Interview: Ken Yates, “Huntsville”

In his latest project, “Huntsville,” Ken Yates anchors his music firmly in the soil of northern Ontario, a place he clearly loves. “It’s the kind of place where you wonder what it would be like to leave civilization behind, build a cabin, and live out in the wilderness,” he says. “I suppose it’s something I fantasize about, although I know I would never actually do it.  But it has made its way into my songwriting.”

This album, Yates’ second full-length release, represents a huge step forward in his evolution as a songwriter and musician.  Eleven jewel-like songs, evocative not only of a specific place but of both the joys and perils of love wherever it’s found, provide the foundation for a showcase that is superbly curated by producer Jim Bryson.  “‘Huntsville,’ I think, is a better overall representation [than his debut project, ‘Twenty-Three’] of where I am at as a person and an artist,” muses Yates. “There aren’t too many bells and whistles in the production, and the songs are a bit more personal to my own life, which is why it feels a bit more immediate.”

Ken Yates
Photo credit: Josh Bruder

Songs such as “High on You Under the Moon” and “Roll Me On Home” speak to the mixed emotions love brings – a subject that clearly attracts Yates.  “The tension between the thrill and pain of love is such a complicated emotion, yet it’s something everybody can relate to, and I think we’re all trying to find that balance.  That tension makes for good songwriting, which is why songs about the risk of being in love never seem to get old.”

Prior to recording and releasing “Twenty-Three” in 2013, Yates honed his songwriting skills south of the border at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, then moved to New York.  Of his time living in the US, he says, “I loved living in Boston.  It was a great environment to develop as a songwriter and it helped to shape my decision to follow a career as a singer/songwriter.  I moved to New York shortly after for a brief period of time, which was less of a good experience, but I’m glad I did it.  It gave me a crash course in figuring out to do this for a living and how to hit pavement, compared to the relatively safe environment at Berklee.”

In spite of – or perhaps because of – his time in the United States, Yates’ songs are described by some as “classic Canadiana,” and even the artwork he chose for the cover reflects this, using woodcut prints from Newfoundland artist Graham Blair.  Asked why he selected this particular artist’s work, Yates responds, “I have been a fan of his artwork for a while now, and he was kind enough to let me use this particular artwork for the cover.  I think the cover does a great job representing the overall “Canadiana” sound of the album and plays along with those northern themes, while at the same time leaving things open to interpretation.”

Yates’ songwriting seems to come from a deep place within of asking tough questions of life and love.  Indeed, these questions are a critical source of inspiration: “I think I tend to write about stories that interest me personally and emotionally.  I feel like a song isn’t really worth writing unless it’s tackling some sort of question or challenge, however small it might be.  Even if that question doesn’t get answered it makes for an interesting song.”

“Huntsville” by Ken Yates is available from his website.  His upcoming tour dates can be found here.



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