COVER STORY | Youth Lagoon Claws Back
We talk with Trevor Powers about how he went to hell and back and arrived on the other side with Heaven Is a Junkyard, a monument of brotherhood, grief and spirituality in the wake of survivalPhotos by Tyler T. Williams Music Features Youth Lagoon
I was in the backseat of a car on the Ohio turnpike with two people: one of them, I very much loved deeply at the time; the other, I would grow into a love with for a long, five-year relationship later on. If you’ve ever spent time trekking across the highway systems of the Buckeye State, then you are likely quite familiar with the plainness of it all. For 50, 60-mile increments, it’s nothing but barren prairie or, perhaps if you’re lucky, a stretch of windmills or foliage that glean orange and red and yellow at the crack of October. But this was six, maybe seven years ago, when I was still growing fatalistically beautiful into my own college body.
The person driving popped in a burned CD, and the first track tumbled out of the stereo gently and into my lap. This machine of looping synths doused in liquid tones—an airy, child-like voice coiling around a rasp—it was unlike anything I’d ever heard before, and I knew, immediately, that it was going to change my life. “What song is this?” I ask. “This is ‘Daydream’ by Youth Lagoon,” my friend replies. I added the song to my Apple Music library, and I would end up listening to it over and over and over again for all of freshman year.
At this point in my life now, the days tend to synthesize into each other. Those two people I shared that long, daunting, boring car ride with are no longer in my life—both bygones of an era I’ve unintentionally left far in the past. But “Daydream,” I’m happy to report, is still an important fixture of my personhood in 2023. Someone recently asked me what my favorite part of any piece of music was, and I responded with the euphoric, shape-shifting breakdown of “Daydream” that occurs at the song’s 3:11 mark. To me, nothing else in this world could pull the worry from my bones, the angst and the heartbreak from my atoms, like that moment. But I quickly learned that, despite my falling in love with the revered Youth Lagoon song, the man who made it—Trevor Powers—had ended Youth Lagoon and started anew by making music under his own name.
But it was either February or March of this year when rumblings of a new Youth Lagoon album entered my inbox. Powers had teased it online, but, for all we knew, it could have just signaled a one-off song on the horizon. And folks were surely expecting another album like his debut LP The Year of Hibernation, which has been adored since it first arrived. Critics loved it, and Powers’ hive worshipped it. After starting as a cult favorite among writers and indie heads, the record has become retrospectively lauded as one of the greatest dream pop masterpieces of its era. The two albums that followed it—2013’s Wondrous Bughouse and 2015’s Savage Hills Ballroom—were consistent, lovable and daring. A song like “Raspberry Cane” still infiltrates my playlists from time to time. Yet, The Year of Hibernation’s reputation for the last decade has not sat well with Powers and was a big catalyst in his decision to, effectively, kill the Youth Lagoon project.
“As much of a blessing it was in my life, [The Year of Hibernation] was also a total fucking prison—because people got so wrapped up with the identity of what that album was,” he says. “It got grouped with certain ‘similar artists,’ but 99% of the time it would be someone that I had either never listened to or it wasn’t my thing. So, The Year of Hibernation turned into this thing where I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ It was supposed to be my creature, but what it started turning into was this thing that I just couldn’t even identify with anymore. I couldn’t stand by that anymore.”
After performing a Tiny Desk concert in late 2015, Powers would tour the release of Savage Hills Ballroom into 2016 and then step away from Youth Lagoon. There was no timetable for his return, no assurance that he’d even make another record under that name ever again. “At that time in my life, it felt so fruitless,” Powers says. “It felt like this thing that I could no longer identify with, mostly because I was flailing a lot as a person and I was trying to figure out who I was. I was trying to figure out what it was that I even enjoyed doing.” The Year of Hibernation came out when he was just a 22-year-old living in Boise, Idaho, but it was the release of Savage Hills Ballroom four years later that put the nail in the coffin for Powers and pushed him to abandon the moniker he’d cultivated a dedicated fanbase under altogether.
“I never got a chance to make some of the mistakes I had to make and just figure out how to really grow up,” Powers adds. “I felt so stifled by what Youth Lagoon had turned into. I know that [Savage Hills Ballroom] means something to a lot of people but, to myself, I had made certain creative choices on the album that I just wasn’t staying true to who I was as a person. I got caught up in the issues of expectations and giving in to certain things. Something wasn’t right about that and it didn’t feel true to me. But, at the same time, back then I wouldn’t have even been able to tell you what was true to me—because I was so lost. The only way I knew how to move forward was to completely burn that house down and go on to other territory.”
That territory included him making music as Trevor Powers, and he’s put out two albums—2018’s Mulberry Violence and 2020’s Capricorn—under his own name. The sharp side of the razor, however, is that, while Powers was able to find freedom and pride in those records, hardly anyone in the world knows they exist. “I felt like, for the first time in a long time, I could go into these places in my mind relatively risk-free, in a way that felt like going to college,” Powers adds. “I could learn all of these things and not have the same amount of eyes on me.”
It took years for Powers to get back to a place where Youth Lagoon carried meaning for him again. After therapy and getting older, he found the tools he needed to reclaim and reshape the project and have the means to not let anyone determine its meaning for him. “I realized that it was such a signifier of lack of self-love for me to get so caught up in what other people wanted from me,” Powers says. “It felt so unfair to myself to not be able to try and reclaim this thing that I declared as ‘being dead.’” Months ago, upon my first embargoed listen of lead single “Idaho Alien,” as Powers’ vocals came inching in, that past life of mine felt rekindled. I remembered a love I’d hung up to dry many yesterdays ago. The world felt washed anew; everything tasted better. I’m not being hyperbolic, I promise. I’d spent so many hours listening to Powers’ music that his return with a new Youth Lagoon album still saved a part of me, seven years on.
Though Heaven Is a Junkyard is the first Youth Lagoon album in eight years, Powers couldn’t let the idea of a “comeback album” enter his headspace when making it—because the record simultaneously felt like a Youth Lagoon album and something new and raw and unfamiliar at the same time. Bursting with grit and glazed over in hypnotic sepia, Heaven Is a Junkyard is, in no uncertain terms, a rebirth.
“The way that I create, it’s done in such a selfish way where I’m never thinking about the listener. I’m only thinking about myself. And it has to be that way, because that’s how I grow and I learn and I fail and I succeed. People see something and they think, ‘Oh, this person can only do this one thing.’ And nothing fires me up and inspires me more than when people think, ‘Oh, you can only exist in this one shape and that’s it forever.’ And I say fuck all of that. I’ll make music until I die, and it’ll always be on my own terms. Who you are is always shifting and changing, so I’ll never run out of important things to say. [Making music] is too near and dear to me to ever become stagnant,” Powers adds.
There’s a cresting beauty of Boise unfurling within the soundtrack, as he makes sense of the beauty in his immediate grasp. In a city burgeoning with great underground artists not gridlocked within a music community overrun by too many voices, Powers was able to find his own niche without being inundated by others. He’s making art outside the system, avoiding getting so consumed with other peoples’ energies that he is unable to recognize his own.
“In New York or Los Angeles, as much as I love those places, it’s so much harder to find any remnant of being grounded. With age really came this realization that, the reason people are surprised when they find out I’m from Idaho, is they think that you want what they have even when you don’t. If you’re not from those places, everything is automatically a little more exotic, in a way, because they don’t know that world—so it’s foreign to them. That woke me up in a way of thinking, like, ‘Why the fuck am I not using that in my music? My home is my home, and no one’s going to know what my existence is like unless I’m honest.’ And that well is endless. The most exciting thing isn’t what’s happening across the world, it’s happening right now on my fucking street,” Powers adds.
Heaven Is a Junkyard was inspired by the mystical noir of pulp crime novels and the arid beauty of films like Paris, Texas. Much of the album reminds me of Richard Bausch’s short-story collection Rare & Endangered Species, in which the lives of every stranger involved all loosely intertwine with each other in subtle, unsuspecting ways. That is what the project of Youth Lagoon has always been, dating as far back as songs like “17” and “Montana,” in which Powers arrived at these songs like a storyteller in charge of choosing where the camera is and who or what it zooms in and out on.
And, like many great 20th century writers, there are pieces of him in each character he creates—whether it’s a composite of a neighbor, a brother or someone who is 100% fictional. Heaven Is a Junkyard visualizes a similar barren prairie as something from a Cormac McCarthy or Annie Proulx book, or the world-building songwriting of Tom Waits and Nick Cave, and Powers brings a similar type of curiosity to the work. “Deep Sea Red” is a great example of that, as he emblazons a striking intro verse: “Finally, found the address, junkie on a backyard mattress / We sleep to kill the time / Dolly walks out of the light, handful of licorice tight / Ready and waiting for war / The ace on the sideline,” he opines atop a teardrop synth line.
“I would have a hellish day and I would turn to music as a way to try and process or escape that,” he says. “When I started stumbling into the realm of working with other characters, one of the reasons why the music [of Waits and Cave] is so powerful is because they’re not just playing with their own voice. They’re incorporating all of these other stories from all of these other people. They’ve made careers out of that, and this realization floored me—because I’ve never approached music like that. It started out really messy and I had songs that didn’t really make sense, but I kept working on it and working on it and it was like I’d found a new voice in music. I found this thing that I’ve been looking for my whole life.”
Earlier this spring, Powers returned into the public eye donning a pink mohawk, a neck tattoo and denim-blue clothes that draped gently over his skeletal frame. His era of wearing patterned button-ups and letting his dark, curly hair fall onto his shoulders was long gone. The images we saw of him—heightened by Tyler T. Williams’ haunting, ghost-town pastoral portraits of the songwriter—were not just grainy impressions of a beloved dream pop practitioner, but a deftly accurate portrayal of a human being who was still on the upswing from a life-changing health crisis. To mark that truth, the first Youth Lagoon chorus in eight years illustrated a grim, moving scene: “I don’t remember how it happened / Blood filled up the clawfoot bath and / I will fear no frontier,” Powers sang.
In late 2021, a routine checkup with his doctor ended in misery, as Powers was ordered to take an over-the-counter medication for a stomach pain that had been dulling for a few days. It was going to be a two- or three-week ordeal, but, on the 11th day, everything quickly took a turn for the worse. “I woke up and my mouth was on fire, it was full of stomach acid. My throat, I could barely talk. I had no idea what was going on,” he says. “I ended up going to the ER and they did all of these tests, but they couldn’t figure out what the issue was. They just said it should settle down and stop. But it didn’t. It kept going and kept going.” Powers quit taking the drug the day his body vaulted into acidic overdrive, but his immune system continued to stave it off as if the side-effects were a near-fatal allergic reaction.
Everything became a domino effect for Powers, as he witnessed his digestive system turn upside down—and it pushed him into a clarity about how we all so often take our bodies for granted. “Every single thing in my body was confused on what it was supposed to be doing,” he says. “Fast-forward through eight months of absolute hell, and I was seeing specialists and getting endoscopies and colonoscopies—anything in the books to try and figure out what was going on. But no one could tell me.” During that time, Powers’ larynx and pharynx were both covered in acid, and it forced him to stop talking for long periods of time. Of course, this condition wasn’t traditional acid reflux, though some folks in his orbit did try suggesting he take some Tums. But those suggestions weren’t from a place of bad faith; the severity of Powers’ condition was just unfathomably inexplicable.
“They didn’t know what it was that I was actually dealing with. Some kind of mist would coat my vocal cords and make it to where they ended up getting so burnt that I couldn’t talk. I had to write things down with a pen and paper that I would carry around. Or, if I was hanging out with someone I would just shoot them a text. I’ve always been someone who’s gone through hard times in life, but usually the hard times resolve themselves really quick. This was the first time in my life that I had truly and utterly lost control over my body. My entire body felt like a prison that I could not escape,” Powers adds.
The song “Trapeze Artist” gnaws at the tragedy, as Powers sings “I’m sick and I’m scared and I’m high on a trapeze / My mouth is on fire, but nobody sees me / Salt of the earth, so sprinkle it easy / There was love in the house, believe me / Drink by the water, fear is my only daughter.” By the time the malady had hit an apex, Powers’ weight had whittled down to 123 pounds. On the day of our conversation, he had still only 80% recovered. When he started writing and recording Heaven Is a Junkyard late last year, his recovery was only a fraction of that. Now, he meditates every morning when he wakes up and every night before he goes to bed. To undergo such a thing, to have your body literally turned inside out, it changes your view of reality. When the skyline within your stomach and your DNA and your bones is collapsing, the burning across the rest of the world begins to blur.
“I had gone to this point where I had been in, what felt like, the depths of hell for so many months, that there was a switch that flipped inside of me where, suddenly, everything that I had feared my whole life—me being such an anxious person and being so wired tight in my body my whole life—was finally coming true. And, in a way, it feels like it cured me of that. It felt like a mini-death where I had died to myself, and then there was this rebirth happening where there was this new version of myself that knew how to love myself and knew how to go away from the distractions of what’s happening in the world and be alone and be okay. And it took many, many, many months to get to that point.”
In some ways, I needed Heaven Is a Junkyard and didn’t know it. Lines like “Does Heaven glow, glow like mercury? / Steal my words / In the world, I’m afraid / All the lives that I made / In the world I won’t stay” hit closer to home than almost any other song that’s come into my orbit in 2023. Because, like Powers, I, too, battled through a diagnosis for months and not a single doctor could diagnose me. I was 19 years old, yet my stomach had become lacerated with nausea after every meal and I battled a fever on and off for five weeks. I lost nearly 40 pounds and spent a long time having to deal with people—especially family members—waging accusations of anorexia onto me while I was still knee-deep in recovery. There’s a picture of me on my 20th birthday, someplace, where my eyes are sunken into a portal of purple exhaustion and my collarbones are damn near knifing out of my chest from weight loss.
I have been chronically ill since high school, but my immune system was butchered by, what I’ve come to consider, a super-mononucleosis glossed over with a tinge of swine flu. It was only a few weeks before my conversation with Powers that I had finally climbed back to the weight I was at when I started college, but only after five years of learning how to eat full meals again. I still can’t walk long distances or stand up for large chunks of time.
When Powers began demoing Heaven Is a Junkyard, he did everything at home. During the weeks or months where he could barely talk, he’d find himself in brief flickers of a health he could bear—where he’d have some semblance of a voice—and he’d use that time to record 10, 15, or 25 seconds singing. “The whole time, I’d be writing, so when my voice would come back I would know the melody was going to be,” Powers says. “I mapped it all out on piano. Then, my voice would be back and I would knock [a demo] out and then my voice would go away for X amount of time again.” He worked with producer (or sorcerer, as Powers lovingly labels him) Rodaidh McDonald at McDonald’s home studio in Los Angeles, and he, so easily, tapped into the spirit of each demo that Powers brought to him.
On many of the Heaven Is a Junkyard songs, there are moments when Powers’ vocals—which have long been this delicate, crackling tour guide through whatever piece of the world he dares to show us—sound brittle and in pieces. Of course, the singing perfectly captures the ethos and tone of the album altogether, but the way it’s presented is the product of a deliberate, unabashed embrace of how Powers’ ailments could, in the right hands and with the right kindness, be wielded into a superhuman dossier on survival. “There would be certain days where I, even in the studio, would not be able to talk very much and my voice would be going in and out, and we would purposefully lean into that with certain songs,” he adds. “The day that I tracked a lot of the vocals for ‘Idaho Alien,’ I was having a really shit day and Rodaidh made a comment, like, ‘Let’s use that. Let’s take what your voice is going through and not hide from it.’”
But Powers’ health lapse is not the only thing that shaped Heaven Is a Junkyard. His dear friend Cormac Roth was diagnosed with cancer at age 26 and died a year later. The two grew close in 2018, when Roth was opening for Powers upon the release of Mulberry Violence. “We had this unshakable bond and that was his first big tour. And he had said, before he passed away, that it was the most fun he had ever had,” Powers says. “Prizefigher” is a direct homage to Roth from Powers, as he uses war and boxing imagery to reckon with facing mortality head-on. “He had knuckles that could make the devil shy,” he sings. “Knuckles of a prizefighter held high.”
“He was a brother of mine,” Powers says, choking up. “When he had told me what it was that he was going through, that he was about to start chemo, I didn’t know what to say to him besides ‘I love you, let me know if you need anything.’ That was usually my check-in with him, because I was too scared to ask him how he was really doing—because, when he would tell me, it would be unbearable, especially what the chemo started doing to his body. Every single time that we would talk or text, I wouldn’t want to say [what I was going through], because it paled so much in comparison to what he was going through. That woke me up to the fact that everything in life comes down to perspective, and Cormac’s perspective was always such a beautiful one.”
In Roth’s last months alive, he shared his story on social media—using Instagram to make videos encouraging other people to go out and discover the one very thing that they love doing, because tomorrow is never a given. “To be going through what I was going through at the same time as someone going through that, which is a whole other universe of learning how to pick up the pieces of our mortality, it just leveled me in a way that I’ll never be the same person again,” Powers adds. “Corm’s spirit is all over [Heaven Is a Junkyard], because he had this love and grace and this way that he moved through the world. It was unlike anyone I knew.”
Though the arrangements are sometimes sparse and stripped down, Heaven Is a Junkyard is a magnanimous, gentle and spiritual offering. Across the album, religious motifs arise as Powers writes about God, the Devil and miracles. On “The Sling,” he sings: “Father tells Eugene / He’ll only meet God / If the kitchen is clean / This is not on me / Time would bend / Like a drunken tree.” After growing up in a Christian home and attending church throughout his whole life, Powers began looking past the superficial idea of entitlement that comes in some fixtures of religion and chose to play around with those ideologies. “I realized that God is not the idea of God so many people view as this passive thing, like, ‘Oh, I’m going through shit, so where is God? Why can’t God find me?’ It’s the exact opposite. It’s such an active word for me. It’s the only way to get something out of the world. It’s an active participation, it’s an act. It’s going into these areas of your mind and participating with life and not hoping that life just, suddenly, works itself out for you,” he says.
Powers is not a born-again believer so much as he has recalibrated his own relationship with spirituality. Heaven Is a Junkyard aims to better understand what survival means in the eyes of a savior; how the underbelly of America’s cruelty can somehow make sense in conversation with a greater being—and what Powers’ presence is within all of that. “I see God in so, so many people and so many aims and so many ideologies,” he adds. “And, equally, I don’t see God in so many ideologies and people and things. There’s always this idea of truth, where truth can find you in endless forms. You just have to be aware and present enough to realize when it slaps you in the face that that’s what it is. I had gone to a Christian church that had a really specific view of what God was, but God never really felt alive to me. I felt like there should be a feeling that wasn’t there, and I just couldn’t feel it. It wasn’t until all these moments started happening in my life where, once I started meditating and participating with my life and my mind, it was revealed to me that God is suffering, listening. God is not watching me suffer. God is suffering with me.”
Much of what brings the stunning universe of Youth Lagoon and Heaven Is a Junkyard to life comes via filmmaker Tyler T. Williams, Powers’ beloved collaborator. The two men worked together on some of the earliest Youth Lagoon music videos, notably “July,” “Montana” and “Mute.” In those days, Powers and Williams were just friends who would grab coffees and talk about creative visions together in Boise. Williams would move back to his hometown of Santa Barbara and remain there for 10 years, only to return sometime before Powers had even considered making another Youth Lagoon record. “Something had changed in those years that we had been apart where we had grown so dramatically,” Powers says. “But we had grown together, somehow, even though we hadn’t been together. It was like, when we met up, he felt like some long lost best friend—even though we’d never had that closeness before.”
Shortly after Powers lost his voice, he and Williams traveled across Idaho, taking pictures and filming parts of the state—much of which would see the light of day during the Heaven Is a Junkyard album cycle, in press photos and music videos. Powers likens his kinship with Williams to being 12 years old and going on adventures and feeling invincible. “That’s exactly how Ty and I feel when we hang out together,” he adds. “Who he is as a person, as an artist and as a brother, it really shaped, dramatically, the identity of this [Heaven Is a Junkyard]. The way his brain works, it’s like a surprise box. We’ll go somewhere and we don’t even know exactly what it is or why it is that we’re there. But then something will reveal itself to us, and then he captures it.”
And I think that final idea can be said about Powers, himself, too. There’s a shadow of presence across Heaven Is a Junkyard; a clear-eyed view of everything before him. The world he’s captured on the album is sure to change the lexicon in some capacity. Whether it’s how we mark our own survival or how we might begin to repair ourselves with kindness beyond grief, it feels right to say that the world needs Youth Lagoon now more than ever. 12 years ago, Powers sang “I started getting older, I took it on myself / To find out why I’m the way that I am / But I can’t find a conclusion / Though I think I’m getting closer / Yeah, I know I’m getting closer” in gauzy distortion over lush, droning synths on “Posters.”
Fast-forward to now, and the muscles and the guts and the nerves have been peeled back to expose the bone and reveal the truth: a singular voice surrounded by cadaverous, gaunt arrangements; a body making sense of its world by memorizing every inch of it. Powers shrunk the world of Youth Lagoon down into a single neighborhood—one that is not yet beaten down by the sun but overflowing with technicolor. In the cracks of pain is beauty; a shivering exodus of catharsis, hope, empowerment and togetherness. 20 months ago, God was suffering with Powers. Now, God is reveling in the joy and the strata of Boise, Idaho, a mooring, picturesque tomorrow that Powers has written him into. “Heaven is a junkyard,” he sings. “And it’s my home.”
Matt Mitchell is Paste‘s assistant music editor. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, but you can find him online @yogurttowne.
Listen to Youth Lagoon’s Daytrotter session from 2012 below.