At the top of a small class of young B3 organists, over the past decade Jason Yates has established himself as a sought-after player, landing high-profile tours with Macy Gray and Natalie Merchant and soaking up experience as a world-class musician.
His breakthrough solo record, Angeleno, arrives with effortless glide, packed with misty vignettes that are sensual and perceptive. Like many troubadours, Yates draws inspiration from life and simple passions: fatherhood, friendships and love affairs. He also appreciates short stories by Raymond Carver. “It’s the way he paints a picture,” says Yates, “not excessive with words, just to the point. A snapshot of life’s moments.”
Around 30 Los Angeles-based working musicians contributed to Angeleno, including local legends, Acetone. Steeped in the enigmatic L.A. underground, the album was recorded in studios in the Echo Park and Silverlake neighborhoods, produced by Yates and engineers Ray Thomas and David Derusha. Everyone involved is a personal friend of Yates.
Yates has album credits for countless songs, including piano on Mazzy Star’s breathtaking track Fade Into You. He recalls, “Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star) was in town and wanted to meet with Acetone about possibly playing on her solo record. They met at my house. I was a fan of Acetone but hadn’t met [frontman] Richie Lee or hung out with the band. I left to give them space for the meeting. When I returned, Richie was plowing through my record collection. He invited me over to jam and help with pre-production of Acetone’s upcoming album York Blvd.
“At that point I wasn’t really pushing my music,” Yates confesses. “I got tired of being a hired gun and, ironically, was working as a carpenter for [singer, songwriter, producer] Babyface. Richie wanting me to play sparked something in me again. One day I took off work and played on five songs. He fired me up. He believed in me, and I started playing with them. Angeleno is now dedicated to Richie Lee.”
“I had this strange, impending feeling that I must get these songs out now, because these stories that I had wouldn’t be the same later,” insists Yates. “I was tired of waiting to find someone else to sing these songs. I felt the story wouldn’t get across if someone else sang. My friend David had a studio, and we swapped favors. What began as recording a demo turned into ‘let me put drums on it, let’s add a horn, let’s keep decorating.’ I did not know what I was getting involved in. I was just making music, one song at a time.”
Yates, an L.A. native, quickly learned guitar and piano at age 11. He attended both Hollywood and Fairfax High Schools and in 1989 earned the Herb Alpert Scholarship for music.
In 1988 at 18, Yates co-founded Momma Stud. After years of gigging around town, the garage band scored a deal with Virgin Records. Yates wrote songs but passed the vocal duties to his band mates. They opened for Ziggy Marley, Al Green and Nirvana.
After Momma Stud in ‘91, Yates started The 2 PC which soon became notorious on the club circuit. Impressed by Yates’ B3 finesse, up-and-coming singer Macy Gray asked the group to be her backing band at an artist showcase. That performance landed Gray her first record deal. On the H.O.R.D.E. festival in 1994, Blues Traveler’s John Popper frequently joined The 2 PC during its set for impromptu jams.
Soon after, Natalie Merchant heard about Yates through his old Virgin label mates the Wallflowers and hired him as her touring piano player. Yates also contributes the signature organ to Merchant’s platinum-selling remix of Jealousy from her solo debut, Tigerlily.
The Tigerlily tour lasted two years. “My professional musicianship changed at that point,” admits Yates. “I learned how to pace myself, how to have consistent shows. Natalie taught me discipline and how to function on the road. I wasn’t challenged musically but challenged how not to lose interest.” He played sheds with Merchant and stadiums when they supported Sting in the United States and Europe. The highlight of the tour for Yates was when they were joined on-stage by blues phenom Taj Mahal.
As a hired gun, Yates has survived such high-pressure situations as performing on Letterman, Leno, Saturday Night Live and Top of the Pops, but the transition from keyboard sideman to guitar-wielding frontman is challenging. “If I’m going to put myself out there live, lend me your ear for a minute,” urges Yates. “Let me paint something for you.”
“While on tour with Macy, I wrote Carpé Diem. She has a song called I Can’t Wait to Meet You about her meeting God. I’ve never been a very religious person, but I liked the perspective of it. I was in freezing cold Germany. I tried to call home but couldn’t get through. I couldn’t communicate and felt helpless, going totally crazy in a hotel room. I was lying in bed with my guitar and the song gushed out. The verses are God talking to me, and the chorus is me speaking to God. Writing the song justified the trip.”
“Waking up means stepping on the concrete floor and welcoming the painful iron doors” are distressing words from the icy Cocoran, written about Yates’ childhood friend sentenced to life in prison. The haunting Delilah is about relating to somebody’s pain. When he sings the line “I saw it in your eyes, that lonely shade,” it taps deep into your soul. Whatever his original intent, Yates, a true poet, wants all his lyrics to be completely open to individual interpretation.
Angeleno is an organic album. It evolved naturally with a lot of friends and a lot of love. They wanted to be a part of Yates’ music, and that’s the spirit that runs through it. “If someone tunes in and a line hits them, or if there’s a part of the groove that they love to hear over and over, I’ve done what I set out to do,” he claims. “That’s cool with me, that’s why I listen to music.”