Supporter Spotlight: Izzy Yellen
“A sentiment…often shared during my four years at Lawrence was that ‘Music is a birthright.'”
Today we’re spotlighting Chicago musician and writer Izzy Yellen, who is donating all proceeds from his latest album to The People’s Music School! Released last October, Izzy’s album “until nothing fills the room and i can rest easy” has been described by the Chicago Reader as “a decompression soundtrack of ambient guitar and banjo” – or in other words, music that was very much needed at the time (and still is).
You can listen to the entire album here (we highly recommend the track “loving” for some peace and comfort during this time) and purchase for $7 – or more – to support People’s directly! Read on to learn about Izzy’s album making process, what brought him to People’s, and the advice he has for younger musicians looking to compose music of their own.
The driving motivation behind the record process, concept, instrumentation, and many other aspects traces back to the title, “until nothing fills the room and i can rest easy.” This line came from a poem I wrote a few years back (an excerpt of which is on the Bandcamp page) about the acoustic experience of making a soundscape from the ground up with my guitar/banjo and pedalboard. The physical rooms the line is referencing are often my room, basement, or a practice room at college. Creating a soundscape that interacts directly with the physical space but also incorporates digital and analog manipulation via pedals is a grounding experience — it connects and grounds me to the concrete world, but also a more spiritual, mystic space that I, and I know many others, experience when making music or participating in other art forms. Being in these two spaces — and where they overlap and diverge — helped me through some tough times in my life. I recorded this album as a way to personally cope, but released it in hopes that its listeners would have a similar experience and cope in similar ways.
On recording, composition, and improvisation
From the liner notes: “The instruments played on this album are banjo, guitar, [possibly too many] pedals, voice, floor tom, trumpet, glockenspiel, drum machine, synthesizer, and shakers.”
My main instrument is banjo, in that I play it the most, but I am much more interested in using a wide variety of noisemakers to make a collage that reflects what’s happening inside of me and pays tribute to the acoustic space. Most of the album is built around loops on various instruments and grounded in live improvisation rather than studio work. This comes from my use of improvising as a source of calmness. From there, I added other elements that I thought would open up the space a bit more and change in contrast to the often sedentary loops, but not take away from the grounding consistency of them. Sometimes this was bringing in another loop (like on “loving” or “to dissolve / to be”), sometimes it was manipulating a loop with effects (like on “the open” or “what only”), and sometimes it was adding composed or improvised parts (like on “sitting here” and “weary”). As I explored this approach of making music, I became more and more interested in conventional songwriting in the context of the former, resulting in “wethingschange” and “creating (with energy),” two songs that reflect my improvisation and loop-based sound while also venturing into more of a songwriter style.
The recording itself was done all in my house with the instruments listed, inexpensive mics, and a Scarlett Focusrite interface. I used the free Garageband (this sometimes gets a bad rap but if you spend time with it, it’s capable of so much!) as my DAW and my friend Jason Koth mixed and mastered using Cubase and a couple of other DAWs. The reason I want to be transparent about this is because I was able to make this album with a relatively affordable setup and resources. You can make music with very little and still positively impact yourself and your listeners.
You mentioned that music – namely improvisation – is a source of calmness for you. Could you elaborate a bit more on that?
My calmness while improvising with a loop-and-soundscape-based approach comes from a few aspects of the practice. One is that the act of creating sounds is largely under my control. During a time when I had so little control over anything, (a feeling I’m sure most are still experiencing these days) being able to shape the character of sounds gave me comfort, even a sense of purpose. Another aspect is that the act of listening to those sounds, looped and filling my room or headphones, gave me consistency. For similar reasons that folks rewatch TV series over and over, listening to certain ideas I manifested in sound lulled me into a calm state where I was listening to something familiar and something I liked. There are other reasons that get a bit more metaphysical and spiritual, which means they’re a bit harder to talk about. The most noticeable to me at this moment is the subconscious, meditative state I (and many others) go into when improvising. There’s some sort of higher power outside of myself and inside of myself, and letting it do its thing while the self continues to create is a beautiful experience. It’s an experience that is indescribable with words, but can be felt by — I strongly believe — anyone, should they take the time to create and improvise themselves.
“This record is a prime demonstration of how music can be both personal and universal…Izzy expertly captured his own welcoming and calm self, which made me as a listener more welcoming and calm. And thus, I would bet that anyone who truly internalizes this album feels that same sense.”
(Jason Koth, who mixed and mastered the album)
Why The People’s Music School?
Since hearing about TPMS from the dean of my conservatory alma mater (Lawrence University) and a friend who teaches bass there, I’ve been so admiring and appreciative of the work you all do. So much of this album relies on my ability to use music as a form of self-expression and catharsis. I was fortunate enough to have an upbringing that involved stellar music education and believe everyone should have access to that, no matter what. A sentiment Leila Pertl (a Montessori music teacher in Appleton, WI) and her husband, Brian Pertl (the Dean of the Lawrence Conservatory) often shared during my four years at Lawrence was that “Music is a birthright.” I am so incredibly grateful for my music education and the least I can do is help to continue its positive influence for others.
Do you have any advice you would like to pass on to our students who are interested in writing and composition?
My main advice for composers and improvisers is to make the music that you want to make. Make the music that makes you feel empowered and good. But continue to challenge yourself within this music, so that you can grow and evolve. It’s definitely easier said than done, but when I truly went down that path, making music became so much more important to me, and positively impacted other aspects of my life as well. So what are some concrete ways to practice this? The main way is also simply said — go out and make that music. Amidst practicing modes, scales, technique, and whatever else, practice other music that you want to make. Whether it’s covering a song you listen to a lot, playing in a style you admire, figuring out how to make unique sounds on your instrument, or any other approaches, consistently visiting the concrete reasons of why you are making music in the first place is essential. There’s a reason — or most likely many — that you’re making music, and letting that motivate you will result in more enjoyment and making the music that’s important to you.
Check out Izzy’s album here on Bandcamp, and purchase a copy of your own to support People’s!