Since its inception, No Destination has been a venue for anecdotes of music and travel, the way the two enhance each other and music’s power to comfort, and to connect people and to transcend wide cultural divides. But music and travel are related in other ways, not all of which can be captured in the personal narrative form that this column has taken so far. Today, we’ll talk with a musician about the ways in which travel, experiencing music, and creating original songs interact.
Few working musicians are strangers to travel; touring is an inherent part of the music-making life. But, as tunes running the gamut from Jackson Browne’s “The Load Out” to The Ramones’ “Touring” have told us, the grind of The Road doesn’t share much with the experience of travel for its own sake.
Trey Yip is a musician for whom traveling has become a sort of lifestyle. As a result, his folky, literate songs have come to reflect more of Kerouac’s road than the long strip of asphalt commonly viewed from tour bus windows. He plays under the moniker Wayfarer State, a name that’s as much his condition in life as easily as it is the content of his songs.
For Yip, traveling and writing music seemed to spark each other. “I think when I decided to really start writing and pursuing music was the first time I left home, really left New Orleans and moved to Memphis,” he says. There, his shared love of the local musical tradition opened a door into Memphis’ old blues community.
“Nothin’ really has struck me like Memphis blues. Oh man, the most authentic experience you could have listening to the blues is going to an old juke joint that’s someone’s old house called Wild Bill’s. You bring your own booze, and you buy ice from them or fried chicken. And there’s only 30 people or so who can fit in there, and someone will just go up and play, then someone will join them with a horn, and it goes like that.”
Yip is not the sort of guy you’d expect to see in an underground Memphis house of blues. With a medium build, wavy, shoulder-length hair usually secured with a homemade headband, a silky black moustache, and nascent guitar skills, he was instantly identifiable as an outsider. But his love of the local musical heritage won him friends in the old bluesmen, and they were soon encouraging his songwriting and helping to teach him guitar.
“I lived next to Davis McCain, who was one of the owners of Easly McCain Studio. I remember talking to him and his wife outside and them telling me about sound quality and how nothing sounds as good as vinyl. I bought a record player the next day, then I started hitting the used record stores in Memphis. I had two favorite records: John Lee Hooker Folk Blues and Merle Travis sings Jimmy Rodgers, an amazing two-disc vinyl. I paid a $1 each for them, and I wore those records out. Listening to John Lee Hooker play an acoustic guitar on my record player changed everything for me [...] I invited Davis McCain to my first ever show at the P&H Cafe, and he actually came. I was awful. I wish I could play for him again.”
In Memphis, Yip learned the value of getting out into the community and getting to know the people you find. “You’re not gonna get that on like, say, Google,” he says of finding Wild Bill’s. “You’re not going to be able to Google and find the no-name juke joint.” That was a lesson Trey took with him when he left a year later to go busk the streets of California, using connections made via CouchSurfing.org to tap into local life. He wrote feverishly about what he experienced, finding in songwriting a way of communicating things he didn’t feel he could express in plain conversation. And he learned what musicians on subway platforms and streetcorners all over the world know: connecting with other people through the music they love doesn’t just create human moments. It also helps pay the bills.
“When you’re busking, you wanna pick a song that a person will relate to. You wanna stereotype them and put them in a box and play something that you think they will like that will get you a tip,” Yip says. “But when you’re onstage, on your own, playing your own songs, it’s completely different. You want people to understand you.”
Busking, it turns out, is a pretty time-consuming enterprise, leaving little opportunity for Yip to write. “After about a year and a half in California, I wanted to move again and I felt like moving was starting to shape my music a little bit. When I was on the road, I was much more inspired.” So he shipped off to South Korea, taking a school-teaching job with plenty of free hours for writing, and started penning new songs as though his life depended on it, finishing 150 songs over the course of two years.
In 2011, Yip released The Faustian Bargain, an album full of “stories about the state of the world, the state of mankind,” as he says in the first track, “Author’s Preface”. The album acts as both a lament of the emptiness of a life filled with escapism of all kinds and a celebration of the life that leaves behind “cocaine, or Facebook or Phillip Morris” and, well, escapes out into the world: “There’s places you have not been/ There’s meaning and truth/ and books to read, and there’s art, too/ A garden to plant, stories to find/ Look at your watch, honey now is the time/ And if you search long and hard, you’ll find it I swear/ And if you don’t, you’ll die fighting on your feet like a man.”
The songs here often aren’t explicitly about traveling. Rather, they’re a reflection of a changed perspective, the fruit of many long rides on trains or late-night round-tables at hostels. Even if you’ve never left your hometown, Yip’s voice has pathos — a sort of broken-heartedness for those chained to their computers or swallowing pills that makes you believe something better is out there. As his voice cracks over Korean air raid sirens (which were sounding in the background as Yip recorded on the day of the Japanese tsunami) on album centerpiece “The Abolition of Mankind”, it’s easy to understand why Yip, an avid reader, would choose music over other modes of expression.
“I think it’s more impactful than literature. Because of the way that it hits you, you can’t filter it out. It either hits you or it doesn’t. It’s immediately inside your head. If you see a book and you don’t have any conception, you can just put it down. With music, a song comes on and you like the music or you don’t. You can’t filter it out. I think it has the ability to break down tons of walls.”
Following the self-release of The Faustian Bargain, Yip hit the road again, this time to India, Nepal, Thailand, and China, a journey from which he gleaned material for his February 2012 release, Festival of Lights, and Chinatown Chinadoll, which is slated for release next month. Over the course of these two albums, Yip’s developing skills as a songwriter dovetailed with his departure from Westernized, First World countries. Recorded in hostels, tea houses, and hotels, his latest albums capture the emotional peaks and valleys of an extended period on the road.
“It covers my experience with the Tibetan Buddhist monks, who were at the time setting themselves on fire for their cause of being released from China,” Yips says of Chinatown Chinadoll. “I got to see the Dalai Lama speak. Nothing was more incredible than riding in the coach class for 20 hours on a bus in India. It was so hot, difficult, uncomfortable, and yet so humbling at the same time. It could break your heart, but it was amazing.”
Songs like “Further from Home”, written about a bad case of Delhi Belly and a hankering for home, capture a kind of loneliness unique to being far, far away from home. Elsewhere on Festival Of Lights, “Rickshaw Woman (Hello to the Queen)” reflects with quiet humor the little oddities you begin to notice when you’re in a foreign place: “And the valley leads down into Dharmasala/ And the translator misquotes the Dalai Lama/ They got monks here with cappuccinos in their hands/ They play FIFA in the windows, they got cell phone plans.”
Taken together, Yip’s songs present a rich portrait of the wayfaring life, with its attendant insecurities, marvels, nostalgia-filled moments, weariness, and sense of purpose.
“Traveling definitely affects that way that you view music, the way you write it, the way you listen to it. It’s kind of like a call-out or an invitation for people to get out and go and travel, you know. That’s for anyone really, to change your perspective,” Yip says. “The image of the Grand Canyon doesn’t do [it] justice. Going to the place, seeing it, touching it, drenching yourself in the senses, and really experiencing it completely changes the way you view it and the way you write about it.”
Even if you’re not a songwriter, Yip says, you can still create meaningful connections between traveling and the music you listen to along the way. “I will save an album that I haven’t listened to. And then when I get where I’m going, I will listen to it for the first time. And then it’s always associated with that place,” Yip says. “I saved Daniel Lanois’ album For the Beauty of Wynona for China. It blew me away. I listened the last song, “Rocky World”, about 20 times in a row on the day I saw the Great Wall. They will forever be linked.”
Ultimately, Yip hopes that his music will act as a call to the road for his listeners. “It’s so worth it,” he says. “Live in another country. Do it. That’s kind of what I hope my music will do, maybe inspire them to do that.” And while the great touring songs’ tales of long night drives punctuated by rock ‘n’ roll and loose women may not make you want to quit your day job to become a guitar tech, Yip’s sincere songs about the open road might just bring out in you a wanderlust you didn’t know you had.