Nov. 1 2011 07:50 PM

Boise songwriter grapples with malaise and isolation in his breakout debut

Photo courtesy of Youth Lagoon

Trevor Powers, the 22-year-old songwriter behind Youth Lagoon, says he never expected to be explaining the motives underlying his songwriting. Indeed, he never expected his music to receive much attention. But in nine months, this college kid from Boise, Idaho, went from recording songs at home to signing with a label and touring in support of his debut album, The Year of Hibernation.

Powers finished the album’s eight songs in January and, in April, posted one of its tracks, “July,” on his Bandcamp page as a free download. The fuzzy, atmospheric, keyboard-driven, lo-fi indie-pop made the blog rounds seemingly overnight. By September, Powers had released the album on Fat Possum Records, and he’d begun touring behind it, expanding the band to a duo with his friend Logan Hyde on guitar.

The surrealism of the situation caught up to him somewhere in the middle of the band’s first tour.  

“It’s kind of mind-blowing,” he says by phone. “It hit me on one of the drives on tour. It’s, like, ‘Wow, what happened?’ It’s super-weird. I love it, but I’m driving through Wisconsin and I have no idea where I am.”

For Powers, 2011 is a vastly different experience than 2010, which was spent, as the album title suggests, in a state of virtual hibernation. A busy schedule, a tenuous relationship and a detachment from social situations contributed to intensifying anxiety. Powers frequently holed himself up at home and committed his spare hours to writing.

“When I was writing the songs last year, during that time it felt like a weird time in my life,” he says. “I was really busy with school. My girlfriend was working 60 hours a week, so I was not seeing her very much. Everyone was busy with school and had a lot going on. While I was really busy, my anxiety was getting really bad. And I had this project of recording these songs when I would come home from school. In a way, I would isolate myself and just work on songs. It was kind of a weird, lonely year.”

Reflecting on those conditions, The Year of Hibernation is an intimate and extremely personal album, but also a dynamic one. Its songs often begin with little more than some spare keyboard and Powers’ soft, reverb-drenched voice. But, occasionally, as on the more epic-sounding “July” and “The Hunt,” those skeletal elements expand into something bigger.

Still, almost every song has a moment so hushed and fragile that listening to it almost feels like eavesdropping. The strange irony is that Powers’ vocals are sometimes hard to decipher; the actual lyrics, he says, aren’t all that important.

“The mood to me, the overall feel of how each song is presented—that, to me, was more important than the lyrics being audible,” he says. “And some people even tell me that they can’t understand what I’m singing. There’s value in being able to sing along to music, but for me, on this album, it was more about using my voice as an instrument. So, it’s like you know what I’m saying by where the music is taking you.”

Lyrical clarity or not, The Year of Hibernation puts forth emotionally charged sounds that convey a range of feelings, from nostalgia and reflection to catharsis. For Powers, the album was a constructive way of dealing with a year’s worth of malaise and isolation.

“It was, in a way, almost therapeutic,” Powers says. “I was just trying to get some of this stuff out of my head. But I’m always working on ideas and writing. This morning, I was working on some new stuff. It usually comes out by me just sitting down at a piano and digging deep and letting it come up.”

Powers says that playing these songs live can be therapeutic, as well. In particular, he looks back fondly on writing “The Hunt,” which began from a different form of isolation.

“When I first wrote it, I went to this music room at Boise State—the whole building was for music majors,” he says. “And there’s all these practice rooms. So, there were many times when I would just skip class and go there and play one of the pianos, and I’d just be in this practice room alone. Not to sound cheesy, but it was just a magical moment. I was just getting this stuff out of my system, and when we play it live, it all comes back to me.

“It’s just a really good experience.”

Youth Lagoon play with Young Magic at The Casbah on Thursday, Nov. 3.