Artist Spotlight: youbet

    youbet is the Brooklyn project led by singer-songwriter Nick Llobet, who grew up in South Florida and started playing guitar at an early age. Having spent much of their early 20s in search of an artistic voice and musical community, Llobet considered abandoning songwriting entirely, but a chance encounter with Patti Smith encouraged them to put all their energy back into it. They took up the moniker youbet as a play on their last name – play being, still, the most crucial element in their songwriting – and dropped their delightfully quirky and adventurous debut LP, Compare and Despair, in 2020. By the time of its release, Llobet had already written more than an album’s worth of songs, but turned away from songwriting throughout the year, eventually returning to them in the summer of 2021. Their new album, Way to Be, showcases Llobet’s increasingly confident vocals and complex instrumental work while continuing to test the limits of a pop song – devilishly careening between moments of anger, confusion, innocence, and pure wonder. It’s as gripping as it is surprising, like the record keeps firing back at its own title: more than one.

    We caught up with youbet for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about meeting Patti Smith, their songwriting journey, their sophomore album, and more.

    Part of what inspired you to form youbet was meeting Patti Smith while she was waiting for a train. What do you remember about that encounter?

    Yeah, I saw her at the train station in 2016. This was before I was really putting myself out there as a songwriter in the New York scene; I was kinda hiding in some ways. I was just very shy, I didn’t have many friends at the time. I was in a very weird place in my life. I saw her there and immediately recognized her. I just walked up to her and I said, “Excuse me.” She was looking at her phone and was like, “Hold on.” I thought, “Oh my god, she’s gonna hate me! I’m so dumb, why did I try to talk to her?” Then she looked up at me, saw me with my guitar, and I guess my energy was non-threatening or something, so she was just like, “Oh, hello! She was so happy to have a conversation with me. She kept asking me all these questions about what kind of guitar I had, what kind of music I played, where I was going, if we were on the same train. She was asking me so many questions, and I told her I actually couldn’t formulate any words because I was so nervous. Something overcame and told me to say hello to this person; nothing overcame me to actually know what to ask her. I froze, and she kept the conversation going. I think she said, “Don’t worry, I’m like the most socially awkward person in the world.”

    Then my train was coming, so I had to go. She would have kept talking to me, it was so beautiful. It inspired me so much how nice she was, how welcoming and encouraging. When she said goodbye, she remembered my name and said, “Practice hard, Nick.” That weekend was pivotal for me. It was a really special moment in my development as a songwriter because that weekend I bought this cassette recorder on eBay, and that cassette recorder is where I recorded all the demos for all the music that anyone’s heard of mine, basically from that time period until now. That cassette recorder was the beginning of me deciding to record my music on my own at home. I wanted to start a band, to get my music to more people, and I built it with that cassette recorder. Meeting her, having been influenced by her as a songwriter coming up and what she stands for, it was a special energy that came into me that weekend. She said, “Practice hard,” and I really took it to heart. I’ve practiced pretty hard since then.

    What was your journey like from that point on, not just of practicing your instrument, but building your confidence and a sense of identity as an artist?

    It was very hard. To be honest with you, it’s still very hard. People don’t realize how nervous I am when I perform or when I talk to people sometimes. I’m good at faking it, but I have chronic, severe anxiety around performing, which is funny because I created this life for myself. But it’s a work in progress. I have a hard time confronting the audience with banter, trying to talk to the audience face to face, so these are things I’m still working on. But my identity as an artist is always changing and growing. I wouldn’t say I’ve really found the thing that I’m super satisfied with, but I’m definitely excited by the journey of finding new things. It’s like an RPG video game or something; I’m always trying to get more experience points and level up. It’s a never-ending journey of learning and practice. Problem-solving is a big part of my outlook on how to build myself better. I just try to solve problems where possible, and if they arise over and over, I ask myself, “Why is this happening? How can I avoid it?” I’m still searching, honestly.

    I like this analogy of it being like an RPG game. If you had to think of a starting point, how far back would you go?

    I started having interested in playing the guitar – only the guitar, I did not care about singing, I despised the idea of singing, I was not interested in writing songs. I just wanted to play the guitar and be really impressive. I was so obsessed with being the best guitarist. That kind of wore away after a few years, and I started asking myself, “How am I going to use the guitar in a way that allows me to create a platform for myself where I can showcase my creativity in a well-rounded manner?” So, I went to Berkeley College of Music. I was fortunate enough to have gone there for only two semesters or so. And while I was there, I was rubbing shoulders with so many incredible singer-songwriter-guitarists. It dawned on me that’s what I had to do – I had to learn how to create the blueprint of the song. Even though I dreaded singing, I had to learn, so I had the control and the ability to lock myself in my room and create a song with vocals, lyrics, and music on the guitar. So that’s how it started, I was probably around 20 years old when I started singing and taking it very seriously. I shifted my focus from being a great guitar player to being a songwriter, writing songs where great guitar playing could exist.

    How did shifting your attention away from skill open up your creativity?

    It opened up my mind completely. There’s a coldness to playing your instrument, with no words, no consideration of a plot or a story or a little world that you create. It’s one-dimensional to just play an instrument sometimes, at least for me. But when I found the songwriting craft, it allowed me to dig deeper into, “How do I put this into words? How are you feeling? How can I make this a compelling statement that people can interpret however they feel?” It added a dimension to my ability to feel while playing music and writing. Even performing in front of people is a whole other thing. It’s like acting, when you’re a singer and you write these words and you’re singing them for an audience. Sometimes I write about things that make no sense and it’s not my life experience, I just like the way the words sound. It’s fun to put on these different masks and perform as if you’re an actor, so that element was something new to me as well. I was turning into these characters; each song was like a different little creature that I’ve birthed. Finding the new craft of songwriting totally opened the gates for my personality to really come out more.

    Looking back on all the songs you’ve written, do you feel like there’s been a thread in terms of the experiences or feelings you seek out in your songwriting?

    Yeah, there’s a thread for sure. When I come across something I’ve written a long time ago in my early stages of experimentation, much as I cringe at it, there is an element of, you just can’t escape yourself, no matter what. You’re always gonna be you. I can relate to it still in a way where I’m like, maybe I won’t show people and say, “Listen to this old song I wrote,” but I will appreciate the thread that I find. And that thread is, I have this obsession when I write songs, I get really, really into it. I spend days with a melody in my head. There’s just this thing inside me. My whole life, I’ve always had that, that’s something I cannot escape. It sounds scary, but it’s actually awesome because it’s really fun to birth these songs. It’s such an accomplishment. Our lives on this planet are so short; when you create a song, you’re encapsulating this magical energy. Sometimes I’ll work on them for hours and hours, for many days, and I won’t even use the song. It’ll just end up in the back burner for years, and then I’ll rediscover it years later and go, “Oh, this is a cool idea.” And then I’ll steal the chorus of that song and put it in another song.

    I know the song ‘Carsick’ is about obsessive behaviour more broadly, but how does that line, “Knowing where to stop/ It must be sweet,” also apply to your creative process?

    I’m a very obsessive person in all aspects of my life. It’s definitely not a healthy thing in some ways, but I try to find balance where I can. I just find that I live with a high level of stress and anxiety all the time. Even with my songwriting, I find that I go overboard. I will burn myself out a lot. Almost every time I finish a song, I’m settling on something. It’s not like I won the battle, it’s like I quit the battle, in a way. I’m never fully like, “This is so good. This is finished.” It’s just impossible for my brain to do that. Even if I look back on it and I’m like, “That was a great song,” in the moment of me making that song, I probably was unsure of it. That’s just the nature of my work ethic. I’m a little too hard on myself, but I do appreciate that nothing is precious to me at the end of the day. Well, sometimes it is, but most times I try to look at every song as just another song to finish. Everything is always a work in progress – even five years after writing this album, I’m still finding ways to iron out different things with the live set. Nothing is ever really fully finished in my world, nothing is ever too precious.

    I think having that mindset is very healthy because what it does is it allows you to invite more new things into your life as a creative person versus getting fixated on this one thing. I am obsessive and I do fixate, but I try to keep things moving where possible. That’s my effort to balance the obsession. Even though I could work on this song and never be happy, it’s time to move on and finish the song. It took me years to learn how to finish a song, and that’s a discipline that’s more of a psychological, emotional discipline than it is learning how to play your instrument or whatever. Having that mentality allows me to just go on to the next song, and then I get reinfatuated with a new melody that’s in my head in the morning when I wake up. It’s never-ending – I always have a song to work on, and that’s kind of what keeps me company in life.

    You wrote the bones of the songs on Way to Be in 2019, and then you fleshed them out them sometime later. What was it like to revisit them?

    Compare and Despair, the first album I put, came out like a couple months before the lockdown in March 2020. I was so excited, was going to tour, all this stuff, and then the lockdown happened, and I got very cynical about the music industry, very cynical about my craft as a songwriter. I just gave up songwriting for about a year, which is the first time in my adult life that I had ever done that. Imagine, I talked my ass off about how much I’m obsessed with songwriting, and I actually took a whole year to kind of be like, “I can’t really write.” I got really into learning flamenco guitar and some classical guitar, just getting into fingerstyle guitar playing – in a way, went back to my old teenage self. Then I got into audio engineering, just researching gear and getting into the idea of mixing, even though I’ve never mixed anything in my life and don’t necessarily plan on it. Since I had the stimulus check we got, I bought a tape machine and some recording gear, and I decided I’m going to record about 12 songs from that batch of demos I made and record them with nicer gear. Even though I wasn’t writing new songs, I was refining these songs, fixing them, adding different parts.

    On your debut, you sang, “Mental illness, it grabs you and pulls you down under.” I feel like Way to Be is a bit more abstract and veiled in its lyricism, even though it touches on similar themes. Does that feel like a conscious progression to you?

    Sometimes I just say what I mean in lyrics; sometimes it comes out and it feels genuine, and I go with it. But most times, I’m playing – I really like wordplay. I like to kind of stick my tongue out at people who expect a long-winded story. I look at my songs as kind of snapshots of my life, even though it’s abstract. For Compare and Despair, I had some more straightforward songs, where I remember consciously trying to write something straightforward. But for Way to Be, I can’t name one song that really has a straightforward storyline. Writing lyrics the way I do takes a lot of pressure off myself because it’s hard for me to write straightforward. I think I have ADD – I never was diagnosed with it, but I have a feeling I have it – and when I write lyrics, it’s almost a joke for me to try to stay in one place. When I go to write, it’s just sparks of words and images, it’s so overpowering. Sometimes I don’t edit what I write right away, and I’ll look back with a fresh mind and say, “It makes zero sense, but there’s imagery, and the words fit together in such a way that it’s fun.” It’s like a painting where someone splashes paint on the wall, but it’s pleasing to the eye.

    One song that stood out to me as being pretty direct and confrontational is ‘Trauma’.

    Yeah, that one’s not wordplay. That song, now that I think about it, actually has the most real lyrics. It’s about me from the perspective of my partner. A lot of people might think, “Oh, who’s Nick trashing in this song?” Well, it’s my partner trashing me! I just wrote that song from the perspective of someone who’s with a very needy, codependent person. I just wanted to write a song about myself, it helps me – I don’t know if it even helps me, but it was a fun song to write. I definitely felt weird about that song, but I’m glad that it made the album. There are some cool chord changes in there. [laughs]

    I feel like there’s a contrast between darkness and playfulness in your music, which is illustrated by the two album covers. Do you feel like there’s a push-and-pull between those tendencies when you’re making music?

    I find it’s very balanced. If I notice I’m in a dark mood and I’m writing a song in that vibe, I’ll make the bridge of that song funny or completely change it to major chords or something. I’m always thinking of balancing things. I think that’s the whole mission statement of this project: how can someone get a full experience of emotions in a two-and-a-half-minute song? It’s like a game for me to see how I can be unexpected, and balancing something super dark with something beautiful, or mixing funny lyrics with sad music – that’s life, you know? I love playing with that stuff, and I think it’s important not to get caught up in one mood too much. I’m easily turned off by things that don’t fit my personality, so if I were to write a long, super dark song, I might feel like it’s not my style. I love to keep things lighthearted, even if they seem heavy or fucked up.

    If this whole process is like a game, what’s the biggest reward for you?

    If I’m writing a song and I find the perfect chorus or bridge, I can’t explain to you how exciting that is for me. It’s what I live for in my craft. Every day I’m looking for something – today I’m going to work on a song when we’re done with this, and I’m going to be searching for the bridge because I have all the other parts. When I do find the part and I know that it’s the right part – sometimes I’ll still be unsure of it for a while, sometimes I’ll never be sure of it – that’s what I do it for. I play that song all the time in my room, and then the melody comes over my head in all times of the day, and I become possessed by this song.

    Then there are two other things that make me feel like it’s really worth it. One is the recording process. When I go into the studio and record the song and then listen back and I’m proud of it, that’s another huge high for me. And then the next thing and biggest one is performing them live. Wen I write songs, I’m always thinking about what will this feel like playing live? Will I feel proud to sing these lyrics to an audience, will I feel proud to hold my guitar and represent this song that I’ve created? And when I do get on stage and play these songs, and I’m feeling amazing playing them, it’s what keeps me going. I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of it.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    youbet’s Way to Be is out now via Hardly Art.

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