Singer/songwriter Ken Yates dives into his softly stirring fourth LP ‘Cerulean,’ a breathtaking triumph of the human spirit channeling pain into beauty and grief into hope.
for fans of Bear’s Den, Leif Vollebekk, Big Thief, Noah Reid
“The Big One” – Ken Yates ft. Kathleen Edwards
“I used to go searching for the darkness,” Ken Yates says. “With this record, the darkness found me first. This is me finding my way out of it.”
Channeling pain into beauty, Ken Yates’ fourth album is a breathtaking triumph of the human spirit. The cool-hued Cerulean captures the artist’s intimate reckoning as he grieved his dying mother, giving listeners a vivid window into the rollercoaster of intense thoughts and emotions that accompany such a personal, yet universal experience. The result is a transcendent record surging with tightly held energy and meaningful, vulnerable moments. Yates grows in real time with his music, moving towards a space of acceptance and peace that mirrors he own move to the country, where he began therapy and wrote the songs he needed to hear.
And the world is burning while the earth it floods
But we’re all just posing looking out for us
When the ice is melting when the damage is done
I’ll be holding your hand when the big one comes
Released June 3, 2022, Cerulean sees Ken Yates at his most honest and raw. Born from grief, the follow-up to 2020’s Quiet Talkers is actually full of vibrant life and a radiant light, its songs shining with the quiet hope of a soul put through the wringer. The album acts as a kind of hard reset on the Ontario-bred singer/songwriter’s art: Working with producer Jim Bryson, Yates reintroduces himself here as an indie folk / alternative artists a la Bear’s Den, Andy Shauf, The War on Drugs, and Big Thief.
Cerulean is a truly cathartic and captivating listening experience, and as Yates explains, this music has served as his anchor, his guide, and his sanctuary.
“Over the last two years, the songs from Cerulean have been a refuge for me during an extremely difficult time in life,” Yates tells Atwood Magazine. “Around the same time as the pandemic arrived, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, and given 7 months to live. It felt like life changed overnight, and it was a lot to process all at once.”
“The result was a wave of sadness, anger, anxiety and bitterness at a level I hadn’t experienced before, and suddenly there was nothing to distract me from it. While I didn’t know it at the time, these songs were my way of moving through the stages of grief. From my fear about the state of the world (The Big One, The Future Is Dead), to the sleepless, anxious nights (Don’t Mean To Wake You), to working through my anger and sadness (Small Doses, Half-Clenched Teeth, Grocery Store), and finally, to recognizing the abundance of good in my life (Best of the Broken Things, Good Things).“
When I listen back to these songs now, I can hear myself processing these feelings in real time, and trying to find small moments of peace. ‘Cerulean’ as a whole is ultimately about searching for that calm and peace, however fleeting it may be.
Out of the darkness, Yates found his own inner light – channeling his immediate world, with all its wonders and woes, turbulence and turmoil, into an inspiring set of charged and emotionally potent songs. “This is the first time that I’ve made a record where I feel like the songs were going to be written whether I wanted to release an album or not,” he explains. “I was writing because I needed to. I never would have described songwriting as a cathartic process in the past; it was just something I liked to do.”
“Sonically, I knew I didn’t want to make another folk record, so producer Jim Bryson and I approached it slightly differently from the past two records, with a lot more electric guitars, different tunings, and synths. I don’t think I realized what this album was about until the songs were all written and we started recording it. Once I started looking at the songs as a whole record, I realized it was a timeline of what I was personally going through over the last two years. That became very clear during the recording process. So much so, the track listing is in chronological order of when I wrote each song.”
“It’s certainly my most personal album yet, and sonically it’s the album I’ve always wanted to make. Jim and I spent a lot more time on arrangements and finding the right sounds, and played with a full band on every song but one. It feels like a bit of a reset from my former records.”
The album’s title comes from the very last song Yates wrote for the record.
“I always find that we define our moods by colours,” he explains. “Anxious oranges, depressing blues, jealous greens. This song is about that ever-spinning colour wheel of emotions, cerulean blue being the colour of finding peace or “equilibrium”. It’s the last song I wrote for this record and I think it really ties the other songs together, which is why I liked it for the title. To me it sums up the entire record: These songs are constantly moving through that wheel of emotions, but ultimately searching for those small moments of peace.”
“It really is about that feeling of equilibrium, going through so many emotions every day,” he adds. “You have to find those small moments of peace and quiet and acceptance and just being like, I’m okay. That feeling won’t last forever, but ultimately I think that is me working through grief.”
Highlights abound on a heartfelt record that holds nothing back. Opening track “The Big One” (featuring fellow singer/songwriter Kathleen Edwards) sets the scene with a grandiose yet quiet, epically cinematic yet utterly serene tone. A tender tempest ready to unleash a special kind of havoc in our hearts, “The Big One” is a soothing and stirring apocalyptic lullaby written with the end in sight. Rather than spend these moments worrying about his impending doom, Yates doubles down on his loved ones, recommitting himself to them with a reassuring message of connection and presence. “The Canadian singer/songwriter weaving a wondrous tapestry of gentle, cathartic, hypnotic sound,” Atwood Magazine wrote upon the song’s release. “A warm blanket of ethereal and lilting guitars envelops the ears alongside Yates’ inviting, comforting voice, creating a tranquil space for reflection and rest despite the subtle urgency suggested by Yates’ end-of-times lyrics.”
Yates dives deeper into himself as Cerulean progresses, searching for meaning in the world and working through everything from insomnia, denial, and nihilism, to hope and appreciation. The artist envelops himself in a blanket of plaintive, somber introspection on “Best of the Broken Things,” a comforting ballad in which he gives a pep talk to his own reflection. He cites the lyric, “And the worst pain comes with no bleeding, when you’re stuck staring at the ceiling, but I think it’s worth repeating, you’re the best of the broken things” as one of his favorite lines on the entire record.
Another album standout is the warm and driving folk rock reverie “Don’t Mean to Wake You” (ft. Stephanie Lambring), in which Yates paints a portrait of relatable restlessness. He finds himself lost in a pool of thoughts that gnaw at him so much that he has to turn over and wake his partner. It’s as much an attempt to save himself from himself, as it is a gentle cry for help.
“My current favourite is ‘Don’t Mean To Wake You,'” he says. “Melodically and structurally, it’s different from anything I’ve written, and I’m always a sucker for a B chorus.
For Yates, Cerulean proved a transformative experience: One that allowed him to grow, while providing some much-needed resolution to the past few years.
“I feel more open than ever, at peace with where I am as an artist,” he reflects. “This is the first time I’ve had a real personal story I wanted to tell. It does feel like I’ve had a moment to reset my life, and now I can start to share that with the rest of the world.”
Loss is a shared human experience: Through Cerulean, Ken Yates not only puts the full scope of his own healing process on display, but he also reminds us that we’re not alone in our pain – and that with time, we may just find our way to acceptance.
“As with any of my songs, I hope people can find their own way to relate to Cerulean,” Yates shares. “Grief is a universal human experience, and although there are certainly some dark moments on this album, I hope people can find some comfort in the conclusion, which is essentially that everything will be ok, and there’s plenty of good things to appreciate in life. At some point in the writing of this record I realized I could only control my own actions, which led to a lot of self-reflection, and eventually therapy, and I can honestly say I’m in a much better place from where I started two years ago.”
Experience the full record via our below stream, and peek inside Ken Yates’ Cerulean with Atwood Magazine as the singer/songwriter goes track-by-track through the music and lyrics of his latest release!
Stream: ‘Cerulean’ – Ken Yates
:: Inside Cerulean ::
The Big One
Believe it or not, this song was written before the pandemic. I was traveling in the Pacific Northwest with someone who was constantly mentioning the Cascadian Subduction Zone, a fault line predicted to cause a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami, also known as “The Big One”. I couldn’t stop thinking about how entire societies of people live there with the knowledge it’s going to happen at some point, and when it does, they’re totally fucked. There’s something poetic about that acceptance. It was the first song I wrote for this album, and it certainly opened the door to digging deeper into inner struggles for me. It was almost a thought of how it’s easier to distract yourself with the end of the world rather than face your own feelings.
I filmed “The Big One” video on my iPhone while Ontario was in a lockdown. I would take my dog for a walk by the river early every morning and hardly ever see anyone. There were days when it truly felt we were alone on this earth. The song is about riding out the last few moments of the apocalypse with someone you love, so I thought it would be funny to make a b-side movie where my dog and I are the last two beings on the planet. I found an old raincoat and started filming myself in ridiculous survival situations in the woods. It turned out my dog Joni was a natural on camera. I also loved the idea that I would bring my capo to the Apocalypse.
The Future Is Dead
I sort of view this song as the more paranoid version of The Big One. One thing everyone seems to agree on these days is that we’re headed towards some kind of doomsday, but depending on who you ask you might get differing answers as to why. To put it simply, this song is about people disagreeing over the end of the world while standing on a melting piece of ice.
Don’t Mean To Wake You
You know how as soon as your head hits the pillow, your brain seems to wake up and suddenly starts skimming through your entire life? This song is about that. One of those nights where you can’t fathom falling asleep, or how the person next to you could possibly be asleep while you’re this awake. You don’t want to wake them up, but also you’re totally fucking going to wake them up.
I wrote this song as somewhat of a sequel to the song “Quiet Talkers” from my last album. “Quiet Talkers” is about finding solace in the company of complete stranger for a night. I wrote “Consolation Prize” imagining how that relationship might look a few years in the future, with one of the characters falling in love, and the other person not feeling the same way. I think one of the hardest types of love is loving someone who doesn’t love you back, but still wishing the best for them.
Putting the phrase “everything in moderation” into action and attempting to allow yourself a bit of joy every once and a while, including accepting love from others.
Best Of The Broken Things
I originally wrote this song imagining it was a pep talk to another person. I sent a rough demo to a friend, and he mentioned it sounded like I was talking to myself. I started tweaking the lyrics as if I was looking in the mirror, and giving the pep talk to my own reflection. This song was a bit of a turning point on this album, when I realized the person who served as the “you” in a lot of these songs was really just me parsing through my own feelings.
My producer Jim and I had a few different arrangements for this song, but we settled on a more stripped down version that leads to a long, hopeful crescendo at the end, accompanied by the voice of Caroline Marie Brooks.
There’s a certain kind of light during “golden hour” when the sun comes through your window and suddenly everything looks different. You notice the dust on your table, the dirt on your floor, the crumbs on your counter. I tried to capture that moment in song form. For a long time I only had the line “Life is like a cheap wine, it don’t get any better with time” and I kind of built the song slowly around that one line. Caroline Marie Brooks was working on her album with producer Jim Bryson around the same time as mine, and graciously lent her lovely voice to this song.
This song was a deep dive into my feelings of bitterness and anger that weren’t really directed at anyone/anything in particular. I’d randomly catch myself grinding my teeth or clenching my jaw to the point where I’d give myself headaches. I was clearly on edge, and I knew that was something I’d need to unpack.
My wife and I have been together for 14 years. I’ve made four albums and still haven’t truly written a song for her (mostly because she hates it when I write about her). This past year filled me with appreciation as she continues to be an unwavering support system, and this song kind of poured right out of me.
As an introvert, I’m kind of a “bottle-it-in” type of person. But every once in a while all that bottled up energy likes to show itself in strange ways/places. I could be in the most beautiful place in the world and be stuck on a thought about something completely unimportant. Ultimately this song is about pleading with myself to just enjoy the fucking moment for once.
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© Jen Squires
:: Stream Ken Yates ::