Saturday, May 30, 2020

Been This Way and That Way: An Interview with Yea-Ming Chen of Yea-Ming and the Rumours

Photo by Eric Yang
Yea-Ming seems perennially overshadowed and unsung outside of her home base of Oakland and the overall greater Bay Area. Her songs are instantly captivating, memorable and endure over the long haul of time. Her skillful compositions are steeped in classic pop Brill Building structures and echoey atmospherics that would also be right at home in a Bakersfield honky-tonk with their distinctive steel guitar embellishments. The Rumours’ twangy guitars and amps are aligned to project a perfect timeless tone while her lovely lantern light vocals guide the way under Western skies. In their own distinctive and competent way, they have shaped and sustained an endearingly sincere and jangly folk-pop-country sound. Overall, their enchanting songs turn corners with attention paid to arrangements complete with unexpected bridges which effortlessly connect the songs to new realms. Yea-Ming has been leading her band the Rumours for almost a decade now with the time between performing and recording spent perfecting her natural acting abilities in films like Daylight Savings (2012) and I Will Make You Mine (2020). With everything up in the air, I thought this time was as good as any to check in with the multi-talented Yea-Ming and discuss her captivating music.

It must be exciting to have a movie that you star in named after one of your songs! 
How did Lynn Chen come about naming her directorial debut after one of your signature songs which is also the title of your 2016 debut album?

It’s very cool! I Will Make You Mine is the 3rd installation of a trilogy. The first two movies centered around the main character Goh played by Goh Nakamura and his 3 different love interests (Rachel, Erika and Yea-Ming played by Lynn Chen, Ayako Fujitani and yours truly) that you never really get to know.  For IWMYM, Lynn says she wanted to get to know these women and discover their humanness since they seem so cool and mysterious in the 1st two installments of the trilogy.  Since the first two movies were named after real life Goh’s real songs, Lynn thought the 3rd movie should be named after one of my songs.   She says that she went into my catalog of music and I think had her husband call out all of my song titles out loud until one sounded like a movie title.

L-R: Lynn Chen, Ayako Fujitani, Yea-Ming Chen, Goh Nakamura, Ayami Riley Tomine
Tell us about your background in music. I read on the Lilystars Records page that you studied piano for a time at UC Berkeley. (Nice to hear your waltzing piano playing on “Sign on My Window.”) How long have you been singing? Did your parents encourage (or discourage) you musically in any particular/general directions?

I majored in music at UC Berkeley but the Lilystars Records page is a little bit of an exaggeration in that I didn’t focus my studies on piano performing per se. If I had, I’d be a much better player haha.  But I did have to play the piano to get through a lot of those classes…

I took piano lessons from the age of 7 and through high school.  My parents were not particularly encouraging in me playing music but they did purchase a brand new KAWAI piano and pay for weekly lessons for 11 years which I now realize is not small change.  I believe that my mom allowed me to play piano because she read that prestigious universities required extra-curricular activities and piano would work.  For her, the purpose of piano lessons I think was so I would get into college, not to become a musician.  She was stoked when I got into Berkeley, but NOT stoked when I changed my major from biology to music.

I didn’t really start singing until I got into punk and indie music circa 1997-98.  I always loved singing but never thought I was a good singer and I even got rejected from the University choir at Berkeley when I tried out which was obviously very discouraging.  But when I started listening to punk and indie music, I began to realize the beauty and nuances of imperfect and unconventional voices. That encouraged me to start writings songs and make me feel like it was okay for me to sing them.

On a similar note it sounds like not a lot of music was played at home when you were growing up- let alone Fleetwood Mac! ( I finally now get the meta Fleetwood Mac Rumours reference.)

There was not!  You could probably count the music my parents owned on 2 hands, the most memorable of which was the soundtrack to Dr. Zhivago on vinyl.  Haha. So random!

I also read that you became enamored by Lookout! Records bands like the Queers, MTX etc.  Were you allowed to attend all-ages shows? If so, were you going to Gilman at the time? ( I can only imagine you harmonizing with Joe Queer/King like Lisa Marr has done so well over the years.)  Did you gravitate from the punkier sounds towards the softer Sacramento/SF (e.g., Go Sailor/Tiger Trap/the Softies) and Vancouver (e.g., cub) pop sounds or vice versa or did you embrace it all during the same time? (I also detect a trace of Dear Nora’s “ We'll Have a Time” and a wonderful Velvet Underground influence in your sounds.)  

I discovered the Queers and MTX in the college dorms my freshman year.  That was the first place I lived where I had access to ethernet and I was able to do music searches online. I ran across Lookout! Records and was able to download music videos off the internet with that “fast” internet connection. So by that time I was already 18 and was so ashamed of my limited knowledge of my hometown venue Gilman and hometown record label Lookout! that I caught up as quickly as I could.  Though, if I had known about Gilman while still underage, I wouldn’t have been able to do much about it since my parents were very strict and rarely let me go out.

So though I was late in the game, that fateful day in my college dorm room changed my life.  That exploration of pop punk and later on working at Rasputin Music in Berkeley led me deep into indie music, lo-fi recordings, classic rock and pop melodies in general.  I think I gravitated towards lo-fi recordings and unconventional voices because I myself knew I could never be the polished person that I felt was expected from me (from my parents and from the conservative music program at Berkeley). 

Were you in any bands prior to Dreamdate?

Before Dreamdate, I was in a band called Hawaiian Getaway which is where I met Anna Hillburg.  Anna “auditioned” to be the bass player for HG and killed it because she’s got such a natural knack for music so of course she joined the band.  And quickly became my best friend, songwriting partner and collaborator in Dreamdate and beyond.  I was in one other band prior to Dreamdate, but it was short-lived and never recorded and never named.

So what brought about your explorations into the echoey and forlorn country & western sounds? (which I love by the way)

I’m not sure exactly but it felt like my songs just started coming out a little country sounding around 2004. Of course, I know I didn’t invent those sounds.  I do however remember gravitating heavily to Appalachian bluegrass that I heard in an American music class at Berkeley.  I also remember being very attracted to the country twang in certain indie bands like Beachwood Sparks, Wilco and Yo La Tengo.  So I think it just seeped in to my work subconsciously.

How did you meet up with Eoin Galvin? His apt lap steel guitar playing (e.g., “You Took Me By the Hand”) is one of the things that sets the Rumours apart in the crowded and somewhat temporal indie-pop scene.  Another distinguishing factor is the group’s competence to shape a simultaneously amicable, yearning, strummy, plaintive and entrancing sound that does not fall into over-precious twee traps or self-absorbed folk.

Eoin Galvin was in a band called Readyville in the early 2000s, the same time Hawaiian Getaway was around. We played some shows together at that time and I always loved his nuanced and sensitive accompaniment.  He’s the kind of musician that knows how to play the song not the instrument.  I asked him to play with me when I first “went solo” and wasn’t even sure what I wanted him to do. At first, I thought maybe he could play keyboard.  But at our first meeting, he brought like 5 instruments to try and as soon as he started playing the lap steel, everything felt like magic and I knew that would become a huge component of our songs.

In the country music tradition, would you like to briefly introduce the band at this time?

I would love to!  On my left is the brilliant and beautiful Anna Hillburg on bass and vocals. Over here on my right we have Eoin Galvin (almost always on my right because he is left handed and otherwise our guitar necks would get tangled) making those sweet sounds on the lap steel and guitar. And of course we have Sonia Hayden holding us all together on the drums.

L-R: Eoin Galvin, Yea-Ming Chen, Anna Hillburg, Sonia Hayden
Photo by Adam Thorman
I’m curious how your Fender Stratocaster frequently sounds more like a Fender Telecaster or perhaps there are Telecasters used on the studio recordings?

Wow, that is a very interesting observation and to be honest I'm not sure.  I’m constantly being lured by studio guitars that I end up using when I show up to a session but I don’t actually remember what they are because I don’t have that kind of gear brain and I also have a terrible memory.   I do own a fake (Squire) Telecaster (my first guitar that cost $100 at guitar center in 1997) so it is possible that I have used that on some recordings.  But it’s also very possible that I have used my Fender Strat and played it cleanly to retain a bright-ish sound because that’s what I like. So I guess my answer is, I don’t know and you’d have to ask my music producers if they remember.

By chance, are you of Taiwanese descent?  I’m basing this on your hyphenated first name.


How do you think your experience of growing up and living in California has obviously shaped your sound?   

I’m not sure how living in California has shaped my sound. Is it really obvious?  I never realized that. That’s kind of cool!  The truth is I have never lived anywhere outside of the Bay Area (besides Georgia and Taiwan briefly as an infant) so I don’t think I have an outside perspective on this.

Your songs contain bittersweet lyrics frequently expressing the intangibles of the human condition and experience.  You seem to take the coal and pressure of life and turn it into pop diamonds.  Would you like to elaborate on your “stubborn” lyrical writing process?

Thank you! I guess I do try to make lemonade out of lemons.  I always felt like lyrics should be personal, partially because I grew up naively thinking all art in general was personal, but also because I found writing about my pains and sorrows was very cathartic and therapeutic.  Maybe it’s cliche but it’s my way of getting together my difficult feelings and putting them in a neat package so I can lay them to rest but also revisit and be grateful for that difficult time by seeing it in this different light. I suppose I’m stubborn writing songs because they are so personal - they are like extensions of a diary - and therefore I prefer to work on them alone until I have a pretty set structure before I present them for collaboration.

You demonstrate an innate knack for super-catchy melodies. Do you compose and develop your melodies with guitar and/or on piano or do they just come across like bolts of lighting?

Ooh, I wish it was like bolts of lightning!  It’s been guitar for most of the time, but I’ve started exploring writing melodies on the piano in the last year.

Since you pretty much stick to playing in the greater Bay Area, are there any cover songs in your live repertoire either solo and/or with the Rumours besides "Anyway" by Dreamdate?

Are you thinking of "Go Fish" by cub?  Dreamdate also used to do a rad cover of "Monster Mash" that Anna sang lead whenever Halloween came around.  But lately, I actually don't have any cover songs in my live repertoire.  Don't know why.  Covers are fun.  I'll consider bringing them back.

 Design by Chris Appelgren
How do you decide which shows are solo and which are for the full group? I imagine work schedules must play a huge role in aligning the stars.

Really it’s just scheduling. And sometimes it's just what is requested

What factors do you attribute to the fact that the Rumours have been going strong and steady and blazing their own distinct path for almost 10-years now? A stable musical line-up in the transient Bay Area (where everything is subject to change without notice) is not something that listeners should not take for granted.

Honestly,  I think that it’s just that we like hanging out with each other.  We’ve never gotten huge, so there’s not much to stress out about and therefore not much to fight about. We just get together when we have shows or when I have an idea I want to explore. Hanging out with my band is super fun.  We spend a good 30%-50% of our practices gossiping and talking about TV, movies and books.

Are you the driving force or guiding force in the band as far as direction? 

Haha. Well if I have to pick one, I think I’m more of a guide. I’m not very aggressive and I’m not optimistic enough to be a driving force.

Any sneak preview words you can provide on the new album?  Will “Eskimo Eyes,” the closing song on the “I Will Make You Mine” soundtrack be included on it?

It's in the works!  Half of it is recorded.  The other half might have to be quarantined recorded.  I think "Eskimo Eyes" will make the cut but you never know.

What’s on the horizon for the band? Any particular directions do you foresee your music going?

I don’t know honestly. I’ve been doing this so long that I try not to foresee anything or else I get bummed.  The only thing I know is that I want to keep writing and recording because that's the part that makes me happy. Which also means I want to keep being inspired. So I foresee myself looking for inspiration wherever I can find it.

      "Let Me Stand Close to the Water"-video filmed by Claude Cardenas

What are some concepts that you have learned from being in a band that you are able to apply to work and/or life?

Teamwork, patience and empathy and (oh my god this is so cheesy but) finding a groove with other people.

Any book/author recommendations from your vast library?

One of my favorite books of all time is A Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. I think it’s super underrated.  It chronicles the recovery of a neurologist from a stroke on the left side of her brain.  Essentially, it’s a self-help book, but from the perspective of a scientist who’s learned to distinguish between her left brain from her right brain because of this stroke. I won’t go into it but it’s an amazing read for anybody neurotic, analytical but also creative and emotional which I guess is how I would describe myself.

Final thoughts/closing comments?

Thank you for listening to the music!
          Photo by Antares Meketa (@ameketa) 

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