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Jemima Skala interviews cyber-pop artist Yeule, whose album Serotonin II was released in October.
It’s a drizzly, bitter Friday night. Ordinarily, London’s Kingsland Road is a bustling highway, full of people living their separate lives, eager to get from one place to the next. Just off a side street is Servant Jazz Quarters, a venue that looks unremarkable from the outside: just another overpriced east London bar. When you descend the stairs, however, you’re led into a low-ceilinged gig space where everything seems to be tucked in just so to create a cosy, intimate atmosphere. It’s a place where leftfield and offbeat musicians come to find a receptive crowd.
This is where Yeule plays her sold-out album showcase show. It’s a democratising space, and Yeule, aka Nat Ćmiel, is in amongst the crowd before she hops up on-stage to start her set. If you closed your eyes while she was playing, you wouldn’t think for a minute that it was just her playing. As she performs, the transformation from Ćmiel to Yeule is palpable; she becomes a different species entirely. We spoke over email to explore the world of Yeule in more depth.
How did you get into writing music?
I started playing the piano when I was about six. My parents had this upright Yamaha piano that could play these discs which triggered the keys automatically, so it looked like a ghost was playing. I made friends with this ghost. I started to learn pieces I found beautiful. I really loved waltz pieces and listened to a lot of Romantic composers like Liszt and Debussy. When I was a bit older and my brother and I shared this PlayStation 2, I was mesmerised by the soundtracks of Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts; I would leave the game running so I could listen for the melodies and try and play it on the piano.
I didn’t really know how to read scores at the time. I got really into video game scores by Nobuo Uematsu, and after a while I wanted to write my own songs using my knowledge of arrangements and melodies. The circle of fifths really helped me with coming up with songs at the beginning of my writing. It all started with me pondering how a human being can come up with melodies like this, on a piano, so endless and vast are the permutations of melodies!
What effect has travelling a lot as a child had on your concept of your own identity, and how has this fed into Yeule as a project?
I switched schools a lot because of personal reasons and this created these familiar feelings of being lost, I think. Often I felt misplaced or [that I] lacked some kind of identity; most of the time it seemed like I had a weak connection to the culture and heritage of my hometown, maybe because I longed for escape away from it.
This feeling of isolation and being outcasted from the rest is very familiar to me. It also could be because it was hard for me to learn how to be around people, and I was very quiet and introverted when I was younger.
You may be surprised because I am so much more outgoing and excitable in social situations now, but it’s because I had to learn how to be otherwise I’d be trapped in this isolated world as I always was.
I like to think of Yeule as the sister companion who was always with me in my head. Bringing her to life was like an epiphany, as though I finally had somebody to help me, somebody I know really well, someone who was there and saw everything that had happened in my life. She’s there to help me tell my story.
Your music and practice feels quite patchwork; where do you draw your inspiration from when writing?
It is very much like patchwork, I think. That’s a good way to put it. I think as I write more songs, I also start to get a better understanding of my head, of my subconscious, and of the way I consume experiences and process them, both physically and emotionally. When I was writing my first self-titled EP, I realised I sang a lot in the third person. In ‘Ending’, I wrote it as though I was watching myself fall apart and wanted to observe myself from the outside. During these out of body experiences, I tend to be able to objectively see what’s happening to my psyche and mental states during low points of my life.
Beautiful sounds to me are dream-like, echoey and eerie. I think electronic sounds help bring to light these atmospheres. I write a lot of poetry, and most often I come up with the words when I’m alone, really alone with myself. I would say that isolation and fantasising fabricated worlds are my best sources of inspiration because that’s all I’ve known.
You talk about Yeule as being an archive for different aspects of yourself – can you explain this a bit further?
I always feel like I’m somewhere else even though I’m here. I think it might be because I dream or imagine too much or these imaginations, that I find more real than reality itself, are what is actually trapping me in a void. After so many years I kind of realise that I find familiarity in it, but it still can be painful sometimes, like the voices that scream at me. But it can create beautiful things, like how my other personality came out the other side, through the persona of Penelope. She is there to help me express myself in ways I find difficult to express outside of her, embodied. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. In this way, I think each album had different voices, and listening back to it kind of feels nostalgic of that past self. I’m not sure how to put it.
Penelope was in the ‘Poison Arrow’ video and it was because of the weight of that song and how I wanted some extra comfort in letting her take my place in the visuals. I wasn’t so sure whether I could revisit those memories attached to the song head on at first.
Your music contains lots of references to the internet, especially on Serotonin II; how do you view the internet as interacting with our capacity for intimacy?
I have personal experiences with being in love with someone on the internet and never having met them, or building friendships that mean more to you than real world people, purely online. But somehow it seems like the struggle and feelings of helplessness also rise to the surface as you lack the physical touch. I mean, it came to this point where I was afraid of touching other people, and I couldn’t even give a hug or a handshake because I was afraid I’d “disintegrate” into fragments or glitch and die or something.
I was also afraid of real-life intimacy, and I couldn’t tell when a relationship online was abusive and manipulative, because my first few experiences with intimacy was on the internet and I had no point of reference of how to be treated. I was even clouded so much in my perception, that I thought that an online relationship with somebody meant the other person could have other relationships outside of the digital. To answer your question, yes. I think you can feel loved in the digital. But if it’s love that’s pure, I’m not so sure.
How do you see your practice as having evolved, and continuing to evolve, over the years?
I used to be a painter, mainly with oils. This was before I started writing music full time. I think the methods of imprinting myself through these many forms of art has always intrigued me, because I find something similar with how I’ve done it in painting as well as in the composition process. It comes from the same black emptiness. But I ask myself often, is it really a black emptiness when I pull so many things out of it, both grotesque and beautiful? I think how my work has evolved is also a mystery to me, but I can see some patterns in the art and in the making of it, and I’m learning more about myself a little better- for better or for worse?
What’s next for you and Yeule?
I’m writing the new record right now, but I feel like I need to do something that would make it real. I’m going to forget who I am and write and write and write and maybe go somewhere remote and forested. I’ll bring my cat Miso with me, maybe we’ll go on a journey.
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