The exuberance and audacity of childhood is often tempered to modesty and diligence in adulthood. Great artists are able to harness both, expressing moxie and sophistication in their work. Local-turned-global musician Trevor Powers has revealed his almost preternatural mastery of duality, which is once again evidenced by tracks from his soon-to-be-released third Youth Lagoon full-length, Savage Hills Ballroom (Fat Possum; Friday, Sept. 25).
Powers' reedy voice is almost childlike, yet he plumbs the depths of the human condition. He employs wide ranging instrumentation, which could easily have given way to chaos, yet is as precise as a pointillist's brush. At the upcoming Youth Lagoon show Saturday, Sept. 12 at The Egyptian Theatre—a stop on the first Youth Lagoon tour since 2013—Powers will be joined by a handful of trusted musician friends to perform songs from Savage Hills Ballroom. It will be a rare opportunity for a hometown audience, which will see just how much the baby-faced 26-year-old has grown.
Even before his 2011 Youth Lagoon debut, The Year of Hibernation (Fat Possum), Powers exhibited a maturity beyond his years—and experience. Although he often performed facing away from the audience, hunched over a keyboard and letting his thick, curly hair hide his face, Powers knew who he was as a musician and maintained a strong grip on his sound and image. He continues to keep the reins tight, writing every line and lyric of his songs—but he allows the music to have as much space and attention as it needs.
"I wrote [Savage Hills Ballroom] over a period of about a year," Powers said. "I started writing when I finished the touring cycle for Wondrous Bughouse (Fat Possum, 2013). The way I work is, I have a really hard time writing when I'm on the road because it's such a different mentality—playing shows compared to writing—so I wait until I get home and get engulfed in that creative process. It's the only way I know how to work."
He doesn't collaborate on the songwriting, but Powers does take a little guidance—from the music itself.
"I never start with lyrics," Powers said. "My process is all over the place. Sometimes I'll start with a beat machine and start making noise and see what happens ... sometimes I start with piano or guitar ... I'll experiment with different tones and see if it spawns any ideas. Other times, I'll just sit at a guitar or piano and approach it that way. I never go into a song with a particular agenda. ... That's not how I work. I just sit down and see if anything comes out. If it doesn't, it doesn't.
"It makes it interesting for me because I never know what's going to come out," he added. "It's kind of a subconscious thing, where the ideas come out and I go, 'Wow. I had no idea I had been consumed by this'—whatever it might be."
For Savage Hills Ballroom, Powers stretched even further than usual. Pieces written on keyboard or guitar are translated into rich layers of strings and horns, resulting in his most diverse record to date.
"When I wrote this album, it was on a song-to-song basis," he said. "I didn't sit down to necessarily write an album, I sat down to write a song. Then I did that over and over and over until, next thing I knew, I had an album."
From writing to release, Powers makes sure the finished product reflects his vision. Recording Savage Hills Ballroom required employing a number of musicians and, when asked if he's a control freak in the studio, he answered with a laugh and a hearty, "For sure ... I want [my music] to come out a particular way. ... Everything counts."
There is nothing incidental on Savage Hills Ballroom. As with all of Powers' music, every piece has a purpose and has to have meaning. It also has to have come from a new approach. Regurgitating what he's done just because it worked before, doesn't work.
"It's dishonest," he said. "If you're going to spend time doing this, making music your life and speaking through your music, you have to make yourself uncomfortable. You have to approach your music in new ways."
Though Powers thinks contentment is dangerous for an artist, he is also capable of channeling joy, and doesn't let the "monumental" experiences pass by unnoticed—or unappreciated.
"I went to the Sasquatch Music Festival in 2009 or 2010," Powers said. "I remember telling my girlfriend, who is now my wife, that one day I was going to be playing Sasquatch. Two years later, we played ... It was so surreal ... It was a 'holy shit' moment. So, I'm very grateful for everything. There's not a day I wake up and take things for granted."