The resurrection of Trevor Powers’ buried project, following a devastating reaction to some over-the-counter medication
In 2016, Trevor Powers voluntarily burned down his career. After three successful album releases under the moniker of Youth Lagoon – three bodies of sensitive, delicate, homespun DIY art-pop that had made him a darling of the indie world – he had come to feel alienated by his own creation, and he made the bold decision to put the Youth Lagoon name to rest.
He immediately enjoyed the liberating sense of adventure that recording under his birth name allowed him, and his two subsequent albums are the work of an artist cutting free from his own shackles, rejoicing away from the gaze of an expectant fanbase. He was in a creatively fulfilling phase – until a routine visit to the doctor triggered a sequence of events that forced him to re-evaluate it all.
“He asked me if there were any weird sensations or anything going on in my body,” Powers recalls. “The only thing I had was this tiny pain in my stomach. I’d had it for a couple of days. In hindsight, I should have never fucking said anything.”
The doctor sent Powers to the grocery store to pick up some over-the-counter medication, but what should have been a standard reaction was anything but. As Powers explains: “It turned my digestive system upside down, it almost felt like the gravity had reversed. It turned my stomach into a geyser of acid that was shooting upwards.”
The reaction lasted for over eight months, coating Powers’ vocal cords in a mist of acid that rendered them unusable. Multiple trips to specialists and invasive medical procedures ensued, but no diagnosis or solution was forthcoming. Powers lost thirty pounds and was unable to speak, let alone sing. When his brother came to visit, they communicated by pen and paper and text messages.
Powers was in “absolutely god awful” pain throughout, so much so that he began seeing a hypnotherapist to deal with it. There were knock-on effects on his eyesight, and his whole body would occasionally convulse in spasms. “It was so unbearable that it made my body feel like a prison,” he says.
Eventually, with the passage of time, Powers’ body began to return to normal, but the psychological effects were long-lasting. He had only intermittently felt any creative drive during the crisis; as he emerged from it, though, he found his perspective to be somewhat surprising.
“The experience ended up turning into something really powerful. It was really the greatest teacher I’ve ever had, because I had nowhere to go but internally,” he says.
Through a process of professional therapy, he began to question the decisions he had taken in his life, and rediscovered a love for his own work as Youth Lagoon that he admitted he had lost sight of. “That was really when the freedom started,” he remembers. “I decided I was going to take [the Youth Lagoon name], and bring it into the future, where I could morph it into whatever the fuck I wanted to morph it into.”
The resulting record is Heaven is a Junkyard, released via Fat Possum on 9th June, the first Youth Lagoon album in eight years. It is an ornamentally fragile, intimate record where Powers’ trembling voice holds hands with plaintive upright piano notes and lap steel guitar licks, in what Powers himself describes as an “upside down Americana universe”.
The songs are bonded by themes of family, alienation and rebirth, where characters ponder their roles in the world, amid a backdrop of inner emotional turmoil. It might be too easy to assume that Powers was using the writing process as an attempt to process his trauma, but even he wouldn’t totally deny it.
“The album isn’t about this experience,” he says. “But at the same time, the album wouldn’t exist without it. All of the emotional fuel and ammunition was coming from what this whole thing had been.”
He began to rekindle his love for the constraints that recording as Youth Lagoon required, with an attention to relatively conventional song structures, or “lines in the road to drive between” as he puts it, as well as an attachment to melody, which throughout Heaven is a Junkyard are uniformly heart-rending.
As a lyricist, Powers has a poetic brio that can make locating exact autobiographical detail difficult, but when on ‘Idaho Alien’ he sings, “I don’t remember how it happened / Blood filled up the clawfoot bath / And I will fear no frontier,” we are listening in on something very real.
“It was written during the peak of my body feeling like a prison,” he says. “I was laying in the bathtub and I wanted to end it, because I felt like there was no escape. But rather than doing that, obviously, I just pretended that I did it. I gave myself a mini-death, and it felt like I had this rebirth. It was as if I’d killed off this part of me and now I had this other chance. I went to the room right next to the bathroom where my studio is and I wrote that chorus. So it’s a very non-fictional thing that lives in a fictional world.”
The album could have been forgiven if it had sought to dwell on the negativity, but Powers makes sure that as dark as things might occasionally seem at the surface level, the music is constantly seeking the light, its attention fixed on the end of the tunnel. The creative process, after all, did so much to bring him out of a dark place, an artistic escape hatch that now stands as a testament to him conquering the greatest challenge of his life.
Even from the album’s very title, Powers’ faith has played a pivotal role in this chapter in his life. He suspects his strict Christian parents are not fans of the Heaven is a Junkyard phrase, and while his own path has diverged from any such rigid religious stricture, he takes solace in the comfort that it brought him at his lowest points.
“There is so much out there that I don’t know,” he says. “But I do know that there is something great and beautiful there on my walks, in my meditation. You can call it God or whatever you want, but I definitely feel it, to the point where when I’m in these places, especially if I’m just quiet in my room and I’m drowning out distractions, I can get to the point where I just start crying because I feel so much of this other veil there.”
It is typical of the richness of his self-reflection now that Powers is able to talk about the entire process with such insight and resolution, and he knows that the second phase of Youth Lagoon is primed to be more personally and spiritually fulfilling than anything he has done so far.
“After everything that I’ve been through leading up to making this album, I don’t want any of it to go out the window, just because I start getting busy. The most important thing to me is that the person I’ve become stays intact, and beyond that, I can keep adding onto what this identity is.
“I’m in a scenario where life looks different and feels and smells and tastes different, it all feels alive. And I don’t want to waste it.”
Photography by Tyler T. Williams