Night Beds: I wrote melancholy, old-man sap music at Johnny Cash's house

Night Beds: I wrote melancholy, old-man sap music at Johnny Cash's house
Photo by Aubrey Swander

Winston Yellen has done something amazing. Under the moniker Night Beds, the 23-year-old has released a debut that sounds like nothing else. If you're into categories, we'll go ahead and say Country Sleep is alt-country, and then we'll stop talking about it, okay? Because the label doesn't matter one lick. Not at all. Not with this guy.

Country Sleep is the sort of album you can physically feel happening to you. "Faithful Heights" is the 71-second a cappella track that opens it up, and right away, you're in his gloriously heartbreaking world. The next nine tracks are about all the hardships you would expect from a young twentysomething figuring out the odyssey of life -- love, loss, itinerant wanderings, drinking too much, and making mistakes. Somehow, though, between delicate string arrangements, soft keys, and Yellen's impossibly powerful voice, Country Sleep is a walk at dusk through familiar fields and dirt paths, as bittersweet as coming home after years away.

After dropping out of college and losing his job and his girlfriend, Yellen took his pain on the road and lived out of his vehicle until, finally, Nashville called him back to put the pieces together. Ahead of the Night Beds show with Indians at the 7th Street Entry on Friday, Gimme Noise caught up with Yellen to talk about the album, and where it came from.

You wrote the songs on Country Sleep while you were staying at Johnny Cash's house in Nashville. Tell me about that experience.

Yeah, it was on Craigslist. I found this house, and it ended up being Johnny Cash's guest house on his property, and I lived there for five or six months, and I ended up making a record. I didn't really plan to, but it happened. It was quite the experience... A nice getaway, isolated and lonely, but it kept me focused on the task at hand. There was no internet, no cable... It was intense. Very disconnected. I had to drive in my car and go Nashville if I wanted to see people.

There are so many things packed into this album. What were you going through that was the biggest influence in writing music like this?

I feel like I'm just inclined to write more melancholy old-man sap music. For me, that's kind of where I reside. I think I kind of always say that I wouldn't write if I was feeling good. If I'm having a good time and things are awesome, I don't have as much desire to lock myself up and work, so I think it's just having the need to create for therapeutic purposes. I'm not really saying anything new here, but it's just a very instinctual thing. Like, "I feel shitty. I'm going to try to feel better and make songs." And I end up feeling better. It's like a healing process, quote-unquote cathartic or whatever. That's the long and short of it.

You have got some voice on you. I mean, man, those pipes.

[Laughs] A lot of estrogen in the pipes, yeah.

When did you discover you could sing like that?

The funny thing is that people are really sweet about my voice, and I don't feel like I'm a good singer. I don't really like my voice. I haven't been singing that long, just like five years, and I don't feel that way about myself, like, "This guy has it fucking going on." I'm kind of doing to do it. Sometimes I hit notes, sometimes I miss them. I'm still learning, but I like singing -- that's my favorite.

How long have you been playing music?

About the same, five years. My mom gave me a guitar when I was 13 and a keyboard, and I threw down the guitar because it hurt my fingers and I was a little bitch. [Laughs] I came back to it when I was 17 and started tinkering and playing and wrote some bad songs... and then I wrote some good ones. I don't really feel like I'm a musician. I just feel like I'm a guy, and I wrote some songs, and it turned out okay. I'm really good at pretending.

I listen to your record and I feel it. I can't imagine what it was like for you to feel those things enough to write the way you do. What does it take to return to those emotions and those influences when you're playing a gig?

That's a great question. It's hard. You're taking a snapshot in a song. It's an emotive landscape that you're taking, and to recreate that every night in loud bars, and you're tired, and you're hungover or whatever... It's very taxing. When you're in the studio, everything is perfect, you're not distracted and you can explore and be crazy, whereas when it's live, it's not predictable... it's just hard. It's a lot harder. My voice is still trying to beef up and get stronger. It's kind of weak, so trying to figure out how to do this six or seven nights.... It's just taxing when you're trying to sing over women getting shots at bars from frat row or whatever, it's frustrating... But you called it, I think. Hopefully you want to make someone feel something. Hopefully that's what's happening live--we're trying. To go to that emotional place every night, that's very wearing, just emotionally, physically, and mentally wearing all the time, but we're trying.
Your music is getting a lot of positive attention from a lot of different people right now. What's that like for you?

I'm just grateful. I never expected anything.... I never expected anything to happen with the music once it was done. I just try to keep my head down. I don't read press. I just keep working and try to be true to the music and present it well. I don't really know about the praise or the negativity. There's enough ego in music already... it's a slippery slope for people to start reading their own press. I'm just thankful. I'm not a fan of my work, I don't sit around getting excited for it.

It might be a little soon to ask, but do you have anything else you're working on right now?

I'm already done with the next thing. We're gonna put out a single song and then do an EP, five songs. We're always working, it's just finding the time when you're off the road. The new stuff is always more exciting.

Has releasing this album changed you in some ways?

[Pause] Like, personally?

Sure. It's kind of open-ended.

Okay... [Pause] I usually botch these questions, I'm a really bad interview, sorry... I think... I think maybe it's made me a little more aware. I feel kind of more responsible now, because there are people that are involved, and I owe people my time. I got some years etched into my soul making this record, I feel haggard and tired, but I'm smarter and I know how to handle certain situations, and I'm more patient. There's no seminar for how to deal with that, being thrown out on the road, you have to be a nice guy for 24 hours a day with your band... You just have to be a good person.

Night Beds are playing the 7th Street Entry on Friday, March 1st. 8 p.m. $12. 18+. Details here.

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