In celebration of his new album, the musician speaks on his early years as a graffiti artist, developing a singular sound and his creative influences.
Sonic artistry has always been at the heart of Yeek’s innate creativity. Now based in Los Angeles and a product of New Jersey and South Florida roots, the melancholic Filipino-American pop singer-songwriter’s original outlet of expression was through his fledgling years as a young graffiti artist. Treating the hobby as a higher art, it's the artistic lessons he learned during those heady days that subsequently influenced his musicality.
Developing a singular, lo-fi sound that zig-zags between hip-hop and alt-rock, Yeek’s evolution as an artist has manifested itself in a series of highly regarded albums, among them 2017’s Sebastian (taken from his real name) and fan-favorite singles like “Cleaner Air,” an energetic personal mediation built around earworm riffs.
At the end of summer, Yeek dropped Future Reference, which characteristically volleys between moody emotions and moments of joy. Along the way, he linked up with an outside producer for the first time in the form of Little Dragon’s Erik Bodin. Celebrating the album’s release, Yeek reflects on those early spray-painting years, his singular sound and his artistic influences.
Meet the artist below below and look out for album release shows in Los Angeles and New York on November 22 and 28, respectively.
There’s evidence of joy on your latest LP, Future Reference. Was that something you had in mind when you started working on it, or did you discover it along the way?
That’s a good question because in its early stages, as I was showing the project to my closest friends, I was getting a lot of answers of it feeling moody. It being moody is a big part of it, but the joyful aspect you’re probably hearing—and I see why you would hear that—came a little more towards the end when I tried to contrast the moodiness. In a lot of my music I try to do that: balance that moodiness with something more upbeat.
Let’s talk about “Searching For Yourself.” It was the first track of yours that you didn’t produce yourself. What was it like collaborating in that way?
For my own project it was definitely a first of its kind. The producer, Erik Bodin, is in a band I’m a longtime fan of: Little Dragon. When I heard that he took interest in my music, I was like, “Damn, let’s go!” Even just being in a room with him, a lot of sessions are learning experiences. Whether you make something or don’t, you always leave with a little more knowledge. I loved his insight and learned a lot from him. Everything happened really naturally.
“Searching For Yourself” has a lo-fi beat but features the twangy riff of an electric guitar. It seems like two juxtaposing sounds rolled into one, which is a motif for you. How do those vibes come together?
When the producer sent me the stems, it was all there already. He called it “The Cowboy Beat.” I thought, “Okay, that’s cool.” I was imagining being in Joshua Tree on an adventure. That was something that was in my head as I approached the writing of it, like an old Western film. A lot of times my lyrics are written around a singular line that I’ll freestyle. With this song, it’s about love which is something very easy to write about. I also felt like I was digging deeper into themes of existentialism.
You worked on the LP for months. When did you know it was done?
You can work on something for years and years, but when you’re under a deadline and have to pay the bills and pay your team’s bills, a timeline comes into play. I’d love to take my time, but if I took all the time I ever wanted, it’d take me a lot longer. This LP took me a little over a year to make. The moment I feel like I'm done mainly feels like I put the puzzle pieces together well enough. It’s like a painting. With painters they never know it’s done until they step back and look at it as a whole.
You were born in Jersey City, grew up in South Florida and now you’re living that Los Angeles life. Those are all very singular places. How do you think the mixture of all those locations influenced you?
I feel like I’m always trying to figure that out myself. I embody all three locations in different ways. California and the East Coast both influenced a lot of my style and tastes. Florida influenced my lifestyle, like being a little more laidback.
I would think that’s why your sound is so unique. Having all of these influences around you makes you stand apart and every artist is searching for that. Would you agree?
For sure, it’s definitely played a big role in making the music sound the way it does.
I was imagining being in Joshua Tree on an adventure. That was something that was in my head as I approached the writing of it, like an old Western film.
What about your Filipino heritage? Does it inspire your music or artistry?
Subconsciously it does. Being a son of two immigrant parents from the Philippines, that affects the way I live, approach and view life. I’ve made points to implement my heritage in my music and do it in a subtle way, like a head nod.
Your moniker comes from your days as a graffiti artist. What do you remember about that part of your life?
The graffiti started in high school. I used to draw a lot in class which made me pay attention more. Being from Jersey, I’d see a lot of street art. Then I was living in Florida, where there’s none of it, and I couldn’t help but daydream about where I was from. I started tagging around town and got into a little trouble because of it.
I knew a lot of dudes who were doing it in a destructive way; so I was trying to channel it as more of a subculture like KAWS, who is also from New Jersey. I envisioned my art reaching galleries and exhibits.
When I moved to LA, one of the things that eased my mom’s head was that my backup plan was going to college for design—so I kind of lied to her, but I did try.
Does your visual artistry influence your sonic art?
It works with it. To this day, I design my own flyers, merch and cover art. I’m always designing just as much as I’m working on music. It coexists.
Who are the musical artists that initially inspired you?
In seventh grade, my dad bought a physical copy of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below by Outkast. I never heard an album that was put together so well, especially with the storytelling. Pharrell is another inspiration. He and André 3000 were two big influences on what I do today. But also a lot of classic rock and whatever my eldest brother listened to.
I’m wondering how you developed your own personal style?
It all kind of stems back to your question about the East and West Coasts. Growing up across the river from New York, I’d see a lot of good outfits when I was young. Also my eldest brother would watch a lot of ’90s-era hip-hop movies, which also influenced me. That’s where my interest in style came from.
You’ve also talked about utilizing color to emphasize specific themes in your work. What influence does color have on your personal style?
It has a lot of influence because I don’t have a lot of color in my personal style, but I love to include one color that pops. I love wearing all black and neutral colors, and pairing that with super colorful shoes or hats.
Being a son of two immigrant parents from the Philippines, that affects the way I live, approach and view life.
How do you go about selecting outfits for music videos and performances?
Looking back, do you think there was a specific moment that launched your career?
There's a lot of random moments. A lot of them started with social media. When I first started, SoundCloud was a big thing, so a good amount of people heard my music through there. Then it was Tumblr. Then with Spotify, in 2014, I got my first good amount of streams. Being discovered through those platforms I thought, “Oh, I actually have listeners all over the place.” That’s when I first thought music could be a real thing for me.