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A life in music: The eternal metamorphosis of Yehaiyahan

Walking a mile in the shoes of one of Asia's most vibrantly colourful artists

  • Words by Patrizio Cavaliere | In partnership with: Vans
  • 28 September 2020

The truest artists create because they have an earnest desire to manifest a unique vision, and in most cases, to share that vision with the world. The path on this quest is often challenging and unending, along the way taking in many arcs and deviations. The most dynamic and exciting artists do not seek to imitate, but to innovate, surprise and inform. To ride waves of circumstance, incident, and accident and channel experience into their ever-evolving work.

One such artist — who glows magnificently like a shape-shifting aurora over polar skies — is Shanghai-based vocalist and producer, Yehaiyahan. Creating music for over a decade, she has morphed through numerous guises and alter-egos, in the process exploring vast galaxies of uncharted musical territory.

Born and raised in Guizhou province in southern China, she relocated to Shanghai in 2005. By 2007, she had emerged under her popular ChaCha alias, performing regularly with the city's beloved bass-heavy dub collective, Uprooted Sunshine. From there she continued to perform and record as ChaCha, incorporating slick production and a highly palatable sound, while going on to collaborate with a selection of respected producers from disparate corners of the music scene. Working with the likes of Kode9, and Jay Soul — with whom she formed the electronica duo AM444 — she was able to explore and channel some of the many contrasting musical textures which permeated her subconscious. By 2011, following a spell of international travel and continued collaboration with creators including MC Webber, Soulspeak and J-Fever, she was ready to introduce the world to her Faded Ghost moniker. The darkly introspective project represented a departure from her pop-tinged work as ChaCha and allowed her to present a more challenging and affecting soundscape. Most recently, she re-surfaced under her given name, Yehaiyahan, under which she released her latest album, the deeply personal 'Under The Moonlight'. The psycho-sonic quest continues unabated.

“I think music for me is really just documenting a different period of my life,” said Yehaiyahan. “It's never gonna be the same every different period. You're always changing, learning, interacting with everything surrounding you, you know? Learning new things and also learning yourself”.

The first tentative steps on her journey into electronic music were taken back in Guizhou, when she and her friends would congregate in a local record store to hang out and dig through second-hand CDs and cassettes. “That was my first proper musical education,” said Yehaiyahan. “I met some friends around the shop and we started our first band, and that's how we roll until now!”

Heavily influenced by the trip-hop scene emerging from Bristol in the UK, her earliest influences include pioneers of the sound, such as Massive Attack and Tricky, and eccentric queen of off-beat pop, Bjork. “I think during that moment (they had) a big, big impact for me. I still go back to listen to their music all the time.”

The move to Shanghai introduced her to new sounds, scenes and producers, and the progression into dub, reggae and bass was a natural one. “I met different friends who were always exchanging music. I got really into it and started digging into the background of it... and wanted to give it a try,” she said. “During that moment, I met a lot of producers and artists from other countries who came to Shanghai to play, so I got the chance to work with them and went in that direction for a while.”

But she's never one to rest in one stylistic realm for too long, and the thriving, international nature of her home environment afforded her the opportunity to embrace an ever-expanding selection of genres. Evolving through sound and evolving through style, aesthetics make up an important element of her on-stage persona. Typically, though, Yehaiyahan takes a somewhat homespun approach to fashion itself. “I actually never thought too much about fashion, I just like the way I dress up,” she told us. “For different projects, I make my own costumes, and sometimes I do DIY style, I don't know if that's fashion, it's just my image.” But she recognises that the symbiotic relationship between music and fashion plays a vital role in elevating both worlds, and collaborations between the two creative disciplines are often mutually beneficial. “Music and fashion have art at the core. It's the reason why you like the brand, or the reason why you like the music, sometimes they have a similar core. So if those two cool things come together, to mix the audience or the following together, to make some cool things cooler, then why not!”

A shining example of an iconic fashion brand using its strength to help burgeoning musical talent to blossom is that of Vans, who recently launched this year's Musician's Wanted competition. The contest aims to unite talented creators from all musical genres, with the singular goal of inspiring creative expression. In the process, they offer a platform for musicians from potentially untapped or niche genres to perform under a global spotlight. Last year, Yehaiyahan was invited to act as a judge for the Asian finals in Chicago. “That was amazing! We met great young talents in Chicago, it was crazy! A lot of them had never left their own country...It was an amazing experience for them."

She feels that experiences such as this are priceless for aspiring artists, affording them a unique opportunity that would otherwise be out of reach for most. “This kind of chance is rare and crucial for young bands because it's not about putting your music online to fight with millions of digital competitors. It's a chance for you to think about yourself as a proper musician, to imagine your music on stage with lights and with an audience. I think that will help to get your mind tight to think of things differently. In the end, if you want to be a great musician, you are gonna have to stand on the stage, face the audience and deal with the fear and nervousness inside of yourself.”

The landscape for creators has changed drastically over the last few decades. With affordable software, home recording equipment and countless online tutorials, it's never been easier to get started as a producer or musician and never before have there been so many platforms for creatively minded people to share their work. But this is a double-edged sword, as now the battle to be heard has never been more competitive. “Many years ago, there were not many platforms to showcase your artwork, not many media you can use as a tool to promote your music. Now everyone uses the internet, so it's kind of like information attack, you know what I mean? It's too much!”

And, for Yehaiyahan, this chance for artists to present their music in a real-world setting is exactly what makes the Musician's Wanted project so special, and it's something she wishes was available to her as a youngster. “What Vans are doing is really cool... It's not the same as putting music online. This kind of thing gets you to feel what being a proper musician is gonna be. If I was younger and I had this kind of opportunity, I'm done! I would give it a try!”

When discussing the various stages of her personal musical development, and the roles she's personified in the process, Yehaiyahan offered a refreshingly sincere insight. From the single-mindedness of youth to a more considered approach in later years, her evolution has always been organic. “I think everything I do is a mirror reflecting exactly how I feel, so I start with something very simple, I didn't even think about it, go straight, just do it. Then I start to think more about my music, or I found something very different that I want to explain, so I used a different identity to try to explain different things from a different angle.”

Life, in all of its complex and fluctuating glory, has continually informed her work, and this multi-layered approach is evident in her ever-changing sound. Though the stage-names may differ, ultimately, all of her music represents the many shades of her soul. “In the end, I realised it's all just me. Human beings are complicated, and feelings and emotions are complex, so it won't be flat, it won't be just as simple as one line. All the different things, the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions, love, hate, everything... It has more dimensions.”

Life speaks through music. The universal language of music is something that has always resonated with Yehaiyahan. The unique ability of the form to evoke an emotional response within the listener regardless of the origin of the words being sung or spoken. “That's always how I feel about music. When I just start to fall in love with what I'm listening, I don't understand what they're singing about or what they're talking about, I just fall in love with what I'm listening. The rhythm is part of the language, the melody, the lyrics the beats, the vibe, emotion. Everything comes together as one.”

Though she spends less time in nightclubs than she used to, Yehaiyahan feels that the musical landscape of her Shanghai home town continues to make for fertile creative ground. The city itself has undergone its own dramatic evolution in recent years, but she feels that its history as an international trading post – a place where far-flung cultures have always mingled – makes it unique, not just in China, but in the wider world. “Shanghai is great because it has always been an open city, in history, it's always been connected to other cultures, mixing, open-minded and avant-garde...people start to look at Shanghai and think wow, something really different is going on here.”

And, once again, a change in the status quo has been ushered in by the internet. Whereas previously local scenes may have struggled to keep the pace with trends born out of international centres of creativity, with easy and universal access to content and communication, it is now far easier for artists across the globe to interact and exchange. “The internet helps to keep you on the same page with the whole world. It's not like 'oh we're in China, you're in Europe so, you know, we are much slower'. It has changed the way people think about how their life is, how they make music, how they socialise and interact with people, the way they understand things.”

These changes in our lifestyles and behaviours generated by the digital age are fascinating to Yehaiyahan. “We're starting to enter an interesting era, using digital data mind to think about things It's very interesting for me to realise how different young people live now, how different they think about what they do and how they do. It's interesting to see the young generations split into two types, who on one side at a very young age are into very old school stuff, y2k stuff from the last century. And the other part who went totally towards AI!”

When asked what advice she would offer to any aspiring artists, she laughed playfully. “I don't like to give advice to young people. When I was, young I didn't take any advice!” After pausing for a brief moment of thought, she added some profound words of wisdom. “Just do your thing. If you're really young, don't think too much. Before you hit problems, just go for it. Be brave, believe in your own art. I think that's what all the great artists do, so just be like that!”

Of course, the life of an artist is, in many ways, the embodiment of struggle. Success is often arbitrary, and even for the lucky few who make it to the top, the journey does not come without sacrifice. “Being a musician is not easy work, not easy work at all. Especially as an independent musician, you need a lot of support from different parts.” The nature of this arduous road is another reason why the Vans Musicians Wanted project, and the work the company undertakes to help nurture artists is so valuable. “I think this kind of cooperation is just organic. It's not hurting anyone, it's not like you have to bend yourself to be something else to suit the brand, you can just be yourself and they provide the platform to you. This is a really cool combination. I want to thank the Vans family for having me. It's a great opportunity to get involved in this project, everyone from the team is amazing and it's great to work with them.”

Now in a position when she can look back on already wildly varied stages in musical career, what does Yehaiyahan think might lie ahead in the story of her ongoing metamorphosis? “I think in the end I will combine all the identities in one. When that time comes, I think I'll really have found my true self, so I won't need that many different identities, I will know really who I am and find my real cause.”

This sounds like a singularly noble pursuit, and a manifestation such as this would most certainly be worthy of booking front row tickets to witness.

You can listen to Yehaiyahan's Soundcloud stream here

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