Singer-songwriter Wes Youssi's passion for country music began at six years old listening to his grandmother play Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves records. The Portland-based artist, who is preparing to release his new album, Down Low, on January 19th, kindly took the time to answer his Essential 8 and talk about the album's title, success and struggle, and much more.
What’s the story behind your album’s title?
The name Down Low was chosen because this whole project, for me, was about bringing up emotions that I held deep within. Like so many other artists, I can’t communicate like most “normal” people do. My feelings are often way too strong (or complex and interwoven) to be conversational. The world wants simplicity, and avoids more personal dialog. For me at least, there’s an aquifer of emotion laying underneath looking for a way to rise up.
The title and cover art direction also reference wandering. That’s not a concept people value so much anymore. To me, NOT having a clear direction is a good thing. It means you’re about to discover something unexpected...by that I mean your life. A wanderer has to deal with feeling misunderstood, and at times, alone in thought and journey. Even though loneliness can take you to some dark and down low places, it always leads to personal transformation. This whole album is much like themes in Homer’s Odyssey. Learning to hear yourself and find your way home.
Where do you draw inspiration from when writing?
This sounds weird to say, but I’m not actively looking for any inspiration. It’s more like I’m trying to sift through a network of emotions going on inside my head. Songs tend to come to me in my sleep, driving, or zoning out. I’ll hear a rhythm like someone was playing it down a long hallway, or a vocal like a ghost whispered it in my ear. I find myself having to be very still in these moments, so I can piece together what I just felt and heard. For example, when I wrote "Everything’s Blue", I had this tremendous sense of sadness, and started writing the song (and that wasn’t a song I was trying to write consciously). When I finished writing it, I had no idea where it was going, I just followed the feelings as they came. When I was done, I looked out the window and realized the cabin I was staying in was next to a lake that had been drained, and all the boats and docks were sitting on the bottom of the old lake…rusting out. I’m very “room-affected” and react to wherever I am, and write about the emotions that are stirred up. Environment and subject matter impact my emotions in different ways (though not literally). "Everything’s Blue" was about a lost love from my past, but I had forgotten about it until I saw that empty lake. It all hit me, though I wasn’t searching for it.
What’s the best advice to give to a musician just starting out?
If another musician asked for my advice, I would share this: Make 10,000 imperfect pots, instead of 1 perfect pot. The person that makes the most pots, will make the perfect pot first.
What are your “must have” albums for the road?
The Doors: Strange Days
Stephen Stills: Manassas
Miller & Sasser: Tell it to the Jukebox
The Kinks: Deluxe Edition
Marty Stuart: Tempted / Way Out West
Texas Jim Lewis: Collected Works
Harry Nilsson: Nilsson Schmilsson
Keith Whitley: Don’t Close Your Eyes
What has been your biggest struggle so far?
The biggest challenge is the mental game. Far too often the negative record spinning in my head is on repeat. In that sense, the biggest struggle is just to enjoy where I’m at, and relax. That need to be performing better, pushing harder, reaching more fans, booking more shows, instagram hero, etc, etc. Ambition has its place, but when it comes down to it, songs are about heart connections. All I really need, is to be in the flow.
What has been your biggest success?
I suppose I feel successful most when someone comes up after a show and gushes for an hour about how much they loved the music (to the point that they aren’t filtering what they are saying). At the end of the day, I like knowing that it meant something to someone, that makes my guitar smile. I played in show in Idaho, and a old-timer came up afterwards and was so pumped. As it turns out, he was once a bus driver for Sonny James back in the 70’s-80’s. I think even he had forgotten that part of his life. But as he talked, you could see how the music brought the kid in him out. Success to me is breaking through with people via music. Though we’re often coming from very different places we (singer/audience) are both being heard.
What’s your dream venue and why?
Well, since I get to dream here…if I were going to die tomorrow and could only play one last show, it would be a rooftop show in New York City. I know that sounds ridiculous, but there’s a spirit, history and mantra in NYC that bridges all people, from all walks of life. Country music is no longer about cowhides and tumbleweeds in that context, it’s stories between human beings making their way. Performing in the open air, and in opposition to all the man-made structure, would feel powerful.
Recent release you cannot stop listening to?
I bought Angel Olsen’s Phases recently, and I’ve been devouring it. I walked into the record store (yes, I still only buy CD’s) and it was playing over the stereo. I had a cool chat with the manager about the album and was hooked from the first tune (I love when that happens, it’s like magic). The songs and recordings are so genuine, and in some cases stark and intimate. I especially love her ability to go from fully produced, to just a mic sitting in a hallway. For both formats to captivate your ears is total success in my eyes. Everything is right to me on this release. She cuts right through the noise and shares a nice collection of songs (new & old).