It’s hard to believe Night Beds (aka Winston Yellen) is only 23. The content of his songs seems to transcend the here and now and transport you to a little place beyond the reach of the quintessential ‘guy with a guitar’ playing forlorn Americana. Maybe that’s got something to do with the way his album Country Sleep came together. It’s an album with a back story not unlike Bon Iver’s For Emma Forever Ago, in that he spent months travelling around the US countryside before holing himself up in a cabin (formerly owned by Jonny Cash and June Carter) to record it. The result is a haunting and tender mix of tracks steeped in the blues storytelling tradition, not unlike some of the vintage Ryan Adams tracks. But it’s when these songs are performed live that the real intensity pours out. Yellen has recently completed a run of live shows in Europe and the US, ranging in size from playing in front of 2,000 people in support of Sharon Van Etten, to about 20 people in the basement of a London pub. It just so happens that we were lucky enough to catch up with him at a tiny London show to ask him about how his album came together, being on the road and sleeping in the back of a truck.
How did you find the gig tonight?
It was great. It felt good on our end. Did you enjoy it?
Yeah it was great. How did it compare to last night when you played with SharonVan Etten?
We’ve only played a few shows so that was like being thrown in with the wolves!
How many shows have you played so far?
We’ve probably played 15-20 shows. There’s usually 2 or 3 other guys that play with me at the bigger shows.
Do you feel a bit more comfortable playing smaller shows?
Yeah, I definitely prefer it when it’s more intimate. That’s where you get the best crowd, the best environment. I mean opening for Sharon (Van Etten) and Wild Nothing was great. There’s a lot of winning people over but the crowds in London have been the best crowds we’ve played to. There’s a lot of respect for the music and the people seem to appreciate it a lot when you’re playing. Most of the shows we played early on there were like, old women yelling out bingo numbers and stuff. It was funny but now it all seems to be a bit more serious.
People are paying a lot more attention to your music at the moment. How does that feel?
It takes a little getting used to. When you’re used to staying home and watching bowling and hanging with your cat, then all of a sudden you’re playing shows and you’ve got people coming up to you telling you how much they liked it. It’s crazy. It’s happening very quickly but it’s still small, still manageable. I don’t feel like there’s hype. I mean, some people hate us, but other people are fine with it. At the moment it doesn’t feel like entertainment. Like cheesy entertainment. The minute it starts feeling like that we’re fucked (laughs). As long as it’s a small group of us playing together that’s OK. That’s fun. But if all of a sudden we’re huge, it feels like that would be kinda weird.
I read that you’ve spent a lot of time travelling around the US surfing people’s couches. How long did you do that for?
I travelled around for about 4 months. I was travelling around in my little hatchback truck and sometimes I would just put the seats down and sleep in the back. I stayed in my grandma’s attic in Southern California for 2 weeks. It was good just travelling around and getting some perspective.
That experience must have influenced your songwriting.
I would have never been able to write a record like this had I not done that. It kind of felt like channelling old blues artists like Skip James and a lot of that energy went in to the record. I hope!
The tracks you’rve released from the record sound stripped down and have a strong storytelling aesthetic. Is that the result you wanted?
Yeah. I think it’s important to give a sense of a story, which is different to the songs I recorded before. I used to record like twenty tracks and layer them on top of one another to create this big sound or whatever, but with this receord I’ve just picked up a guitar and sung. I wrote just ten songs in a year and a half. It took more time to say what I wanted in that straightforward, linear way. Everybody gets drunk and watches soap operas sometimes, and I want to make sense of those feelings and hopefully convey something. To get to the heart of the matter in very simple terms.
You’ve been recording songs since around 2007. How does it feel to finally have an album coming out?
It feels very exciting and humbling. It’s like getting picked for the varsity basketball team! That never happened to me (laughs) but it’s great. I never thought I’d finish a whole record. I’m looking forward to seeing how people react. The label Dead Oceans have been great. The most genuine people who love music.
What have you got going on over the next year?
It depends on how the record goes. I think my grandma might buy it! (laughs). I hope there’s enough of a positive reception. We’re not looking to go big time but if people like it, I’d love that. I’d like to do another tour too, but I’ll just take it as it comes.
Country Sleep is out 04 February in the UK (05 February in the US) on Dead Oceans. Night Beds is playing some shows in support of the album, check out when HERE.