This Is the Year, This Is the Life
This Is the Year, This Is the Life
A Q&A with Blake Christiana of Yarn
By Geoff Gehman
Blake Christiana once lived on a Lehigh County farm owned by big fans of Yarn, the alternative Americana band he birthed in Brooklyn. The New Tripoli home doubled as a sanctuary for writing songs and escaping the pressures of leading an ambitious group of road warriors caught in a rut. Life in a beautiful, relaxing rural setting, among friends and cows, was a bonus of being in a tuneful, tuned-in ensemble, along with such gifts as a Grammy nomination, shared stages with Alison Krauss and Leon Russell, the support of avid listeners who belong to “the Yarmy,” and making music with three band mates who became best friends while making music.
This good groove ripples through Yarn’s latest record, “This Is the Year,” a now-is-wow title suggested by Christiana’s wife. Released last year by Ardsley Music, the album percolates with engaging, engrossing tunes: a honky-tonk tribute to Dolly Parton; a Tex-Mex shuffle from a Yankee band trying to earn its stripes in Texas; a sparkling, sparking astral ride that could have been written by the Grateful Dead with Mark Knopfler.
Christiana’s songs are a sort of refiner’s fire, a filtered portrait of musicians united and strengthened by an intense period of major changes: the temporary departure of one member; the permanent departure of another member; the shelving of a record made with a replacement member; the moves of two members from New York to North Carolina. No wonder Christiana has described “This Is the Year” as Yarn’s happiest, healthiest, most complete CD, as well as an “emancipation.”
Christiana and his Yarn comrades–drummer Bobby Bonhomme, bassist Rick Bugel and guitarist/vocalist Rod Hohl—will perform March 17 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House; the bill includes Cornmeal, the bluegrassy, rootsy jammers from Chicago. Below, in a conversation while driving from his home in Raleigh, N.C., to a gig in Manhattan, Christiana discusses his father introducing him to old country tunes around the campfire, his debts to the Dead and Dolly, and imitating a member of the Temptations in a crazily retro video.
Q: I’m going to start off by asking you probably the most provocative, profound question you’ve ever been asked: What was it like performing in those white disco platform shoes during the video for “Love/Hate”?
A: [Laughs] Oh man, that was fun. We were coming off a few weeks on the road and our last gig was in Charlotte [N.C], so we decided to go rent the suits. When we saw the platform shoes, we said: “Oh, we have to have those.” It felt real good to be somebody else for a little while.
Q: And who came up with that ‘60s-‘70s Motown man-group choreography—the finger snapping and the sashaying and the side/slide stepping?
A: That was the work of our drummer, Bobby [Bonhomme]. He was the one who said: “We have to make it a Temptations video.” He came up with a bona fide Electric Slide that we could all handle.
I have to say, though, that the color of that suit [powder/pearly blue] didn’t exactly make me look good. It made me look like I’d been up all night doing drugs [laughs].
Q: What was the first song that you couldn’t forget, that got under your skin and stayed there?
A: It was actually an entire album, INXS’s “Kick” . I would have probably been 11 or 12 when I first heard it and it just hit me. It was a record of the ’80s and I was a child of the ’80s; that was definitely my era. I still love that record: “New Sensation,” “Never Tear Us Apart,” “Devil Inside”—they’re all great tracks. It was a shame we lost [INXS leader] Michael Hutchence so early; he had a whole lot more to give.
Before that, I was probably listening to whatever my dad was listening to: Ricky Nelson, Elvis, old country stuff; I could definitely name some of those things. When I was a kid my dad played old country songs around the campfire and the one song I really remember is “Abilene” by a guy named Les[ter] Brown [with Bob Gibson, John D. Loudermilk and Albert Stanton]. That’s probably the first song that stirs up my memory. I remember hearing it when I was six or eight years old, although I probably heard it earlier, before I can remember hearing it. We play it in concert; it’s one of our most requested numbers.
Q: You told me earlier that you’ve owned “Kick” on old vinyl, tape, CD, download and new vinyl. Do you own any other pivotal, essential records in several formats?
A: When vinyl started coming back I would go into little record shops in little towns to search out those great records I heard when I was younger, like Neil Young’s “Harvest”  and “Harvest Moon” . I was probably a freshman in high school when I first heard “Harvest Moon” and it holds up to this day. I went to a concert on the “Harvest Moon” tour and to this day it’s probably one of the best shows I’ve seen. I still love to hunt for the old stuff I love.
Q: Why did your wife ask you to write a song titled “This Is the Year” and how therapeutic was it to write a tune that basically asserts “Now is wow.”
A: We had just gone through some changes in the band and we were all feeling optimistic, which is a positive thing in a business like entertainment, where it’s easy to be cynical. She kind of guided me to put that feeling into a song—that everything felt right at that moment. Writing [“This Is the Year”] felt right, too. I finished it pretty quickly, in about 10 minutes.
Q: You’ve said that the songs on “This Is the Year” were shaped by broken relationships within the band. What were the breaks other than the departure of mandolinist/banjo player Andrew Hendryx?
A: We all went though some pretty heavy transitions, although I wouldn’t consider [Hendryx] leaving the band a heavy transition, just a necessary one. I had moved South from New York City and Rob [Bugel], our bass player, had done the same. Our drummer Bobby [Bonhomme] had left for a year and a half to go give civilian life a try. He took a big job in New York running a big sort of corporate restaurant. He worked his ass off but then he realized: I’m a drummer; that’s what I do. It’s in his blood; that’s the way he is. I had told him when he left that he was always welcome back, but we should have had him back sooner. While he was away we made a whole record with a different drummer but once we got Bobby back, we said: This doesn’t feel right; we can’t put this out. So we started recording from scratch and came up with “This Is the Year” and I’m really happy we did.
Q: Yarn began in Brooklyn and was so rooted there it was often described as a Brooklyn band. How long did you spend in the borough and what were the major cultural sea changes during your time there, besides the rise of bacon-flavored ice cream?
A: I spent 12 years in Brooklyn, half in Bay Ridge, half in Carroll Gardens. Bay Ridge didn’t change that much; it basically stayed old Brooklyn and I enjoyed it. Carroll Gardens was different; it became more gentrified. I lived right on the border of Red Hook, by the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel [now the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel], and I loved walking to Red Hook. Some of the bars I enjoyed going to with my friends became elitist; we’d meet a bunch of younger people dressed in funky clothes who gave us the evil eye. It felt like they felt they were entitled.
That’s a general feeling; obviously, not all of Carroll Gardens was elitist. I had a great landlord who allowed me to live pretty cheaply. Although I’ll tell you that a $900 mortgage in Raleigh is a lot better than a $2,000 one-bedroom apartment in Carroll Gardens.
Q: What made you leave Brooklyn for North Carolina, besides cheaper accommodations?
A: Well, the girl I was chasing and eventually got lived in North Carolina [laughs]. In between Brooklyn and North Carolina I lived near Kempton, in this little place called New Tripoli. I lived in a nice big house on a dairy farm owned by this very gracious family who are big Yarn fans. At the time the band’s bills were getting tight and it was getting harder and harder to keep up the pace on the road. While I was on the farm I wrote as much as I could and got a chance to breathe and reflect. My friends helped keep Yarn alive.
Q: I guess your New Tripoli pals are on the top, or near the top, of the list of Yarmy members.
A: I would say they are definitely at the top of the list. They’ve helped us, and me, a ton. I had no idea of the generosity of people until I started traveling and playing music. I met my three best friends through this band: the guys in the band.
Q: One of the prick-your-ears tracks on the new record is “I Let You Down,” It has the star-shooting glide of a Grateful Dead tune; that expanding, blossoming outro could have been written by Mark Knopfler.
A: Well, you’re talking about two of the guitar greats for me. Mark Knopfler, man, it doesn’t get more melodic than that; you can sing every solo he’s ever played. And of course Jerry Garcia is the same way. I’ve listened to a lot of Dead and we’ve played a lot of Dead. The Dead is like a universal language; I’m sure that’s influenced me over the years.
I think the song is very relatable. When I wrote it I was very happy. I had recently gotten married or was about to get married and I just put myself in that groove. We’ve all been there; we’ve all felt we can do what we want and get away with it, not always in terms of a man or a woman or a spouse but just a life.
Q: Another standout track is “My Sweet Dolly,” a sweet, in-the-pocket ode to Dolly Parton. Did you really discover her, as the narrator does, watching her on Johnny Carson’s talk show with your dad?
A: [Laughs] Maybe. That’s actually another song my wife told me to write. She said: Write a song about a young kid seeing Dolly Parton on television for the first time and who is still obsessed with her as an adult. It’s funny, so many people have said that I basically wrote their story; they tell me, “That song is about me.”
Q: Are you captivated by Dolly, too? She’s certainly a compelling singer, songwriter and personality.
A: Absolutely; no question about it. When Yarn first started we must have listened to her bluegrass album “The Grass Is Blue”  a zillion times; we wore that thing out. When I was a kid she was a larger-than-life character; she still is.
Q: What was your worst time in the music trade, when you seriously thought about leaving the business and maybe following Bobby to work for a nice corporate restaurant in New York City?
A: It’s an endless battle. Life on the road never gets any easier, although the lows feel a little lower because you’re working so hard. The important thing is you don’t allow the road to beat you up. Some people aren’t meant for the road; some people can’t do it and that’s completely understandable. The four of us have played more than 170 shows together in a year; that’s made us tight, a real brotherhood.
Q: And what was your most rewarding time in the trade, when you thought that, hey, I’d even play music for free?
A: We had a sweet moment last year when we played for a Bernie Sanders rally in San Francisco. We love performing for like-minded people who are so passionate about music, and life. To be even a small part of that is really rewarding. Let’s face it, there are a lot of thankless jobs on this planet; we’re lucky to have a job that gets you thank-yous and instant gratification and love. This band is a family and our fans are like a family, too.
Q: So, Blake, what tops your Bucket List?
A: I’d love to do those cool milestone venues: “Austin City Limits,” the Beacon Theater [in Manhattan]. We did get to hang out recently with [singer/songwriter/producer] Buddy Miller and record on his radio show in Nashville; that’s an Americana moment right here, hanging with the big boys. It inspires us to find another moment, to make another one. I’ll let you know when it comes around.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: Oh damn, that’s a good question. I’d say that drivers who wait at a green light in the intersection instead of making a quick turn, until the light turns red—I wish they could all go to the hell. I’m a New York driver who lives in the South and those people who wait too long at green lights just drive me crazy. Although I was just in Florida and I think those drivers are the worst on the planet.
Oh, and those slimy people taking advantage of good musicians–they can all go to hell, too.
Blake Christiana: The Scoop
He founded Yarn in 2006 as a side project to his band Blake & the Family Dog.
Yarn’s 2013 album “Shine the Light On” contains two songs he wrote with John Oates of Hall & Oates.
He grew up a big fan of Michael Jackson, one reason why Yarn recorded a locomotive bluegrass version of the Jacksons’ “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground).” “We bust it out every now and then at shows. It doesn’t matter who you are; everybody starts swaying to that song.”
Newly wedded couples have danced to his song “Take Me First.”
He dedicated a recent Yarn show in Annapolis, Md., headquarters of the Naval Academy, to his recently departed grandfather, Stanley “Wally” Knapp, a Navy veteran, General Electric machinist and avid outdoorsman.
He posted on Yarn’s Facebook page that he’s available for house concerts on March 30-April 2.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He digs Yarn’s covers of the Jacksons’ “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” and Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.” He can be reached at email@example.com.