"A friend told me it was Saturn returns and that may be true. I was about to turn thirty and I knew that if I didn't change direction I was going to end up exactly where I was headed."
At the end of Leif Vollebekk's twenties, his own songs didn't sound right. He had spent an entire year on the road, playing almost 100 shows, but every night his favourite moment came only right at the end, covering a song by Ray Charles or Townes Van Zandt. Every time he got home from tour he took a hot shower and lay still under a window, listening to Nick Drake's Pink Moon, feeling saved, wondering why his own music didn't give him that. Why the songs he had written himself always felt like so much work.
He booked himself a secret show. One night only at a Montreal dive bar – not to play his own songs but other people's. Leif found a rhythm section and they rehearsed once. Then midnight unspooled. Leif called it the most fun he had ever had playing music: Ray Charles and Tom Waits over a locked groove; Bob Dylan and Kendrick Lamar over a slow pulse. The light was dark blue and purple.
It was time, Leif understood, to make a dark blue and purple record. An album of locked groove and slow pulse, heavy as a fever. And the lesson he learned from singing all those other people's songs was that none of those other artists seemed worried about anything except laying down their own souls, flat out. "I used to think, 'This will be kinda like a Neil Young song,' 'This will be kinda like a Bob Dylan song,'" he recalled. "I kinda ran out of people to imitate. And then there was just me."
His first new song came to him on his bicycle. He wasn't thinking, wasn't trying, but the rhythm, the chords, the melody – it all just fluttered up. He tried at first to let it go: the song was wasn't meticulous enough, it wasn't studied or conceived. The next morning it still came back to him, incontestable. "I told myself, 'You're never saying 'no' to a song ever again,'" Leif said. "I realized I had been saying 'no' to a lot of songs, over the years." Twin Solitude is what happened when Leif stopped saying no. The songs started coming so fast: fully formed, impossible. "Vancouver Time" took 15 minutes; "Telluride" took less. It was as if the songs were waiting for him. Instead of obsessing about the details of recording, "I just showed up to the studio and went, 'Let's see what happens.'"
What happened was, they got it: "Big Sky Country" and its patient, coasting tranquility, "Into the Ether", which rides to reverie with the Brooklyn string duo Chargaux. There's "East of Eden", an interpolation of Gillian Welch, which doesn't seem like it ever ought to end. For a beautiful album, Twin Solitude is deceptively brave, filled with unexpected refrains. "When the cards get stuck together / so hard to pull them apart," Leif sings, "I think your face is showing." Then: "Ain't the first time that it's snowing."
Yet in its heart, above all, Twin Solitude is a gesture back to Leif's long nights under a pink moon, when a record was the only thing that could keep him company. Besides a wink to Hugh MacLennan's novel Two Solitudes, this is the unlonely loneliness of the album's title. "It isn't a record I made for other people – it's the one I made for myself," Leif said. "It's the album I wish I could have put on."
Listen to it in a rental car in cold weather, with the windows all rolled up. Listen to it laying by an open window. Listen to it all the way through, alone. "By the time the last notes die away, all that's left should be you," Leif told me. "And I'll be somewhere else. And that's Twin Solitude."
How far would you go to be with the one you love? And what would be enough to tear you apart?
These are the questions that led Nico Yaryan down the long, arduous, but beautiful road that would ultimately lead to his debut album, What a Tease. Rife with both celebrations of and elegies for his star-crossed romance, Tease introduces Yaryan as a new voice, one that has arrived only to deliver an uncomplicated tale of complicated transcontinental love.
Before all of this, Yaryan began as the son of Northern California hippies, a creative kid who cut his musical teeth on drums and midi samplers, digging through dollar-record bins and dreaming of producing hip-hop beats worthy of his idols, like J Dilla and DJ Premier. He would pass a few cavalier years of adolescence and early adulthood (as he tells it) “sort of sidetracked, working retail jobs, and skateboarding, and riding bikes, and drinking, and being a kid.” But that changed the day Hanni El Khatib, a close friend from high school, came looking for a tour drummer.
“I didn’t have a drum set, and I wasn’t playing actively at all,” the 32-year-old remembers on a sunny afternoon, at a park not far from his now-home in Los Angeles. “But I was really stoked on what he was doing, and I was looking for the next thing. I always wanted to do music, I just didn't know what anymore. The lane I had been in...I didn't feel connected to it.”
So he put his things in storage and set off, traveling the world with El Khatib and his bandmates for close to two years, not knowing that the experience would bring into his world two of his greatest loves. The first was the guitar, an instrument he’d been too intimidated to learn as a teenager but now could practice, eventually beginning to record his own music until, at last, he outgrew the touring gig.
“After a while, it wasn't really doing much for me,” he says. “I wasn't creating, I wasn't contributing. It was always Hanni’s thing, which is great — it was a good job! — but it wasn’t mine.”
The second, of course, was an unlikely romance that would change everything. A student from Amsterdam, she and Yaryan met through mutual friends as Yaryan toured through the Dutch city; they stayed in touch in the months that followed, and when he finally parted ways with the band, he decided to take a chance from which most would shy away: he returned to Amsterdam, and stayed for a month — at first.
“We fell in love,” he says. “We were like, this seems really good, and I didn’t want to leave, but I had to leave. So I went home.”
But not for long — back in Los Angeles, Yaryan immediately looked for work to fund a return to Amsterdam, but his experience had only been in retail, an industry that doesn’t take kindly to inconsistent schedules. He needed money that would bring him back.
“So I got a job at a pot farm.”
With a handful of coworkers, Yaryan spent the better part of the next year, on and off, camping alone and trimming at a grow operation in Humboldt County, where marijuana farms are as plentiful as Sonoma’s wineries.
“I would do it for one month, and then I’d go back to Amsterdam for another month,” he explains. “Then I’d come back and I’d do it again; then I went back to her again."
The work was simple enough, but during those month-long stretches out in the woods, each solely funding the next plane ticket, and then the next, Yaryan was isolated, without any communication with the outside world and longing for a woman thousands of miles away. It was ideal work for someone whose heart already lies just out of reach.
Meanwhile, as their relationship unfolded in the face of geographical (and financial) adversity, so did – in between weed-clipping shifts, in a new home in Los Angeles, on overseas flights – the songs that would become What a Tease. Opening with the tattered allegory of “Old Gloria” and the lonely masochism of “You Belong to Me,” the record lets more than a little darkness surface: the agony of watching yourself fuck up a good thing became “Just Tell Me”; the shifting nature of success informed “Dreamers”; mistrusting the nature of his love led Nico to “Witch Love.” But throughout, there’s an undercurrent of perseverance and determined tenderness, songs like the cavernous “Infinity” and, perhaps especially, album-closers “Your Love Never Lets Me Down” and “I’ll Stay With You When You Die.”
Though the hills and valleys of their often-long-distance romance might have brought endless complications, however, Yaryan is quick to reassure: Tease’s songs themselves are anything but byzantine.
“What’s that saying? ‘Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do’?” he says, recalling Mark Twain’s classic salute to literary economy. “It's more interesting to me to work with heavy ideas or concepts that can mean a lot of different things, but try to make them as simple and memorable as possible.”
So what happened next? you ask. Did they make it work? The more important question, perhaps, is whether you, too, would have the guts to try.