Night Beds: New Tricks

Music Features Night Beds
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“I wanted to make a different kind of film,” says Winston Yellen, the golden-voiced 26-year-old who records under the moniker Night Beds. He’s referring to his cinematic second LP, Ivywild: 16 tracks of beguiling electro-R&B melodrama that mark a U-turn from his folky 2013 debut, Country Sleep. Yellen uses movie analogies to summarize his creative shift: He likens the album’s guttural, largely improvised lyrics to Robert Altman dialogue; he compares his quest for experimentation to the Ingmar Bergman catalog.

“It’s just a different form that fascinates me,” Yellen says of his new synth-and-programming-heavy approach. “It’s the same thing where Paul Thomas Anderson was doing big ensemble cast stuff and then started doing chamber drama like The Master or Punch-Drunk Love. I wasn’t into the same art anymore. I was 22 when I wrote Country Sleep. That was a very national kind of record—very Patsy Cline, Eddy Arnold, kind of backwoods stuff. And I feel like did it. It didn’t interest me to write any more folk songs. I didn’t touch an acoustic guitar for a few years.”

“I think you get bored with yourself,” he continues. “You know all your own tricks. I don’t see myself as that great a musician anyway—those 10 songs are the only 10 I wrote during that period, and I recorded them. Then I just started hearing other stuff and thought, ‘I’m never gonna make anything remotely folk ever again. There’s so much room when there’s sampling and programming. You can bring that analog, organic quality to anything, but I just like the synthesis. It’s really intriguing. And I just wanted to be funky, man! I just wanted to move a little bit.”

Yellen recorded Country Sleep as a lark: In 2011, the Colorado Springs native dropped out of college and ventured to the outskirts of Nashville, renting a house formerly owned by Johnny Cash and channeling his disillusionment into organic, acoustic-based anthems. Traces of folk linger on Ivywild: the looped strum and croon that opens and closes “Melrose,” the ragged, campfire-style “I Get You Wrong” interlude, which dates back to a 2011 iPhone recording. But they drift by like fleeting echoes from a simpler, more innocent past.

Working with an ever-changing roster of musicians, engineers and producers—most notably his brother Abe, who co-produced the entire LP—Yellen funneled these raw emotions into a series of abstract textural pieces (meandering opener “Finished”) and seductive rhythmic grooves (“Swayve,” sax-heavy slow-jam “Moon Sugar”). Around two dozen friends and associates contribute, including Heather Hibbard, a singer from Maine whom Yellen flew out to Colorado Springs after a friend showed him her silky YouTube cover of “Cherry Blossoms.” (She ended up singing on roughly half the album.)

Hooked up with discounted rates from friends, Yellen and company traveled around the country — from three Nashville studios to houses in the Hollywood Hills and Topanga Canyon to Mountain Nest, a recording space in Colorado Springs operated by former Commodores member Thomas Dawson. In the latter space, the band recorded in front of a giant movie screen, watching classic films on mute. “It really felt like summer camp at times,” he cracks. “Just with a lot of champagne.”

A major revelation came with Yellen’s first listen of Kanye West’s jagged, minimalist Yeezus, an album he attempted to evoke in spirit and sculpture. “It hit me in every way,” he says. “However many ways an album can hit you. Like a lot of people, I’m a huge Kanye fan. I championed him before most people. I saw his performance on SNL, and we were already kind of working on stuff, and it just got me into a more manic work ethic and brought a more physicality into what we were trying to do. If you’re trying to put up a benchmark, that’s the guy you probably want. He and Sufjan [Stevens] are probably the two great American artists we have right now in music.”

The writing process was built into the recording. Instead of fleshing out a full song with lyrics and melody, Yellen approached the music like a hip-hop emcee or soul singer—freestyling over beats and chopping up the results into songs. “I was trying to athletically weave melodies around beats and hit stuff on the fly—like MF Doom or Earl Sweatshirt would approach it,” he says. “I was trying to do that with singing. This is like my bastardized version of R. Kelly or Marvin Gaye. Trying to bring that athleticism to it—kind of juking and jiving. You fall into things and don’t know what you’re signing. Just slack jaw, making shit up on the spot.”

On Country Sleep, Yellen’s voice was pure yearning—an unprocessed ache that matched his woodsy arrangements. But on Ivywild, it’s lathered in Auto-Tune, adding an ethereal quality to his glossolalia mantras. The shift from organic to synthetic recalls Radiohead’s transition from OK Computer to Kid A—but unlike that band’s frontman, Thom Yorke, Yellen isn’t using effects to disconnect himself from his own instrument.

“I wouldn’t identify with not wanting to be me,” he says. “We always want [the singing] to be pretty because we like pretty shit, but I like the idea that the record is emotional. Having that synthetic feel to it makes it tolerable for me because it’s so fucking sad.”

This organic-digital hybrid proved fruitful creatively, but it was a pain-in-the-ass on a practical level. “It was almost a three-year recording process,” Yellen says. ”’Me, Liquor and God’ went through 10 versions. It started out with driving piano, and then that pulsating synth thing was like Earl Sweatshirt’s ‘Orange Juice.’ There’s definitely a 17-minute version of the song on my laptop.”

Yellen has grown up a lot in the past few years, and Ivywild is rooted in more mature themes than its predecessor: sex (the slow-burning “Eve A”), dalliances with drugs and alcohol from the Country Sleep tour, the painful end of a six-year relationship. ”’I Get You Wrong’ is from 2011, when I was still with that person,” Yellen says, before an awkward pause and laugh. “So that’s in there. That’s her singing on it. I don’t know if she knows that or not, but I guess she does now! [The break-up] definitely provided a muse, that’s for damn sure. It was definitely helpful.”

Ivywild’s probing experimentation may alienate some fans bewitched by the simplicity of Country Sleep. It’s a risky but brave departure—and it could just be a warm-up.

“The record could have been 25 songs and three hours long, but nobody wants to listen to that,” Yellen says. “I can’t demand that of people. If I was Lars Von Trier, maybe. This is either going to be my Antichrist or my Idiots—pun intended.”