I wanted to express how it feels to be so desperate in that kind of situation
Kim Yang is a real story teller when it comes to her songwriting style, and listening to her music taught me a lot about the power of imagery and narrative in music. Her light singing voice is a beautiful contrast to the darker, and sometimes heartbreaking stories behind some of her music, and I really enjoyed unpacking the meaning behind her songs with her. We chatted about her experiences in music, and how she has developed over the last few years as a women in the industry
Have you found that your music making has been very different in lockdown?
To be honest, I’ve been really frustrated with not creating as much as I ‘should’ be. I feel a lot of peer pressure because the other musician friends I have- some of them just went into the studio straight away! I’m trying to put as much in as I can, but for me that’s just focusing on one song. I used to do a lot of acoustic recordings and it’s pretty simple because it’s just one take for guitar and vocals and that’s it. I’m trying to be productive and creative but it’s been hard!
Absolutely. I think getting a project past the finish line is a big deal, and it’s something that I think people don’t realise is actually quite taxing. It’s exhausting to put so much love and effort into a project and have it actually be finished. Plenty of people can write music, but not everyone actually releases it. I think it’s great that you’ve done one song in lockdown, it’s a huge achievement! It’s not like this period has all been free time, we’re in such a mentally draining situation that has this illusion of extra time.
I think it’s so much harder to have all of this creative energy and creative inspiration come out during a time that is quite literally very exhausting for everybody.
Exactly, and I feel like I’m a strong woman who is able to stay on top of how I feel, but I’ve had some really tough emotions this year. Creating the song in the studio was actually a really enjoyable experience. It got me out of that really negative mindset of things not really working out that well in my life. I was really enjoying the action of creating something.
Music is a bit of a mental dance we’re always doing. When I think conceptually about what it means to be a musician or to do music, there’s so much stress involved because I’m thinking, okay, I have to write, I have to record, I have to produce, I have to market after the release- that stuff can be so stressful! But then when you’re actually sitting down with the guitar or when you’re in the studio ready to record, there’s so much joy that can come from that because music exists to service you. It doesn’t always feel like that, but when you can have those moments where you can really remember that, oh yeah, I do this because I like doing this and because it brings me joy, I think that can really set your focus back in into what matters.
Yeah, and that’s how I’ve been feeling at the moment. I’m trying to stay positive and not force myself to do too much
How did you get started in music, and how did you get to where you are now?
Well, it has been a long journey. I’m in my early 30s, and I didn’t realise I wanted to do music until my late twenties, and I didn’t really learn anything about music before then. I was in the school choir when I was little because that’s just something you do when you’re a kid. I moved to Australia about 7 years ago, but I was on a singing TV show back in Taiwan. When I was in Uni I would do a lot of singing contests and that kind of thing just for fun, and I went on a TV show kind of like X-Factor. I thought I would have really wanted to pursue more music, but I felt so frustrated about being judged. I was frustrated with the negative comments, and people were just really mean! It made me not want to do music anymore so I stopped. After moving here, I was realizing I just wasn’t happy at all in my job, it just felt like I was trying to accommodate people all the time. It felt like I didn’t have an identity, so I started to write down my feelings in my diary to make sense of it. I was just feeling so miserable, people would ask me how I am and I’d say, I’m fine! Meanwhile I’m just feeling so miserable inside. Writing things down just helped me explain how I was feeling, and It just hit me one day that I wanted to write music and share it with people, otherwise I feel like I’m just no one in this world. So I wrote some songs and I started busking on the streets and getting gigs from busking. I started going to some open mic nights, and I’ve just kept doing it for the last few years now!
Music is such a journey of self-discovery, and it’s the kind of journey that doesn’t have timestamps that match everyone else’s. Society obviously has this huge focus on monetisation and productivity, and we’re not often encouraged to express ourselves in a creative way unless it’s something that’s going to directly contribute financially to us. I think it’s a big reason why a lot of people ‘grow out’ of a love for music; they push music and art and dance to the side because it’s seen as a waste of time. It’s a shame because I think we’re not built in a way that allows our spirit to be okay with that? To be okay with ignoring that side of our identity. I think it can be hard for a lot of people to get a job or start a career in something that’s got nothing to do with that creative fire, because you can be overcome with a real sense of misery because you’re just missing that part of you. I think it’s a shame that our society doesn’t cultivate a sense of importance on being creative
Yeah, exactly, and musicians are so underpaid, and I have to spend a lot of time making sure that my music career is still sustainable. I make sure the money I earn from music can be invested back into music, and my day job can go towards my mortgage! My biggest dream is just to make something good for the world, and have something to offer. Writing is something I want to give people, I want to create something that can be healing
Music can really break down walls for people. It allows them to be more in touch with their emotions in a way that they might not normally be in touch with. You can listen to something and it can make you feel something so deep within you, which is just really beautiful. I’d love to talk about ‘Garden of Eden’, which is the song you released in April. I think that this song has just such a striking imagery, and your lyrics really paint a clear picture,
In the shelter
anxious parents and crying children
I would love to hear a little bit about your heart behind that song and what you were communicating.
So I was stuck In Eden during the fires in Summer, and I had travelled there before so I thought it wouldn’t be too bad; I thought we would be able to escape anything that happened. I was there with some friends from overseas, and at one point it felt like everything changed overnight. There was smoke everywhere and I couldn’t see anything, and everything was just so chaotic. Sometimes I feel speechless when I try to talk about the experience, so that’s why I write lyrics. I wanted to make sure there was imagery to help you to see what I was seeing. I was just in so much shock, and I wanted to communicate what I was seeing.
I remember everyone was really panicking, and there was only one IGA in the town and everyone was running to grab food. People were arguing over the last loaf of bread- negotiating on who deserves it more, ‘my family has 4 people’, ‘well my family has 6’. For me and my friends, we just had no shelter at all, and we were walking around town trying to find restaurants to hide from the smoke in. I just kept thinking, what am I doing here? We were trying to escape and there were still all these people who were drinking and joking around. Campers like us were all over the place trying to organize safe sleeping arrangements. Families had no food, no electricity. You feel so incredibly anxious in that environment. You feel for the people around you. It’s quite emotional for me to talk about, and I just hope that people can understand. I remember when I came back to Canberra the next day, people just didn’t get it, nobody really understood how threatening the situation was for people. It’s a bit of a depressing story, and before I released the song I wondered if it was a good idea because things were already depressing enough. I wanted to express how it feels to be so desperate in that kind of situation.
Fear is a really powerful emotion in these situations, and it can feel like a switch flicks and everyone goes insane. You had this experience with the fires, and then now with this pandemic happening and people clearing out supermarkets; it can feel like these voices of fear and anger and panic are just so loud.
It’s like people forget how others are feeling.
I think that’s why music is so important in that space, music can be that comforting factor. You had this experience at IGA, and then the supermarkets being cleaned out of toilet paper. And then a few weeks later, people forget that any of that happened. We’re so quick to forget how we can treat other people sometimes.
Exactly, and I just don’t want people to forget. This has been such a dramatic year, and it’s like we’ve all forgotten how scary it was during the fires. I’m just trying to deliver a message that I think needed to be heard.
We’re so quick to shift the focus on to the next thing and we leave people behind. I really like that this song is so strong and direct. You’re saying, this happened and it was terrifying! It was like being in hell! It’s something we need to remember, and something we actually need to be thinking about, not just when it’s on our doorstep; not just when it’s staring us in the face.
Yeah, and I’m glad that I released the song because it just felt so important to me to communicate that
Let’s talk a little bit about your new song ‘Dominoes’, how did this song come about?
Well, I was in a songwriting club and that was the topic for the song!
Were you tempted to write a song about pizza?
Yeah, there’s so many different possibilities! I thought about how the game of dominoes works, I knew you use these tiles but it’s a game I haven’t really ever played before and I have no idea how it works, so I started with the lyrics,
They all know how to play this game
But you know no one cares about how we feel
I feel like as a woman in the music industry, sometimes I don’t really get to say what I need to say. I’m an immigrant to Australia, I have an Asian background, and I started doing music when I was in my late 20s. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been pushing to prove to myself that I can do it, and it feels like my starting point is lower than anyone else. I liked this metaphor of not knowing how to play this game that everyone else seems to have a grip of, but trying to enjoy the journey even if its slower than people’s around you. Even though it’s taken me longer to get to this point in what I’m doing, whether that’s success or just a goal I want to achieve, I want to sing this song to the people who feel like me. It doesn’t matter what your background is, if you just keep aiming for that goal, then you can keep going. Time is a big part of it because you shouldn’t worry about not having enough time. I wanted to encourage people to do what they want to do and not worry about what other people say. Keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll get there one day. It doesn’t matter how long it takes.
I really like the lyrics.
I follow you on this journey
Where the tiles fall, separate from all others
We build our own roads
Stacking stones on the way that they won’t touch
Again, very visual. It really helps you picture how the song feels
I think that’s how my brain works, I love to work with imagery. English is my second language, so I want to make sure that what I’m saying is clear and understandable. It feels kind of subconscious for me, but it’s the best way for me to communicate in my music. Sometimes I get self-conscious about my music not being poetic enough, but I just want to stick with what I feel comfortable with
It’s a hard thing to not compare yourself with how you write. I definitely fall into the trap of trying to make things sound really poetic or sophisticated. I think if you concentrate on that too much, you can lose the essence of what you’re trying to say. Sometimes saying something in a clear and direct way is actually the best way to say it. Convoluting your message with too many metaphors or big words or strange imagery might end up detracting from what you’re communicating
And sometimes people don’t really focus on the lyrics anyway, and the music can still really attract people, sometimes more than the lyrics. Everyone is different and everyone listens to music differently, and it’s hard to accommodate everyone’s interests
Let’s talk about your EP ‘Ocean of Mind’, which was your first release in 2019. Was there an overall message that you were trying to express with this EP?
There was a lot I wanted to communicate with my first release. ‘Ocean of Mind’ was the first song I wrote, and it’s a dedication to my partner- it’s a bit of a love song with some darkness in there. I suffer from mental health problems a lot of the time, and I’m a bit of an emo, and I have been since I was little! I find that I think too much sometimes, and I create all these steps in my head and it stops me from actually doing anything. I’ll do one thing, and my brain is thinking about step, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10! I was in a really dark place when I wrote this song, and I felt like no one understood me. It was like I was swimming in an ocean trying not to drown, while not being able to swim or get myself out. That’s how I felt, and I called the song and the EP ‘Ocean of Mind’ because I felt like I had so much in my head that I couldn’t process
When you write songs like that does it help you process the emotions?
It does, but I do still feel a bit vulnerable when I talk about what the song is about, and people say you shouldn’t write songs that are too personal because you’ll cry when you try and perform them. That’s definitely not a good thing, but I think everyone has vulnerable moments and it’s a good thing to share with people. The song is about my partner because he is the strongest person around me, and he was able to pick me up out of the ocean. The song is about appreciating that presence in my life
What is ‘Wake Me Up’ about?
‘Wake Me Up’ is a bit of a made up story I guess? It’s about two lovers who had love at first sight. These two people were madly in love with eachother, but they have kind of grown out of that and now they are wondering if they are still in love. Maybe they are yearning for attention, I wrote the lyrics,
Wake me up in the middle of the night
And say you love me
I pictured that story in my head and wrote it down. At the time of writing this song, I was really obsessed with Lana Del Rey- I love her songwriting and I just think she’s so gorgeous. She has a really dramatic way of writing, and I wanted to bring some of that feeling into this song. I wanted to communicate this constant cycle of doubt and drama and love that they might have been feeling. I was really inspired by the way that Lana Del Rey writes, and I was considering her approach to chord changes and progressions when I wrote this one.
I think it’s great to dissect the music that you love and take elements of it for your own music. When you first start making music you can easily fall into this trap of thinking that every element of your music making has to be completely new and unique- you have to find a progression no one has ever heard before, or a chord no one has ever played, some words no one has ever used in lyrics before. I think that you can really box yourself in if you do that, because you’ll never finish anything, you’ll be constantly worried that you’re not doing something completely original. Even if you start with the structure and core of another song, it will eventually turn into something that is your own. You won’t just re-release ‘Summertime Sadness’! If you start with something that you love, you’re going to end up having something that represents you and why you love it.
Exactly, the songs you are inspired by are great starting points for your own music. You can study the song and figure out why you like it so much. I love to do that and figure out the chords and what’s going on in the music that I like.
Tell me a bit about ‘Missed Chance’
The third song ‘Missed Chance’ is another personal song. I was on this singing TV show when I was about 20 or so, and after that I would just randomly post cover videos on Youtube. There was this young girl who was really sick and having chemotherapy treatment in hospital, and she sent me an email to tell me that she had loved watching me sing on that show and she was so happy to have found my Youtube channel so she could hear me sing. She said that she was in a lot of pain, but my singing was inspiring her and bringing her joy.
I was so shocked when I got this email, because I was in this period where I didn’t want anything to do with music because I was so frustrated with everything. I think it was selfish of me to not email her back straight away, but I just didn’t know what to say. It’s terrible but I found this email about two years later and I had totally forgotten about it. I couldn’t believe that I never replied, and when I tried to email her back the mailing address had been disconnected. I felt so sad at the time because I wasn’t able to thank her for the encouragement. This song is called ‘Missed Chance’ because I don’t know where she is right now, I don’t know if she is still sick, or if she is better, or if she passed away, and I might not ever find out. It’s quite a sad song for me to sing, but it’s what I wish I could have communicated to her
I think it’s beautiful that you’ve commemorated her, and writing from those really honest places, these places of deep emotional truth, can be a really vulnerable process. It can feel like you’re opening up these wounds every time you sing them, but that sort of vulnerability is so at the core of who we are as people. I think that’s the emotions that people can really deeply connect with
Sometimes I feel like I don’t have the opportunities to talk to people about these feelings, and it’s hard to open up when you’re an introverted person like me. It’s hard to say ‘hey I’m depressed!’, and it’s hard to be honest about your real feelings all the time. That’s one reason why I love to write songs, it’s easier to be honest in music. I would hate it if people didn’t know how to react to depression, or a mental breakdown, or the things I’m struggling with, and I might not be quick to tell people about that sort of thing. Music can be a lighter way of opening up to people, and helps me explain how I’m feeling. Music has really helped me discover who I am
Music is a great tool because you can pour your heart and your soul out into a song- into the lyrics and into the music- but there’s still a degree of separation for the people who listen to it. You might have these really deep cutting emotions in a song, and it feels so heavy and emotional for you, but someone listening to it might not even hear any of that. It’s funny that we can put these incredibly heavy emotional songs out into the world, and no one really knows the details of what it’s about.
Exactly, and everyone interprets things differently, just like how I receive songs differently to how the writers may have intended. There’s this Irish artist ‘Villagers’ who wrote this song ‘Nothing Arrived’, and the song is so deep and emotional, but the studio version is quite upbeat and has all these instruments playing. When he plays live, the song is stripped back and he becomes such a storyteller, and it makes me really emotional to hear it- I feel so connected to it when I hear it. He’s talking about people these days not really connecting to the world, and our obsession with the digital world, but I’ve been experiencing IVF treatment, and when I listen to the song I’m thinking about wanting something that never arrives. I think it’s beautiful to be able to write a song that can be interpreted in different ways
I feel like a trick with songwriting is to be clever enough to fully express what you’re trying to say, but in a way that’s universal enough for other people to project their own experiences on and interpret for themselves. I think that’s the challenge we’re always trying to figure out when we’re writing music
What do you want to communicate overall with your music and what do you want people to walk away with when they hear your songs?
I want to show people that we’re all human beings. It’s a good thing to express how you feel, and it’s important to be honest with yourself. I want to write songs that really express who I am, and resonate with people, because I long for that connection with people and with my audience. I love when you can feel lost in the music and you just want to stay there forever. I think women as well are told to be a certain thing, but you need to embrace what makes you happy and makes you feel honest. It’s not about catering to other people, and it’s okay to say, ‘I break down sometimes!’ I want people to know that it’s okay to be emo!
Society likes to tell us to just keep going and going and going until we burn ourselves out, and there’s not a huge focus on being kind to yourself and letting yourself rest and feel things on a real genuine level. Music can be the thing that allows you to do that.
Exactly, I just want to be free because I’ve been feeling restricted for a long time. I think that I feel more confident since turning 30, and I feel more experienced. You don’t need to panic when you turn 30- I feel a lot more confident and capable. I want to express that in my music too
You can listen to Kim Yang’s music from the links below