You can ask Conner Youngblood how many instruments he plays, but the better question might be how many instruments he owns.
That number is more than 30, mostly in the string family, from guitars and banjos to a harp and an accordion, to more obscure foreign contraptions such as an Argentinian charango and an Egyptian oud.
Youngblood knows how to play all of them, or at least to the extent that they contribute to his unique sound, which has allowed the Preston Hollow native to carve out a burgeoning grassroots music career.
“I buy them without any knowledge of how to play them. I can extract certain sounds out of them that I like,” said Youngblood, who graduated from St. Mark’s in 2008. “I try to incorporate them the best I can.”
And so a song by Youngblood, who has played concerts around the world and has received plenty of critical acclaim for the handful of songs he’s released online, could include any number of instruments and vocal tracks — all of which originate from him and are mixed together to form a song.
“I try to combine all the music I enjoy listening to instead of trying to pick out one sound,” he said. “It’s usually about myself and how I feel. There’s not much of an agenda in terms of what I’m writing.”
Hal Fitzgerald, who has been Youngblood’s recording engineer since the beginning, said he brings instruments to a recording session like a child with a toy box, uncertain of which ones he might use that day.
“He is an extremely unique artist,” said Fitzgerald, who added the very reason that one person might discard an instrument is the very reason it appeals to him. “Most people might think of it as junk, but he will figure out some way to make it into a workable instrument.”
After acquiring a taste for music in middle school, Youngblood said he began getting serious about writing and singing during his senior year at St. Mark’s, when his parents took him to a local studio to record a couple of tracks as a Christmas gift.
But it wasn’t until his freshman year at Yale when Youngblood — once a promising wrestler in high school — started thinking about a potential music career.
“I was just kind of messing around, writing in my dorm room,” he said. “I realized it was something I enjoyed and started to take more seriously.”
So Youngblood began trying to find his sound. He had taken banjo lessons since sixth grade, and has dabbled with piano and drums, but otherwise is mostly self-taught, with influences including American bluegrass and classical jazz.
“It was literally me having no idea what to do,” Youngblood said. “It was pretty fun producing it, and over time it sort of led to my own style.”
Youngblood said his songs are usually about 75 percent written when he enters the studio. He typically knows the lyrics, melody, and the beat, then fills in the details during the mixing process.
Once he graduated from Yale in 2012 with an American studies degree, Youngblood began playing live shows and trying to market himself and his experimental music, which is not easily categorized and thus a harder sell.
So how does his style translate to the stage? Youngblood admits that’s tricky. He has played a few shows with a full band, and others solo with a synthesizer, guitar, and drum pad at his disposal.
“I try to keep it as true to the recording as possible, but you can’t,” he said. “If it’s something that’s too hard, then I usually leave it out.”
Touring has broadened his fan base, as Youngblood has played almost 40 shows already this year, driving himself around the country in the process. He’s opened for Janelle Monae and Morcheeba, and his music has received exposure in commercials and in the background of an episode of “Gray’s Anatomy.” He rattles off a diverse list of influences that includes Bon Iver, Gorillaz, and Bob Dylan.
Youngblood, 24, lives in Nashville now, but returns to Dallas frequently to visit family and record new songs. He has already recorded four tracks with a new band called Van Exel. And he’s trying to finish his first album and would like to eventually sign with a label, although he knows that will be a challenge.
“What started as trying to make a song has turned into a pretty good career,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s got a clear vision in his head in terms of what he wants to hear.”