Yellowbirds’ new album Songs from the Vanished Frontier is now available. The band will perform at Rockwood Music Hall on June 5, 12, 19, 26, 10 p.m.; $8 adv./$10 d.o.s. ($30 residency pass for all four shows). 196 Allen St., Lower East Side.
Singer and guitarist Sam Cohen was a member of Apollo Sunshine, a Boston indie rock band for about 10 years. In that time they recorded three albums and got major press in Rolling Stone, NPR, Spin and The New York Times. But when the group went on hiatus in 2009, Sam went through a soul-searching period that made him reevaluate his music, and eventually move to New York, as so many soul searchers do.
“It took so long to get that band to where it was,” said the Greenpoint-based musician, “[that] to start over–I didn’t know if anyone would take a real interest in it or not. Then I was looking for work as a guitar player and things to pay the bills. A couple of things would come up here and there–I played on a Norah Jones and a Shakira record around at that time. But for every positive thing that happened, there would be months of no work, and money was really, really tight. So I was really exploring what my life was going to be.”
Fortunately, Sam found his way back through his latest band Yellowbirds, which had released their debut, The Color, in 2011. Now the band is back with the sophomore effort Songs from the Vanished Frontier, which came out this Tuesday, May 28. Accompanying Sam on the new record are multinstrumentalist Josh Kaufman, bassist Annie Nero, and drummer Brian Kantor–although they did not appear on The Color, they represent the most consistent Yellowbirds lineup.
“I really got to know [Annie] producing a band that she was a part of called the Bandana Splits,” says Sam. “That’s how we got to be friends. And then I got to be friends with her husband Josh, who’s the other guitar player. So that makes for an awesome band dynamic because they get along great. And Brian has been friends with them for a long time. It’s got a pretty family vibe now.”
Like its predecessor, Songs From the Vanished Frontier is a well-crafted record characterized by intricate production, shimmering guitar, gorgeous melodies and Sam’s wistful vocals. It was recorded in Dumbo at recording studios Saltlands and Homeward Sound. Sam says that the new record is more of a continuation than a reaction to the first album. “The whole thing is relatively new to me…I’m still exploring this thing. Some of the key differences: I have my own studio to work in this time. I felt like the last one I had a couple of days in the studio and did the rest in my apartment with pretty crappy microphones. This time I had real gear, a real place to work, so that was a major difference.”
The upgrade in production contributes the wide sonic palette of the record: the opening notes to the track, “Stop Tonight,” is reminiscent of an ELO song with its futuristic flourishes; while other tracks like “The Vanished Frontier” and “Love Stories” feel stark and gentle. And there are also the lyrics that convey a sense of yearning and melancholy–“Better find a girl/before I turn old and grey/If I get like that, would she even stay?” asks Sam in the song “For Girls Who Love to Sing.”
“It’s kind of a process of just being what emerges,” he says of the songwriting process. “It’s always informed by the melody because I usually write the melody first. It’s sort of evolves from sounds, sounds start to sound like words, then I kind of piece words together and start to get a sense. I always know the vibe of the music before I know lyrically what it’s about. So it’s sort of letting sounds turn into words to find the lyrics that stay true to whatever the mood the music was already implying is.”
The first single off of the new album is the very ’60s-influenced pop rocker “Young Men of Promise,” a somewhat autobiographical song about the constant touring Sam experienced when he was in Apollo Sunshine. “For me I still really like touring, but I’m also interested in being home and living my life to working on new records, which is at least equally important to me,” he says. In addition to the song, Sam also did the animation for the song’s video, which featured the art work of Kara Smith. “She’s a painter,” says Sam, “so all of the images that I used are high quality printouts of paintings that I can then cut and manipulate and play with. That’s a fun process because that’s her whole body of work.”
Hailing from Texas, Sam formed Apollo Sunshine in Boston in 2001 with Jesse Gallagher and Jeremy Black. He recalls the early period of the band when the members were living life entirely on the road. “That’s kind of where that song ‘Young Men of Promise’ is coming from,” he explains. “We had a whole sense that we could throw out everything of our foundation that we knew and just live out in the van and play and we would wind up in a place where what we were doing in that van would sustain us and support everything we did for the rest of our lives (laughs). It wasn’t a wildly commercially successful band, but it did launch me to where I am now.”
Around the time of making the next record, Apollo Sunshine decided to get away from the constant traveling and rented a farmhouse in Everett, Mass. “Then everyone started getting pulled into different directions,” he says. “[Jeremy] ended up in California living with his girlfriend; Jesse ended up in Boston with his girlfriend; and it was finding a bunch of college kids to share my farmhouse with me or try something new. I had so much envisioned for that band as this super tight pack—the band—that when it became this multi-city thing–it was time for me to try something new, so I went to New York.”
In the last year Yellowbirds have frequently performed live at venues like Brooklyn Bowl, Glasslands, the Rock Shop and at BAM–they were also in the U.K. for All Tomorrow’s Parties curated by T National. Aside from the new album, the band has also recorded the music for the silent film Across the Whipplewash, which is fitting given that Sam’s music has a cinematic feel to it. The opportunity happened when Yellowbirds were invited to play at a gallery in Harrisburg, Penn.
“Two of the people we met there were Josh and Caitlin Drake,” recalls Sam, “who told me they were working on this thing, which I thought sounded really interesting. He got in touch with me when they had finished it and sent a rough cut and told me they were looking for someone to score it. I had been wanting to score films for years and never had an opportunity to do so, so I figured try my hand at it with that.”
Between the release of the new album and touring the West Coast that includes an appearance at the Pickathon Festival Festival in Oregon, Yellowbirds will perform a month-long residency at the excellent venue Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side. “I’ve performed there all the time in different peoples’ bands,” says Sam. “Yellowbirds have only played there once a few years ago. “I think it’s one of of the best sounding clubs for that size in all of New York, I always feels like it sounds great, it’s intimate enough to play every week. I’m very excited.”