A Conversation with Yeo

Interview by Non Chalant.

Yeo is a musician and producer based in Melbourne, currently preparing to release his album, Desire Path, this August 18, with an accompanying 12-date national tour. Desire Path follows Yeo's widely beloved LP, Ganbaru, released in early 2016.  In anticipation and excitement, Yeo is drip-feeding singles every two weeks until the album’s release.

His next single will be premiered this Thursday July 6 on Liminal

We talked to Yeo about his creative process, making music as an Asian-Australian, and his favourite snacks. 

When did you first decide you wanted to produce music professionally? 

I didn’t know it was possible to exist as a producer until I discovered artists like Pharrell and Timbaland after high school. I started getting into production by mimicking them and eventually a few songs of mine received radio airplay. That gave me a bit of confidence to continue doing what I’d fallen in love with.

How have you reached this point?

Classical piano was where I began with my musical training and though I’ve moved on from it, that school of thought has never left me. Instead of practicing piano, now I just rehearse a lot. I view every project as a chance to learn new things. Making lots of mistakes and learning how to avoid them has also been crucial to reaching this point.

Describe your sound in one sentence.

Unapologetic DIY pop with rough edges and big shiny heart.

How long has “Yeo” existed? Do you see it as a project, or is it just you in musical form?

It’s both a project and me in musical form. I can’t remember exactly why I decided to use my name, but it’s probably because I’m terrible at naming things. I released my first song eleven years ago and haven’t felt the need to change my artist name since then. This project has always been self-driven despite the varying incarnations of my sound and live act.

How do you structure your days?

Every day is different. Some days are very structured, with things to do from hour to hour. Some days are the complete opposite, where I'm free-styling/procrastinating as I go along. I've somehow managed to survive as a freelancer for about a year, so I've been pretty flexible with my time. I wake up anywhere between 7.30-10am (I'm not a morning person) and eat a decent breakfast before whipping the laptop out and getting to work. I'm either slamming admin or making music in the shed. Every second day I run or swim in the morning, or run in the afternoon, and work around that. I'm often still tinkering with things late into the night.

You’ve toured Australia, as well as parts of America and Canada— any notable experiences?

The first time we broke even on a national Australian tour was a huge moment. Until that point I’d felt like touring was a fun way to induce a financial haemorrhage. Playing music overseas is a ridiculously fun time regardless of cost because you’re exploring unfamiliar territory with your friends, doing what you love and making new pals along the way. After touching down in sunny LA, we piled into our seven-seater SUV and began driving on the right-hand side of the road. This made me realise we had no idea what we were doing but it was going to be the best time.

Can you talk to us about the process behind creating Desire Path?

I naturally vary the way I start each song. Sometimes it’s a beat, sometimes it’s a melodic hook, and sometimes it’s just a lyric. I feverishly add and subtract improvisations, cut chunks out of it and move things around until it gets close to the sound I want. Then I go to bed and spend the next day mixing. I like to let it breathe for a few weeks before a final tweak (which happens naturally anyway while I work on other songs). The latest album is the first time I’ve had someone else do the final mixing, and I’m really impressed with the results. There were thirteen songs in total, and I culled three to keep it concise. Culling is something I only really started doing on the previous album. One day I’d love to be brave and drop a 24-track 'playlist'.

What was behind your decision to collaborate with so many different artists for Desire Path

I did it for a change, and also as a concerted effort to be a part of a community. I'd done things by myself for such a long time. I'm definitely still learning how to navigate working with others. Things take more time with the back and forth, and I've realised that not everything works straight away. A few collaborations never took off either, but that happens to everyone. I do believe that working with other people results in work being just as unique as something you can create by yourself.

You’ve been releasing quite a few singles in the lead-up to your album release. 

There are a handful of loyal media outlets we love because they truly make us feel like a part of their community. However, many of the larger, better-known entities regularly give my music a pass. Usually we pick a single and run hard with it to lead the album, but we’ve grown tired of hedging all our resources on one song to have it potentially ignored.

And so, we are refocusing our efforts: apart from a few online features here and there, we’re promoting eight singles via social media to my followers and to my collaborators’ followers, and giving them what they want: more music, more frequently. 

There’s not a lot of Asian representation in the Australian/international music scene in general. Were you conscious of this going into the industry? What has been your experience in the industry as an Asian-Australian artist?

It’s only in the last few years I’ve noticed a very white music industry. In Australia, Asians get media coverage in creative industries only if we’re wearing an apron on a cooking show or making (brilliant) comedy out of our own culture. Even though we make up almost a fifth of the population, we’re seemingly doomed to accept an inferior position.

We’re working harder and producing better results than Anglo-Australians and yet we still go un-noticed, un-championed and unfunded. It comes as no surprise that the majority of industry gatekeepers are white—something that might sadly take a long time to change.

Any Asian-Australian musicians/producers we should be listening to?

I’ve just recently tuned into CORIN who makes vast, forward-thinking electronic music with mountains of attitude. Also been a fan of Rainbow Chan for quite a while, as well as Oliver White. Tracy Chen has recently come back into my life so I'm hoping to hear new stuff from her. The bits and bobs she has online are so great. Also nerding out to DXHeaven every now and then.

Do you have any advice for emerging musicians?
Do as much as possible yourself before asking for help. Release independently, at least once, so you know what goes into it. Face any fear of failure and be willing to learn.

I'm interested in your choice of the name for your last album, Ganbaru (a Japanese phrase that roughly translates to ‘Doing One’s Best’).

I chose Ganbaru because the concept resonated with me and it seemed a fitting description of my personal journey as an Asian-Australian in the music industry. There aren't many of us, so it sometimes feels like a lonely slog. I'm not Japanese. I've spent a lot of time there, studied the language in school and grew up surrounded by video games and TV shows from that country. Of all Asian media, that was what I saw most frequently, translated and imported to Australia as opposed to Malaysian TV shows and video games. Evangelion and Pokémon made more sense to me than AFL or Home and Away.

You moved from Brisbane to Melbourne in your early twenties – how is the Melbourne music industry different?

As expected with the population difference, Melbourne has a higher saturation of diverse artistry. Niches are sustainable above ground and there’s a sharp edge to these scenes due to the city’s prominence as a multi-cultural melting pot. Admittedly, I find Brisbane musicians more down-to-earth and generous in comparison to Melbourne, where the pretension and exclusivity can get a bit much. However, if you can find a good network (or create one), the level of support feels equal across both cities.

Your social media handle, ‘snackswithyeo’ is the best. Do you have particular snacks you eat whilst making music? Any snack recommendations?

Seedless grapes are the best. They are healthy and you can eat them slowly over a long period of time. I love unhealthy stuff and fake flavouring too, so chilli soy crisps and sour cream and onion Pringles are up there along with Damla lollies, clouds and soft jubes.

I’ve looked through your photography blog—it’s beautiful. Any story behind the url?

A couple of years ago I saw a road sign in the CBD that read Hotel Traffic Only. I thought the phrase was a fitting name for my adventures as a traveller and touring artist.

When did you first start shooting?

Though I like to nerd out, I’m no professional. My composition is often terrible; hence photography will always remain a personal hobby to collect memories. I bought a little digital point-and-shoot when I was a teenager and took thoughtless snaps all the time. This was back when smartphones didn’t exist. I’d toy around with borrowed 35mm cameras in the following years before obtaining my own. I learnt most from a lovely neighbour who gave me an Olympus FTL, which is now my main camera.

Who are you inspired by?
People who build things from scratch while supporting those around them who need it most.

What are you currently listening to?
Ravyn Lenae’s Moon Shoes.

What are you currently reading?
Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck.

How do you practice self-care?
Exercise, sleep, and laugh.

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It means I’m part of an intelligent and hardworking community that has a unique perspective on this great country.

Interview, 1Leah McIntosh