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‘My digestive system was a volcano’: indie star Youth Lagoon on surviving chronic illness to make a masterpiece | Indie

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In October 2021, Trevor Powers went for a routine medical checkup, and after complaining of a minor stomach ache, was prescribed an over-the-counter heartburn medicine. “There’s no words to even describe the intensity of what it did to my body,” he says today. “It turned my digestive system into this mini volcano. Suddenly I was having vision problems … my whole body would just go completely numb and I could barely move.”

He felt a prisoner in his own body and soon even singing had become impossible. “I lost my voice completely for months on end. I couldn’t speak.” When his brother visited that Christmas, he recalls, he could only communicate by sending texts across the room.

But even in the worst days he remembers journalling: “I refuse to go through this experience without it teaching me something.” And, after a weary succession of specialists, and symptoms that also took away his vision and sensation, he began to feel restored. “It made the wind feel better on my skin, it made food taste better, it made conversations hit harder, it made music sound better,” he says. Powers resurrected his singer-songwriter project Youth Lagoon, and wrote one of 2023’s very best albums, Heaven Is a Junkyard, which brought a rich new sweetness to Powers’ broken tales of lost souls and seekers; his fragile alto voice and delicate piano supported by warm bass that brings an almost lullaby consolation even to the stark ballad of domestic strife that gives the record its title.

Powers is video calling from a flyblown car park by a branch of Target just outside Phoenix, Arizona, en route for Santa Ana and the next date of a marathon American tour that reaches the UK and Europe this month. “Deep, empty America,” he says, explaining the exhilaration of being back on the “very beautiful and rewarding” road after his bruising, traumatic illness.

His music, though, is very much rooted in his home of Boise in deep-red, conservative Idaho. He says that for a few years as a young teenager he was “chomping at the bit” to leave for more glamorous cities, but “the second that I started being able to travel for music, the identity of home shifted and the appreciation for it deepened.” His Maga neighbours, he says – his birdlike features and willowy frame shifting uncomfortably – are not always easy to live with. “That’s the most frustrating thing about living in Idaho … but equally it’s healthy, as you are constantly getting into difficult conversations making you figure out the best way to phrase your worldviews.” He wouldn’t dream of leaving.

He and his three brothers grew up in rough and tumble disarray in a devoutly evangelical family: “The Bible is taken very literally. You read it almost like a rule book.” He now has a less defined spirituality – “that unknown veil has shifted dramatically over the years” – but he remains a devoted son and brother, a short drive from all but one of them, his youngest brother, who is now in the military in Virginia.

As loving as they were, Powers’ family kept their children well away from the modern world, homeschooling them and strictly rationing music. “So we grew up listening to the Carpenters, Elvis, the Beach Boys and Christian music. That was it,” he says. “Nirvana and all that 90s shit, none of that even existed to me.”

In church, “there was a kid there I saw playing piano. It seemed like magic, and so I asked my parents if I could learn. I started lessons when I was six.” By 12 he was growing restless: “I didn’t want to play other people’s music. I wanted to make my own.”

His uncle Terry, a figure of scofflaw glamour and “one of my absolute heroes”, cracked the evangelical shell and brought in a different kind of art. Terry was addicted to crack and heroin and was sometimes on the run, but Powers remembers “one of the sweetest, most gentle spirits I’ve ever known” who was an immediate supporter of Powers’ fledgling songwriting.

From then on, Powers’ creative focus was to write songs that he could give his uncle when he blew in for a visit. His uncle returned the favour by introducing Trevor “in secret” to leftfield legends such as Joy Division, the Velvet Underground, My Bloody Valentine and Talking Heads. None of them are audible in Youth Lagoon but their lesson, that musical conventions are worth ignoring, stuck.

Then Terry died of an overdose in 2007, which was “a huge, huge blow because like I said, he was he was always my my biggest champion; a fucking massive, massive figure in my life … my whole process originates in writing him music, in trying to impress my uncle.” And like “the ghost of Idaho I’m always getting to know a little better,” his uncle remains a part of Youth Lagoon, “always, always”.

‘Deep, empty America’ … Youth Lagoon.
‘Deep, empty America’ … Youth Lagoon. Photograph: Tyler T Williams

The bedroom sketches for his uncle became songs that he began putting on Bandcamp. These were picked up by label Fat Possum soon afterwards and made up his acclaimed debut The Year of Hibernation in 2011; the songs’ quiet angst, reflecting Powers’ sometimes paralysing struggles with anxiety, won admiring reviews.

Wondrous Bughouse followed in 2013 and made room for grander guitars and some thundering drums alongside his careful keys, still disconcerting the listener with glitchy electronics and stretches of waltz time. In 2015 came Savage Hills Ballroom, which saw Powers confident enough to push his voice to the top of the mix, in an album with much more melodrama, and reverb, than we’d heard before.

It sounded like an artist restlessly rearranging his sonic palette. But Trevors felt penned in by the expectations first generated by The Year of Hibernation and decided that was it. “There is nothing left to say through Youth Lagoon. It will exist no more,” he wrote on Twitter at the beginning of 2016.

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Under his own name, Powers produced two more albums a step or two away from the spotlight, Mulberry Violence (2018) and Capricorn (2020). He says these provided him with fresh sonic freedom, but they sound more agonised than anything he’d produced before, burying his voice in squalls of effects and feedback and, on Capricorn, removing it almost entirely.

Voicelessness would cease to be his choice after October 2021 when he went for that checkup. He credits his wife, who he met as a high-school sweetheart 17 years and half a lifetime ago, for getting him through. “She’s my absolute fucking everything. I can’t even express what would have happened if it wasn’t for her helping me get through it,” Powers says, even though he worried that “I was pulling her under water with me”.

The experience made Youth Lagoon feel a much less restrictive home for his music, and he began writing songs for a new album. He approached star XL producer Rodaidh McDonald (the xx, Adele, Gil Scott-Heron) and Heaven Is a Junkyard quickly swam into focus.

Powers’ illness is a steady presence on the record. The pensive, countryish two-step of Idaho Alien refers to one moment of suicidal despair early in the illness. “I don’t remember how it happened / Blood filled up the clawfoot bath and I will fear no frontier … Filling the tub and waiting for God”. He says now: “I felt like if I could commit that act through song then it would make me not have to commit that act in reality,” and in fact the arrangement is warm, consoling and fuller than earlier records, pointing to uplift.

But as he’s very keen to stress, there is far more than his own extreme experience featured on the record, as the melodies whisper through a range of styles and lives he describes as “upside-down Americana”, held together by a voice whose fragility at that point he was keen to make use of. (“I’m not trying to sound like a good singer”, he says. “I’m just trying to sound like myself.”) Archetypes of the American gothic swim through the songs: “Dolly walks out of the light / Handful of licorice tight”, “Tommy left for war with no goodbye … Knuckles of a prizefighter held high.”

A good number of them are drawn from the Boise citizens he feels neighbourly fondness for. The 80-year-old piano teacher who lives across the street; even the meth addict next door who mows the lawn at 3am, burns her trash and uses her garden as a campsite for fellow users. “It’s as Idaho as it gets.” Also very Idaho are his solitary trips into the country around Boise where many of the songs were written: “From absolute desert to to golden prairies, to mountains so full of trees it feels like Narnia.” The once-boom mining town of Idaho City, now reduced to a few hundred residents, provides a rich imaginative seam.

Powers says he is still healing from the disabling trauma of his illness, but on the flip side, “there was something about that experience and that awakening that turned on this creative faucet. Now I legitimately can’t keep up.” For now, he’s relishing being on the move again but also impatient to get back to the solitudes of Idaho where he can work alone on fresh ideas. Having lived through the acute restrictions that sickness imposed, he says, “I’m falling in love with limitations. Because I find that that’s where eternity is. That’s where immortality is.”

Youth Lagoon’s UK tour begins 12 November at Earth, London, as part of Pitchfork music festival London. Heaven Is a Junkyard is out now on Fat Possum Records

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