Earlier this month one of the most exciting new musicians from one of world’s most exciting cities released his new record; you can read my review of Yuzima’s Sound Opera: Project One here.
Now Yuzima has kindly taken some time to talk to me and answer a few questions about the Sound Opera project, pop music in general and its, as well as his, future.
Sound Opera Project One is a very ambitious project: a twenty-plus minute single track. It feels more like the work of a composer than a songwriter, so can you explain a bit about what you were trying to do here?
What I try to do, as an artist, is to provoke and innovate, but the inspiration came after I finished my last EP Glasnost. I wanted to do something that made people experience music and sound differently: instead of the intro, hook, pre-chorus, hook, song mode I wanted to expand the way people today absorb a pop song and album. So yes, I sat down and thought out what sounds are important, and how they could work together to make a Grand Picture and still be a pop song.
It’s probably fair to say that your music is not what most people would expect from a guy from the Gun Hill Projects in The Bronx. I remember reading in a piece a friend of mine wrote that Mark E Smith once said that The Fall would have been the same band even if they didn’t come from Salford, but how much have the projects from influenced your music?
A lot and a little. I went through a lot as a child in Gun Hill Projects: gang wars, drug wars and the stuff that people may expect, but I also was first exposed to U2, Metallica, Carole King, and at the same time, Boogie Down Productions and such. Yeah people in the projects listen to rock!
In terms of other music, what were you influenced by? I can hear the likes of 90s U2 and 80s Prince in there, as well as the likes of Bowie and Tangerine Dream, but I might be wrong!
You’re right on with that. I would add Joan Armatrading, Smashing Pumpkins, Brian Eno, The Cure and even 70’s band Labelle. I have a lot of music on CDs and files that I visit daily; it could even be 80’s jazz pop like Swing out sister. But Bowie, Dylan, U2 the Stones anything ambitious and with soul, I love it.
Having called your last EP Glasnost, you appear to have a real interest in Germany. Do you have an affinity with the country, or Berlin at least, or is it just an interest? Or am I completely wrong about this?
When I was a kid I did a show-and-tell at a school for the arts I went to in the Bronx. I told my class that I was Russian they looked at me like I was crazy… I just wanted to be different; I didn’t want to be from where everyone else was from. But even though I was very young, one of my earliest memories was the fall of the Berlin Wall also the movie White Nights [Taylor Hackford’s 1985 Soviet-set Baryshnikov-vehicle]. I thought it was one of the most significant things of our time: the search for openness and the fall of The Wall. Now I identify with the harder sounds that match (at least what I know of) Berlin… I haven’t been there although I can’t wait to go.
What else are you listening to at the moment? From what I can tell you like kind of ambitious, experimental music; is there any new music you find exciting? Or are you listening to the older music that (I think) influenced your latest record?
I like that but I also like just good pop music not fluff. I dig innovative music but not experimental for experimental sake. I have a tune from Glasnost called ‘Science Project’ where I kind of rebuke bands that were fly-by-night experimental. I think it’s cool to experiment, but it should lead somewhere.
As far as what I’m playing: I’m listening to Bruce Springsteen’s new one , Santigold’s new stuff, Brian Eno’s Here Comes the Warm Jets (which is awesome) and Macy Grays new cover album – definitely love that she covered Metallica.
What’s your approach to writing lyrics? Do you write things that are personal and important to you, or do you take a more detached, observational view like someone like James Murphy? Or are lyrics not that important? David Byrne never placed much emphasis on them, and yet managed to write some of the greatest lyrics I’ve ever heard.
Nothing’s more important than the lyrics, you know, but I’m not one of these types who sets poetry to music. It’s a balance between thoughtfulness, creativity and insight: Dylan, Stevie Nicks, Joan Armatrading… they all understand the balance. I also read an awful lot; I’m currently reading Diary of a Drug Fiend by [Led Zeppelin muse] Aleister Crowley. Someone in a bar once told me if you want to write, read. And they were on the money.
As someone who is obviously looking for ways to innovate and for music to progress, how do you feel about the way people hear music these days? Are you a fan of file sharing and people being able to access music for free, or do you prefer the more traditional ways of listening? Obviously as a musician it affects you when people download your songs for free, but does the fact that more people are hearing your music make up for this?
That’s a big part of what went into Sound Opera: Project One. People aren’t really impressed by 3-minute songs anymore so we need to create new formats; I put forth the 20 min Pop Opera. Let’s see how long it takes to hit radio play lists!
Free downloads hurt because it takes value away from the music. In our society people value money: it’s the lifeblood. So when they give up some of their money it means they respect what they are getting or they just really desire it. Rock musicians have to take control of our art so people respect it.
I’m the quintessential risk taker. The real deal is that in our time we are hyper-concerned with what’s happening now, but what happens tomorrow will be different. That’s what artists are supposed to do: be outside of the thing reporting in. Michael Jackson was the Prince of Pop but he also was a major innovator, people should remember that when they think about pop music. We live in very mediocre times with every one scrambling for their little bit, but dynamic artists can’t be controlled by circumstances we need to overcome them. We need to kick down the walls.
With such dense, multi-layered music, it must be difficult to recreate the sound of the record live; how do you approach this? Do you start the songs again from scratch, or do you try to find a way to adapt all of the sounds on the records for a live performance? I notice how different your live and studio versions of [U2 cover] ‘Mysterious Ways’ are, and it barely even sounded like the same artist.
‘Mysterious Ways’ like other songs just take a different shape live. Usually I play acoustic guitar during live shows so I’m bringing that whole production experience to bear with that. I’m pretty good at it, I can make a guitar sound like an electric, a small orchestra or a serious rocking band. Sound Opera: Project One is different I don’t know how it will manifest live, maybe a museum will feature it. Art doesn’t always have to be experienced in the same traditional ways.
What does the future hold for you? Would you look at something as long and ambitious as Sound Opera Project One again, or would you like to go for the more traditional album of “pop”-length songs? Or something completely different?
I was just talking to a friend about doing a visual song, not a music video but a pop song where you need the visual as much as the sound; they are one. But not just yet, I’m going back to making earworm pop, and then I’ll be back with more diabolical experiments! Essentially, I’m a pop artist I’m just really ambitious. Sound Opera is just a different kind of pop experience, but yes I’ll continue to push every boundary I can locate.
Sound Opera: Project One is out now.