“Out of the darkness and into the night”: A Conversation With Ken Yates

Ken Yates © Jen Squires
Ken Yates © Jen Squires
Indie folk singer/songwriter Ken Yates adds to the vulnerability and raw humanity of his breathtaking fourth album Cerulean, taking Atwood Magazine through the new tracks of his expanded edition that, together, form a snapshot of life before, during, and after a loss.
for fans of Bear’s Den, Leif Vollebekk, Big Thief, Noah Reid
Stream: “Fairweather” – Ken Yates




When we last caught up with singer/songwriter Ken Yates, his fourth album had just come out – and the wounds were still fresh.

“The songs from Cerulean have been a refuge for me during an extremely difficult time in life,” Yates described in mid-2022. “These songs were my way of moving through the stages of grief: From my fear about the state of the world, to the sleepless, anxious nights, to working through my anger and sadness, and finally, to recognizing the abundance of good in my life. I can hear myself processing these feelings in real time, and trying to find small moments of peace.”

Cerulean - Ken Yates
Cerulean – Ken Yates

Originally released in June 2022, Cerulean is a breathtaking triumph of the human spirit. Yates channels pain into beauty and grief into hope as he searches for a space of calm, however fleeting it may be.

While Yates has historically been quick to move on from one album to the next, something about these songs – and the world they inhabited – kept him coming back to them; to live with them a little longer, giving them more room to breathe and time to grow. The result is Cerulean (Extended Edition), a seventeen-song deluxe album that adds six new tracks and about 25 more minutes of achingly intimate introspection to the to the softly stirring Cerulean experience.

In addition to three heart-wrenching acoustic renditions of fan favorites “Consolation Prize,” “The Future Is Dead,” and “Don’t Mean to Wake You,” Yates has also added three new compositions to the mix – “Fairweather,” “Ordinary Life,” and “In Light of My Absence” – each of which feels more breathtaking than the last.

Ken Yates © Jen Squires
Ken Yates © Jen Squires



“I kind of view them as a snapshot of where I was at before, during and after a loss, which very much ties into the overall arc of Cerulean,” Yates explains. “Both sonically and lyrically they represented where I was at in my life at the time. ‘Fairweather’ I wrote before the album was made, and ‘Ordinary Life’ and ‘In Light of My Absence’ came after.

Atwood Magazine previously included “Fairweather” on our 86th Editor’s Picks, praising Yates for his ability to shine a warm, redemptive light through even life’s darkest haze: Yates’ grief resonates throughout this song that cleverly plays off the phrase “fair-weather friend,” and yet by its end we are left not in a place of sullen sadness or painful solitude, but rather, a space of hope and quietly cautious optimism.

But are you faring well?
Are you faring well?
I know you would never tell
Are you faring well?
Are you faring well?
Cause it’s so dark
In this hotel
All your fairweather friends
Making fairweather plans

“Ordinary Life” and “In Light of My Absence” feel like a great cathartic exhale. Both songs can be seen as points of transition for Yates, as he sought to rediscover his own identity alongside his place in the world over these past few years of turmoil and upheaval. The gentle, brooding “Ordinary Life” reflects on “searching for joy in the mundane,” as Yates puts it. “I buried something deep, and it’s pushing up the dandelions,” he sings in the first shiver-inducing chorus. “Not bad for a weed: Growing just to float away in pieces on the breeze, and dreaming of an ordinary life.”




“In Light of My Absence,”  with its dreamy melodies and smoldering grooves, is a visceral release – and perhaps Yates’ most overt attempt at moving onward and upward: “Pain is the same kind of creature in a different disguise,” he muses in the song’s final moments. “Walking out of the darkness, and into the night.

“Like many songs on the album, it’s about confronting the darkness I was feeling at the time after suffering a loss,” he says. “I was starting to create problems out of nothing and felt disconnected from a lot of the good parts of my life, which was stopping me from simply enjoying them. I think when we go through trauma there’s a part of us that feels like we’re not allowed to experience any joy.  I noticed I was feeling guilty or selfish any time I found myself having a good time.  I’ve since learned that as important as it is to sit with your sadness during a period of trauma, it’s just as vital to recognize what gives you joy in those moments, and to allow yourself to experience it.”

Thanks to its extended edition, Cerulean is even more beautiful, more vulnerable, and more human.

It’s easy to understand why Ken Yates might have wanted to spend more time in this album’s world: For as hard as it can be process grief and trauma, there’s something deeply moving and meaningful about connecting with that innermost part of ourselves.

“I’ve heard from so many people who have connected with these songs in different ways, because they bring their own trauma and life experiences into it,” Yates shares. “That’s been the most rewarding part of releasing this album and watching it grow over the past year, and it’s certainly what made me feel comfortable releasing even more songs that were written during that period.”

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:: stream/purchase Cerulean here ::
:: connect with Ken Yates here ::
Stream: “In Light of My Absence” – Ken Yates



Ken Yates © Jen Squires
Ken Yates © Jen Squires

A CONVERSATION WITH KEN YATES

Cerulean - Ken Yates

Atwood Magazine: Ken, how does Cerulean resonate for you a year later? What's your relationship with the album now, compared to what it was a year ago?

Ken Yates: I think this is the first album I’ve made that I can still listen to a year later. I’m still very connected to it, so much so that it was difficult to move on from it and figure out what I wanted to write about next. Normally I’m already looking ahead to the next album right after an album is released, but for whatever reason I really lived with this one for a while. I think I’m just starting to move on from it now.

Why add these new tracks to Cerulean rather than make a new EP of them? How do they fit into the record's story in your mind?

Ken Yates: Originally I thought I might save a few of these tracks for a future album, but I really felt they were meant to live with the rest of the songs from Cerulean. Both sonically and lyrically they represented where I was at in my life at the time. “Fairweather” I wrote before the album was made, and “Ordinary Life” and “In Light of My Absence” came after, and I kind of view them as a snapshot of where I was at before, during and after a loss, which very much ties into the overall arc of Cerulean.

What do these new tracks add to the original album, and how do they change the record for you? Basically, how does Cerulean Extended compare to the original Cerulean album?

Ken Yates: In a sense I view an “Extended Edition” as a backstage pass to an album. While you’re making an album you’re the most critical version of yourself, you have to be a bit cutthroat with which songs you’re going to release. But once you have a bit of distance from it, it’s nice to come back to some of the songs that didn’t quite make the cut. Dare I say I had a bit of fun making the new tracks, experimenting with different sounds (synths and horns) with producer Dan Ledwell, and it gave me a chance to collaborate with a few other artists I love (Tiny Habits, Rose Cousins, Jenn Grant, Breagh Isabel). There’s less pressure when you release new music this way, so it was nice to give Cerulean a bit of a longer life by sharing more songs as I made them, and coming up with different arrangements for songs people were familiar with. It’s the whole pie instead of just a piece of it.

Take me through these songs; what are their stories? What do they mean to you?

Fairweather

Ken Yates: “Fairweather” was one of the first songs I wrote for my latest album “Cerulean”. For a while I even thought the album title would be “Fairweather”, but at the very last minute I decided not to bring it into the studio. I think I felt like thematically it didn’t fit with the rest of the songs, and because of the slow building pace, it might have gotten lost on the back of the album. But I kept coming back to it. I played it live a few times and it felt good, then I posted a clip of it online and had a lot of people asking about the song.

So I sent a demo recording to producer Dan Ledwell thinking I might just release it as an acoustic/vocal track. Dan really breathed new life into the song for me. He sent it to Joshua Van Tassel to add drums, then layered on piano, horns, and even surprised me with beautiful vocal harmonies from Jenn Grant. It felt really good to give this song the full studio treatment, and I think this is the arrangement it was always meant to have.

The song is about what happens to relationships when someone puts their dreams first and starts to shut out the people who genuinely care about them. It’s so easy to isolate yourself when you’re chasing after something, and if you stop nurturing your relationships, everything else can fall apart around you. It’s kind of that “Good Will Hunting” moment when you realize someone is close to unraveling but they’re too proud to tell you. A simple question like “how are you doing?” can be enough to make someone break down and open up about their struggles. It’s a dynamic I seem to be writing about a lot lately. Trying to be there for someone who may not have earned or deserves it. I think maybe because it’s the peak of human compassion, trying to understand someone’s struggles instead of judging them or their behaviour.

Ordinary Life

Ken Yates: I wrote this song about searching for joy in the mundane.  I know a lot of us had to adjust to a different pace of life over the last few years. When I stopped the forward motion of constantly being on the road, I found it jarring at first.  I think without that forward motion I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, but after some time sitting in it, I learned it was the opposite, that a lot of the things I was busying myself with were just a distraction from actually figuring out what I wanted out of life.  I learned a lot about myself during that time.  I learned I didn’t really like where I lived, so I moved.  I learned that career accomplishments only gave me a brief amount of joy, so I started looking for it in other parts of my day.  I learned that saying you’re “too busy” shouldn’t be worn as a badge of honour, it means you aren’t prioritizing things you’d like to be doing.

The Future Is Dead (Tiny Habits Version)

Ken Yates: I wasn’t familiar with the trio Tiny Habits until one of their members, Judah Mayowa, posted a cover of “The Future Is Dead”.  I was completely blown away by his version of the song, and became an instant fan of him and Tiny Habits.  I’ve never heard 3 part harmony quite like they do it.  Judah was kind enough to come and sing this song with me at a show in Boston, and after meeting him and the other two members of the group (Cinya and Maya), I knew I wanted to collaborate with them in some way.  I had been working up an acoustic version of this song and they graciously agreed to sing on it.  Sometimes the internet works in beautiful ways, and I love that this version of the song has come full circle since Judah posted a cover of it.

In Light of My Absence

Ken Yates: I wrote this song soon after finishing Cerulean, and like many songs on the album it’s about confronting the darkness I was feeling at the time after suffering a loss. I was starting to create problems out of nothing and felt disconnected from a lot of the good parts of my life, which was stopping me from simply enjoying them.  I think when we go through trauma there’s a part of us that feels like we’re not allowed to experience any joy.  I noticed I was feeling guilty or selfish any time I found myself having a good time.  I’ve since learned that as important as it is to sit with your sadness during a period of trauma, it’s just as vital to recognize what gives you joy in those moments, and to allow yourself to experience it.

Don’t Mean To Wake You / Consolation Prize Acoustic Versions

Ken Yates: I play both of these songs very differently solo compared to the album versions. I love the arrangements Jim Bryson came up with on the album, but I always knew I wanted to release an alternate version of each song that was a bit more intimate and a better representation of how I play them live with solo guitar/vocal.

What is your favorite song of these new tracks?

Ken Yates: “Ordinary Life.”  It’s the first song I’ve released that’s primarily piano/synth driven (played by Dan Ledwell) and I love the harmonies Rose Cousins sang.  It’s also one of the stranger songs I’ve written in terms of form.  There’s not really a chorus, and it mostly relies on groove and lyrics to keep the song moving.

So much of Cerulean is about grief and trauma. Do these topics/themes still ring true for you today?

Ken Yates: I’m at a different place with it now having a bit more time to process. I think the feelings I’m singing about were brought on by the grief and the trauma I was going through, but the songs themselves don’t necessarily live on as being specifically about that. That’s the beauty of songwriting. I’ve heard from so many people who have connected with these songs in different ways, because they bring their own trauma and life experiences into it. That’s been the most rewarding part of releasing this album and watching it grow over the past year, and it’s certainly what made me feel comfortable releasing even more songs that were written during that period.

Does living with such a grief-fueled album add negatively to your own emotions, or has this album's presence been a positive force in your life?

Ken Yates: Undeniably positive. I still feel this album is inherently optimistic. The process of me parsing through my grief and trying to find a way through it is optimistic.  There’s even optimism in writing these songs in general, otherwise they wouldn’t have been written.  I think the reason I’m still connected to this record specifically is because I had something so real and tangible to write about, as opposed to past albums where I was writing about what I thought was interesting.  It’s a major milestone for me artistically and I have a feeling it will be a turning point for my writing going forward. 

— —

:: stream/purchase Cerulean here ::
:: connect with Ken Yates here ::



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Cerulean - Ken Yates

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