YEO: To Be A Quiet Achiever
The Australian music scene is changing the way we see women in the industry, but the call for more diversity still remains in the distance. Yeo is a songwriter and producer who has tackled many genres in music; just as he has tackled the stereotypes that pursue him through his career.
Through his music, Yeo finds a place of confidence that allows him to take the stage and explore the perceptions of the asian-male identity.
The PIN. Where did you grow up?
YEO. I grew up partly in Brisbane (Qld) and partly in Geelong (Vic). I was born in the inner suburbs of Brisbane, and when I was three we moved to Geelong.
Within your household was there an alternate culture to that of Brisbane and Geelong?
Y. Being just me and my mum, we were forced to adapt pretty quickly. She would make Chinese food for dinner, but if we had a whole bunch of friends over she’d be throwing stuff in the oven or roasting a chicken or something. One really funny thing is shoes off in the house. Whenever I went to my mates’ house I didn’t have to take my shoes off, but when they came here they had to take their shoes off.
What misconceptions were made about you growing up?
Y. There was dumb and juvenile stuff; some people would just assume that I was from Japan or Korea, or assumed I’d know Kung Fu. You get used to it pretty quickly growing up, you’re just like, oh well. It’s the innocent racial stuff that’s so built into Australian culture. Those kids would’ve gotten it from their parents, making that judgement call.
I think people’s misconceptions are a bit more apparent to me, as an adult, in music. People get really surprised after they listen to my music and then see a photo of me or see me at a show. They’re like, ‘Oh wow, a really unexpected voice, I didn’t know he was Asian’, and stuff like that. It doesn’t bother me but it seems to bother them. People from all backgrounds can sing.
Do you feel there is a space for you as an artist in Australia or do you find it’s easier to seek that overseas?
Y. I haven’t had that much experience overseas. I really want to start and I think that’s the next stage of my career, long term. I find it difficult in Australia...and I don’t have any statistics to back myself up so I won’t be making any ludicrous calls. But all this stuff in the media at the moment about the representation of women, I really stand behind that. I think it’s actually quite unfair. At festivals for example, it’s like, ‘Where are the chicks, they aren’t even there?’. That frustrates me. I think that’s the hot topic right now, but I would love one day to see the discussion, as a proudly multicultural nation, of how many people are here from other countries. It’s like, a certain percentage of the Australian population are musicians, they work on good stuff and they work hard. Then you go to festivals and it’s all white dudes. All white dudes. And there’s one asian, one black chick, one asian-looking duo with another white guy….since Regurgitator and The Temper Trap, it’s hard for me to be like, ‘An Australian-Asian really freaking killed it’. There are so many, but where is the support? Where are the hordes of people getting behind what they’re doing?
THE PIN. Sometimes I wonder if it’s the fault of the bookers, or the audiences and the way we’ve been brought up. You can put people on a bill for something but it doesn’t mean people will turn up, you know?
Y. That’s what they’re looking at, how they can sell tickets. They’re not looking at race or gender. They have to look at what will make them money. I know what you’re saying, you can’t centre it anywhere. It’s hard. The whole thing, it’s built in. I feel like it’s gotten way better in the last decade, there’s a lot more freedom and an ability to not feel bad about not being a white Australian.
Did you have any music or non music role models growing up?
Y. Yeah, I guess I was starstruck by a lot of musicians. I was a big fan of Stevie Wonder when I was growing up. I really loved him. He’s blind and killing it. Someone with such a disability, overcoming that from a young age, you know?
I have a big thing for a lot of people who do things themselves, like Jamie Lidell. He’s absolutely fantastic.
Most people we have spoken to actually didn’t have role models at all growing up, which I find kind of curious and sad, but it gives people the freedom of becoming whatever they want to become in some instances instead of seeing where they want to be and trying to emanate that…
Y. It’s true. I think what inspired me more than a role model was the art itself. When you listen to music or look at drawings and you want to make it, it’s so beautiful and bigger than the artist. I remember the first time I heard Boogie on Reggae Woman I was like, ‘What is this? This is sick! How do I make something like this?’. I need to go home now and read all about Stevie.
Was that the song that drew you to music, or was it always a part of your life?
Y. It was a part of my life from when I was seven years old. I really wanted to play the piano. It was my call, it wasn’t some stereotypical Asian parent thing, to force your child to play an instrument. I travelled a bit with my folks - I actually had a really religious upbringing by the way, my dad is an Evangelist pastor and travelled around the world. That’s his thing.
I left the church at 16 but when I was growing up, even younger than seven, I was at churches and playing piano and mucking around with a keyboard at home. I guess from there I found songwriting. It’s just been about putting words to music and doing it right.
With music, is there something that it enables you to do that you can’t do? Does it enable you to feel something you can’t feel in everyday life?
Y. Yeah...actually yes. I’m only answering this because you’re asking, I’ve never really thought about it. But I feel cool when I’m doing music. I feel like such a hard working loser who just has to get up everyday and get in the shower and go to work or whatever, but when I’m making music...which by the way, these two worlds are starting to combine at this stage in my career which is getting weird. I did three years of full-time work, which just finished up last year. Monday to Friday, 9 to 5. It sucks but every time I would be in the studio outside of those hours, I would think, ‘I’m making something that is really worth it and I feel good doing this’, and you know, you put it out and all these people like it! That’s great, that’s magical, it’s such a weird experience.
Do you feel more comfortable on stage or in the studio?
Y. Definitely in the studio. The studio is more controllable. On the stage, gear can go wrong, people can be mean, people can be indifferent. That’s worse than mean. I prefer mean to indifferent. Shows like that, you’re just putting everything out there on the line.
What does it mean to be an Asian-Australian man today?
Y. I feel it’s very unique but you can overcome the shit. Just approach it with a positive attitude. I feel like Asian men often get looked at through a de-masculinised lens. We’re not known to be sexy or anything like that. We’re known to be pretty nerdy and hard working. But I definitely know - or get the feeling - that it’s not a very widespread preference, in dating for example. And in music, I actually get approached by a lot of asian males being like, ‘Help me - what do I do?’. I’m just like, ‘Work hard, dude’, all you can do is work and try to be above it.
Have you heard of an artist called Charlie Lim? It’s the kind of thing that would get eaten up by white America. He’s got a great voice and plays guitar and is like John Mayer. But for some reason, he just can’t crack that market - and he’s got support from a lot of big corporations and stuff. He’s actually famous in Singapore. He moved to Australia for a while and just didn’t connect. He made a lot of friends, but when it came to playing shows, tickets just didn’t sell. Back in Singapore he’s killing it, he loves it, but it’s taken a notch out of his belt because the white world isn’t working for him. I feel like I’m either going to fall victim to the same thing, or not. I don’t know what’s happening with me right now, I’m in such a strange place musically within Australia. It’s hard to gauge.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
Y. I would tell myself to be proud of my culture and to try and hang onto it. I’ve lost it now, I can’t speak Chinese anymore and it breaks my heart because I want to. I regret that, I’m so bummed I didn’t keep it up.
When I was growing up, my parents would be talking to me in Chinese and I would reply in English. I would get angry at them as a teenager when my friends would come over and they would speak in Chinese. I would say, ‘Talk in English so my friends can understand what you’re saying!’. But they were just trying to keep the culture.
- This interview has been edited and condensed
Photo credit: Anne Moffat