joe zorzi speaks with Sam Cohen, a.k.a. Yellowbirds, about his (awesome) new album, what influences him and how to be successful in the music industry …
JZ: You released your debut album The Color as Yellowbirds last month. How has the reception been? I know Pitchfork gave it a 7.7, which is pretty awesome.
YB: People are responding very well to it and it feels good, yeah.
JZ: Was the writing process a lot different from writing with Apollo Sunshine?
YB: Well, yes and no. I mean, Apollo, we kind of … like, Jesse [Gallagher] and I would tend to kind of write songs on our own, you know? But I mean, the thing that was kind of the most different was just knowing that I was writing the whole record. You know?
YB: And so I think there’s a kind of consistency that I was kind of excited to embrace. You know? And really, as I wrote the songs, me thinking about what I already had written and kind of turn it into something that is complete as a whole rather than just kind of like restructure the songs and wait to see what other ideas show up. And so it’s a little different just being that like I was able to, as I went, try to envision the thing as a whole rather than Apollo and it’s completely unknown how it can to relate to what else comes.
JZ: Very cool. And you can definitely feel a very ’70s-esque pop vibe to the whole record. It seems like it’s a theme throughout all the songs. What were you influenced by on the record? Musically or from life? Either way.
YB: A lot of the stuff I was listening to was older than that. Roy Orbison I was listening to a ton when I wrote the record. And I was also listening to Neil Young’s first record a lot. And, you know, my record’s pretty spacey, so I don’t really sound like that Neil Young record at all. But I was just getting a lot inspiration from him.
JZ: You can definitely hear it. When you're writing, do you find yourself to be influenced more by other musicians, or is it more what's going on in your life? Is it a combination?
YB: I mean, the lyrical content of the songs always just comes from my own experiences and I’m never really, like, picking apart the music that I listen to that much. You know, I’m not usually sitting there writing out (laughs)
JZ: (laughing) I know exactly what you mean.
YB: It just kind of sinks in, and it usually has a lot more to do with sound than tricks.
JZ: Yeah, I gotcha. Yeah, ’cause I’m a musician, too, and I tend to do it the same way. It all just comes together, I guess.
YB: Yeah, it comes in through osmosis.
JZ: Yeah. And also you went to school at the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston. Do you think that shaped you as a musician a lot?
YB: Um, I don’t know if it shaped me. I think I had a shape as a musician and decided that what I wanted to do with music was going to require really kind of going deeper into the musical vernacular so I went to music school. You know what I mean? I think I knew what I wanted to get out of it, went and got it. It was a good experience, but no, I don’t think it shaped me. I would’ve gotten the information there or somewhere else.
JZ: I know you were a session musician in the past, for Norah Jones and Shakira. That was a totally different experience, I’m sure. Do you still work as a session guitarist, and would you say that was because of Berklee?
YB: Not at all. I mean, those were reading gigs. Those things came up in the first year after I wasn’t really doing Apollo Sunshine much anymore. You know, just started looking for new ways to make a living as a musician. I had a friend John Hill who was a producer, and he started hiring me to play guitar on things, and you know, I still do that. That’s kind of what you gotta do as a musician. You know, make your own music, play on other people’s music, produce things. Be versatile.
JZ: Definitely, definitely.
YB: It’s exciting to get out of your own little world sometimes, too. So, I really enjoy doing that kind of stuff.
JZ: You still are doing it, too?
YB: Yeah, I haven’t done anything like that high-profile. (laughs) But yeah, I’m always doing different stuff. I go on different people’s tours, I play on people's records.
JZ: Very cool. And do you have any other plans for writing soon?
YB: Yeah, I’m working on an EP now that I hope to be putting out in early 2012.
JZ: Is there any theme with that, or is that just putting a few songs together?
YB: Ah, it’s still coming together, it's in the musical stage and there’s not a ton of lyrics yet. We’ll see how that comes together phonetically.
JZ: Okay cool. So, this week’s a big week for you definitely, with South By Southwest coming up. And you’ve got four performances?
YB: There's three on Saturday the 19th. And then, we’re just doing some radio things and tapings and stuff on Thursday. Yeah, three shows really.
JZ:That’s gotta be pretty exciting to be part of a festival like that. Are there any other acts you're looking forward to seeing?
YB: Uh yeah, I haven’t really checked the schedule (laughs). I’ve been down a bunch of times, and it is really cool. It’s got all sorts of musicians that you know from all over the country. They’re all around, they’re playing, and you bump into them on the street. But I’m just kind of excited to go down. I think if I just wander around, I’ll run into a bunch of people I know and see a lot of great music.
JZ: That’s awesome. So, other than South By Southwest, you have a few shows lined up in April. Do you have any other plans to tour or anything this summer?
YB: No, no touring plans in the works as of yet. Just kind of taking shows as they come.
JZ: Who are you digging these days? Anyone recent or more old school stuff?
YB: Uh no, no, there’s lots of people I’m digging. We just did a show actually with Superhuman Happiness. I really like what those guys are doing. Like, it’s improvisational, but it’s not super noodley. It’s much more rhythmic and focused. It’s got an awesome vibe I like what they’re doing a lot.
JZ: Cool, very cool. Do you have any advice for musicians who are trying to make it these days? I know the music industry has been changing like crazy.
YB: I just think have an open mind, you know? Be open to doing different things. Like, if you want to be a musician, you kind of gotta open yourself up to … I don’t know, just have a loose definition of what that means.
JZ: So by loose definition you mean, like, take anything basically?
YB: Sometimes you can’t just like picture yourself writing eight songs and being on a huge festival stage like six months later (laughs). Be open to collaborating with people and like …
JZ: Take what comes your way.
YB: Yeah, seeing what it takes.