Winston Yellen, the voice behind Night Beds, makes music with enormous commercial potential. Promoting his debut album Country Sleep, he embarked on his first major tour, a six-week trek across Europe and the U.S., including national TV appearances as well as the industry hoedown that is SXSW. Yellen works hard on his music, spending hours in the studio with his band, layering on arrangement ideas and peeling them away, looking for the essence of his song and the vocal take blessed with that perfect mistake. But his ultimate success at producing timeless work depends most on not forcing his own hand in search of a platinum hook.
"I'm not a songwriter," Yellen tells the Scene over a beer on a sticky Monday afternoon. "I'm just a dude who writes songs."
This outsider stance has been a constant in Yellen's short life. He grew comfortable with the arts community's position on the social periphery in his native Colorado Springs — when he came to study at Nashville's Belmont University, he struggled to orient himself in a bustling marketplace where art is a chief commodity. After trying his hand at creative writing, theater and the rest of the arts in the course catalog, he dropped out. In what is becoming a familiar narrative, a hailstorm of hard luck sent him on the road, but a few months of living out of his car while scraping by on odd jobs focused his determination to give music another chance. "I have to try," Yellen recalls telling himself. "I have to work, and see if it has a chance or not. If it doesn't, it doesn't, and I'll go back to being a janitor."
Yellen had never been in a band, played a house show, or even considered music as a viable career, despite having a Nashville session player in the family. But he had written and recorded songs with friends since high school. To write and record tracks for what would become Country Sleep, he rented a pre-Civil War cabin outside Hendersonville, on land once owned by Johnny Cash. Lyrically, Yellen strikes an old vein that runs deep — comfort in knowing that someone else shares your troubles has been a selling point of songs for time out of mind — but his key accomplishment is not overstating his case.
Choruses grow big and dramatic, but they stop well before they become corny, letting the experience emphasize what's happening in the song, rather than just reminding the listener that the sing-along part is coming up. Yellen achieves maximum impact with his incredibly strong and flexible tenor voice, avoiding flowery techniques that can muddy a lyric — or dress up a mediocre one — by drawing attention to themselves. Even the opening a cappella stunner "Faithful Heights" is an exercise in careful manipulation and tasteful restraint. With help from producer Konrad Snyder and a backing band assembled through Yellen's school contacts, the album elegantly captures the unsettled feeling of leaving home and taking chances with unpredictable outcomes.
Despite the attention being paid to his work, Yellen continues to focus on what draws his empathy rather than any formula for success. Some of his lyrics are autobiographical, but that's incidental to what impacts him emotionally: "If I hurt for someone, I want to write something that they and I feel," he explains. "If you're not gonna get to ... the knife-in-your-side kind of stuff, it's not worth the energy or the time. Overexposed or not, it's going to correlate with what I'm going through, or I've seen someone else go through."
Staying open and engaged onstage, especially for so many nights in a row, takes its toll. In the few weeks before his next tour, Yellen will spend his time at home studying films and music, especially pre-World War II pop vocal records, though he may venture out for a game of shuffleboard with the displaced folk who show up at his neighborhood bar before noon. Asked what they think of his music, Yellen laughs.
"Those guys don't even know I play music. I just owe them money."