Since first planting roots within the Canadian music scene in 2011, Ken Yates has steadily grown a reputation as one of the country’s brightest singer/songwriters. His sound offers the complete package—unforgettable melodies, emotionally charged storytelling, and top-notch guitar chops—all gloriously displayed on Yates’ album, Huntsville, which received two Canadian Folk Music Awards for Songwriter of the Year and New Artist of the Year in 2017.
Produced by Jim Bryson (Weakerthans, Kathleen Edwards, Oh Susanna), Yates’ second full-length effort is a major stylistic step forward, with its 11 tracks capturing his artistic evolution amid extensive touring over the past three years. Along with handling production duties, Bryson’s abilities as a multi-instrumentalist were fully deployed during sessions at North of Princess Studio in Kingston, Ontario, leading a band that included Brian Dunne on guitars/vocals, James Preston on bass, Marshall Bureau on drums, and guest vocalist Amanda Rheaume.
For Yates, the stars were aligned throughout the creation of Huntsville, beginning with a balanced mix of road-tested and brand new material amassed before hitting the studio. Yates’ only pre-conceived notion for the album was to move forward from his last album and let Bryson put his years of experience to work.
“After playing some of these songs live, you start getting attached to how you think they should sound,” Yates explains. “I originally had in mind that this would be mostly a solo acoustic record, but I told myself going into the studio not to be too precious about my own ideas. The best part was, with that in mind, I was able to let go of some of that control and told Jim to run with it. He’d say, ‘Let’s try things my way and if you don’t like it, we’ll press the mute button.’ But I loved all of his ideas, and that’s when I understood what a great collaboration it would be.”
“Keep Your Head Down,” with its subtle, driving groove, opens the album like a train pulling out at dawn, with vast, open vistas lying ahead. Those come into focus on other key tracks such as “Once More To The Lake,” “Roll Me On Home” and “The Best Part Of Leaving.” Yet, everywhere on the album, echoes of the Canadian songwriting tradition, from Gordon Lightfoot to Bruce Cockburn to Ron Sexsmith, are apparent, proving that with Huntsville, Ken Yates is ready to join that exalted company.
Choosing to name Huntsville after a song he’d written about a small northern Ontario town is a further indication of Yates’ musical vision. “It’s a place that I love,” he says. “A lot of the songs were inspired by what you could say was a northern Ontario landscape, but that song in particular is about leaving everything behind, traveling up north and staying there. After I wrote the line, ‘If them mornings don’t shine how you like, find a night to dream into,’ I felt like it represented the whole album in way, which is why I decided to make it the title track.”
A native of London, Ontario (a few hours’ drive south of Huntsville), Yates studied at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. His first release, The Backseat EP, came out in 2011, whereupon he got a chance to showcase for fellow Berklee alum John Mayer, who responded with a lengthy blog post that read in part, “Ken Yates wrote a song called ‘I Don’t Wanna Fall In Love.’ This song moved me when I first heard it, and it still does today.”
That track became one of the standouts on Yates’ 2013 full-length debut, twenty-three, made after a year of pounding the pavement in New York City. It also became his introduction to the life of a touring musician, and his diligence in that area soon built a devoted group of admirers, one town at a time.
Since then Ken has toured extensively and recently supported Passenger’s North American and European tour dates.