Since first planting roots within the Canadian music scene in 2011, Ken Yates has steadily grown a reputation as one of the country’s brightest young singer/songwriters. His sound offers the complete package—unforgettable melodies, emotionally charged storytelling, and top-notch guitar chops—all gloriously displayed on Yates’ new album, Huntsville.
Produced by Jim Bryson (Weakerthans, Kathleen Edwards), Yates’ second full-length effort is a major stylistic step forward, with its 11 tracks capturing his artistic evolution amid extensive touring over the past three years.
A native of London, Ontario (a few hours’ drive south of the actual Huntsville), Yates studied at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. His first release, The Backseat EP, came out in 2011, followed by his full-length debut, twenty-three in 2013. One track on that album caught the ear of fellow Berklee alum John Mayer, who commented in a lengthy blog post, “Ken Yates wrote a song called ‘I Don’t Wanna Fall In Love.’ This song moved me when I first heard it, and it still does today.”
If Mayer gets to hear Huntsville tracks such as “Keep Your Head Down,” with its subtle, driving groove, his admiration of Yates is sure to grow. Yet, overall the album echoes the great Canadian songwriting tradition, from Gordon Lightfoot to Bruce Cockburn to Ron Sexsmith, proving that Yates is ready to join that exalted company.
What sets Huntsville apart from your previous releases?
I think Huntsville is a natural step forward for me. My first few albums were spent figuring out my sound and learning how to function in a studio environment. With Huntsville, I feel like my songwriting is better, my voice is better, and I think it's a good representation of where I am musically and personally, which is ultimately what you want when you make a new album.
What are the experiences you've taken away from working with Jim Bryson?
Jim brought so much experience into the studio I can't even begin to describe how much I learned. He's worked on so many great records, and as an incredible songwriter himself he really knows how to serve the song. His thought process is to try a few things and see how they sound. If we don't like it, his favourite button is the mute button as he likes to say. That was an important lesson for me. To not feel like everything we recorded absolutely had to be there. It made me a lot more relaxed in the studio, to the point where I was so relaxed that we got most of what we wanted in the first few takes.
What's been the biggest change in your life over the past year?
In terms of my career in music, I think I have a better understanding of what things are worth. In the past few years I've put a lot of time, energy and money into things that weren't worth it. Mostly I mean playing shows anywhere and everywhere I could, and not so much thinking about my wellbeing, which really wore me down after a while. I think this year I have learned when to say no, and how to respect my wellbeing a bit more.
You've often turned your touring experiences into songs. Have there been any that have just been too strange to try to set to music?
I did write a song called “Madeline’s Table” about my weirdest night on the road. We recorded it for Huntsville, but it didn't quite make the cut since the subject matter was so strange. Without the backstory the song didn't quite fit among the rest of them. I still plan on releasing that song later after Huntsville comes out, maybe on an EP or something.
If there were anything you could change about the music industry, what would it be?
That's a tough one. I guess I would say artists should receive better royaltiesfrom music streaming services. The only way I really make any money right now is being out on the road playing shows. The fact that artists aren't making that much from royalties means that more artists have to go out on the road, which has made things pretty cluttered. It would be great if artists could somehow be compensated for people streaming their music.