It’s rare, but certain voices can convey a message through inflection and tone when words alone often cannot. With artists like Billie Holiday and Robert Johnson, it wasn’t so much about what
they were saying, but how
they were saying it.
The depth of their uniquely expressive singing added a vital human element to their music — one that invited you into their vulnerable state and allowed you not just to empathize, but actually feel something.
Night Beds’ Winston Yellen takes a similar, vocal-driven approach to songwriting. And like Holiday and Johnson — both of whom inspired the lonesome, desolate beauty of Yellen’s debut album, Country Sleep — it’s his propensity for opening up at his most susceptible that makes his music so affecting.
“I’m not really confident,” Yellen said. “I was wary of doing something vocal-centric, but I kind of knew once I started writing the songs that that’s what it needed to be.”
Originally from Colorado, Yellen moved to study music at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., but dropped out less than two years in to write music on his own terms. So he took out a loan, rented an old home in the woods (once owned, coincidentally, by Johnny Cash and June Carter) and started penning songs.
Sonically, the end result is about what one would expect a nocturnal, whiskey-soaked stay in the pines to sound like: Weepy acoustic guitars, baroque string arrangements and cav ernous vocals seep in and out of Country Sleep’s 34 minutes. The melancholy these sounds emit isn’t purposefully morose, however; according to Yellen, it just kind of happened that way.
“It’s always toeing that line; you don’t want to be a dirge. But it doesn’t feel that way when I’m doing it,” he said. “I’m not one of those people who can write a song just to write a song.
I have to have that honesty or else I know I’m just wasting my time and wasting your time. If you’re not going to go all the way, don’t do it.”
Like the melodies that carry it, Yellen’s candor is often shrouded in an oddly accessible mist. Some lines are delivered with inviting clarity, others obscured beneath his ghostly murmur. In other words: just enough honesty to intrigue, yet enough ambiguity to keep it unmistakably personal.
The more personal the song, the more relatable Night Beds’ music becomes. What it boils down to is delivery, which, for Yellen, is synonymous with sincerity.
“You have to do art for yourself first and foremost,” he said. “The dream scenario is that you write something that has a therapeutic value for yourself, and then if it has that same effect on somebody, that’s the best thing you can get. Sometimes it does that and sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s always the hope.”