If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
This is something that Jeff Gregerson has thought a lot about as he’s made music throughout his life. Gregerson, 33, played first in high school rock and jam bands, and more recently as one half of the Charlottesville-based electronic cello folk act Wes Swing, named for the project’s cellist.
All the while, he’s been writing his own material but keeping it mostly to himself. Sure, plenty of musicians make music for their own ears, but Gregerson kept wondering if his music was the tree falling in the forest with no other audience to hear it. Would it make a sound?
In March, Gregerson, under the moniker Yessirov, released his official solo debut, a three-song EP titled Small Comfort, and began performing live shows of the material.
“It feels weird to have an official debut right now,” says Gregerson, because he doesn’t feel like a new face or an unfamiliar presence in Charlottesville music.
“My whole lifetime of songwriting was available to choose from,” says Gregerson, who laughs when he says he hopes it won’t take him another 33 years to put out three more Yessirov songs.
Small Comfort has been an exercise in learning how and when to let his music go out into the world—to let his tree fall in the proverbial forest where someone is guaranteed to hear it.
When Gregerson composes for Yessirov, he eschews song structures and aims to create a mood, an ambience, to describe an emotion via sound. Lyrics, if there are any, come last, and Gregerson typically choses words not for their meaning (he’s not into sending a message with individual songs), but based on how they sound. In a song he plays in live sets but hasn’t recorded yet, every line ends in an “m” sound so that he can hum the “mmm”s. And with the words he does choose, he rarely repeats them (unless they are chanted or looped).
Gregerson says that one thing he’s learned from playing in Wes Swing is that “a song can be anything you want it to be,” and so he likes “to follow the course of a song like a river—wherever it goes.”
Which is perhaps why it’s taken him so long to finish and release the three songs on Small Comfort. He could work on a song forever, he says, constantly evolving it into new phases, new moods. At some point during the production of the EP, though, he began to understand that he had to loosen his grip on his open-ended songs and release them into the world, conscious of their flaws but also of their strength and beauty, knowing that once they’re out there, they can’t be pulled back in. But he hasn’t let them go entirely.
On the recordings, Gregerson wrote the songs, sang and played guitar, bass and piano; Nora Horn provided vocals, Swing played cello and violin, and Josh Roberts played drums and some electronics and also produced the record. But recently, Gregerson has reworked the seven-and-a-half-minute title track, “Small Comfort,” into a 30-minute continuous electronic piece that he’ll perform solo at the Telemetry Experimental Music Series at The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative Saturday night. He’ll sing, play guitar and use various electronic synthesizers and a drum machine to widen the scope of the song even more.
That song in particular, Gregerson says, gets at what he’s trying to do with Yessirov. The phrase “small comfort” can mean something small that is comforting, and it can also mean that something is but a small (i.e., not full) piece of comfort. It’s a nod to the importance of taking care of oneself, says Gregerson, before stating what sounds like his manifesto: “It’s okay to acknowledge that this is your only life. Do what you can to make it better for yourself and those around you. And that can look like whatever you want it to be.”
Gregerson hopes people might listen to the three expansive songs on Yessirov’s Small Comfort during life’s meditative moments and find something small, or comforting, or both, to connect with. There’s certainly plenty of opportunity to do so. Says Gregerson, “Nothing would make me happier than to hear someone say, ‘I listened to your music on a walk in nature,’ or ‘I listened on a long drive and it hit home.’”
What’s that name?
Jeff Gregerson had his musical moniker Yessirov before he had any songs to release under the name. Yessirov is a very minor character in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and Gregerson describes him as “a disgraced military officer whose life has fallen apart.” In the book, the man introduces himself as “Nikolai Ilyich Snegiryov, sir, former captain in the Russian infantry, sir, disgraced by his vices but still a captain. I should have said Captain Yessirov instead of Snegiryov, because it’s only in the second half of my life that I’ve started saying ‘Yessir.’ ‘Yessir’ is acquired in humiliation,” and “unwillingly, God knows. I never used to say it, all my life I never used to say ‘sir.’ Suddenly I fell down and got up full of ‘sirs.’ It’s the work of a higher power.”
Gregerson found the character compelling, and liked the way Yessirov sounded, to boot.