Hailing all the way from Australia, Yeo Choong, better known as Yeo, has been creating music as a songwriter and producer since 2006 with his album Trouble Being Yourself. After stumbling upon Yeo's live performances on triple j's Like a Version live video series, his talent displaying his superb keytar skills and awe-inspiring vocal range blew me away. He recently came out with a single called "Amy," a signature electronic pop tune that is a celebration of vulnerability.
Yeo's unique style and one of his cheeky retweets prompted me to learn more about him. I reached out to Yeo and he was incredibly open about answering these questions regarding being a PoC in the music industry. Here's what he had to say about his experience as an Asian Australian artist and his upcoming LP Desire Path that will be released this August 18th.
How would you describe your sound to someone who’s never listened to your music before?
It's pop music. There's a dark DIY edge to it, but it's essentially still pop.
Tell me about your experience growing up and your heritage. How would you describe your family and your upbringing as a whole?
I'm an only child born in Brisbane, Australia. My mother and father speak Hokkien and relocated here from Malaysia. My childhood is something I look upon fondly as there was much love within our small family, and when we met similar families, bonding with them was a special experience. We were a church-going family so at least kindness and acceptance was a default value, but as I got older I realised that prejudice ran deep (and often unspoken) despite my environment. There were many social obstacles to overcome throughout my education like bullying, ostracism, stereotyping etc. As a kid, these things made me want to be white, but now I'm wholeheartedly proud of my culture - to the point where I am very sad when I think about the parts of it that are lost to me. My connection to my extended family is fragmented, and I can no longer speak Hokkien. I can understand it, but barely.
What was your parents’ reaction when you told them that you wanted to pursue music?
My father's only response was to ask me to work for him in the church. No thanks. My mother wished I had chosen a career with a steadier income. Becoming a pharmacist would've made her very happy back then. However, a decade later into my career and she's come around after seeing my dedication to music.
What types of challenges have you encountered because of your ethnicity? Have you experienced any struggles to combat any Asian stereotypes in your career?
Small things I brush off, like dumb comments on the internet about the "unexpectedness" of my vocal tone or skin colour. If you upscale the setting and look at a professional environment, my feelings grow stronger to be parallel with the nearly imperceptible bias held by peers and industry gatekeepers - a lot I've recognised only in subtext; hardly ever explicit. Despite my healthy self-confidence and track record, my work is often passed-over in favour of that by white artists. If I'm wrong, I'll be the first to admit it, but it shits me that key industry figures don't give us more chances on festival stages, TV screens or large music media websites. It drives me up the wall when we don't "tick the right boxes" for career opportunities. I'm frustrated that so many key industry figures are white in the first place. The biggest challenge I've overcome is actually accepting racism as a part of everyday life and getting on with improving my work. I suspect many people don't get that far.
As an Asian-Australian artist, do you feel any pressure to conform to what’s trending at the top of the music charts in the United States?
Nope. What we do may be similar to what's trending, and I certainly take influence voluntarily since I'm a fan of some commercial pop, but there's no pressure. If anyone succumbs to such pressure, I'd say they're approaching music-making the wrong way.
Do you have any commentary on diversity in the music industry in Australia?
Diversity is getting better but it's got a long way to go. Bias against PoC is hidden by noise about other important imbalances but that doesn't lessen the effect. I've seen countless acts (note: white and male) bypass hard work and rise to media saturation, only to squander their opportunities with a drug addiction or lack of musical output. I've seen PoC artists discouraged by their parents for not pursuing the security of a traditional career. I've seen statistics on population diversity that don't reflect what I see on funding recipient lists, radio rotation reports and almost every Australian music festival lineup. You talk to any established festival booker or media editor and they'll tell you it's about ticket sales and viewer traffic, which I understand but consider a morally cheap excuse. If you forgive the latter and follow the trail a bit further, where does it end? Consumers. That includes myself and people of every colour in Australia. Yes, we need to raise awareness, but we also need to support each other. All people are guilty of discrimination, but existing as a minority and experiencing it first-hand makes PoC more aware and in a better position to take responsibility for it.
Are there any other PoC musicians, bands, producers, etc. who you’re a fan of and how do they inspire you?
Sure I could talk about Syd or Dean or ?uestlove or Solange or Noname, but I'd like to swing the telescope towards home and point it at Lonelyspeck, Rainbow Chan, Maribelle, Charlie Lim, Sampa The Great, Kimchi Princi, Take Your Time, Vallis Alps, Remi Kolawole, Billy Davis and Froyo. They inspire me by making good music, playing good shows and showing no fear.
What was your creative process while writing your latest song “Amy”?
I actually wrote this song on the piano. Came up with the chorus first, then fleshed out verses by shaping what was initially a free-style improvisation. The first version of Amy had this quick soul clap all the way through, but I found I wasn't happy with the overall dynamics, so I stripped the song to the bare vocal and essentially 'remixed' my own tune the way I would someone else's. With some small re-harmonisations, it turned into the pop enigma that it is now. After showing a few people I was convinced to keep the new version.
Your LP Desire Path comes out later this summer on August 18th. How was your experience making the album and what are your plans in the coming year?
It was quick! I didn't think it was possible, but here we are. The shape of it grew firmer as I wrote more songs, and eventually it was clear that there were two distinct sides to the LP, something which I've done many times before, but never intentionally. I have collaborated on this record more than I have previously, and though I've loved the experience, I would prefer if the volume of administration didn't increase further than what it is now. It's the most money I've ever spent producing a body of work, but this is also the largest my follower-base has ever been so I think it'll be worth it. We're very excited to tour it in Australia after the release, and though the chances of us making it overseas are slowly dwindling, I still have faith.
Do you have any advice for aspiring creatives of color?
Stick together, be brave, be honest, and don't let your parents turn you into a norm unless that's what really makes you happy.
Last, but not least, what is your favorite Drake song?
Are you seriously asking me to choose?! Hold On, We're Going Home*
*Actually, perhaps Trophies**
**But maybe, Too Good***