Articulate Q&A: Yvette Young

CW: brief discussion of emotional trauma, ED

You may not know Yvette Young by name but, if you’re active on social media, you might already be familiar with her work.

 Photo credit:  Howie Chen .

Photo credit: Howie Chen.

The 26-year-old musician and visual artist has “gone viral” several times over, thanks to her innovative two-handed approach to guitar playing.

But there’s much more to Yvette Young’s story than social media stardom. After quitting music for five years, the classically-trained pianist and violinist taught herself guitar as a way to cope with physical and emotional trauma—and as a way to reclaim music for herself, on her own terms.

Below, Young opens up about her success, using music as therapy, and why she calls herself a “crazy bird lady.”


Q: In a recent interview on the Nebula Music Podcast, you opened up about how guitar was a form of healing after you’d developed a lot of anxiety about playing instruments like the violin and piano, which you’d felt forced to take up as a child. Can you tell us a little about that transition and how it redefined the relationship you have with music?

I grew up playing classical piano and violin from a very young age. I was made to enter a lot of high-stakes competitions and audition for different orchestras. Piano and violin were never instruments I genuinely wanted to play but my parents insisted I start from a young age (which in retrospect, I am grateful for). But, at the time, it was a lot of pressure for me. There were negative consequences if I didn’t win a competition or land an audition and I think it instilled an unhealthy, perfectionist mindset that was difficult for me to shake off as I grew older.

On top of that, participating in music in a competitive and high-pressure context made me miss out on a lot of the more rewarding aspects of music—such as its ability to touch people, and the beauty of music as a language and means of self-expression. To this day, I still don’t really think competition fits in the arts world because so much of art’s worth is subjective, and also quite arbitrary. I think when an artist or musician starts to compare themselves to other people (a competitive mindset), it can create a lot of anxiety and also ruin the fun of just making art for art’s sake. I think there is probably a time and place for music [competitions]. But I know, when I was younger, I only did competitions for the sake of padding out college applications and it felt very hollow and superficial.

I didn’t really find music rewarding at all until I got hospitalized for anorexia (the perfectionism became too much) and I was removed from the high-pressure environment that made me sick. I decided to take up guitar during that time and I wrote music about how I felt. It was really nice being able to be honest with myself through writing lyrics and trying to find melodies that conveyed the same things.

 Photo credit:  Francesca Spriggs .

Photo credit: Francesca Spriggs.

I think, at that time, music became medicine for me, and I learned just how valuable music and art could be as a way to get out emotions. In addition to that, I got a lot of my self-esteem from teaching myself how to play guitar, and found joy in creation.

Q: How does your classical training influence your guitar playing? And, when you revisit the piano or the violin, does anything you’ve learned from the guitar inform your approach to those instruments?

I think the fingerstyle way I approach guitar is largely influenced by my piano playing. I do a lot of two-handed tapping, which is basically like treating the guitar fretboard like a piano. And even the way I fingerpick is from a piano player mindset. I treat the lower strings of my guitar like my left hand [on the piano] and use a lot of the lower strings as harmonic drones for more busy “right hand” parts that I play on the upper strings. I think because piano is my first “language” in music, it will forever be my frame of reference for everything I hear and write on guitar!

Q: Virtuosity seems to be a really important part of what you do. Yes, the music sounds great, but you appear to be focused on continually coming up with things that are ever more challenging to play. Name some artists who don’t necessarily have the greatest musical chops, but who really move you anyway.

Honestly, I don’t really even listen to stuff that is very technical or complicated! I think there is a lot of beauty in simplicity. And, honestly, restraint is a very mature musical concept that I’m in the process of learning. I think knowing how to say just enough, and knowing when to embellish, and when to let things breathe, is true mastery of songwriting.

These days, I listen to a lot of piano-based movie soundtrack composers like Jóhann Jóhannsson, Ólafur Arnalds, and Hior Chronik. I also listen to a lot of dreamy post-rock like Hammock and Caspian. I think that their music is very “painterly” to me. And they are all masters of achieving texture through use of different instruments and timbres. I also really admire the dynamics and their use of contrast to create tension. Honestly, all of that music is really emotional to me, and that’s something that I aspire towards in my own music.

I also listen to a lot of weird indie/pop bands like Mew and Porches. I really like the songwriting, overall, and I admire how those bands write really catchy hooks but are also not following typical songwriting conventions. They are very experimental in nature, but end up getting stuck in my head! I’m really fascinated by that.

Q: Though you’re probably best known for your guitar playing, you also sing, draw, and paint. What training, if any, do you have in those areas?

I took art lessons when I was younger from a wonderful woman named Ruth who has since passed. She was like a surrogate mother to me. I also studied art at UCLA, so I have a bit of experience from that. In terms of singing, I used to sing in church choirs. But, other than that, I’m self-taught!

Q: What “itch” does making visual art scratch that making music doesn’t?

I think I view my visual art and music very similarly. Stylistically, I think both are very detail-oriented. My instrumental music is a lot like making an abstract painting, where I can’t be too literal so I have to color or paint a mood with notes instead. My visual art is definitely more concrete, and I actually feel way more fluent as a visual artist rather than a musician. I like visual art because it’s something tangible that I can hold in my hands. I’m a pretty sentimental person, so I like making a bunch of artifacts that I can give to people or hold onto. However, I think both serve as a form of mental escapism for me.

 The album artwork Yvette Young created for her 2014 release,  Acoustics EP .

The album artwork Yvette Young created for her 2014 release, Acoustics EP.

Q: On your official Facebook page, you describe yourself as a “crazy bird lady.” Now, I love cats. My wife’s a self-professed “dog person.” But birds...that’s another subject altogether. Explain your fascination with our feathered friends.

I admire their freedom. But also, I [just] think they’re so cute. I love how their eyes are at opposite sides of their head. It’s so silly! I also love the detail and colors on their body. They’re really fun to draw because of all the texture you can get out of drawing their feathers!

I grew up raising a bunch of birds, so I think I also associate it with my childhood. We used to hatch lovebirds, and throughout my life I’ve had many parakeets, cockatiels, a parrotlet, and even ducks! Right now I have a Jenday Conure, a parakeet, and four hens. I find a lot of comfort in having them around, and I enjoy hearing them cluck and talk to each other when I wake up in the morning.

Q: What art and music were around the house growing up? Has any of it stuck with you?

I grew up around classical music! My parents play accordion, and my dad is a composer as well. So you can say music runs in the family! I think I used to hate classical music when I was younger, but [now] I really appreciate having it around me at all times. It’s truly timeless, and I’m glad that I can appreciate it now. I would say that a lot of my own writing is very informed by the classical music that was exposed to when I was younger.

Q: You’ve spent a few years playing in a music scene—let’s broadly call it “underground rock”—that, historically, has been dominated by white men. What has your experience been in these spaces?

I never notice it when I’m touring, but I think I really feel a sense of dysphoria in my [music] scene when I’m online. The people who come out to shows are generally open-minded and respectful, but things can get ugly really quick on the internet! People try to say that I have what I have because I’m Asian and genetically I’m just “good at everything”—or popular because I’m just a girl playing guitar, not because of the work I put into my craft or my rigorous upbringing. It feels a bit dismissive, having people reduce you to a stereotype and ignore your entire journey. My solution is to just stop reading comments because it bums me out and makes me into a more cynical person.

I think we are experiencing a positive paradigm shift in how accepted women, other-gendered people, and ethnic minorities feel in the scene. And more people are speaking up and doing things to help certain groups of people feel not only confident to pursue this music, but also respected. I feel [like I’m] in a really fortunate position to try to be a positive role model. Although, at the end of the day, music has no gender or race—so hopefully, one day, it won’t even have to be a topic we discuss, because everyone feels included.

Q: So, you’re endorsed by .strandberg* Guitars. Your band, Covet, is well regarded in the underground scene, and fans also love your solo material. But your biggest claim to fame thus far might just be your Instagram account, where thousands of people regularly like each of your photos and performance clips. If someone only thinks of you as “that guitarist from Instagram,” is that enough?

I honestly don’t mind if people just call me an Instagram guitarist! I am just flattered anyone cares! I’m honestly always blown away by how many people do engage with me and comment. When anything of mine goes “viral,” I’m always really shocked. This whole thing feels like a dream, and sometimes I don’t even feel like I’ve earned it yet.

But, nonetheless, I am grateful and I use that feeling of inadequacy to propel myself into my work, in the hopes that one day I feel like I deserve it. At the end of the day, I want to make music and art for myself. So, whatever people want to label me is fine with me!

Q: Finally, you were recently on the East Coast, tracking your debut piano/violin album. What can fans of your other music expect? Do you have any plans to tour in support of this new project?

I plan to have my band Covet’s music out by summertime, and then my piano/violin album shortly after that! I think Covet has a bunch of tours being planned (and a bunch of exciting videos/announcements), and my hope is that I can tour [in support of] my piano album. I’m planning on notating all of it so that people can learn [to play] it as well. It’s going to be a wonderfully busy month for me, but that’s how I like it!