Interview: Yeo on self-improvement, rehabilitation, and ‘Recovery Channel’
For years, Melbourne-based musician Yeo has been releasing sly R&B jams with dozens of local collaborators across his expansive discography. A casual scroll through his Bandcamp and Soundcloud pages will dig up many, many names that he’s worked with–from vocalists to producers to similar R&B musicians (many of whom have had hits of their own). Other shining moments in his highlight reel include a very successful Triple J “Like A…” Cover session, a solo tour in Ecuador, worldwide festival gigs, and a few million streams on Spotify. Taken holistically, Yeo’s near-decade of work has paid off in quite the spectacular way, and it seemed that Yeo has firmly cemented himself as a familiar face within Melbourne’s indie music scene.
So it came as a surprise that when I asked Yeo about his involvement in the Australian music scene, he hesitated before cautiously admitting, “I don’t feel really included in it, to be quite honest.” Quickly, he corrected, “I feel included with my community. There’s a lot of Asian artists and we pay attention to each other. That’s so important.” As the musician broke down his thoughts about how he felt the local music scene was changing (or not changing), that community of Asian Australian creators was the one factor that we kept coming back to. It was this community that kept him going.
In a way, Yeo’s newest album, Recovery Channel, was itself heavily inspired by that community–drawing upon his dual background both as an Asian and an Australian during the making of the album. For the first time in years, Yeo went back to Penang, Malaysia and re-immersed himself in his culture following the death of his father. He traveled across Asia for a large chunk of the year, garnering inspirations from pop and R&B all across the continent. But Recovery Channel was also informed by local, striking issues that camouflage themselves within his grooving, head-bobbing tunes. On his first releases from the album, “Restless” and “The Comments,” Yeo doesn’t mince words. “I smell the blood of white feelings,” he accuses in the first line of “Restless.” “Why you always asking / Like the color of my skin changes everything drastic?” he asks in “The Comments.” Yeo’s lyrics tap into his own experiences with the often unfair world around him, and the songs on Recovery Channel are an outward form of therapy that entertains and relays socially conscious messages in a smart package. For the casual listener, cutting lyrics like these might easily fly over their heads, but further investigation will reveal that Yeo’s songs serve a deeper purpose than simply R&B white noise.
We talked to Yeo back in October about his bold new album Recovery Channel, the situations that inspired it, and how the Melbourne music industry is changing in relation to Asian Australians.
Where did the name for the album, Recovery Channel come from? Where did its themes come from?
I went through some really tough stuff through most of last year. At the end of 2017, I injured my back really badly and it stopped me from doing a lot of work and a lot of things that I enjoy like music, playing live and touring and stuff, and also sports. I like to keep quite active. I slipped a disc, so that gave me sciatica which is quite acutely painful–you can’t really do much. Actually, the main problem was you couldn’t sit down! It just hurt so much. While I was at the height of my pain, my father also passed away. That was a very sad time. I had to explore what that meant to me because my relationship with my father wasn’t great. It was quite fragmented.
I feel like especially with East Asian families, things are a little different for us. There’s a lot of pressure coming in a different way to deal with something like a big loss in the family. There was that, and I was pretty heavily medicated and spending a lot of time rehabilitating my physical health. That spans all the way until the beginning of this year. I actually ended up having a nervous breakdown after making some really bad decisions and hurting a lot of people around me by just terrible behavior. And when you hurt your friends, especially your really close ones, you lose some of them. The other ones somehow find it within themselves to stick around, hold you accountable, put you back on your feet and tell you they’re not leaving. So I’m still on that period of growth where I’m working on myself and being mindful about my own actions. I’m trying to be empathetic too. Coming back from a nervous breakdown–I’ve never had it that bad before in terms of mental health illness. So it was a deep mode of recovery, and it was a lot of things I had to pull together. And this album has been slowly shaped by the whole journey which is significant for me.
Do you find that working on the songs on the album was a form of therapy?
Absolutely. It’s interesting too–things that I wrote, say, a year and a half ago mean different things now to me. In hindsight, it was just an expression of feeling at the time. But now there’s a whole context to it that I didn’t really see while I was writing it. But what that does is it makes performing it exciting because the meaning behind the song has shifted–it hasn’t completely changed–but it’s deeper and it’s richer. There’s more color to it.
Speaking of your lyrics, on two of your songs, “The Comments” and “Restless” have some very pointed lyrics. On “The Comments,” you sing, “I’m telling you my country won’t recognize the killing that it’s built on / Don’t want the weather with the guilt storm / Let them just get married / If they want to get married.”
“Restless” opens with the lines, “I smell the blood of white feelings / Deep in the crease of my hand.” Could you explain the sentiment behind these songs?
There are layers to both of those songs. Even just from the title of “The Comments,” I’m pretty much taking a shot at keyboard warriors who hide behind their computers anonymously and just be negative about issues that plague our country. And to be specific, “Our country won’t recognize the killing that it’s built on” is about the indigenous history of Australia–if you can call it Australia. Basically the British came here and killed everyone, and it’s not even being acknowledged properly. Sovereignty was never ceded in this country and indigenous people have been pushed to the margins and suffered discrimination and it’s a really bad situation. I feel like a lot of countries that have gone through colonialization actually have similar problems. Not like, “it’s our problem,”… it’s everybody’s problem. We’ve all got to look at what history has taken place and dismantle that in the modern context… which is really difficult! Super complex. I get that. That’s why all these people who think that they know what they’re fucking talking about behind keyboards need to stop doing that and actually go out into the community and make a difference physically. Pragmatically, practically, and literally instead of just typing shit. And “let them just get married”… we had a plebiscite here to decide whether gay marriage should be legalized. And that’s the most ridiculous thing… I can’t believe we even had to ask the question! The sentiment of that song is very clear.
Moving on to “Restless”… “I smell the blood of white feelings.” I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but white people don’t like it when you play the race card. They really don’t. They just hate admitting that they’re racist. I’m not saying that all white people are racist, and not really anything at a specific person… I’m more aiming at an action. When I call something out, like “hey man, that’s not a cool thing to say. Don’t make fun of that because you don’t understand it…” people get defensive. It’s this term that Robin DiAngelo coined called “white fragility.” It’s that defensiveness–the natural denial that comes with getting their feelings hurt because they were called a racist. I’ve been thinking about that a lot.
What was it like reuniting with Charlie Lim, and what was it like working with him on his recent album CHECK-HOOK?
Charlie’s really meticulous. I thought I was meticulous–he’s like more meticulous. It’s quite intense working with him, but I just really respect someone who cares so much about music. I care so much about the authenticity of it. And I don’t care so much about the fact that I’m an Asian person making R&B. All that stuff is appropriation… that’s another discussion. But we’re putting our own spin on things and we want to write really good songs. That’s the goal. We don’t care about money, we care a little bit about who’s listening because we want our friends to be impressed and stuff, like the people who we hold at a higher regard. But other than that, that’s it. And it’s about the songs. It’s not even about us. We share that mindset, I think. We talk about it a lot–we talk about the industry and how much it dogs us and yet we still come back to the well every time to try and draw more water, basically. And that’s why we get along!
We don’t agree on everything, but I have the faith in that compromise because I know that the quality is going to be high. At the very least, it’ll satisfy me and Charlie. We’ve played music together for such a long time and we’ve been in each other’s pockets quite a bit. It’s almost familial love right there.
Recovery Channel follows 2016’s Ganbaru and 2017’s Desire Path. Is there anything that you’ve tried doing differently on this record?
The way things have changed for me is everything started to slow down–the tempos on this album are a bit slower than the last ones. There’s less of a big “Let’s make everyone dance!” high energy thing. Now, it’s a lot more about feelings and introspection. Deeper thinking. It’s a lot more R&B too! I’m also using my voice in a way that I haven’t before. “The Comments,” when that came out, people were like, “You don’t sing like that! That’s really good!” And I was like YES!
How does the album artwork speak to the themes that are presented on the album?
This is my interpretation of it. There’s a lot of darkness to something that’s beautiful. Since I’ve been going through all this stuff, my perspective on life has really shifted for the better. There’s quite a bit of growth and strength there. And confidence, and being a bit more sure about what’s right and what’s wrong and how to judge situations and navigate my way through that. So this artwork that SLACK has made–there’s spiders on there, the flowers are really beautiful, and they’re quite scary. The lips! They’re nice lips. To be quite frank, I just said, “Listen to the album and the tracks and draw what you want.” And that’s what she came up with. I loved it. It’s got quite a street style and it’s quite bold. I think it fits really well.
In a recent article by Jocelle Koh on Asian Pop Weekly, you’ve mentioned that revisiting Asia has prepared you for the making of this album and you even have your own playlist highlighting Asian artists that you’ve been listening to. How did that playlist come about, and which artists do you think the rest of the world should be paying attention to?
For that playlist, I picked a whole bunch of songs first and I was like “these are all East Asian artists.” It just turned out that way, so I was just like let’s call it that. I’ve been playing a lot of Chinese music for my DJ sets at the National Gallery of Victoria which is our state gallery here. They currently have the Terracotta Warriors exhibits, and they run these nights so they get me to play Chinese music. China’s become cool again! It’s at the edge of cool. Because things change so quickly they’re staying on the edge which is really rad. There’s a lot of cool urban music coming from there. I’m totally aware that it’s an appropriation of a lot of Black American music–you can’t deny that. But because the environment of China… the way that media gets treated with the censorship and all of that kind of stuff, it’s a different context. Free speech is definitely not welcome–especially when you see the things happening in Hong Kong at the moment. There are issues there.
That’s where it started, and I expanded it to include friends that I really like. Like Linying from Singapore is on there and she’s an amazing writer. There’s some Chinese R&B. Lil Asian Thiccie–she’s this Malay rapper and she sounds sick! She’s got so much attitude! And there’s like Korean music on there–KPOP and R&B. It’s all just music I really like. You know what’s interesting is I don’t understand a lot of the languages there. I don’t know what they’re singing about. There’s this dude on there called Ren Kai and he’s Chinese but he lives in Ecuador and I met him while I was there. He speaks Spanish, English, and Mandarin. This track he released is reggae because that’s what they’re obsessed with there. I just thought it was so interesting and so cool!
You’ve been in the Melbourne music industry for years now. Do you think that the scene is changing, especially when it comes to getting more Asian Australian voices in music or has it become stagnant in terms of representation?
It’s changing. The music scene is changing. I don’t feel really included in it, to be quite honest. I feel included within my community. There’s a lot of Asian artists and we pay attention to each other. That’s so important. But we’re definitely still on the fringe. I’m just so used to feeling left out, so that’s why I’ve done everything myself and started our own movements. We’re just trying to do things within our community because I don’t see us mixed in with the general artist cohort of Australia. It makes me really sad to say that. You’d think after all these years and all the yelling and screaming that’s been happening in the last few years about that… it still feels stagnant, which is the word that you originally said. I’m trying not to let that get me down because at the end of the day, what matters is what we’re making and the people we’re supporting, and who support us. That’s what’s changed in the local scene. We’ve found each other. We’ve discovered that we should support each other. And that’s the way forward for us, to make things sustainable both in a literal sense with finances and stuff, but also if I didn’t have so many Asian friends in the industry, I don’t know if I’d still be doing this. I’d probably just quit and take some other crappy job. Not to hate on people with normie jobs.
I think that’s what’s changed–we’ve at least learned to reach out and support each other. And when I say we, I mean Asian people.
Is there a chance that you’ll be touring in the US for your new album?
We have started making things a bit more mobile for me. Because touring in Australia is very expensive. We do do things different domestically as well, so that’s why it costs a little bit more–a full show like a drummer, live visual setups, equipment and all that. That makes for a very fun, electrifying show. But in the last two years, I’ve been playing a few more solo shows. I did a tour in South America in Ecuador, and that was like five days on my own. I just showed up with my keyboard and computer and just played these places. And you know, I can still rock a room by myself! I don’t need a drummer; I don’t need visuals. I don’t need all that stuff! Now that I’ve kind of got that confidence under my belt with the solo set, I’m a bit more flexible. Things like coming to LA to play a few shows–not that far out of the question. I did Ecuador… I’m sure I can get to LA. We’ve been doing Singapore, there is a chance to do Malaysia, I want a chance to go to the Philippines. I want to do a lot more international travel. I think that’s fun. To play shows and blahblahblah, but I’m also just loving meeting other artists and sussing out circles and local scenes. Meeting people and hanging out.
That kind of stuff is so much more important to me than meeting the biggest band in Australia here. I care about the little people more, to be honest.
Overall, do you have any wisdom that you want to impart to your fans?
My main message is always that you can do it. If you want to do it, you can probably do it… you just gotta try. When my back was really screwed, I could barely walk. Now I’m able to run ten kilometers… it was a milestone for me. I just got there last week. I was really proud of that, and thought, “You remember when you had to lie down every five minutes because you were in so much pain?” Now you can run so far! It’s just a little bit at a time. It just requires the execution of a plan. You just gotta go out there and do it. Whether you’re a photographer or a musician, a visual artist, a writer… yeah, you can hum around and be in your own brain for years about your ideas and wanting to get it perfect on the first go, but the journey that you take… that first step and release something, the sooner you’ll start learning how to do that better. Don’t wait around too long. Just do it.
Recovery Channel will be released on all platforms on December 11, 2019.
Header photo: Chris Yip
This interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu online on October 8, 2019.