It’s not often you come across a local musician whose music becomes an instant earworm, not just for its production, but even in the artist’s voice and lyrics. That’s something we see in YAØ, Universal Music Singapore’s latest signee, who makes his debut with the label with a lush and euphonious self-produced debut single, ‘I Can’t Sleep’.
“I think it’s been a blessing, and I’m straight up grateful that I was even considered by Universal,” says YAØ, over a Zoom interview. “For the longest time, I wasn’t sure if I would do music full time, and with this opportunity, new doors have been opened.”
“There’s definitely a heavy sense of responsibility in representing a label, and it feels like everyone’s attention is on you and you’ll be receiving more criticism. In a way, it’s no longer purely about me, but even how my music now represents the Singapore music scene, and how it is being portrayed to the world. I’m glad they saw what they did in me, and I think there’s a long way I could go with the label.”
“I Can’t Sleep” certainly isn’t YAØ’s introduction to the music scene as a whole. Over the last few years, the young musician has been releasing content as an independent artist. Initially having clinched the Best New Kid On The Block award from the first-ever *SCAPE Youth Music Awards in 2019, that was all it took to herald the arrival of a new voice, combined with catchy singles that take inspiration from modern R&B and hip-hop sounds, and even the funk-infused Japanese pop of the 1980s. Much of that can be seen in his 2019 EP “Love and City Lights”, which featured hits such as “Scenery” and the title track.
But now, all his experience is being taken to the next level, as “I Can’t Sleep” marks a change in sound, distinctly more fast-paced and pop, and a banger you’ll put on repeat. Much like his previous material, YAØ took inspiration from city life. But where past songs felt like a tribute to the beauty of the night, ‘I Can’t Sleep’ instead draws from the city’s anxiety-ridden sleepless souls. “It’s definitely shifting more towards the pop side of things, and perhaps you can feel from the more manic drum and bass beat that it contains feelings of desperation within the song,” says YAØ.
“I want to experiment with more genres, but still keep it pop. Sometimes I do weird things with my art, but my aim is to always to produce music people will enjoy, like playing it while driving in their car.”
YAØ penned ‘I Can’t Sleep’ in an effort to keep his head above water amidst a fast-paced society. It started on a particularly listless night. An idea for the song appeared in his head, which drove the all-rounded musician straight to work. While it might have added hours to an overflowing sleep debt, he sees writing the song as a form of necessary self-care, a practice he hopes listeners would take from the song.
“Being a Singaporean kid, there’s this pressure to grow up and earn money from the people around me, and you slowly get used to it,” says YAØ, as a motorcycle is heard in the background, almost as if emphasising his themes of hectic city life. “And when I thought further about what I wanted to be, a musician, it just made the pressure worse. I think being an artist in Singapore is pretty tough; a lot of us Gen Z kids do want to pursue our dreams, but end up overthinking this idea of success and end up not being able to sleep at night.”
“I think, sometimes, it’s important to take that frustration and put it into something more positive, like taking care of oneself and appreciating the simple things in life.”
YAØ’s choice to pursue music actually seems quite natural, considering that his own mother was a musician. “I think music, like art and other hobbies, is a very innate thing. Some people are good at sports, but for me, that tendency went towards music,” he says. “It helps that I grew up surrounded by it as well.”
To cope with stress, YAØ poured it all out into his art, writing songs to distract himself from the pressure. “To find that balance between rest and restlessness, it’s still an ongoing process for me, and a struggle to get over that hurdle,” he says. “Besides writing music, I’ve also been doing more reading online, just to search for interesting things I never knew about. I’ve been approaching things with a more open mind and open heart these days, just to try and understand it all before making a judgment call.”
“We are all influenced by worldly things that distract us from being able to find peace. On top of that, we are surrounded by a very status and money-driven lifestyle here in Singapore. I think that’s one main reason why I decided to write this song as well: to highlight this problem that’s happening in our society.”
‘I Can’t Sleep’ also features a music video, directed by Jasper Tan of Vadbibes. In the video, YAØ suffers from insomnia, awake in the middle of the night, and gripped by some kind of manic energy that sends him on a citywide journey in search of a genuine connection. The lighting and camerawork reflects the dizziness and heady nature of a romp through the night, pestering people in playgrounds, sailing through industrial lobbies, or daydreaming while half passed out in the middle of a nightclub. Acting as a visual diary, YAØ is caught in the middle between a need for true connection and the need for sleep, unable to fit in with society while battling a broken heart.
“The MV wasn’t difficult to film, mostly because I knew the people involved,” he says. “There was a very nice synergy when we met, it was all very friendly and open, and Jasper is a very accommodating director. Interestingly, there was some equipment they used that wasn’t available in Singapore, not even to rent, so they ended up having to buy it from the USA! The whole team was doing their best, and we all had the same goal of trying to make something special and monumental, and we were all just so excited to see how it would turn out.”
‘I Can’t Sleep’ may just be the first step in YAØ’s musical journey with Universal, but he’s already looking ahead and planning for his first full-length album. Titled ‘Broke Pop Kids’, the album is slated for release sometime later this year, and will see YAØ continuing to experiment with sound and style. “The album will definitely be showing some evolution in my music, hopefully sounding more mature,” he says.
“I’ve always been very drawn to anime and illustrations, so you can see that in both my previous EP and the cover art for ‘I Can’t Sleep’ uses that too, and it’s something I hope to continue with in the new album,” he adds.
“Sometimes, I think it’s because I have that insecurity with how I’m portrayed in real life, and the illustrations end up distracting people. At the same time, maybe you can think of it as me creating my world, sort of like Gorillaz, and just have control over their image and aesthetics.”
But with all these changes in sound and illustrated portrayals, who exactly is YAØ? “At this stage, I’m still struggling to find that YAØ-ness,” he admits. “I don’t think I know myself that well yet, and there’s so many times I wonder why I do what I do. What I do know is that I’m a huge anime and manga fan, and it’s influences like these that I also like bringing in to my sound and image, things that make me happy.”
“Across all the songs I’ve been putting out, my goal has always been to entertain, where I put my audience first. As I said, I’m pretty insecure, and my music is my way of covering my flaws. In a way, think of it as someone trying to sound perfect, doing his best to be his best.”