarding” after his traumatic and deadly illness.

His music, however, is very much rooted in his home of Boise, in deep-red, conservative Idaho. He says that for a few years as a young teenager he was “chomping at the bit” to move to more glamorous cities, but “the second I started being able to travel for music, the identity of my home -me has changed and the appreciation we have of it. in-depth. » His Maga neighbors, he says – his birdlike features and slender figure move uncomfortably – are not always easy to live with. “It’s the most frustrating thing about living in Idaho… but it’s also healthy, because you’re constantly engaging in difficult conversations that force you to figure out the best way to express your worldview.” He wouldn’t think of leaving.

He and his three brothers grew up in difficult distress, in a fervently evangelical family: “The Bible is taken very literally. You read it almost like a rule book. He now has a less defined spirituality – “this unknown veil has shifted radically over the years” – but he remains a devoted son and brother, within driving distance of all but one, his youngest brother, who is now in the army in Virginia.

As loving as they were, Powers’ family kept their children away from the modern world, homeschooling them and strictly rationing music. “So we grew up listening to the Carpenters, Elvis, the Beach Boys and Christian music. That was it,” he says. “Nirvana and all that ’90s shit, none of that existed for me.”

At church, “I saw a child playing the piano. It seemed magical, so I asked my parents if I could learn. I started lessons at the age of six. At 12, he began to worry: “I didn’t want to play other people’s music. I wanted to create my own.

His uncle Terry, a figure of mocking glamor and “one of my absolute heroes”, broke the evangelical shell and introduced a different type of art. Terry was addicted to crack and heroin and was sometimes on the run, but Powers remembers “one of the kindest, gentlest spirits I’ve ever known” who was an immediate supporter of writing of emerging Powers songs.

From that point on, Powers’ creative goal was to write songs that he could give to his uncle when he visited. His uncle returned the favor by introducing Trevor “in secret” to left-wing legends such as Joy Division, the Velvet Underground, My Bloody Valentine and Talking Heads. None of them are audible in Youth Lagoon but their lesson, that musical conventions are worth ignoring, remained.

Then Terry died of an overdose in 2007, which was “a big, huge blow because like I said, he was always my biggest champion; a massive, fucking massive figure in my life… my whole process starts with writing music to him, trying to impress my uncle. And like “the ghost of Idaho that I always know a little better”, his uncle is still part of Youth Lagoon, “always, always”.

“Deep and Empty America”… Youth Lagoon. Photography: Tyler T Williams

His uncle’s bedroom sketches became songs that he started putting on Bandcamp. These were picked up by the Fat Possum label shortly afterwards and made up his acclaimed debut album, The Year of Hibernation, in 2011; the quiet anguish of the songs, reflecting Powers’ sometimes crippling struggles with anxiety, won admiring reviews.

Wondrous Bughouse followed in 2013 and made way for more grandiose guitars and thunderous drums alongside its careful keys, while still baffling the listener with glitchy electronics and waltz sequences. In 2015 came Savage Hills Ballroom, which saw Powers confident enough to push his voice to the top of the mix, in an album with much more melodrama and reverb than we’d heard before.

It sounded like an artist constantly rearranging his sonic palette. But Trevors felt trapped by the expectations initially generated by the Year of Hibernation and decided that was it. “There is nothing more to say through Youth Lagoon. This will no longer exist,” he wrote on Twitter in early 2016.

Under his own name, Powers produced two other albums within a step or two of the spotlight, Mulberry Violence (2018) and Capricorn (2020). He says these gave him a new sonic freedom, but they sounded more agonizing than anything he had produced before, burying his voice in bursts of effects and feedback and, on Capricorn, removing it almost entirely .

No voice would cease to be his choice after October 2021, when he appears for this exam. He credits his wife, whom he met in high school 17 and a half years ago, for helping him get through it. “She’s my fucking everything.” I can’t even express what would have happened if she hadn’t helped me out,” Powers said, although he feared that “I’d drag her underwater with me.”

This experience made Youth Lagoon feel much less restrictive about his music and he began writing songs for a new album. He approached XL’s star producer Rodaidh McDonald (the xx, Adele, Gil Scott-Heron) and Heaven Is a Junkyard quickly became clear.

Powers’ illness is a constant presence in the record. Idaho Alien’s pensive, country two-step references a moment of suicidal despair early in the illness. “I don’t remember how it happened/The blood filled the clawfoot tub and I will fear no boundaries…Fill the tub and wait on God.” He now says, “I felt like if I could do this act through a song, it would save me from having to do this act in reality,” and in fact the arrangement is warm, consoling and more complete than previous records, pointing towards elevation.

But as he is keen to point out, this record contains much more than his own extreme experience, as the melodies whisper through a range of styles and lives that he describes as “Americana in reverse”, held together by a voice whose fragility at that moment, he was keen to use. (“I’m not trying to sound like a good singer,” he says. “I’m just trying to sound like myself.”) American Gothic archetypes swim through the songs: “Dolly comes out of the light / Handful of tight licorice”, “Tommy left for war without goodbye… A boxer’s knuckles held high.”

A good number of them come from the citizens of Boise for whom he feels affection for his neighborhood. The 80-year-old piano teacher who lives across the street; even the drug addict next door who mows the lawn at 3 a.m., burns her trash, and uses her yard as a campsite for other users. “It’s as pure Idaho as possible.” His solitary travels in the countryside around Boise, where many of the songs were written, are also very Idaho: “From absolute desert to golden meadows, to mountains so full of trees it’s like Narnia.” » The once booming mining town of Idaho City, now reduced to a few hundred residents, offers a rich reservoir of imagination.

Powers says he’s still healing from the crippling trauma of his illness, but on the other hand, “there was something about that experience and that awakening that turned on that creative faucet.” Now I legitimately can’t keep up. For now, he’s enjoying being on the move again, but he’s also eager to return to the solitudes of Idaho where he can work alone on new ideas. Having experienced the severe restrictions imposed by the disease, he says: “I fall in love with limits. Because I find that that’s where eternity is. This is where immortality is found.

• Youth Lagoon’s UK tour kicks off on November 12 at Earth, London, as part of the Pitchfork London music festival. Heaven Is a Junkyard is out now on Fat Possum Records

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