When Trevor Powers first started working on his next Youth Lagoon album, it felt like nothing was snapping into place. “Nothing really made sense,” he told me. “It seemed like I just kept hitting wall after wall.” He had released three acclaimed albums before putting the dream-pop project on hiatus, finding refuge at his Idaho home and experimenting with sound – sculpting, manipulating, and disintegrating it into something more fragile and personal on two tapes issued under his own name, most recently 2020’s Capricorn. Then, in October 2021, he suffered a severe reaction to an over-the-counter medication he took for a minor stomach ache that nearly cost him his voice. It was a chaotic and terrifying time in his life that, in addition to fostering a deeper appreciation for home, the people around him, and God, carried such spiritual weight that it pushed him to confront the fear that was choking up his creativity. On his new album Heaven Is a Junkyard, he applies this renewed perspective to peer into the haunted beauty of his small-town surroundings, blurring and melding with his own internal landscape in ways that feel not muddled or weightless, but revelatory and – once again, or rather still – comforting.
We caught up with Trevor Powers to talk about some of the inspirations behind Heaven Is a Junkyard, including Wim Wenders’ road movies, Idaho, people in his neighbourhood, and more.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker
Beyond their influence on the visual identity of the album, do you see a thematic or spiritual thread between the films you were watching and the ideas you explore on Heaven Is a Junkyard?
I definitely do. When I write, the main thing that I’m pulling from fuel-wise, when it’s not something that’s happening in my own existence – there could be sparks that come from a certain conversation I have with someone or some wild thing I see a neighbour do – the most consistent way for me to get new ideas is to just watch movies and find filmmakers and fall in love with their work. I find myself tapping into that side of things way more than I find myself tapping into other music. When I’m listening to a lot of other music, it’s much easier, because it’s the same medium to emulate that. With film, it’s a different thing altogether, so I could take all these feelings and everything that it’s giving me and then push that out in a way that it turns into its own beast.
Stalker is one of those films that, when I first started falling in love with the work of Tarkovsky, it was almost like I was being born as an artist for the first time. It’s that same feeling of being a little kid and you find something that’s so formative – we go through all these stage as kids that we take for granted. Say you’re 12 years old, every single thing that hits you, it becomes a part of you and your sponge and you regurgitate it, and somewhere along the line that gets lost in adulthood, for a lot of people at least. But that does not have to be the case. In adulthood, you have to seek it out a lot more, and you have to be willing to stretch yourself. It’s all about that constant state of discovery. I think the reason Stalker speaks to me so much is it’s such a naturalistic film, and there’s so much minimalism. But what really puts that movie over the top is the power of imagination; there’s just enough given to you that, somehow, he created the greatest science fiction film, in my opinion, of all time, without even showing you much in terms of what would be considered traditional science fiction. It’s all happening in your mind and in your subconscious. When I watched that movie for the first time, I was actually speechless.
Have you found yourself reaching back to it recently for that kind of inspiration?
I’ve rewatched it so many times, because whenever I get stuck, that movie is one of the big ones where when I watch it, it’s kind of like a hard reset. It helps me be able to refocus and set up my mind in this new way where things make a little more sense.
Wim Wenders’ road movies
Even beyond what’s categorized as Wim Wenders’ road movies, it seems like that idea of road and travel, that search for home or identity, is in pretty much every single thing that he’s done, and that’s what I relate to. Some of the stuff that makes his work so fascinating is when he has movies that take place in America, because he’s a German filmmaker, it has this fishbowl effect where he’s able to see things that Americans can’t see, and bring to light these things that we might be so used to seeing that we’re not really able to even witness the beauty about it. Paris, Texas is one of those. If Paris, Texas was made by a filmmaker that was born and raised somewhere in America, I think it would have been a dramatically different film – not to say it couldn’t have had magic, but I think the magic would have been very different. If you’re looking at something that you’re so used to looking at, it’s because we’re viewing things from such a one-dimensional point of view. It’s only if we move slightly to the side that then we see things for either how they really are, or it just gives us another way to understand what that thing is.
Do you actively try to adopt that perspective in your creative process? That seems to be where the song ‘Idaho Alien’ came from.
Yeah, that was totally it. I feel like that whole song was written from that perspective. That’s what I pulled a lot from. Alice in the Cities, which is one of my favorite films of all time, is a very different cinematic execution of what a road movie is and the boundaries that we set on that, but it’s again from the outsider’s perspective of travel and America. And with me having such an essential focus on home throughout the whole album, and I would say heavily on certain songs like ‘Idaho Alien’, some of Wim’s work pushed me to really force myself to move to the side, see what I see, move to the side again, see what I see – in terms not waking up and going through locks around my neighborhood and seeing the same old shit, because I was never really alive to that. It felt so numb because I was so used to seeing it. But if I put myself in someone else’s shoes every morning that I go for walk and I see what I see and I talk to the people I talk to – it did something in me with what I was able to pull from those experiences that I truly did feel like an outsider. Because often in real life I do feel like an outsider, and I do feel like there’s these worlds that exist in my head and in my head alone, and sometimes they’re playing out in real-time as I’m having “other real experiences” in actual life.
I get the sense that your songwriting opened up on this album by being able zero in on what’s close to home. How would you paint a picture of Idaho to someone who’s never been there, and how do you feel that corresponds with how most people would describe it?
I’d say the experience living here is so dramatically different to what people might have in their head if they hear about Idaho. There’s so much crazy shit that goes down here, but then there’s also so much beauty, and it’s so multidimensional. First off, it’s a pretty big place, so it depends, obviously, on where you’re at in it. I live in Boise, and Boise is the capital, but even within Boise, the specific part of Boise that you’re in will determine the kinds of people you’re around, the kinds of ideologies you’re surrounded by, the kinds of religions that might be saturated within those areas, the images that you see on a daily basis. If you could live in the mountains, it could look like you’re in Alaska or you’re in Switzerland, because some of the forest is so dense and everything is just so fucking beautiful. But then you could also be in these areas where there’s prairies as far as the eye can see, and it feels like no man’s land. But that is also equally beautiful in a totally different way.
When you grow up here, it’s easy to take a lot of that for granted and not really see it. I’ll have friends that come to town, and we’ll go on road trips and just drive through Idaho, and a lot of what we see is some of the most beautiful stuff that they might have ever seen. And in their head they were thinking of it as being this – I have no idea what, but it’s not what they actually experience when they’re here. That being said, there’s also there’s so much in terms of the ideology thing – that’s another reason why it’s so easy to feel like an outsider. Politically, socially, everything that’s happening in my world is so different than what is common around some of these areas. It’s easier to be in certain parts of Boise, because certain corners can be way more progressive, more loving, accepting, gracious, all the above. But then other parts, you’re in a totally different world.
It’s so fascinating to have these two universes exist right next to each other. It’s not like some of these major cities like New York and LA, these places where you’re not constantly challenged by having conversations with people that you might never see eye to eye with. You’re forced to see them as a human being, to see that the reason that they are who they are is because of certain life circumstances, the way they were raised, the religions they were raised in, and it gives you this ability to have a little more grace with it all. I feel like that’s when we, as human beings, can truly start to transcend and advance more into this world that we want to be in. because if we’re not listening to each other, we’ll never get anywhere.
Do you feel like the past few years have solidified this idea of Idaho being home, or is it something you still wrestle with?
I definitely still wrestle with it, and I think I always will wrestle with it. I can’t tell you for sure where I’m going to be living in the next year, two years, three years, 10 years, there’s there’s no way to know. But I will say that, for the first time in my life, I’m having a firm grasp on what it is that home means, and it’s really attached to love. Wherever you feel that unbounded love, that’s home. One of the things I’ll bring up is, I have so many nieces, and being surrounded by that, their laughs and their smiles, it’s always so giving to my life. I might have certain parts of my life be chaotic, and then I come back home and I’m around them – it really fills my spirit. That’s not to say I’ll always be in Idaho, but it is to say that right now it’s continuing to give.
People around the neighbourhood
The neighborhood is sort of a character in itself on the album. When you think about it as a source of inspiration, do you have specific people or images in mind, or is it more abstract and imaginary?
It’s a combination of everything. If I’m playing with characters in a song, sometimes the characters will be an exact representation of some experience that I had; other times it’ll be a combination of multiple people in my life or multiple people I’ve kind of collected around me, if you will. I’m always trying to talk to people that I might not naturally have them be a close friend or choose to hang out with them all the time, but I’m always trying to meet new people and be in unexpected conversations, so I’m collecting those stories as they happen. The main thing throughout this whole album is the fact that I’m in all the stories. I’ll take these things that might feel a little bit like they’re coming from a fictional or semi-fictional universe, but I’ll intersperse them with lines that are pretty much directly out of my journal, so that, when there’s a line that’s coming directly from me, it feels much more powerful and piercing when it’s in the mix of these things that might be coming from other people. Because I noticed that when I’m writing purely from my own perspective, from my own part and soul, it can feel a little too weighty or on the nose. But if I have a little bit of separation and I’m putting that voice in the mix of what’s essentially other voices and other characters, then it means more.
Can you give an example of the sorts of unexpected conversations you found yourself in?
There’s so many different real-life characters on my street. I have a neighbour, for instance – she was divorced years ago and her ex-husband gave the house to their son, and then she ended up spiralling into meth addiction, mainly meth, that she hasn’t been able to stop her entire life. So her son felt some sympathy, gave her the house, and she’s turned it into this drug den where she’ll have drug buddies come, some of them sleep in her backyard in a tent. That was happening for a long time, and she didn’t want to pay for utilities, trash and recycling and all that, so they would burn their trash and recycling, and it would sometimes waft through my windows. I have really bad insulation around my windows, so some of the plastic trash smoke would come in and it’s a fucking nightmare. She had this boyfriend of hers that was living in the backyard that one night tried to stab her. She locked him out; the police found him hiding in the bushes.
I’ve kind of developed a friendship with her – I have to keep myself a little bit at a safe distance, but a little bit of a friendship. I saw her in the neighborhood one day, and she told me how much she still loves him, even though he tried to kill her. It’s just that kind of stuff where, I don’t even know how – first off, how to start in a response to her. And second, obviously, that’s so heavy, but then it’s couple with other things that could be really funny; like, she tends to mow her lawn at 3am. I have no idea why, I think that just it just makes sense to her and her brain And there’s been so many times I’ve come out to ask her, you know, she’s keep keeping me up, if she wouldn’t mind mowing in the morning, and then we start talking about Subway sandwiches, and it just spirals into these other things. So, I don’t know what else to do with some of those stories and what I’m surrounded by, except take take all that emotional fuel, or whatever you want to call it, and then channel it into some of these other things in music.
Do you always feel that need to channel these things, or is there also some reticence around it?
If I have some conversation with her, for instance, I wouldn’t feel okay sitting down and then writing a song about her mowing the lawn at 3am and our talks about Subway. That would feel a little too invasive. But what I can do is take some of the way that that makes me feel – and there’s so much horror there, but there’s also so much comedy – and that does feel kind of like a compulsion, to at least get some of that out. Also, she might just be a neighbor, but I have so many people and friends and family where it’s the same thing. My uncle, who is one of my best friends, he died of an overdose years ago. Reckoning with that, but also reckoning with the joy that he had at the same time – it’s so easy for people to dismiss other people as having xyz problem, but they’re dismissing what can be the complexities of humanity and everything that comes along with it, like joy, that can happen at the same time as some of these wrestling matches with the devil.
My uncle was full of that, you know. He was the fucking best dude ever to hang out with, and then he would piece out to go find crack, but he would hide it from my family. He’d come stay with my family and he’d hide it, because he knew that if he was caught with crack again, then my parents would kick him out, and he wouldn’t be able to stay with us. To me it’s like, he comes back, his eyes might look a little different, but that’s still my uncle. And I don’t know why he’s different, but he’s still laughing, and he’s still funny and telling the best jokes ever. It really drives me crazy when people try to categorize things as, you’re only in this category, and then you’re in this category. There are no lines, and if there are lines, the lines are so incredibly blurry that you can barely see them.
It’s a similar thing with friendship, where people have such a narrow view of it even though the lines can be blurry. But it sounds like those experiences of talking to different people have changed your perspective on what friendship means, and that made its way onto the album.
I’m the kind of person that can be easily affected by the energy I’m around, so when it comes to day-to-day friends and people that I’m really going to invest my heart and soul into, it has to be a certain type of energy that I also want to feed in my life; I want to harvest that and grow it. I have to safeguard myself a little bit with being choosy on the kind of – I keep using the word “characters,” but I think one of the most important words that there is in terms of people would be character. If I see someone has a certain type of character that I want to emulate, then I’ll really surround myself with that, and if they don’t, then I’ll still invest and and love and try to understand and be there for people, but I have to keep a safe distance. That’s always this thing that’s circulating, where I have so many different types of friends; I have the friends that are the fucking diehard friends that I’d do whatever for, and they would do whatever for me, and then the friends were it’s more of a – I get exhausted being around them, but I will give and give until I have just enough, and then I have to piece out and go recharge.
How has your relationship to these concepts developed over time? You also mentioned meditation, so I wonder if it’s something that’s become more concrete or practicable.
Yeah, meditation has been huge for me; life-changing. I’ve always had the kind of brain that I could never figure out how to slow down, or I didn’t even think it was possible, to be honest. I just thought that was my neurotype and I was stuck with that for the rest of my life. But after I started meditating, it did this thing where, after about four months, I realized that I had more control over that knob of self-talk, and, more importantly, what the self-talk was saying. That was the game changer for me, because as soon as I had control of that knob, the more time that I invested in silence and stillness and pursuit of wholeness, the more that the good energy in my life kept increasing in size.
God comes into play – well, really, in everything in my life. The God that I grew up with was such a different type of God, because there was so many boundaries put on that – depending on people’s history with going to church or experiences around whatever church they might be in their in their general vicinity, even the word God can have a lot of stickiness. But to me, the older that I’ve gotten, and the more I’ve pursued that feeling of true beauty and true love and true grace and true acceptance – and I fall on my face all the fucking time, but it’s that pursuit of it – the more I see God everywhere I look. To the point where It, He, She, whatever you want to call God, is so prevalent that it’s undeniable. But I would and could never put words or vocabulary to try to define that in a religious sense, because there’s so much truth in so many different traditions and different people. You can find wisdom everywhere. And the funny thing about truth is when it comes to you, it might come in a package that you’re least expecting. But when it shows up, it completely knocks you over the head, and you kind of sense: Oh, this feels true.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.