“I used to go searching for the darkness,” Ken Yates says. “With this record, the darkness found me first. This is me finding my way out of it.”
Channeling pain into beauty, Ken Yates’ fourth album is a breathtaking triumph of the human spirit. The cool-hued Cerulean captures the artist’s intimate reckoning as he grieved his dying mother, giving listeners a vivid window into the rollercoaster of intense thoughts and emotions that accompany such a personal, yet universal experience. The result is a transcendent record that surges with tightly held energy and intimate moments. The listener hears the artist growing in real time, moving towards a space of acceptance and peace as he himself moved to the country, began therapy, and wrote the songs he needed to hear.
Cerulean may be born from grief, but it is not musically grieving: its surefooted and softly radiant arrangements shine with the quiet hope of a soul put through the wringer. “This is the first time that I’ve made a record where I feel like the songs were going to be written whether I wanted to release an album or not,” Yates explains. “I was writing because I needed to. I never would have described songwriting as a cathartic process in the past; it was just something I liked to do.”
With three albums under his belt, the Ontario born songwriter spent the past decade establishing himself as a talented folk artist with a penchant for thoughtful lyrics and evocative melodies. He won two Canadian Folk Music Awards in 2017, and supported Passenger on both the European and North American legs of his recent tour.
Nonetheless, Cerulean feels like a hard reset on Yates’ art and artistry. Reuniting with producer Jim Bryson, the album firmly steps into indie folk and alternative territories – he cites Big Thief, Andy Shauf, and The War On Drugs as a few of his inspirations. Thematically, this is Yates at his most honest and raw. “The record begins with a tone of paranoia facing the daily fear of what the world is becoming” he explains. “As the album progresses, the songs begin to look more and more inward. Moving through the anxiety and bitterness I was feeling. Still, there’s a lot of positivity in it. Maybe I was trying to take a step back to remind myself of all the good things and the full spectrum of color in my life. My wife and I moved out of our apartment in Toronto to the country, got a dog, and found a bigger space where I was able to make a little musical corner for myself. I started seeing a therapist too. That, along with working on this record, helped pull me out of the foggy bitterness I was in.”
“Reflecting back now, I can almost hear myself processing what I was going through in real time, to the point where even the track listing was obvious– an accurate timeline of the feelings and emotions I was dealing with”.
Cerulean opens with “The Big One (ft. Kathleen Edwards),” an achingly poignant song that starts, quite poetically, at the end. “A friend kept talking about The Big One, a high-magnitude earthquake expected to strike the Pacific Northwest. In the last couple of years it feels like we have all developed a slight doomsday mentality, myself included; feeling like the world might be ending. Of course, we’re not really sure how, so that song is reckoning with the ‘armageddon’, and a realization of how trivial a lot of our personal relationships or conflicts can be when we are staring face-to-face with the end. The only thing to do is ride out your last few moments with the people you love.”
Yates dives deeper into himself as Cerulean progresses, searching for meaning in the world and working through everything from insomnia, denial, and nihilism, to hope and appreciation. The artist envelops himself in a blanket of plaintive, somber introspection on “Best of the Broken Things,” a comforting ballad in which he gives a pep talk to his own reflection.
An album standout, he paints a portrait of relatable restlessness on “Don’t Mean to Wake You” (ft. Stephanie Lambring), a warm and driving folk rock reverie. Yates finds himself lost in a pool of thoughts that gnaw at him so much that he has to turn over and wake his partner. It’s as much an attempt to save himself from himself, as it is a gentle cry for help.
The dynamic and driving “Honest Light” similarly finds him reassuring himself, this time from within. “My wife always refers to golden hour as ‘honest light’, when the light illuminates all the dust on your floor and the crumbs on your counter”, Yates explains. “I had the line, ‘life is like a cheap wine, it don’t get any better with time.’ I merged the title and line together as sort of this acceptance that things are not alright, but you’ll be alright.”
This mature recognition of life’s imperfection proves the lifeblood of Cerulean, and every time Yates seems to be on the verge of sinking, he swims – held afloat not only by his own inner strength, but also by his community. Cerulean is a group effort, with features from singer/songwriter contemporaries including Kathleen Edwards, Stephanie Lambring, Katie Pruitt, and more.
“Although these songs were born in a period of isolation, it turned out to be my most collaborative album yet. There are full band arrangements on every song, and a few of my favourite artists lended their voices, which really brought this record to life”.
After forty minutes spent exploring a world of vulnerable depths and soaring sonics, Cerulean closes in a moment of tranquility. “The final song, ‘Cerulean’, is about searching for balance – an equilibrium. We move through this endless colour wheel of emotions every day, but you have to find those small moments of peace and acceptance, and reassure yourself, ‘I’m okay.’
Yates’ mother Beverley passed away in August 2021.
“I’m strangely in a better headspace now than I was a year ago when she was still with us,” he admits. “I may owe that to taking a hard look at myself through the lens of these songs”.
Now that he’s on the other side, Yates says this album proved a transformative experience – allowing him to grow, while giving him some much-needed resolution to the past few years.
“I feel more open than ever, at peace with where I am as an artist,” he reflects. “This is the first time I’ve had a real personal story I wanted to tell. It does feel like I’ve had a moment to reset my life, and now I can start to share that with the rest of the world.”
Loss is a shared human experience. Through Cerulean, Ken Yates not only puts the full scope of his own healing process on display, but he also reminds us that we’re not alone in our pain – and that with time, we may just find our way to acceptance.