When Trevor Powers abruptly called it quits on his Youth Lagoon project in 2016, he decided to travel. Powers was, at that time, 27 years old and announced Youth Lagoon’s third LP, 2015’s Savage Hills Ballroom, was the logical endpoint. At the time, this choice seemed brash. With the way Powers was evolving his sound, surely, there was more work to be done. But, that restlessness within the confines of Youth Lagoon is exactly what led Powers to spurn the project. He left the States and headed to Tokyo, a metropolis that quickly became his favorite city in the world. But the country that hit him hardest was Greece, specifically Athens, a city that constantly reminds any visitor that everything dies and the best things become honored until they grow decrepit as well. This preservation of ancient culture pushed up against a bustling city hit Powers hard. Perhaps it’s because this dichotomy was too apt a metaphor for the transformation Powers was going through: Needing to keep moving forward while being constantly reminded of what once was. With Mulberry Violence, Powers’ first LP under his own name, he acknowledges his own history in an attempt to do away with it.
“Athens has this historical side in the sense that you’re looking at ruins, things that used to be,” Powers explains to Vinyl Me, Please over the phone from his home in Boise. “They’re fragments. It’s that whole thing… There’s a sadness, almost. You see something that was so grand, and now it’s barely standing. There are only certain elements left. I pull from the side of things where everything is shiny, new and impressive, but also there’s this element that it looks like something that once was.”
The pervasive fear that grew within Powers when starting this new album was this sense of being forgotten. As his Youth Lagoon project expanded, it no longer offered a path toward self-understanding that he needed it to illuminate. Because, at its best, Youth Lagoon was a nostalgia machine. It was a highly effective, highly powerful project, but one that relied on chasing an infinitely lost feeling. As an artist, never finding that plaguing other is an exhausting endeavor. “The entire entity of what Youth Lagoon was, was a period piece of nostalgia, of looking back,” Powers says. “All three records are very different and very fresh approaches for what I was doing, but each was in a very similar mindset. Moving forward, that’s not to say I’m not gonna pull from the past and pull from memories, like what everyone does, but I’m much more concerned with what’s going on in the present and what will be going on in the future. That’s endless. That doesn’t have a stamp on it.”
So Powers said goodbye to Youth Lagoon and began traveling and writing poetry, essentially rebooting a musical identity that had grown comfortable within a particular stasis. “I needed time for a heart reset. That time was more than valuable because removing mental cones from your artistic output is never an instantaneous thing. So, with moving under my own name and wanting to clear any roadblocks that I’ve ever put in my way as far as expressing myself goes, it took a couple of years of being completely off the map and getting out of my own brain, out of my own usual territories as far as environment goes. I was traveling a shit ton, destroying those comfort zones, because comfort zones are the most suffocating place you could ever exist in.”
Upon his return from Europe and Asia, Powers began cultivating a library of sounds, twisting and warping everything he encountered in order to begin planting the seeds for what Mulberry Violence would become. “I really like the idea of making a library first where I could pull from that library and create what I wanted through it. With that in mind, I spent a huge chunk of time creating my own samples. Sitting down with synthesizers, sitting down with a microphone, doing anything and everything to manipulate whatever was around me. Starting off with that kind of ammunition instantly triggered all kinds of paths I could take with every single line of poetry I was sitting down with. That was so important for what this process had to be,” he explains.
When Powers emerged as Youth Lagoon, he had a wondrous ability to capture the sadness and distance of growing up. But now that he’s done the growing he longed to avoid, there became an obvious distance between who Youth Lagoon was and how Powers viewed himself. In a sense, Powers’ evolution as a songwriter toward something more present and expansive was a form of self-care. “It’s always a bit rough when you revisit things that have to do with pain. That, for me, is something I’ll always pull from. That’ll never go away because I find the most influence in my mind, with what I want to say, with the shitty things rather than the good things,” he explains. “The shitty things are what I have to process, what I have to go through. So I’ll always pull from them, but it’s much more important to say, ‘OK, how does this apply to me?’ rather than going in a time machine back to something that was going on and just sitting there and wallowing. It would have gotten very old. I mean, it did get old for me. Toward the end of the third record I was like, ‘I’m fucking done with this.’” Mulberry Violence still sifts through heartbreak and horror, but it’s a clear, distillation of more confident ideas; Powers is no longer swimming against the current that Youth Lagoon always set sail in.
Rather than existing exclusively in a world of shock and anxiety of growing old, Powers spends Mulberry Violence facing the realities that plague him everyday. “I would like to say I’m optimistic but there is so much that is wrong with the world. I think a lot of people would have a similar response, where, as things stand right now, as far as the social and political climate, there’s so much that is brutally sad, you hope that people start waking up and figuring out what needs to change,” he says.
So while there are tinges of the warped nostalgia that pervaded Youth Lagoon, like on a track like “Playwright,” Mulberry Violence is an almost unrecognizable about-face from Powers, and a stunningly assured one at that. Album opener “XTQ Idol” bursts with the technicolor abstraction of a forthcoming apocalypse, while “Clad in Skin” warps a saxophone and extracts something that more resembles its opposite than a saxophone itself, lulling the track into a creepy groove, highlighted by prodding strings and a half-whispered vocal delivery. Mulberry Violence is some sort of future R&B, haunted by the ghost of Youth Lagoon, constantly running from an image that’s no longer there. It’s an acid flashback to a time that’s been erased, gorgeously silhouetted by something missing. In that sense, it’s not dissimilar from the Youth Lagoon mission at all. There’s a sort of play at work, a teasing by Powers to see how close he can get to his past without ever directly invoking it.
“One of the things that kept popping into my mind as I was writing was picturing a band of both angels and demons playing together, where there are certain moments where the angels take over the demons and vice versa,” Powers explains. “Almost like an orchestra, where there are all these crazy faces and they’re filling up this whole corner of an auditorium. It’s evil versus the holiness. A lot if it started off with that depiction. That goes back to the juxtaposition behind lots of the themes on the album.” And while Youth Lagoon isn’t the representation of evil Powers conjures on Mulberry Violence, there’s a haunting of what once was that gives the album its burnt edges. It’s broken, but everything that’s beautiful is fractured in some way.
As Powers continues to redefine his musical existence, the old days of Youth Lagoon will begin to self-fulfill as the pieces of nostalgia they once yearned to be. Those songs will grow ever distant, and in their place these new works will begin to define who Trevor Powers is. Toward the end of our conversation, I ask Powers if he’s hopeful about the future. He replies that he doesn’t know, but that he’s most excited about the work he’s doing. A true artist, it seems.
“As soon as Mulberry Violence was done, that was the beginning of this whole other flood of ideas that came crashing in. It’s funny, because when you’re so zeroed in and focusing on a single piece of music, you give so much of yourself to it, that there’s a concern in the back of your brain that you’re going to have nothing left to say,” he explains. “As soon as it’s done, all those worries go away because instantly there’s this whole other barricade removed that was hiding all of these other ideas. That breaks down and it’s this endless well of things to draw from.” As that well continues to grow, perhaps Powers will find some remnants of the past scattered among this world. Perhaps the ancient ruins of Youth Lagoon will no longer represent a death, but the preservation of something real atop which Trevor Powers can plant his mulberry tree.
To purchase the Vinyl Me, Please exclusive edition of 'Mulberry Violence,' go here.