In 2016, Jonah Yano uploaded his first single to SoundCloud. The song, called “reservations,” was an echoey track he recorded on his cellphone and passed to a friend to mix. The track somewhat unintentionally set the tone for his debut album, souvenir, which will debut on 19 June. Within the layers of acoustic instruments, distorted bass and drums, and up-and-down vocalizing, Yano addresses cherished memories with his mother and how these experiences have come to impact his life as it is now. In the song’s description, he plainly writes “a song for my mom.” During the opening moments of the track (before the acid jazz kicks in) he calls out, “To my mother, I’m sorry I don’t sing anymore. I’m sorry I never call home.”
Without context, the lyrics sear. Apologetic in nature, they’re centered on Yano’s abandonment of the piano and guitar, instruments he learned and adored as a child but distanced himself from until moving to Toronto in 2016. But since returning to them, and delving deeper into songwriting and singing, he’s maintained the same abilities he displayed in his very first release: to produce songs with emotional depth and sonic range. In collaborating with BADBADNOTGOOD, nono, prolific producer Monsune, and his father, Tatsuya Muraoka, he’s broadened his style while forging a signature sound of his own.
Like artist Justin Vernon, who expanded his moniker Bon Iver to encompass a larger coalition of creatives and sonic components, Yano adopted specific traits from collaborators but honed them to remain cohesive within his larger body of work—an amalgamation of acid jazz, city pop, industrial indie, and more. On whether he thinks collaboration proves vital to his process, he says “absolutely.”
“It’s great to be able to learn to trust other people enough to kind of make decisions, and creative decisions, with and for you,” he says. “I think that’s a really rewarding thing, to be able to give that sort of control to someone in a creative situation because it’s something so, so intimate—such as artwork. You can let someone else take the wheel with your ideas, and I think that’s a really beautiful thing.”
Despite addressing deeply personal moments and recognizing some deep-seated loss and confusion on his forthcoming album, Yano remains confident enough in his peers and their collaborative process to invite others to lend their input on his debut album.
He says the personal themes on souvenir emerged “sort of naturally” in these settings. “These themes and topics are things I’ve been thinking about lately and throughout the process of making this record as well,” he tells us. “I think these kind of ideas and memories and people and thoughts bled into my work pretty naturally. And I started to notice that, and upon noticing it, I started making the conscious decision or effort to include more and be more intentional and mindful of what I was saying.”
This effort is most apparent on “shoes,” a single released last month comprised of parts of a song that his father wrote and recorded in the 1990s, “at a bar where he was playing a show,” Yano says. “In the recording, he left these perfect gaps between his verses which became the spots where I recorded my own verses.” An atypical collaboration with components recorded nearly 30 years apart, “shoes” addresses a literal pair of shoes Tatsuya Muraoka bought for Yano but could not give to him, as Yano’s mother left Japan for Canada in the midst of their separation and took him along. “My verses question his absence from my childhood and my general confusion about my circumstance, which was a fatherless upbringing in an entirely different country.”
Yano says he hasn’t always turned to music to express these emotions, though. “This is kind of a first,” he says. “I’ve been practicing songwriting for a few years now and I think I’ve finally gotten to a place where I’m confident in my ability to translate those feelings into song. I don’t think that’s something I’ve been able to do for a really long time. This record might even be the mark of the beginning of that ability for me. Prior to that, I might have been writing or journaling to help myself articulate these feelings, but this album is a closer look, and a more intentional look, because the EP from before and the songs I was putting on SoundCloud were kind of just songs for the sake of songs, if you know what I mean. Not to discredit myself or anything, but they definitely weren’t as intentional as these songs and they were more just fun to make and they kind of just came out. souvenir is a step forward from that.”
Further into the album, on a track called “monarch,” Yano showcases this growth and the dimensionality of his songwriting process. Initially, he was interested in penning a track about the literal migration of butterflies. But, only after he’d laid the groundwork for the track and then passed it to BADBADNOTGOOD’s Leland Whitty did he realize there was a metaphorical meaning to his lyrics that mirrored prior experiences. “I initially just wrote the lyrics about monarch butterflies without any intention of symbolism—just appreciation,” he says. But the song grew to represent his and his mother’s transition from Japan to Canada.
“‘shoes’ and ‘monarch’ songwriting-wise are completely opposite,” he says. “‘shoes’ is so intentional and every word was really mulled over and had to be perfect for the story being told there. I think ‘monarch’ started with the synth and the bass clarinet line, and I was learning about butterflies, so I started singing about butterflies and I attached a meaning to it afterward, and reinterpreted the lyrics that I had written to contextualize them within the whole record. I didn’t write that song to tell that story, necessarily, but I wrote that song and then thought it was a good way to tell that story.”
Despite Yano recounting traumas or hardships in his songs, he has no desire to be perceived as an artist who uses his talents to work through emotions. His anger and sadness can manifest in other ways, he explains. And his songs can be a way for listeners to escape.
“I’m trying to write about different types of things as of late,” he tells us. “I’m not necessarily trying to do the very labor-intensive task of diving deep into my emotions and traumas and things like that. I’ve been writing songs about more inconsequential things, and telling stories that aren’t mine because doing that can take so much away from me, you know. I have to be able to have fun too. I still have stories to tell, but I think they’ll come out in time and I’m not going to let that be my defining trait as an artist.”
He insists that his growth as a person and as a human being can progress independently from his art. “Peace of mind can do wonders for you personally,” he says. “And, therefore, you as an artist. I think artists, a lot of the time, sort of fetishize and put too much importance on themselves as an artist and prioritize that more than them as a person. That’s something I never want to happen to me. I want to be able to take care of myself first, and remember that it’s not all that—being an artist doesn’t mean I have to be an artist all of the time. I can be myself and enjoy the sun and not think of myself as this person who makes work for other people to hear. I can remove these titles from myself and my experiences can manifest as a meal, or a handshake with a friend. Or a game of croquet.”
Jonah Yano’s debut album, souvenir, arrives 19 June on Innovative Leisure.
Hero image courtesy of Will Jivcoff