“This is my Canadian angry song,” Ken Yates says with a grin as he starts to play “Keep Your Head Down.” The unassuming 26-year-old looks out of place in the basement room full of rich 40-somethings, but his simple charm quickly bridges the gap.
For Ken, a Toronto native and a touring solo artist who spends much of the year living in his Honda Accord along with his guitar and a box of CDs and merchandise, this is not a typical house concert. But the air of sophistication that occupies this northern Virginia mansion does not infiltrate Ken’s music. He sings of the places he’s been, observing that his road life contains “too many windows and not enough doors.” He offers tales of cryptic romance and questionable reality, admitting that he made up women to populate his music because his girlfriend didn’t like him singing songs about her. He tells “tuning stories” in between songs because one of his buddies told him it was a necessity for touring artists.
Unlike many of today’s popular musicians, Ken is the same on stage as he is anywhere else. He doesn’t try to “be somebody.” He’s not a big name, and doesn’t need to be. Ken’s just a normal guy who plays guitar and tells stories. And as long as his North American driving tours bring him back to Canadian lake country every now and then, you won’t hear Ken complaining.
Ethan Weitz: Ken, how did you get into writing music?
Ken Yates: I started writing songs in my third year at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Before that I was just a guitar player. I knew I wanted a future in music but I didn’t know exactly what that future would look like. I decided I would take an entry-level songwriting course to see if I liked it. I immediately enjoyed the challenge and the gratification of finishing a song, and it opened up a whole new musical side of my brain that I wasn’t aware of.
Emily Cardé: How do you think your time studying at Berklee helped or shaped your musical pursuits?
Ken: Berklee had a huge impact on my future in music. In my first year at Berklee I really didn’t have a direction and I had no idea what I wanted my future to look like. Being a bit of a late bloomer musically, I really needed those four years at Berklee to figure out exactly what I wanted to do. It gave me a safe place to be creative and develop my songwriting skills to a point where they could compete on a professional level. I would not have been ready to take on a career as a singer/songwriter if I did not have those Berklee years to shape me as a songwriter.
Ethan: Who are your biggest musical inspirations?
Ken: I’ve always been hugely influenced by Neil Young and a lot of the singer/songwriters from the 60s and 70s (James Taylor, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan). Lately I’ve been really into Jason Isbell. I think he’s keeping the storytelling art form alive in the country and folk world today and I have a lot of respect for that.
Emily: Tell us about your creative process. Do you have a normal routine for songwriting?
Ken: I try to make myself write for at least a few hours a day when I’m not on the road. For me, good songs come from putting in the work. If you sit down and write something every day, even if it’s not good, you will chip away at it and eventually come up with a good idea. I feel like the part of my brain used for songwriting is a muscle that needs to constantly be worked out in order to get good results. It can be pretty tedious at times, and sometimes I will go a long time without writing something good, but I’ve done it long enough to know that eventually something good will come. It’s easy to be distracted from songwriting when you’re a DIY musician because there are so many other things to get done, but at the end of the day it’s really about having good songs, and that should always come first.
Ethan: What is the hardest part about songwriting?
Ken: For me it’s coming up with a good lyrical idea. It’s relatively easy to come up with a guitar part and a melody, but a mediocre lyrical idea can be the difference between a good and bad song. It’s really easy to be lazy with your lyrics, so I try not to start writing the words until I know I have a worthwhile idea. Sometimes I will have the music and melody for weeks until I come up with a lyrical idea that justifies being written. A lot of times I’ll have to step away from the song for awhile, and if I’m lucky I’ll have some good lines bouncing around in my head that I can shape into an idea.
Emily: Which song has been your favorite to write or perform?
Ken: My favorite song that I’ve written is a song called “High On You Under The Moon” (probably because it’s new). The tagline, “The world is on fire and I’m high on you under the moon,” really hits home for me for some reason—I think partly because it’s one of the more honest ideas I’ve written about.
My favorite song to perform is another new song called “Keep Your Head Down,” mostly because it’s up-tempo and it’s my attempt at sounding angry.
Ethan: You spend a lot of time traveling across North America. What is life on the road like, and how do those experiences find their way into your music?
Ken: Being on the road can be tough at times; it definitely wears you down. But at the same time it’s allowed me to see a lot of places I never thought I would see and I’ve met some of the craziest and most interesting people. It’s hard not to let these experiences creep into your songwriting, and a lot of my newest material is inspired directly from things/people I’ve seen while on the road. The most positive thing about being a traveling musician is that anywhere you go there are people who are passionate about music and willing to support me and my career however they can. I would not be able to make this work if it weren’t for those people who appreciate music.
Emily: Do you have any songs that were influenced by specific events or experiences?
Ken: I have a song called “The Ballad of Frankie Slide” which was inspired by a landslide in Alberta in the early 1900s. It’s my first attempt at writing a song about a specific event in history.
More directly related to me, I wrote a song called “Madeline’s Table” about a very strange night in Wisconsin where I was playing a house concert. I showed up to an empty house with no furniture, and the host did not understand that I was expecting to be paid. She assumed that I was “singing for my supper.” It was just a weird night where I found myself sitting at her table with 6 other strange and interesting people and wondering how I ended up in that situation. Needless to say I left as soon as I could.
Emily: What do you want your audience to feel, understand, or take away from your music?
Ken: I don’t expect my audience to feel anything specifically, but I hope that they connect with my music in their own way. I love when people interpret my songs to apply their own lives. All I can do is write music that makes me feel something, so if a song can reach an audience and make them feel something on a bigger level that’s about all I can ask for.
Ethan: What can we expect with your new album? Will you be taking a different musical or thematic direction than you took with “Twenty-Three”?
Ken: My new album is more mature sounding in terms of the songwriting and my vocal delivery, and to me sounds like a natural step forward from “Twenty Three.” There are a lot more songs about being on the road, and the love songs have a bit more of a hopeful tone compared to my last album. Having Jim Bryson produce this album definitely brought it to the next level. His arrangement choices really helped bring these songs to life.
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