Words by Ang Schilling
Photos by Tatjana Hamilton
Yeo is a hero of mine. I’m a fangirl but he’s also one of my best friends, and for that I’m in a very lucky group of people. The charming Brisbane-born, Melbourne-based pop musician is starting to attract a pretty big following in Australia and abroad, his keytar skills making grown men swoon, his incredible production and hard work ethic leaving no room for fillers. He’s in the middle of a tour for his latest single ‘Got No Game’ and I’ve been witness to it’s beauty, specifically as he’s asked my band (Take Your Time) to open every show on the East Coast, along with Melbourne dream pop beauties Saatsuma. We went to our regular eatery, Malaymas, to eat Laksa and have a chat about things, and we also ordered a mango pudding.
Yeo, what does Ganbaru mean?
It’s like, a very common saying that they (the Japanese) use to say ‘do your best ‘ or ‘stand firm’ during tough times. If you were to contrast it with something that we say here in Australia, often we’re like, ‘she’ll be right, just leave it, it’ll sort itself out.’ They do not have that concept over there, it’s ‘you can do better’. It’s encouraging as well. You can do this.
Did you have it as a title ages before you wrote the album?
I didn’t actually. The name came later. My designer had a bit of trouble figuring out stuff. He’s like, ‘whats it called, what’s the text gonna be?’ I dunno, I dunno! I was just watching some Japanese movies and I realised they say stuff based on that a lot and a lot of the situations that they use it in feel like it’s the kind of attitude that I have and I want other people around me to have.
That's a good explanation. Can you do another explanation for me - what is the idea behind ‘Got No Game’ which is the single that this tour is for? The lyrics are pretty straightforward to me but can you explain it in your own words?
I’ll tell you a couple things - about how it came together and then specifically what some of the lyrics are about. I was having a really tough time and was really busy and stressed, and I was rude to people I loved. I went into the shed and it just came out, my body became a channel, it just took over. So that was the way it was created, it was a very passionate first take of vocals, it’s really rough, a lot of bits and pieces were left in there, it was just a wall of frustration.
Wait, the recorded version was a first take?
Yeah, it was just mic plugged in, go hard. I mean, there’s some chopping up and editing but the recordings are all very raw. I think a key part of my frustration is demonstrated in the chorus when I’m like, ‘if i could walk like you and talk like you, it’d feel this good I bet it would’. It’s really frustrating when you see other people having it really easy while you’re having it tough; it’s that contrast that wakes you up. And I mean, principally, you shouldn’t think that way because you’re comparing yourself but that’s what that whole song is about, this is a human weakness. What I’m trying to say is it’s ok. You just do it, move on.
I know you listen to heaps and heaps of pop music. Tell me what you look for in pop music. What you love, what you take out of it, either technically or emotionally.
Some of the things that I look for in pop music are obviously production, that's a thing for me. With that it’s like minimal tracks that sound huge…we’re talking like, big hits like ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot.’ There’s not much in that track but it’s huge, it says so much and it’s such a groovy track. But then lyrically? I don’t mind a bit of cheese, if it just captures an emotion really well. That’s the beauty of something being accessible. I appreciate that. There’s two types of simple - there’s beautiful simple, and there’s really predictable simple. I guess I look for the other one.
Tell me what you’ve been doing this year in the lead up to this tour.
We released Ganbaru in February, we toured that nationally through May and then I’ve been basically working with Emma Louise and Asta up until now. Emma Louise, I’m her musical director so I build her live shows with the help of her band so it’s good and solid. With Asta I’m doing production in the studio for a bunch of songs.
Have you been writing much music this year at all?
I’ve actually collaborated a lot with other people as a topline writer. Actually next month I’ve got two tracks coming out where it’s just my vocal on someone else’s production. I’m excited - the last successful one I did like that was the Hermitude track, and since then I’ve wanted to do it a bit more cos it’s kinda easy, and it’s also giving me a chance to write about my feelings. As long as it doesn’t get vetoed, but they don’t cos these producers, they’re just my mates and if they don’t like something they’ll just tell me, if they think i can do something better they just tell me. For some reason they don’t pick at lyrics, they’re happy to let me do my own thing, which I take as a compliment.
So we’re on this tour together, we’re two thirds through now and it’s been really fun. You’ve done a bunch of tours though, whats been your best tour to date?
Probably going to Toronto, LA and New York. Completely unchartered territory, no one knew who we were, we were reduced to our raw talent to try and build success. You’re just a small drop in the ocean over there. It’s everything from playing the show to operational day to day stuff. Like finding the right power adaptors and stuff, it’s so much fun. We had to make sure our show for every night was going to be good, and then when we were on stage it’s like, now we gotta focus on delivering our show. Not every show was great but we also really bonded over that tour. There’s nothing like new experiences to get people to know each other and kind of fall in love with each other. Since then the team has achieved so much.
And it’s not always the biggest tours that are the best…
That was my next question… what makes a tour good? Is it the people, the audiences, the crew, the bands you play with? The cooler cities? A combination I’m guessing?
Yeah it’s a combination of course. To me, as with a lot of musicians I guess, you want a responsive crowd, you want a good team like this one we are on now. I haven’t had something this good in a long time. I used to do this a lot in my early twenties with bands who are all friends, and this is the first time since then that I’ve been personally connected to each of the people. And then there’s the behind the scenes, production, admin team as well. I guess that whole new experiences thing as well. Like I was saying to you before, we love going to Adelaide because we don’t go there much. So when we go there we’re exploring something together, new.
Have you done a tour yet with all the same bands? To me that’s the dream tour. You might take one band with you, and then play with local bands wherever you go because you want locals to come to the show. But at this stage, you’re obviously able to pack out any city so you don’t have to do that.
Well we’re picking the right venues. They’re small so you can risk not having a local support.
Small but still the go-to venues.
Yeah, we don’t wanna play the ones that can’t handle our sound…
I’m going to finish this mango pudding.
Yeah I left that for you. Sorry what was the question?
Have you done this kind of same band tour before?
I’ve always wanted to do it, the whole country. I wish it was longer but I get that not everyone can afford it. I hope one day we get to a level where we can do that. But yeah that is the dream, this is the dream.
Were you listening to anything in particular when you wrote Ganbaru?
A lot of people would jump straight to Jai Paul. And I love his stuff and I’m kinda sad that nothing else is coming out. When I realised that was his trajectory, I kind of just shelved him and kept his legacy in my mind. And then I got into Disclosure really heavily and that kind of more hard hitting dance music. But what I hear in it is me doing all that exploration and then moving slowly into more and more RnB based stuff, and to be honest RnB is where I wanted to start in 2006, ten years ago. My first album, you can hear me trying to do it, failing but trying to do it. I’ve gone really far away from that and now I’m coming back. And that’s because RnB’s always been at the forefront of pop music. Pop music is composed of so many genres but it’s one of those genres that’s always there. I love it. Right now, it’s all I listen to. I’m making mixtapes, it’s all RnB or hip hop. I dunno why…
Well music doesn’t work like that, right? What are you listening to now?
I’ve been keeping an eye on the K-pop that’s coming out. K-pop’s a weird one because I’m getting really into the production but I have no idea what they’re singing about apart from the odd word here and there. So what that let’s me focus on is the music and that’s cool. Cool chords, cool production. But I’m trying to dive further into RnB that’s a bit more I guess, deep. Artists like Solange and Kelela. Even though it’s quite straight ahead I really like Kehlani, I think she’s awesome. It’s all music that makes me wanna dance, and I love dancing. I’m not a dancer but I love dancing.
For recreational dance use only.
Do you have any tip offs for Australian music at the moment? Not allowed to say Saatsuma or Take Your Time.
Haha. Yeah…in terms of writing, Maribelle. I'm a bit of a fanboy, but I think her writing is just the best. She’s working with some really well respected producers. But I like her songs more than the production on her EP. But what she’s done, she’s really set herself up. She’s co-written heaps of stuff for other people, she’s in that world of ghostwriting, and I really respect that. That’s the kind of talent that I really look up to and to know that there’s an Australian in that world…
And for a female too. In the top line of commercial pop music it’s often men writing for women.
Oh yeah, absolutely. And another artist that I’m really looking forward to hearing more from is Jack Grace, a little known Sydney producer. He worked on the Ngaiire album, and a couple other things, collab’d with Christopher Port. But these are just small Sydney people who are making good music that I really respect. Jack just put a song out called ‘All Lost’ and it’s not revolutionary but for me, it’s a great moment captured, an emotion. He’s got this line where he’s like, ‘if you were someone else now, I hope you’re happy but please don’t tell me’ and in that moment of the song the production does this flip, and it makes me wanna cry. That’s the kind of stuff that I look for and in Australia we’ve got plenty of it, you’ve just gotta look for it.
That’s a good sentence to end on, let’s leave it there.
Catch Yeo this weekend, Saturday the 1st of October at Good Fortune Market.