Jonah Yano is a Japanese-Canadian singer-songwriter based in Toronto who broke onto the scene with his subtly contagious voice. Though he’s only made his work public in recent years, he’s already built a fair amount of street cred by collaborating frequently with jazz quartet BADBADNOTGOOD, stacking up millions of listens on Spotify, and filling the pages of big publications such as NPR, FADER and HYPEBEAST. Beyond his unique sound, he also tells great stories.
Last year, Yano released his debut album Souvenir, drawing in audiences from across the musical spectrum. His lead single “Shoes” tells a real-life story of reuniting with his father after being separated for 15 years. The track is sung in both Japanese and English, and is an earnest exploration of his cultural identity. Similarly, many other tunes on the LP deal with the subject of his bi-cultural background.
The general consensus seems to be that Yano has embodied a sound that toes the line between folk and bedroom pop, with some elements of funk and electro. But Yano would passionately disagree. His music is difficult to categorize, even if his style feels strangely familiar. Just like identity, he hates labels.
Yano is currently in his native Vancouver to finish work on his upcoming second LP, and to speak with his Japanese and Caucasian grandparents in a quest to uncover his family history in order to make sense of his identity. Looking at identity through the lens of music, we caught up with Yano on how it’s been since releasing his debut LP and how his Japanese-Canadian background is influencing his work.
Q. Do you look at your music differently now since you dropped your debut album and reconnected with your father?
Absolutely. I think that song taught me, in terms of songwriting, is that things worth writing about can take a super long time. In the instance of that song, you know, it's 20 years. I think that's something I’m really trying to take into account when I've been writing songs lately. Most people don't really listen to the words in a song. So it’s sort of up to songwriters to decide how they want it archived for posterity. That song taught me how to be more careful with my songwriting, going forward. I feel it’s fragmented sonically.
Q. You don't want to make an album like Souveniragain?
Yeah. Like all fragmented like that. I made it all over the place, all over the world with all sorts of different people. And it felt good at the time and I'm proud of it, but I think there's so much stuff going on that I kind of wish I dialed back a bit and made it more digestible.
It's pretty self-indulgent at times, like there's some moments where I’m like, “I can't believe I did that.” But it's okay, I still love it.
Q. Were you just experimenting and thinking it would make your album more colorful?
It was kind of less thought out than that. It was just writing songs, making songs with people, doing sessions, kind of whatever was happening was happening. And then I realized that I had a record that I could put together. I kind of picked and chose from the things that I had made and arranged, and then I sequenced all these different thoughts and ideas from all over the place into the one record.
Q. This holistic approach to creating an album, would you agree it’s something that’s often associated with collectivist Asian cultures?
I think I agree with it being sort of like a holistic, passive way of putting together an album, letting it happen as it does and not being so in control.
I don't agree as much with the idea that it is “collectivist” in the sense that it is “Asian.” I think those sorts of generalizations while they can be true in a lot of instances can perpetuate the idea that Asian people are a monolith. The sort of separation between Eastern and Western thinking and ideologies and things that are sort of like a subtle “othering” in a way. For me, personally, becoming an adult is about understanding the context of my culture and my identity.
Q. How do you contextualize your identity in your work?
A lot of the work that I've made and continue to make is very family-based and heritage-oriented, [an attempt to] understand that history. I think my work, in my pursuit of understanding my identity, is the through-line: it sort of has to be because of how I look, where I'm from and what I am. Regardless of what kind of music I’m making, the topic of my identity would come up endlessly.
I want to use that theme intentionally because it's going to be there anyways. I think naturally a lot of racialized artists don't really explore their identity and heritage in their work because, whiteness and assimilation are what sell in music. The easy route would be to make some uptempo pop and use my Asian identity—but only on the surface because that's what sells.
But I don’t hold animosity towards that. I think that’s also important to normalise Asians in a predominantly white industry. I think it's an underrepresented approach, specifically in Asian artists, to truly use identity as the crux of the practice of music and exploring it because it's super confusing. I really want to try and make sense of all this through music,
Yeah, because there's not really a blueprint for it. It's specifically for the Japanese-Canadian experience. There's a whole canon of literature written by Japanese-Canadians—a lot of poetry, novels, documentaries and things like that—but I don't think there's songwriting about it. Distilling all of that information into my practice has been difficult, but it's something that I think I'm starting to get a grip on. That's why I'm here in Vancouver, to start putting this together more.
Q. We’re in a time where Asians are participating more in contemporary North America. It feels scary and exciting at the same time.
You don't know how it's going to be received. You don't know who's out there looking for that sort of dissemination. You don't even know who your audiences are when we're voicing our ideas and thoughts on identity.
Q. How does that inform your music, sonically? Or do you keep that entirely separate?
I think up until Souvenir came out, they were separate. Not on purpose or anything, [just because] I didn't really know how to blend them together. It was something that I never even considered. I'm starting to figure it out, like how to make it sound like what I'm talking about or wanting to explore.
Q. Can you tell us about what you're working on right now?
There's new music for sure. I'm here finishing the writing for an album that I'm recording in June in Toronto, and it’s an extension of myself in the same way that “Shoes” sort of is, by contextualizing my place in the world through the stories of other people close to me. I’ll record it over the course of a few weeks with some other people. It's only going to be those people, so it's going to have one distinct sort of feeling and sound to it. There's a couple of other one-offs, like little collaborations with artists and just random little things and remixes.
Q. Are you in Vancouver to finish up writing?
Yeah. I’m going to go stay with my grandparents for a couple of weeks; just spending time there writing songs on my grandma's piano to get all their stories and talk to them about their lives. I'm recording the last song of the record here in a very particular way, sort of like Souvenir where it ties the whole idea of the record together at the very end. That idea is the thing that I'm carrying forward from Souvenir, like the arc of the story ending in a place that makes absolute sense.
Cover Image: Courtesy of Jonah Yano
Writer | Charlie Zhang
Charlie Zhang is a former editor of HYPEBEAST and a freelance writer who writes about music, fashion, design, food and architecture.