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The Heroes of 2020
Toslow, the hole-in-a-wall style bar on Duckworth Street, is the kind of place you can imagine revolutions are planned.
It seems an appropriate spot to meet a man who is revolutionizing the kind of songwriting that’s happening in Newfoundland and Labrador.
So long, sea shanties; Peter Willie Youngtree sings about the many different ways you can die (see: “Ten Million Ways to Decay” — it’s surprisingly upbeat).
Youngtree's poetic prowess has earned him MusicNL’s Ron Hynes Songwriter of the Year award. His band, Youngtree & the Blooms, was named this year’s MusicNL alternative artist of the year.
It’s practically old hat for Youngtree, who has been winning awards since his career was but a seed. His debut album, "Country Hymns," won MusicNL’s country recording of the year in 2016.
And while he’s certainly a little bit country, the genre is too narrow to describe Youngtree’s freewheeling style — it seems to fit every musical genre and none of them all at once.
And as you’ll learn through these 20 questions, there’s more to Youngtree than music.
1. What is your full name?
Peter William Wakeham Smith (Youngtree is Smith’s stage name).
2. Where and when were you born?
Placentia, in 1986.
3. Where do you live today?
4. What’s your favourite place in the world?
On a stage with an attentive audience.
5. Who do you follow on social media?
I don’t use social media too much. There are people I officially follow, but I’m not active very often. It’s useful for us (the band) in that, little by little, we’re growing our fan base outside of Newfoundland. And Facebook seems to be a way that those fans can stay in touch with us. But in terms of social media more broadly, I don’t think we (society) know what we’re doing with that technology.
6. What would people be surprised to learn about you?
A lot of people think I’m younger than I am because I look like a kid. And a lot of people are surprised to learn my last name legally is not Youngtree.
7. What’s been your favourite year and why?
A lot of my favourite albums were made in 1970, like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Déjà Vu.” The Grateful Dead released two records — “American Beauty” and “Workingman’s Dead.” Two great folk records. Simon & Garfunkel did “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that year. There’s just a lot of good music from 1970, so I like that year a lot.
8. What is the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
I lived for two months at a Buddhist Zen monastery in New Mexico, and six weeks of that was monastic training. And it was wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning, go to bed 10 at night. You would sit on a meditation cushion for about 14 hours a day. Gongs would ring and you’d get up and march out to the meal hall, and just chant and eat in silence, or you’d chant and go to a lecture by the teacher, or you’d have to go meet your teacher individually. And you only had three 20-minute intervals of personal time each day. That was when, if you wanted to bathe, you had to do it then, anything you wanted to do.
There was no internet, no phone. It was very, very taxing (and) grueling, but life-altering as well.
8a. Why did you decide to go there?
Because I didn’t know any better (laughs). I’d become interested in Zen Buddhism through a book called “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” and decided I wanted to find a teacher. So, I wrote this place — they had this teacher who was a 103-year-old Japanese Zen master named Joshu Sasaki. He was also Leonard Cohen’s Zen teacher, which I didn’t know when I went down there until I saw a picture of Leonard on the wall.
9. Can you describe one experience that changed your life?
The Zen monastery. That definitely changed my relationship with life. It’s mysterious how that worked, but I don’t know if I’d have the discipline and grace to take on a music career without having done that, and kept up the practice since. I have a different teacher now who’s in upstate New York, and I go back there. I try to get back there once a year. And it’s a different community. It’s more hippie-based. It’s a lot less harsh.
9a. You say it changed your relationship with life. How?
I think my emotions have less control over me. Life circumstances have less control over my emotions. And I think my work ethic and ability to be self-disciplined have increased. I’m just more at peace with things, usually, I would say.
10. What’s your greatest indulgence?
11. What is your favourite movie or book?
I love “Lord of the Rings.” It’s incredible to read that because you’re like, this guy (Tolkien), he has this entire world in his mind, and he can tell you more about it than he’s telling, and he’s telling you a lot about it. But you know he knows more about it. Non-fiction, I’d say “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki, a hugely influential book on me, and Gregory Bateson’s “Steps to an Ecology of Mind.”
12. How do you like to relax?
Stream-of-consciousness writing — free-flowing — can help my mind kind of unwind. And, of course, meditation. Or just strumming guitar, not actively trying to get a song out, just doing it for pure relaxation purposes.
13. What are you reading or watching right now?
Reading “The Hobbit.”
14. What is your greatest fear?
That I’ll be on my deathbed wishing I had done things differently. And I’m highly motivated for that not to happen.
15. How would you describe your personal fashion statement?
I’m still figuring out my style. I’ve got a lot of different elements to my personality. I’ve got a bit of bohemian in me. I’ve got a bit of country-western in me. I’ve got a bit of glam in me. And I like experimenting a bit with different things. I should work with a stylist who could help me bring this to life somehow. I hope there’s someone reading this, like, ‘Hey, I’m a stylist.’ Go on my website and contact me, and then I can figure it out.
16. What is your most treasured possession?
I don’t treasure my possessions all that much. One thing I still have that’s kind of cool is the first CD I had — “Up to Here” by The Tragically Hip. And I still have the exact copy of the CD. I just listened to it, like, two days ago at breakfast.
17. What physical or personality trait are you most grateful to a parent for?
Musicality on both sides of the family. I was raised around it. Live music was around me all the time from the womb onward, and I’m really grateful for that.
18. What three people would join you for your dream dinner party?
All three of Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers. I chatted with Kevin Blackmore back and forth a bit since we played a songwriters' circle together last year, and I find him to be a very wise, profound and humble human being. And I just admire their entire career, the way they structured their business, how they incorporated their personal values into what they’ve done. They’ve self-managed everything from day one, and they’ve had a very atypical music career from what you think of when you think of having a career in the music business. They’ve done something very different, and they set their intentions from day one, and made it work. The three of those guys, I admire them a whole lot. Plus, it would be hilarious.
19. What is your best quality, and what is your worst quality?
I don’t know. Ask my ex-girlfriends, at least for the worst quality because I’m sure they’ll have a list. (Laughs)
20. What’s your biggest regret?
I think I started drinking at way too young an age, and it was pretty common where I grew up. I think if I had advice to young people based on my own experience, I would say don’t start drinking alcohol at a young age, because alcohol can be a very serious drug, and your brain’s developing.
Responses have been edited for clarity and length.