STRINGS & SUDS SERIES: Blake Christiana of Yarn
On rainy days, 17th-century sailors would hunker down, repair the ropes, and tell long stories to soften the monotonous time. They were spinning yarn. And when you give the band Yarn a spin, the first thing you will notice is that the story is the most important part of the song.
Yarn got their start with a two-year long Monday night residency at Kenny’s Castaway in New York’s Greenwich Village in 2006. Spending over 100 Mondays in a row, on the same stage, in NYC, is akin to a Master’s Degree in live-music performance and band dynamics. That time in the trenches accelerated the maturation of the bands sound.
Two of the four members of Yarn still live in NY. But when you are at a Yarn show in Raleigh, or anywhere else in NC for that matter, the band is treated like native sons. Even before Yarn frontman and songwriter Blake Christiana made the move to Raleigh six years ago, their songs found a home in NC. Their songs are meaningful, though-out, told with feeling, and above all, they are stories. And storytelling is a well respected art form around these parts. No matter what medium through which the tale is spun.
NC Music Magazine recently caught up with Christiana in anticipation of Yarn’s performance at Strings & Suds Festival.
BT: Was music around you when you were young?
BC: Definitely. My father threw me into music when I was a kid. He and his friends were always playing guitar around the campfire during our summer vacations in Lake George, NY. I felt forced into it when I was real young. And then I quit for a little bit. But when I was 12 or 13 I started getting back into it on my own. And then that would be all my dad and I would do--sit in the living room and play.
BT: What was he teaching you to play?
BC: He was really into Ricky Nelson and Elvis. We actually started recording a Ricky Nelson tribute album with my dad 10 years ago. We finally finished it and we are mixing it right now. So that album is on the horizon. My old man has played a huge role in any success I have had. This Ricky Nelson album is definitely a tribute to him.
BT: What musicians inspired you the most when you were learning to play?
BC: I would go to the library in Schenectady, NY and get Simon and Garfunkel records, which you could check out for free. Then I would bring them home and tape them onto a cassette before I returned them. That's what really got me into playing again after I had quit for a while as a kid. I would also listen to The Beatles, The Who, and Neil Young. Then my friends and I got into the Grateful Dead and the counterculture that surrounded the band.
BT: When did you link up with the other members of Yarn?
BC: I was living in New York City and playing in a band called Blake and the Family Dog, and we started doing a residency at Kenny's Castaway on Bleeker Street. There was a rotating cast of musicians, but evetually Yarn took form on that stage. I am super lucky to have hooked up with these guys. They are the best musicians and bandmates. It’s easy to spend 100+ hours a week with them. Sometimes it’s just about getting along.
BT: Was there an Americana scene in NYC when you were playing there?
BC: There was a really small alt-country scene. A good friend of mine had a band called The Doc Marshalls, and he introduced me to what was going on outside of the singer-songwriter world. I really didn’t know about “Americana”, and when we had to put a record out to radio, Nick put us in touch with an Americana radio promoter. I didn’t realize the whole Americana genre of music was happening. I was listening to a lot of singer-songwriters at that point. Like Tom Waits or Lou Reed. But I didn’t know who Wilco or Uncle Tupelo were. He let me know there was a market for a certain kind of sound. Americana was a way for me to create a fuller sound while still getting the singer-songwriter vibe. Our first two records were acoustic, but as we grew, we built on that. The Grateful Dead really had and influence on how our sound evolved. When you take away the jamming, and just break down the songs, the Grateful Dead is country-rock and Americana.
BT: Songwriting isn't always in the front seat for a lot of bands. But for you, it’s seems to have always been the most important part of what you are doing.
BC: No doubt. The other stuff just happened organically. The sound just grew around the songs. I love taking a song out and jamming a little bit, but I don’t want to take it out too far. The song is at the center of it all.
BT: With some bands, you don’t know where the song ends and the jam begins, or if there if there is even a song there. That's why I fell in love with The Grateful Dead. The song was at the heart of it, even when they took things way out there. For a lot of listeners and musicians, The Grateful Dead led the way for story-based songwriting with a much fuller sound. The Band did as well. For me, that’s where Americana stems from.
BC: Absolutely. I like some improvisation and instrumental interludes, but for me, I want to hear songs. I remember when I saw Neil Young for the first time. It was his Harvest Moon tour. The first half of his show was just him and a piano, or him and a guitar. To this day, I don’t think I have heard a more powerful performance. He seemed god-like to me.
BT: When I see you play to a crowd in the Triangle area of NC, I would think you were a band that formed here. Not one that lived the first half of its life in NYC. How did this happen?
BC: Well, the first year we started touring, we headed south. And for whatever reason, this particular group of dedicated music fans and concert goers picked up on what we were doing, and through word of mouth, things picked up quickly here in the south. We are really good friends with that initial group of people that supported us here. They have put us up in their homes and made it possible for us to come down. There was a certain generosity here in North Carolina we weren't used to in NYC. And NYC wasn't our home town. We were all from other places and were playing music in the city. North Carolina quickly became a hometown crowd for us. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I would say generosity and hospitality were the start of it.