He may not like it, but Winston Yellen’s haunting debut album, Country Sleep, was born from the romantic (and cliched) ideal of the musical nomad: In 2011, the 23-year-old Colorado Springs native dropped out of college and trekked to the isolated country outskirts of Nashville, where he rented a house formerly owned by the late Johnny and June Carter Cash. There, he spent 10 months fumbling with an acoustic guitar, channeling classic country, folk and blues into the 10 minimal, heartbreaking songs that ultimately became Country Sleep.
With its fragile strings, intimate strumming and Yellen’s graceful tenor (often singing in a striking a cappella), Country Sleep oozes the same romanticism. But when he talks about his music, the self-deprecating Yellen has a way of sucking the grandeur out of that myth.
“People who are by themselves for an extended period of time with no human interaction—what else are you gonna do? Might as well write some songs,” Yellen laughs, lounging around his parents’ Colorado home during the holidays. “I was out there, and I lived out there, but you have to plant yourself down somewhere and turn off everything. You have running water, and you have a stove, and that’s kind of it. It’s kind of a tribute. I didn’t have cellphone reception, either. So I would just kind of pack up really fast and go down to Nashville and stay the night and find a friend if I couldn’t handle it. I definitely think [the isolation] does [affect the music], but if I’m not isolated—Like right now, I’m home with my family, but right now, I don’t have any desire to write music.”
For Yellen, ending up in a pre-Civil War home once owned by a pair of country music legends was just a matter of pure luck and coincidence.
“I was kind of living on my ex-girlfriend’s futon, and we both knew I’d overstayed my welcome,” Yellen laughs. “I’d been there for like three weeks upon moving back to Nashville. So it really was just kind of looking for a place in Nashville. I knew I wanted to be a little bit outside of Nashville, just because I knew that I wanted to do some writing and wanted to be a little bit removed. But the fact that I ended up in that situation was kind of mind-boggling. Just finding that place was crazy.”
Yellen is definitely not precious about his music. When grilled about his often disarmingly simple lyrics, he cringes about how direct they are: “I kind of make fun of it,” he says. “I kind of feel like a 16-year-old girl that’s drunk at a party, crying. I’m just shitting out words that are mundane and just whatever. It’s kind of insecure for me to fess up to the fact that they’re very straight. I’ve come to terms with the fact that that’s what it is.”
When asked about the album’s impressive dynamic sweep (moving from the opening a cappella bliss of “Faithful Heights” to the epic, starry-eyed “Ramona”), he chuckles awkwardly and brushes that notion aside.
“There were parts that we were trying to make grand like that,” he laughs, “but sometimes I don’t know if we achieved it.”
Yellen’s fidgety wisecracking comes from a good place: He’s reverent about the musicians that inspire him, and he feels uncomfortable mentioning himself in the same breath. With Country Sleep—which was demoed at home and fleshed out in Nashville’s Brown Owl Studio—Yellen consciously aimed to restrain himself sonically, inspired by the stirring simplicity of early American music.
“I think, in the past, it was always a temptation to layer things. For me, it was just a different form to work in. I think I was inspired by listening to old blues records, like Son House. He has this song—well, he has a few—where it’s just him clapping and a cappella, and that stuff just kind of floored me. I feel like I made a bastardized version of that. Even saying that right now, I kind of cringe because it’s kind of disgraceful for me to talk like that. For me, I don’t feel in that realm; it’s just something I was reaching for that I didn’t quite get. But that emotion—that sound of the early American music—there’s not a lot going on there, but there’s a hell of a lot of emotion. It’s super raw, and for me, it’s breathtaking to listen to that stuff. It was unreal.”
For Yellen, part of this process was immersing himself in the stylings of acoustic guitar.
“I didn’t have a fancy for that instrument, and now I don’t like it again,” he says. “I haven’t picked one up in a long time. But before the record, I hadn’t really played acoustic. But all of the sudden, I got a fascination with it. I’m not a songwriter—I’m just a guy who writes songs. And there’s a difference, especially being in Nashville. But I think just tinkering with an acoustic guitar, just kind of noodling around, not knowing what I was doing but just wanting to write. It’s what people would call ‘rudimentary,’ but for me, it was just a simple form, just sitting down and trying to do that because I’d never done that, never been able to. I got 10 songs, and those are the 10 songs that are on the record.”
Latley, Yellen’s been speaking to rounds of journalists, some jaw-dropped by the raw power of his music. That, of course, cracks him up, since the recording process was a total mess. He often wrote his lyrics minutes before recording; the “band” for the album consisted of a core group of friend collaborators, a few Nashville session aces, and whoever felt like picking up an instrument. They recorded an endless number of parts, paring back the songs after a grueling editing process.
“It’s funny that people feel it was orchestrated,” he laughs. “We had no idea what we were doing. It really was just kind of like, ‘That sounds good. Let’s go with that.’ I think ‘haphazard’ is a real way of saying it without trying to make ourselves sound cool. It was kind of clanking around in the dark and not having a clue.”
Now, on the verge of a co-headlining tour with Indians and massive amounts of critical praise, Yellen can’t even listen to his own music. It’s a fittingly uneasy outlook from one of the year’s most astonishing new songwriting talents.
“The strings are one of the only parts that I can listen to without cringing,” Yellen laughs. “I’m sorry to be a downer! I don’t jones on my own stuff. I don’t listen to it—never! That’s not gonna happen. That’s the beauty of it, though—you hand it off. Some people love it, and some people shit all over it. But it’s not mine anymore. Once you play it, it’s over. If it means something to somebody, that’s the reward.”