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Tone Glow 009: Lucy Liyou
An interview with Korean-American musician Lucy Liyou + album downloads and our writers panel on Yves Tumor's 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'
Lucy Liyou is a Korean-American musician whose debut album, Welfare, is one of the most exciting works of 2020. On the album, they recount life experiences with fractured electronics, piano, text-to-speech vocalizing, and more. While barely in their 20s, Lucy Liyou’s music feels fully-formed but still brimming with possibility. It also sounds like an album that could only be made by a young, adventurous musician. The day after their album came out, we talked on the phone about the love we have for our mothers, the process behind creating the album, and more.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Let’s both start off by saying one thing we love about our moms.
Lucy Liyou: Our moms? Wow.
Is that okay?
No, yeah, I was just thinking yesterday, “What kind of questions are going to be asked?” And I love this question! I didn’t think about it!
Oh yeah, I’m against asking questions only about the artistry, that shit can be really boring (laughter).
Okay, I’ll start, but let’s do this: Let’s name one thing we love about our moms and one thing we have difficulties with. (pauses). I love my mom a lot. If there’s one thing I could point out, it would be her passion about the things she really cares about. When she wants to do something, she’ll do it—no questions asked—and she’ll try her best to make sure everything works out. This could be for a variety of things—if she’s just trying to be there for a friend, she’ll happily drop everything and be on the phone with them for hours. I’ve received this sort of mentality from my mom for sure—she’s really inspired me in that way.
In terms of something I find difficult… my mom’s father was always very stoic. Her father had to leave his family because of Japanese occupation, so he never saw his family again after he turned 18. That really altered how he lived his life, so naturally, my mom is very stoic as well. Growing up it was always challenging because I never felt she understood me emotionally. She would always get upset or angry when I cried, it was really hard for her to understand the struggles I had with depression. It’s only recently that she’s come around to better understanding it, and I’m really thankful for that.
(laughs). I identify with that so much. One thing that I absolutely love about my mom is that she is such a devoted mother. I had a wonderful opportunity this past winter break to see my grandparents on my mom’s side. We were having dinner together and her mom said, “When I see how my daughter treats you guys, I feel really bad, because I feel like I haven’t done a good job as a mother.” My mom is such a devoted, loving mother.
I guess my qualm—and I say qualm very lightly, because I’m trying my best to understand it too—is that I think some of that care and that love doesn’t translate. We don’t have the same love or care languages, and I think that has a lot to do with her being born in Korea and me being born in the States. Similar to you, we wouldn’t be on the same page about showing emotions, or saying “I love you,” or simple things I saw my friends receive from their parents all the time.
I remember I would talk to my mom about it, I’d say, “Hey, why don’t you say these things?” And she would say, “Don’t I love you enough already? I do all these things for you, everything I do is for you.” It was quite sobering, but it was difficult, you know? We didn’t have that immediate connection, not only because of the language barrier, but also because of differences in expression and types of care. But I’m learning, we’re both learning. It’s recent for me too, she’s really started to understand and accept my battles with depression as well. She’s been really great about it recently, to a superhero extent. It’s really kind of crazy, I’d never expect this from my mom!
Can you give an example of something your mom did that you consider a superhero level of service or action or care?
Maybe this sounds so trivial to a white person or non-Asian person, but my mom admitting that she’s wrong, or that she messed up—you know what I mean? She’s been doing that a lot recently, and being honest with me at a higher level. It’s been refreshing. Earlier this semester I’ve had so many arguments with her about what I want to do with my future, like always. And she said to me, “I really want you to know that this is my first rodeo too. I’ve never had a kid go to college. When I went to college in Korea it was a prescriptive route. I don’t really know what to do either. I’m sorry that I’m not parenting to the best of my ability. I just wish that you would understand.” It’s that level of transparency that has made our relationship even better and stronger.
That’s huge, I’m so happy for you!
My mom, more so than my dad, has had such difficulty with admitting fault and being honest. For them, being vulnerable is a sign of weakness.
Regarding your release from last year, A Hope I Had, the first section is called “A Sad Korean Mom.” Can you describe what inspired you to create that?
Obviously [the lyrics on the album] are not entirely true, like I did not kill someone (laughter) but this is about an experience I had when I was a junior in high school. There had been a big fight at home, and my dad had left, and my mom was distraught. I’ve never seen her that way. You spoke about your parents not showing vulnerability—and my mom was just like that. She would cry here and there, but it was quite rare. But, I remember in that moment she just broke. She was trying to do her best to parent, but I saw her not getting out of bed, always praying—my Mom is very Christian—and all of a sudden it felt like I had to impress her, I had to care for her.
But our care languages are so different. I wasn’t sure that saying, “I love you, I’m here for you, I care about you” was going to translate for her. So this song is me going to different extents to find a connection between our care languages. I was thinking how wonderful it would be if I could just sing her a song. At that point will you love me? Will you be there for me in the way I’m being here for you right now? That’s definitely the inspiration for the song.
But that’s fictional. In real life, I was practicing really hard on the piano—I played competitively for a very long time—working really hard on that and trying really hard in school, showing my mom that I was doing really well with these things, trying to appease her in that matter. That’s definitely what it's about.
Thanks for sharing all that. When I was growing up, there was always the sense that I was doing things for my parents, even more so than for myself. I initially wanted to be a dentist—my father is a dentist, and he’s really passionate about his work. He studies all the time, and is always learning new things about the field; he loves his job, and that overflowed into me being interested in it. But at one point I had to make a decision about changing careers and that was difficult. Even though there came a point where my parents were just like, “It’s okay, you don’t have to be a dentist,” I still felt bad.
For me, yes I was doing it for them, but I was also doing it for myself. This is just the kind of warped relationship I have with my parents. I need affirmation because that’s what I think love is, from them specifically. Like, I need this because I need to feel loved. There was just a lot of that going on for myself personally too, in terms of what I was doing. I was trying to get into a good college with a good conservatory.
Every time I talk to another Korean-American there are always so many parallels, it really shocks me. There are always individual differences too that make stories not only interesting but also very painful to listen to.
Yea, that’s definitely been my experience… it’s very true. You mentioned that your Mom is very Christian—my mom is too. If you’re a second generation Korean-American, your parents are generally Christian because the church functioned as a social hub for us even if you weren’t religious. Right now, I’m thinking about that, about conservatism in Korea and how it’s difficult for our parent’s generation specifically to be able to relate to us in multiple ways. I’m curious, and this is based on your songs “My Selfish Son” and “Unnie,” what has been the way your mom has been reacted to you regarding your gender identity?
I’m not out to my parents. I’ve been very comfortable identifying as anything; as long as you treat me like a person, that would be really wonderful, thank you very much! (laughter). I think for me, it was more gender qualities and personalities that have always been more interesting than gender differences. That’s what “Unnie” is specifically: there’s something so personal, caring and loving about Korean womanhood. Comparatively, 형님 (hyungnim), or manhood, is very impersonal, idolizing, competitive. The lyrics are very simple—I wanna be called unnie not hyungnim—I just wanted it to be simple because that’s all it takes to represent that sentiment. Gender pronouns and gendered references are constricting and limiting. This goes back to what my album Welfare is about: the colonialist concept of self-care. “Unnie,” for me, is about how I’d love to remove myself from this gendered personality archetype, but I’ll take any name or reference I’m given, because removing myself from it would be incredibly tumultuous for my family.
It goes back to my idea of self-care for the album, where I’m struggling to strike a balance between nationalism and individualism, as I feel as an American growing up in the United States, and also growing up in a collectivist Korean household. I remember showing a trans friend of mine this song, and they told me—just on a very concrete level—that this is exactly what they feel. So this is also for my friend and for the protection of trans lives, especially Black trans lives in the United States, so it has a couple of meanings for me.
So I’m curious, what was the process in creating the album? Clearly you had these ideas you wanted to explore. Why or how did the music you created end up being the way to work through these ideas?
I think I would have to go back to how I got into music in the first place. I’ve played classical piano since I was six, and I’ve played competitively from 3rd grade up until 12th grade. At one point I felt very overworked, and fell out of love with playing music. It just didn’t feel as personal and rewarding as it did before. That’s why I started making music on GarageBand. There was no guidance—I disliked tutorials because anything with such a prescriptive nature felt unnecessarily constrictive. So there was a lot of trial and error finding what I did and didn’t like. And then I upgraded to Logic, which had even more trial and error. But because of piano I had an understanding of music theory, which definitely helped me.
When I started I was making all kinds of music. Maybe there’s something more to unpack here, but I felt that I had to belong to a genre. I was just jumping around a lot. I was doing electronic pop—like hyper pop—then I was doing industrial rap, which was so terrible (laughter). It was so terrible! And then ambient pop… I was trying all these things because I thought I had to fit somewhere. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere musically at that time, not even in the classical music community because I didn’t like it as much anymore. At one point I felt like the confines of music were just kind of racist, and limiting to ridiculous extents. So I took a break, which was last year, and listened to a lot of music and read a lot. went back to music thinking about my thesis and what I wanted to achieve instead of about the kind of genre I wanted to fit into.
I would write all the time—on my phone, on a piece of paper, everywhere. Everything I wrote hearkened back to this idea of self-care. That idea has shifted so drastically for me, and that’s when I decided to approach it seriously. I was making the same songs as I had before, recreating these genres that I felt the need to fit into and I was like, “I hate this!” In a fit of rage I ripped everything apart and threw everything everywhere and I said to myself, “OK, let me just hear it.” It all sounded terrible! There was nothing there! Everything was everywhere, but it was like—and I know this sounds so immature, sorry, I’m like 21 (laughs).
No, its fine, really!
It felt quite freeing! Liberating in a way. Everything was everywhere, and I was just like, “OK! Now I have a blank slate, now I can work off of something. Let’s work step by step from what I want to say, what kind of sounds I want to use.” And I don’t necessarily mean sounds like tones or samples, but I wanted to use every sound instrumentally. I had found a thesis that I really wanted to convey, and at that point it was just like, “What kind of sonic arrangements are going to help me convey that message, not only for others but especially for myself.” I had to answer so many of these questions on my own. Because I listened to so many new things and read a lot I was informed and influenced by so many kinds of new artists and sounds. I got into p’ansori, which is so incredible. It definitely informs how I want to approach the sound collage aspect of my music. In p’ansori there are specific enunciations and intricacies with the voice that really complicate the words and the narratives both tonally and therefore emotionally. I wanted to have that—obviously I’m not classically trained in p’ansori (laughter)—but I wanted to achieve my own idea of what a Korean folk opera would be.
P’ansori is very sad to me. So much of it is lost, there are like 12 canonical works and there are only five performed. They’re a lost piece of culture. I guess Welfare, or my music now, is me trying to extend the p’ansori canon on my terms, not for anybody else but for myself.
I love that, that’s so good! (laughter). You keep saying that you’re immature—you said that yesterday when we talked, too—but this is not immature at all. The notion of you putting everything everywhere and hearing how it sounds and it being freeing, that’s something that so many musicians don’t get to until later in their career. So that’s good!
Thank you. (laughs).
So you mentioned how you went through a drastic shift with what self-care means and what it involves for you. Can you go into detail about that? What does it involve for you now?
When I started the album it was as an attempt to attain an equilibrium of cultural collectivism and national individualism. I’ve come to realize that it just doesn’t exist! There’s no such thing! And I’ve come to understand that as a productive thing. Instead, what I do know is the boundaries that separate what I feel as self-centered or selfless—those boundaries are opaque. These small pockets of nebula that wait for my personal reinterpretation, my redefinition, my reimagination. That’s what self-care is for me, or what it can be for me. That’s where I’ll begin to form an understanding of what self care is. Maybe even not knowing—am I making any sense?
Yes, you are.
How do I say this… Just knowing that there isn’t an attainable equilibrium, you have to reimagine what self-care means for you. Be informed, and don’t forget history or your experiences, but—and this is also influenced by Black feminist scholars and Asian-American scholars who talk about racism and historical atrocities—a productive way to get out of this is reimagining a world where we can place new liberative definitions for ourselves. That’s where I’m at now. Self-care can mean anything to me at this point. I’ll look for it but at least I know that’s where I have to begin, I have to reimagine things.
I love that! I love that! That’s definitely true and we see that in music all the time too. There’s Afrofuturism and all the countless artists, or—and this is a total aside—K-pop too. That’s why I’ve always loved K-pop, because to me it was always about Koreans trying to find a sense of identity after a military dictatorship and relaxing borders and getting more art from everywhere else in the world. The thing that defines K-pop is how undefined it is in terms of genres—they keep mixing them together. I didn’t realize it when I was younger, but I came to understand that K-pop had appealed to me because it signaled this idea that being Korean meant you could be anything you wanted.
Absolutely! This is making me think of my favorite K-pop songs from when I was younger. The best groups of today are doing exactly what you’re talking about. Doing these crazy blends and mashes of genres and really reimagining music for themselves. I’m a huge fan of Red Velvet.
Oh they’re my favorite! Absolutely!
Red Velvet is really on top of their game. Other groups have to catch up because of how hard Red Velvet is killing it. Even Brown Eyed Girls, Davichi, BIGBANG and these big name groups like—yes, they’re popular, but they’re popular for a reason. They spoke towards a national zeitgeist at the time, where people were searching for particles of identity. There is something I really respect about K-pop. Sometimes it worries me here and there, like people tell me that Yaeji is KPop? Like, no way! That's just racist!
That’s when it gets a little bit troubling. But I agree with how you are describing it entirely.
Wow I love this conversation!
I know, same. (laughs).
On “Who You Feed,” you lay out this preparation process at the end of the track. What’s going on with that?
The whole idea of the song is a critique of the Asian principle of taking care of your parents. You taking care of your parents is you taking care of yourself. I’m not saying my parents have done this, but what if parents never given you enough, are you allowed to ask for more? What does it mean to consume care? How do you digest care? I wanted to ask these questions in a campy way. The song is about reverse filial cannibalism, like you’re literally eating your parents.
There are so many boundaries between how you and your parents understand care. Can you even ask for more? These are the questions I wanted to tackle. At the end there are these instructions on how to prepare meat. What I really need from my parents is their care, and the only way I can consume it is by consuming them. In the song it’s quite literal, but I feel like I need to consume their identity—their history—for me to consume their care. It’s that parallel that I wanted to capture, drawing from camp theory.
We talked about how you and your mom had different care languages. Part of reconciling that is understanding their history, and how they love and care. Even if they don’t love and care in the most optimal way for you, you still get closer to the notion of who they are and how that love and care becomes more nourishing as a result.
Absolutely, that’s it. That’s exactly what I wanted to capture! (laughs). It’s funny because I had a listening party for Welfare with my friends about a week ago. I was playing “Who You Feed,” and when the pig noises came in I really wanted people to laugh and think, “This is so ridiculous and campy,” but nobody made a sound! (laughter). I was like, “Okay, never mind! That was just kind of scary I guess, sorry!”
I liked the pig sounds a lot! I thought they were more poignant than funny, but I have a propensity to think that experimental art has to be serious, but that’s because so many experimental artists are not funny, and they don’t want to be funny, and that sucks.
I don’t think those two are necessarily mutually exclusive. I think there is something really powerful about humor, and that there are so many parallels between humor and horror that make things not only entertaining but also really complicated as a result.
For sure! I don’t want to keep bringing up Korean stuff, but Korean horror films are so good because they do the same kind of genre mish-mash where they go from scaring you at one moment, to making you burst out laughing the next.
Oh, and I was wondering, where did you get the pig noises from?
I got them from YouTube, and a friend sent me a video a long time ago of her at a farm (laughter) and there was a caption that said, “Me feeding the pigs.”
I was surprised that Welfare was released on Klein’s label. How did that connection come about?
This is going to be so funny. I still can’t believe it happened! I’ve been a really big fan of her since her 2016 release Only. Even in high school I thought that it was ingenious. When her album Lifetime debuted I remember she did an Instagram Q&A, and her friends were joking around and saying very lovely things. I didn’t know that they knew her, I thought this was just how she interacted with her fan base! So I just submitted, as a joke, “Would you be interested in working with me?” I didn’t even expect anything and she answered me like, “Yeah, I like your music, DM me.” She was obviously busy because her album just came out, so we wouldn’t be able to work on anything together, but she asked me if I was interested in releasing something on her new label. So I was just over the moon! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I guess it’s just how things materialized. Our main form of communication was just Instagram DMs for many months (laughs).
Can you detail for me anything she inspired you to do with your own music?
She is definitely one of my biggest influences. She’s one of my biggest heroes, personally. I’ve learned a lot from listening to her music in the first place. She’s not afraid to combine so many distinct atmospheres together to create something affecting and eerie. From our interactions, she’s just been the sweetest throughout the entire process. For her, your album is your album, and the album cover has to convey that. It was helpful understanding how things were released, because I was just not aware. If I never got in contact with Klein I would have just released this through my Bandcamp. I would have never known how without her guidance, and I really respect and appreciate her. She’s such a nice person. To me she’s a huge star. I didn’t even know how to communicate with her, but she was so relaxed and nice. It helped me feel better about how things were going. I felt I was in good hands, the fact that I was working with someone that I admired for years.
It’s like a dream come true, it’s crazy. And I love the album art, it’s so good!
Thank you! I have to give credit to Fei Wei Wei, the artist. I think she just moved to Berlin but she was based in the UK. Klein got the two of us into contact, which was really nice. It’s really funny because I had a different album cover prepared on my own and Klein was like “WHAT IS THIS?” (laughter) and I was like… you’re right.
The album cover is actually an interpretation of one of my Mom’s wedding pictures. You know how they have the white dress Westernized wedding, and the Korean wedding with different principles and traditions? There was this really gorgeous picture of my mom I found during my winter break, and I had never seen her wedding photos! I have never seen my mom in traditional Korean garments so I thought it was a perfect image to use as a reference.
Yeah, it’s so good.
Thank you! (laughs).
How did you decide on the name Lucy Liyou?
Oh, that’s also kind of funny because it was just a placeholder until I thought of something better. And then when I connected with Klein she said, “Send me everything—the album, the album name, song names, your artist name,” and I was like “OK, I guess I’m Lucy Liyou.” But there is meaning in terms of—well, I was just so annoyed with finding stage names that meant something. Like it really doesn’t have to be this hard, it can just be patchwork that can mean different things at different moments of my life. Lucy Liu is the first Asian-American I saw on television outside of Korean dramas. There is meaning there, but I’m surprised that it’s still my stage name. I’m actually happy with it! I’m not upset with it at all, maybe that means something! (laughs).
What was the reason behind using text-to-speech so prominently on the album?
Well, I was really inspired and informed by the audiobooks I listened to in class from K-12. I remember a lot of the speakers on the audiobooks were white men and women with perfect diction. Hearing them made me uneasy, because it reminded me of how English as a language would be something I would never truly grasp. I feel like English, even though it’s my primary language, is just hard and difficult to maneuver through! So the idea that a text-to-speech generator attempts to sound as perfectly human as possible is ironic. The way it fails to capture certain sentiments feels like a vessel that contains my voice, as twisted as that sounds.
When I listened to the album the text-to-speech provides a midpoint between intensely personal and distancing. The failure to express yourself makes it even more personal.
Sometimes I use it strategically. On “Some Form of Kindness,” I used it less and less throughout the movements, and then the final movement my real voice becomes more present as the song progresses. Actually, if you’ll indulge me for half a second—
Oh absolutely! More than half a second, make it three seconds!
(laughs). “Some Form of Kindness” has my favorite musical moments on the album. For the last two minutes of the piece I layered every previous movement of the piece on top of one another. I was surprised I was able to succeed in doing it. I just wanted to say that.
You should be proud to share the things in your music that you are proud, for sure.
The song itself is about me trying to strike a balance between fetishization and affection. The layering and lessening of text-to-speech and the increasing use of my voice is me trying to figure out not only what it is to feel like an object, but also giving into the idea of loving the state of objecthood. To feel any form of affection as a vessel for translation.
You mentioned earlier that you read a lot of books and listened to a lot of music. Do you want to fawn over a couple?
For sure. First of all, Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is not only incredible but also such a devastating read. So thankful to even have a book like that which speaks so much to my experience. That was incredible to me. Also, some scholars have been really important to me. Anne Anlin Cheng has really informed me. Some of what she writes about I would love to explore musically. With musical artists there’s obviously Klein. And FKA Twigs, who was the reason I wanted to start making music. Classical composers too—Ravel, Prokofiev. I also love Jeff Witscher. If I could meet anyone it would be Jeff Witscher. I remember listening to Approximately 1,000 Beers quite recently, and I was so stunned. I remember thinking that it was one of the greatest things I had heard in my short lifetime. (laughs).
I love that album a lot too, and I love Ocean Vuong’s book, and the book of poetry prior to that.
And he also looks so young, but he’s like 30, so that makes a little bit more sense. It’s like, “OK you’ve lived life and knows things.” (laughter). Anyway, what an incredible book. So heavy. I don’t know if I’ll ever reread it, but I bought it. It’s going to be enshrined. (laughs).
Lucy Liyou’s Welfare is out now on ijn inc., you can purchase it on Bandcamp.
Every issue, Tone Glow provides download links to older, obscure albums that we believe deserve highlighting. Each download will be accompanied by a brief description of the album. Artists and labels can contact Tone Glow if you would like to see download links removed.
송명관 (Song Myoungkwan) - Alone (Daedo Records, 1988)
Without knowing anything about Song Myoungkwan or this album, my expectations were for this to be like the endearing fusion and new-age work of Lee Byung-woo (of 어떤날). How pleasant a surprise, then, that Alone ended up being a bit more straight-ahead—the guitar’s the only instrument here. Much of Song’s playing is indeed pretty: its glossy tone and heavy reverb resonate out into the void—albeit, he sounds content being all by his lonesome. It’s bluesy at points, more freak-out improvisation at others, but for the overwhelming majority of the album, the music is highly melodic and does veer on new age (the liner notes use the descriptor multiple times). It has the same cozy atmosphere as the various soft pop/rock Korean bands from this era, and has that same saccharine flavor of so much Korean music in general. It’s funny: I grew up hearing my uncle play guitar for so much of my life, and I’m reminded of his own playing here. I can’t wait to show this to him. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
김소희 (Kim So-hee) - 口音 (입소리) / 상주아리랑 (메나리제) (SEM Gramophone, 1991)
I’ve always adored the minimal scenography of p’ansori: a straw mat, a folding screen with calligraphy, the performers and their instruments. Such simplicity is all that’s needed to transform a space into a setting for operatic storytelling—partially because it innately creates intimacy (having every element of a composition laid bare to the audience will do that), but also because the instrumentation is powerful enough on its own to be hypnotic. Kim So-hee is best known in the West for her album on Nonesuch, but it’s this 1991 LP that’s the treasure of her discography, and of contemporary p’ansori at large. The B-side is more traditional in scope, but nevertheless moving—the wavering, fluttery vocals on “새타령” are spirited and legitimately catchy. The first two tracks are more fiery, though, with “口音 (입소리)” being particularly enthralling. The track’s ambling rhythm feels at once tense and loose. Kim’s vocals follow suit, falling in line with its slipperiness without ever seeming like she’s losing power or control of the music. She never loses control of the listener, either. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Download links: FLAC | MP3
This vinyl rip was graciously provided by Max Balhorn, whose YouTube channel has mixes of incredible and rare Korean music. (Note: the channel’s avatar is of Kim Choo Ja's 무인도, a classic!)
Lucy Liyou - A Hope I Had (self-released, 2019)
The thing about Lucy Liyou’s music is that it always feels extremely draining. In listening to their debut EP, A Hope I Had, I find myself astonished that it’s only eight minutes long—it sure feels as complete and as robust as anything more than twice its length. Like the longer tracks on Welfare, the lone piece here is a multipart suite that’s highly autobiographical and laden with dizzying electronics. These sounds—frazzled and unsettling and anxious—primarily function to flesh out the emotional duress of a particular experience that Liyou had in their life. In this case: Their mother is sad, and they’re processing how to handle the situation, eventually playing The Beatles’s “Let It Be” for them to provide some semblance of comfort, as an act of love. The entire experience is complex—Liyou deals with their gender identity, with suicidal ideation, with the desire to be loved—and it’s only clear just how overwhelming it all is because of the incessant, shapeshifting sonics. Relationships, especially those with one’s family, are complicated things; A Hope I Had is a reminder of how intense and laborious they can be, how they’re never so simple. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Every issue, Tone Glow has a panel of writers share brief thoughts on an album and assign it a score between 0 and 10. This section of the website is inspired by The Singles Jukebox.
Yves Tumor - Heaven to a Tortured Mind (Warp, 2020)
Press Release info: Heaven to a Tortured Mind—written and composed by Yves Tumor and produced by Yves Tumor and Justin Raisen (Sky Ferreira, Ariel Pink, Charli XCX)—marks the fourth official full-length release from Yves Tumor and the follow-up to 2018’s Safe in the Hands of Love. Yves Tumor has steered the project into a whole new realm with Heaven to a Tortured Mind, piercing through contradiction, redefining expression through song, and catapulting Yves Tumor into the next phase of illusion and evolution. Heaven to a Tortured Mind finds its place in music history as a collection of anthems for a generation.
Arielle Gordon: “I can be anything that you need.”
Sean Bowie shapeshifts with ease. When I saw them in Brooklyn in 2019, they wore a platinum blonde wig cut into a sharp bob. When I saw them in Chicago in 2017, they were spartan, fully bald. They can be anything that you need. They ooze the easy pleasure of glam rock but refuse to cave to its crassest desires. They’re booze without belligerence, coke without the drip: one continuous inhale.
Sean Bowie reminds me a lot of David Bowie, specifically David Bowie playing at Nassau Coliseum in March of 1976. Bowie (David) was high out of his mind on amphetamines then, supporting Station To Station, sporting a similarly glossy haircut. It’s easy to picture the glassy reverb on “Romanticist” playing in Bowie (David)’s green room, its low bass swaggering sensuously.
It’s harder to imagine Bowie (Sean) doing almost anything outside of performance; they’re deliciously evasive in interviews, especially when it comes to anything that might hint at the inspirations behind their hard pivot to mind-tinglingly lush productions. Heaven to a Tortured Mind does start to sketch out a few ductile, dulcet motifs—gender play, glistening synths, and more than anything, the surreptitious slipperiness of sex. “A kiss so real, oh baby,” they exude on “A Greater Love.” Somehow, from their lips, such a simple act feels utterly intangible.
Sam Goldner: Once again, Yves Tumor has proven themself to be an unreasonably captivating frontperson, especially when considering how shadowy and enigmatic their early material was. In some ways, this album actually seems like a realization of their early hypnagogic pop work. Tracks like “Identity Trade” and “Hasdallen Lights” have the same tape-decayed glam feel of their output as TEAMS, even calling to mind their longtime collaborator James Ferraro’s deformed pop on albums like Night Dolls with Hairspray. It’s surprising how fully-fledged Yves Tumor’s re-imagining is as this darkened, Prince-like figure given how new this direction is for the project.
It’s not without its drawbacks, though; I can’t help but feel that by honing in on this more rock ‘n roll sound, Yves Tumor has narrowed their field of vision. Whereas Safe in the Hands of Love seemed to completely change genres with each passing track (while still maintaining a relentless, haunted energy throughout), Heaven to a Tortured Mind basically picks one mode and settles in for the long haul. Not that it isn’t a mesmerizing headspace to be in—“Kerosene” is a warped, slinky R&B duet; “Dream Palette” is a fatalistic funk nightmare; and “A Greater Love” is strung out in a gorgeous, harrowing way—but a lot of these tracks blur together, leaning on the overall mood and sound to carry the album rather than working with individually interesting song ideas. The results are still fascinating enough to further the Yves Tumor mythos, but I hope they doesn’t settle so much into this glam rock framework that they run out of ideas.
Eli Schoop: It’s very evident that Yves Tumor is committed to a duality in their persona. Within promos, videos, and album material, they comes across as genre-breaking: a demonic entity bent on raising hell in the industry. On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, however, there exists a musician wholly interested in being a pop star. Their major influence reveals itself as Britpop, with “Identity Trade,” “Kerosene!,” and “Medicine Burn” particularly hook-based and ready for alternative radio play. For all the edgy iconography buried in their presentation, Yves Tumor is a lyricist built on relationship tropes. We can’t conceive these lyrics easily due to their mystery, and it could very easily be a ploy for simplicity with them reveling in the accessibility of such themes. Nevertheless, it is thrilling to watch an indie star reach for the skies in real time, as it’s been so long since there’s been true crossover appeal in rock. Yves Tumor has morphed from an experimental icon to a pop experiment, and it’s a joy to see what they’ll do next.
Raphael Helfand: Yves Tumor is as elusive as a touring artist can be in the Internet Age. They haven’t given an interview since 2017, and none but their closest friends know where they live, or even if Sean Bowie is their real name. But as their persona has gotten more slippery, their music has become more welcoming and accessible. Growing up in a conservative community in Knoxville, Tennessee, their only scene was online, and their first releases were inchoate GarageBand recordings that verged on harsh noise, not by design but because they had no gear. But even after they moved to LA and began to perform as TEAMS, Berkéle Berhanu and other limited-run monikers, they stuck to that discomfiting ethos. Since adopting the Yves Tumor name in 2016, their work has incorporated more traditional pop elements. 2018’s Safe in the Hands of Love, their Warp debut, had plenty of danceable hits, with the iconic “Noid” becoming an anti-police anthem.
On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Tumor takes the psychosexual electrofunk of their last project and adds in brand new sounds, showing off their always augmenting toolbox. The album blasts off with plunderphonic opener “Gospel for a New Century,” gets noisier on “Medicine Burn,” puts a funk bassline front and center in “Identity Trade,” and gets slow and sexy on “Kerosene!” It’s a powerful Act I, and Tumor is only getting started. The 12-song project makes a delicate arc, climaxing at its mathematical center, the transition from track six, “Romanticist,” to track seven, “Dream Palette,” with pummeling drums and a relentless bassline underscoring a bleached guitar melody and the whistle of fireworks taking flight. Tumor then mellows out with the Prince-indebted “Super Stars” and makes a foray into post-punk with “Folie Imposée” before swaddling us in choral swells on the album’s best-named track, “Strawberry Privilege.” The closer, “A Greater Love,” is a medley—R&B harmonies mixing with stadium guitar licks and warm, psychedelic synths, bringing the album down slowly for a soft landing. Heaven to a Tortured Mind doesn’t have an emotional center like “Noid” to carry it, and its release won’t be as huge an event as the last record’s was. But overall it’s a more impressive project, showcasing the multidirectional mind of a musical polymath at their prime.
Jesse Locke: Yves Tumor once said, “I only want to make hits [...] a song that people constantly need to play over and over and over and over again.” Growing up in Tennessee with a Motown-obsessed dad, that desire to create addictive singles is understandable. They’ve done it at least once with “The Feeling When You Walk Away,” a guitar-lick-looping vibe-scape that sounds like The Isley Brothers on vaseline. Since signing to Warp for their last album Safe In The Hand of Love, Tumor leaned into lingering melodies, bombastic hooks, and head-nodding rhythms, while continuing to obfuscate them in a murky, sometimes-horrific haze. Heaven to a Tortured Mind opens on an extremely strong note with “Gospel For A New Century” as the fragmented fanfare of a Dilla-inspired horn and-drum sample slowly becomes claustrophobic. “Medicine Burn” goes even harder, with Tumor’s pleading voice pummelled by buzzsaw riffs, breakbeats, and disembodied screams. From here, the pressure lessens and the songs that work best combine a swirling romantic sound with scorched Prince-style guitar solos. Guest vocalists Diana Gordon (“Kerosene!”) and Hirakish (“Super Stars”, “A Greater Love”) provide a welcome juxtaposition to Tumor’s sneering delivery. It’s a sonically ear-pleasing formula, without a doubt, but it starts to blend together in the album’s back half until each tune becomes nearly indistinguishable. Tumor has found a lane, but they’d cover more exciting territory by veering into the musical off roads they’re so clearly capable of exploring.
Samuel McLemore: Anyone who has been keeping tabs on cultural discourse could tell you that a spectre is haunting music today—the spectre of Rock. It threatens to engulf us again, as it did for those long, horrible decades at the end of our last century. Everywhere we look, the warning signs are there, and if a musician like Yves Tumor—a canary in the cultural coal mine who has consistently shifted styles to stay on top of musical trends for the past decade—now deems it the ripe moment to unleash their own album of boring alternative rock upon the world, we may be too late to stem the coming tide.
Heaven to a Tortured Mind is the kind of album that leaves little to the imagination on a first impression, and only worsens with increased scrutiny. Not hooky enough to be good pop-rock and not stylish enough to qualify for art-rock status, constantly burdened by lyrics that are practically Cartman-esque in their inanity (“You make me feel a kiss so real, baby”), it blobs itself into the undefined middle ground. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most awkward moments on the album are during its promotional singles: They’re bloated with the kind of flashy samples and songwriting the rest of the album manages to avoid, proving that the more Tumor tries to mold their sound into impressive pop, the less personality they retain.
The relatively restrained B-side is not only more tastefully streamlined than what came before, it also evinces a stronger control of tone, rhythm, and arrangement than almost anything in their career to date. Burdened by unconvincing thematic content and a desire for pop success, the album fails at its own mission, but it also shows that perhaps rock ‘n roll isn’t the worst showcase for Yves’s strengths as a songwriter and producer. If they rein in their desire for emotional pop significance and focuses more acutely on the pure physical energy rock is capable of they could make a truly good album.
Sunik Kim: I wasn’t a fan of Safe in the Hands of Love, and Heaven’s “bigger is better” approach doesn’t change my mind on Yves Tumor’s pop turn. The album’s blown-out, gut-punching production initially wows, but the novelty quickly exhausts, especially without a coherent vision and a stronger foundation in the songwriting department. As with all experimental artists going pop, I believe if you enter that arena, you’re subject to new criteria: I’m going to start comparing your work to that of well-oiled, multimillion pop music machines that are really fucking good at what they do. Of course, an artist’s “experimental” origins often bring a new-enough flavor to paper over weak songwriting. But here, Yves Tumor is stuck in a waffling middle ground: as a performer, they’re trying to be a swaggering cock rocker (“Come and light my fire baby”) while retaining their old “mysterious” aesthetic (the Martina Topley-Bird-ish backing vocals are dead on arrival, totally soulless and sapped of true darkness and danger); as a vocalist, their voice is jarringly out of place—as with the last album, it always feels like they’re singing at several notches above the emotional intensity of the music, a bizarre Lil Peep-esque emo-scream, but also with zero emotion whatsoever, leaving me cold; as an artist, they’re stuck between the freer-flowing approach of their older work (hello, random two minute interludes) and the hard-hitting singles approach of a capital-P pop artist; and there’s an oppressive lack of a meta-narrative or wink that would make any of these shortcomings easier to digest. At least a song like “Kerosene!,” with its dead-eyed lyrics (“Can you be my fantasy, little baby?”) and hair metal guitar solos, got me to re-listen to some old Whitesnake classics—which reminded me of the refreshing clarity of straightforward, simple emotion.
Gil Sansón: I’m old enough to remember the impact of the Warp label and what came in its wake (jerky rhythms, digital high end, insane speed), and how it altered the landscape of electronic music and made the genre aware of deconstructed rhythms and digital malfunction as aesthetic possibilities to explore. The label has experienced ups and downs but has a handful of significant artists who still command a sizable fanbase, but of course a record label once heralded as the vanguard of modern electronica has to review its paradigms if it wants to remain relevant. A move in the direction of contemporary R&B is not entirely unpredictable, then, and Yves Tumor here covers bases with clear references that they wear on their sleeves with confidence, inhabiting a space where old school ‘70s soul mixes with rock, so perhaps comparisons to Prince and Lenny Kravitz are more or less guaranteed. It doesn’t seem to be a hindrance here, on the contrary.
This is not a new sound, really—more of a formula that, every once in a while, artists confident enough try for measure, because if exploited correctly allows for very high levels of exposure and sales (Beck tried it with some success in Midnight Vultures, for example). There is an aspect, though, of classic FM radio by way of today’s idealized view of the past, which gives the music a slightly surreal and dreamy feel—you feel that something is off, somehow. It’s calculated but it works, the album playing between extreme familiarity and off-kilter, dizzying sensations.
In terms of production this means we get to keep the drums and the bass as tracks played by people, in addition to the cut-and-paste bits; both work for the benefit of these songs. Once you move past the sound, however attractive, the ear looks for songcraft. In this aspect the album is not faultless. There are some tracks that sound sketchy and generic, with the polish and sonic treatment and arrangement showing the weakness of the original material, and listeners focusing on songwriting may not be entirely convinced. There are enough hooks, though, and the aforementioned balance between the smooth and the rugged makes for a pleasant listen even with the more pedestrian material, and I had no problem playing it on repeat a couple of times. That must mean something.
Jeff Brown: This is grooving soul music with modern avant-pop twists —sudden gaps of silence, the odd-metered tempo of “Hasdallen Lights,” guitars and drums that sound like they’re glitching. It’s the bass guitar that’s the album’s glue, though; each bassline sets up pulses to keep things danceable and rhythmic so that even when settling into an ostinato, its patterns leave one’s toes tapping. Whether it’s the crisp snap of a snare drum or heavy reverb with digital 12-bit sheen, the retro nods feel early ‘80s. On the track “Kerosone!,” clean guitar chords and a thick chorus give way to a subtle echo decay that’s akin to soft focus adding a glowing aura to film, and all of it leads to a soaring lead guitar. “Dream Palette” also stands out from other singalong anthems given its inclusion of blasting fireworks. Tumor is a bit of a musical chameleon, but their hypnotic rhythm sections keep everything focused.
Mark Cutler: Sean Bowie is a chameleon. Since the early, excellent Seapunk-tinged instrumentals (made under their long-forgotten Teams moniker), they’ve shifted sounds with almost every new release. This is not the first album to feature their vocals, but it puts them front and center in a way that feels like another radical departure in a career built on radical departures. All of this comes as some comfort to me when I say that this one, unfortunately, isn’t working for me. There is, as always, some phenomenal production here. Bowie wraps their songs in layers of sound seemingly pulled from the whole history of music—everything from Morricone to Merzbow, and often at the same time. Under all this, however, the songs themselves rarely develop or change. Each one is built around a single, looping bar of funk or gospel music, which plods along for the track’s duration as Bowie sings what could frankly be totally improvised lyrics and melodies. This is not to say that I think a song needs choruses or key changes or anything else to be good. However, those things help to make a song memorable, to distinguish it from its brothers and sisters. Their absence here makes the album as a whole blur together in a way that’s not unpleasant, but also not compelling. Bowie has produced enough great material in just one decade that I’ll follow them wherever they to go, but this album isn’t one I’ll be returning to often.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: I spent many a college night combating my proclivity for procrastination. Concomitant to last-minute lab reports and quick scans of textbooks was a broadening of the rubric with which I judged music—surely the most banal “transformation” of my early 20s that still impacts me in the everyday. I still remember being in my room, listening to Real Estate and Joan Baez and DJ EZ’s Back To The Old Skool at low volume, ecstatic about a realization I slowly arrived at during one fated study session: It’s perfectly OK if I best appreciate albums when I only passively listen to them, and it shouldn’t be a demerit to these works either.
Such is my new normal: anything has the potential to be “furniture music,” not just Satie or Japanese “environmental music” or “lofi hip hop radio - beats to relax/study to.” I say this all because Heaven to a Tortured Mind is an album I’ve come to love when heard in the background. To be certain, my first listens to it were thrilling: the confident bombast of its singles, the female vocalists who push songs to higher levels of ecstasy, the Dean Blunt haze of the groggier tracks. Since then, I’ve cooled considerably: the album’s all right. Something I continue to love, though, is how performative Yves Tumor’s singing is; they constantly sounds like they’re trying to be the artist they want to be. What this means is that the snappier moments don’t quite dazzle on repeat listens, but they do spark casual interest when the album plays from my speakers, soundtracking time I spend reading a book from the comfort of my bed. I want more music to be like that, to accompany me in the way that roommates sometimes do—where their simple presence (and nothing else) feels most comforting of all.
Jordan Reyes: There’s no song I’ve played more in 2020 than Yves Tumor’s “Gospel For A New Century.” It features everything I loved from the most explosive, catchy songs on Safe in the Hands of Love, but adds bombastic instrumentation, pulling a Pixies soft-loud-soft dynamic with the sonic vocabulary of R&B and pop. For Yves Tumor’s Sean Bowie, it’s a tried-and-true formula, one that shows their formidable songwriting chops and ability to weave together disparate romantic cliches (“You know I’m out my mind, girl/Don’t make it harder/Come and light my fire, baby”) that sound urgent and meaningful.
And yet, a lot of Heaven to a Tortured Mind feels less impactful in comparison. While Bowie hones in on the pop structures that brought ears and attention to Safe in the Hands of Love, there’s a lack of its ineffable cinematic feeling. The words are always great, though. On “Identity Trade”—a ho-hum, semi-dissonant nugget—Bowie goes Buñuel: after having walked for seven days, they come upon their first lover clutching a dagger underneath water, then talks about millions of people living on isles sunk beneath water, all the while musing on desire and connection. It’s full-on dream speak that’s prescient and personal. Unfortunately, when I begin my repeat listens, I find myself skipping it in order to get to the brilliant, long-form banger “Kerosene!”—a moving, compulsive duet with the sirenic Diana Gordon. Heaven to a Tortured Mind isn’t even close to a bad album, but it doesn’t mirror the sublime world-building and seamless inner logic of his last; Safe in the Hands of Love felt like going through the wardrobe to a surreal, lubed-up Narnia. On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, you’re still there, but the episodes of action and magic come less frequently. The highs are as good as anything on his previous outing but the rest fails to reach that watermark.
Jonathan Williger: Heaven to a Tortured Mind doesn’t sound flat sonically, like so many other similar experimental-leaning pop records of the past few years, but it absolutely approaches pancake status musically and lyrically. I was never a fan of the late ‘00s era flood of underground musicians going pop (Ariel Pink, Ducktails, Washed Out, etc., etc., etc.) and this feels like a throwback to that—nostalgia for an era where nostalgia for another already-nostalgic sound reigned. The lyrics (and sometimes melodies) seem pulled directly from ‘90s alt-rock, with bland phrases like “I can do what you need me to, baby / I can do anything” followed up by “I can live in your real life sugar” on “Kerosene!” Then there’s the uninspired chorus of “Girl when I’m with you, it’s like super stars.” The lyrics are so generalized as to be vapid and meaningless. The fact that the production feels considered and there’s a pleasant warmth to the way the record sounds only slightly makes up for the uninspired content. The album’s press text talks about abstraction and dissonance, but I hear nothing subversive in this music whatsoever.
Evan Welsh: I really wanted to love this one. I felt a little out of the loop when I merely enjoyed Yves Tumor’s previous album, Safe in the Hands of Love, and wasn’t head over heels for it. Still, the quick-shifting construction of that record and its menagerie of influence made it an engaging experience throughout. All of Sean Bowie’s prior work under the Yves Tumor pseudonym and beyond has been defined by its protean aesthetics—a point of unceasing intrigue into Bowie, and one of the main sources of excitement whenever they have a new release on the horizon. Then the singles came out, and the hope that I would fall in line with the rest of the music world only grew stronger. The hypnotic looping of horns, the in-the-pocket, grooving bassline, and the heavy, explosive guitars in the chorus of album opener “Gospel for For A New Century” are spectacularly infectious. The full sonic embrace of R&B, funk, and psych is yet another interesting step for Yves Tumor, and “Kerosene!,” the album’s second single, doesn’t stray too far from that sound. The track is one of the most accessible pieces in the whole Yves Tumor catalog—it’s a jamming psych-rock ballad with another grooving bassline, more blistering guitar phrases, and the inclusion of an immense vocal performance from Diana Gordon.
Almost every track feels as though it can be identified by the same characteristics—a swaggering, ‘70s-tinged bass, percussion that reinforces the beat and rarely wanders, some fuzzy-guitars—but the effectiveness of each track varies. The singles are undeniable earworms, and tracks like “Medicine Burn” and “Dream Palette” are delivered with enough bombast to make them stick out, but the recurring sonic pattern on all these songs is overwhelming, turning most of them into amorphous versions of one another, culminating in a more underwhelming listen with each spin. I was so excited to love this one; at least I’ll always have the singles.
Vanessa Ague: Yves Tumor performs live wearing gaudy ‘70s-nostalgic costumes that mix horror with sparkling glam rock. They’re more interested in creating their own universe than defining themself by traditional categories. That idea is evident on Heaven to a Tortured Mind, where they bring together a range of genres including industrial noise, hip hop, disco, and classic rock. And while the idea of “genre-blending” is a popular one in experimental music, Yves Tumor’s sound on Heaven to a Tortured Mind is bold and innovative. The themes of the album stay firmly in the familiar area of desire, but each song’s careful concoction of samples, explosive melodies, and musical styles provide a fresh perspective on the topic. “Gospel for a New Century” opens the record with a brass section’s sharp-edged gesture, while “Kerosene!” howls for love through melodramatic electric guitar solos, crashing beats and cracked voices, while “Dream Palette” explodes with the sound of fireworks and hypnotic repetition—each combination of sounds is equally captivating and unexpected. Heaven to a Tortured Mind, perhaps fittingly, is a cathartic exercise in controlled chaos.
Mariana Timony: Alas for Yves Tumor, Heaven to a Tortured Mind probably sounded cooler in the pre-pandemic world, a safely familiar context within which its self-satisfied smushing up of genres and relentlessly anthemic reconfiguration of cheeseball ‘80s power ballads, funk, and avant-pop would’ve felt exuberant and fresh instead of, well, fussy and outdated. This is not Yves’s fault of course. It’s difficult to push boundaries in art when all the boundaries of ordinary life have shifted suddenly towards some great unknown. And none of this is to say that Heaven to a Tortured Mind is a bad record. While there is plenty of groove and flashes of brilliance throughout—“Dream Palette” is a melodic highlight, the funky psychedelia of “Strawberry Privilege” is a treat, and any electric guitar lover will adore the blazing Clapton-esque soloing on “Kerosene!”—taken altogether the record feels a bit inorganic and perhaps just a smidge too high-key, thanks to the billion overdubs, out-of-nowhere sampled vocals, and all the hefty magic of in-studio effects wizardry—not to mention a lot of it sadly sounds a little too much like Ariel Pink (possibly due to the heavy hand of producer Justin Raisen, who has also worked with Pink himself). Heaven to a Tortured Mind is an interesting record, but with so little room left to breathe, blink, or swallow between all the look-ma-no-hands musical choices, any artistic throughline proves difficult to hang onto.
Our writers do more than just write for this newsletter! Every now and then, we’ll highlight things we’ve done that we’d love for you to check out.
Still from Mermaid Legend (Ikeda Toshiharu, 1984)
Vanessa Ague interviewed Jordan Bortner (aka Null Object) and Phong Tran on the art of remixing for her blog, The Road to Sound.
Matthew Blackwell’s Tusk is Better than Rumours, a newsletter featuring primers and album rankings of experimental and ‘outsider’ musicians, released its newest issue today on onkyo.
Jeff Brown released a new work titled “On mists in idleness” on Bandcamp.
Sam Goldner has been playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Please appreciate his beautiful home, which has beautiful renditions of the cover art for Sun Araw’s On Patrol and Charli XCX’s Pop 2. He also made this very important tweet about Tiny Mix Tapes.
Arielle Gordon wrote a wrote a review on Far Enough, the new album from Australian punk band Cable Ties, for Pitchfork. She has also started a new newsletter with her friend Mike Kanter called Dear You, which finds the two using the platform to write letters to each other.
Raphael Helfand wrote an article for the Iron Lattice about the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the economics surrounding it.
Joshua Minsoo Kim wrote a review on Dean Roberts’s Not Fire for Pitchfork.
Leah B. Levinson’s Happiness Journal is still being updated, with her most recent post highlighting Souled American’s Notes Campfire, an album that this particular editor considers a bona fide c l a s s i c.
Jesse Locke interviewed U.S. Girls for The Ringer, talking about Bruce Springsteen, Agnès Varda, and her new album Heavy Light.
Eli Schoop wrote an Album of the Day review on Bandcamp Daily about Prolaps’s Pure Mud Volume 7.
Adesh Thapliyal wrote a Hidden Gems piece for Bandcamp Daily on Yellow Fang’s The Greatest.
Mariana Timony has started a newsletter called The Weird Girls Post. Its inaugural issue is about life in Appalachia during quarantine plus some reflections on Bandcamp’s big COVID-19 fundraising day.
Jonathan Williger wrote a review on LEYA’s Flood Dream for Pitchfork.
Tara Wrist wrote a flash fiction piece titled “The Rot in the Field is Holy.”
Thanks for reading the ninth issue of Tone Glow. Keep your hands off your face.