Sweet Heartache Landscape

Dark grey background with a pastel blue center surrounded by line drawings of leaves. Text in black sharpie reads Sweet Heartache Landscape.

By Hiya Swanhuyser, with Yea-Ming Chen

As part of Substrate Arts’ Launch Party held at Magic Theatre in June 2023, Substrate Arts co-founder Hiya Swanhuyser spoke onstage with songwriter, composer, and actor Yea-Ming Chen.

Hiya Swanhuyser: Welcome, Yea-Ming! Thank you so much for joining us at the Substrate Arts launch party.

Yea-Ming Chen: Thank you so much for having me.

Hiya: Your album So, Bird on Dandy Boy Records sold out of its first vinyl pressing! And I couldn’t quite find it – how many records exactly is that? 

Yea-Ming: It’s actually not that many records. It isn’t as impressive as it sounds; it’s 100 records.

Hiya: Sounds like a lot to me! The second vinyl pressing of So, Bird is available on Dandy Boy Records. Can you tell us a little bit about what the Bay Area music scene was like when you started out playing music in about 2002?

Yea-Ming: Sure. In 2002 I was obsessed with reading the East Bay Express, the SF Weekly, the Bay Guardian. And that’s where you found out about shows, and live music, and you would always read those listings. I’m sure you guys all have that experience. And I remember just looking at how every venue had their little black vertical rectangle, and they would have all the band listings, and when I first started out I was like, I just want my band to be in one of those black boxes. That was the goal at the time. And that was when you had to do kind of like “cold calls” to venues. I remember calling the Stork Club, and places like the Bottom of the Hill and stuff like that. I think there were a few times where I handed in demo CDs. So that was kind of how it started out. And I still remember that feeling of not getting those calls back, and feeling rejected. 

Hiya: Rough! 

Yea-Ming: It’s the worst. It’s so much easier now. But also, Instagram and stuff makes it easier in some ways; it’s easier to get gigs. I mean, it’s hard to say because I’m at a different point in my life. But also Instagram is so evil. So I don’t know, it’s very complicated!

Hiya Swanhuyser, a white woman with long brown hair, wearing all-black, and Yea-Ming, an Asian woman with shoulder-length dark hair and bangs, wearing a colorful striped shirt and jeans, sit on chairs under under lavender and amber light with microphones in hand. They are both smiling.
Hiya Swanhuyser and Yea-Ming Chen at Magic Theatre on June 27, 2023. Photo credit Nicole Gluckstern.

Hiya: So I wanted to talk to you a little bit about motherhood as an artist – motherhood and art. And I wonder if you could tell us what surprised you about the way that those two things have intersected in your life?

Yea-Ming: Yeah, this is a very, I guess, sensitive topic for me. I when I was pregnant in 2019, I found myself falling into a really deep depression. And I’d experienced depression before, but this was probably the worst I’ve ever felt. And coming out of it, I realized it all had to do with my identity. And my worry. I felt like everyone around me was expecting me to sort of disappear as an artist as a musician. When I got pregnant, I felt like everyone was saying, “Oh, she’s not she’s not playing shows anymore. She’s about to have a kid.” And it really, really weighed on me. And the surprising part about it is that after I had my kid, I found myself suddenly wanting to – it was like I spent my whole life trying to prove something to my mother, my toxic mother, right? And then, when I had my kid I was like, wait, I want to prove something to my kid. I want him to see the mother that is really me, you know? And so that was the most surprising part about motherhood was that I suddenly was empowered by this tiny little baby, like I want him to see who I actually am. Then the pandemic happened, and all of a sudden, I just had the most drive I’ve had in a long time. 

Hiya: Motherhood was a spur, an inspiration?

Yea-Ming: I would say so, yeah, I would say so. And I hate to be like, Oh, this is my message. I feel like like any mother has that worry. I just want to say it, because I wanted to hear this so desperately – that it’s possible after you have your child you’re still you. You’re still a person. That you don’t actually disappear. You’re still there. You might think you’re disappearing, but you’re actually still there.

Hiya: Incredible. You heard it here first! Moms don’t disappear or stop making art. It’s so beautiful. So to go back to that early 2000s moment for a minute, who were some of your favorite early Bay Area bands?

Yea-Ming: Okay, so well, I grew up in the Bay Area. I listened to Live 105. 
Hiya: It’s coming back! Did you hear that? Yes. Yeah. I believe it went live already, with Aaron Axelson and everything! [Audience cheering, Yea-Ming chuffed.]
Yea-Ming: Wow. Cool. That’s great. Yeah, so I wasn’t quite cool enough to listen to KALX or whatever. But you know, Green Day for example, I love Green Day. And I found myself really gravitating towards pop-punk in general. I’m a little bit embarrassed, but maybe I shouldn’t be, to say that I loved Rancid. Who cares? 

Hiya: Did you actually see those bands at Gilman?

Yea-Ming: I didn’t. I had a really strict mom. She didn’t let me do anything, I wasn’t allowed to go out. I guess that’s a tough call. I found out about Lookout! records because of Green Day, and fell in love with a band called the Mr. T Experience.

Hiya: So actually when she told me that before the show, I wanted to dig a little deeper. What is it exactly about the Mr. T Experience that spoke to you?

Yea-Ming: Okay, so I was an adolescent so I thought Dr. Frank was really hot. But also, what I realized is that I grew up playing classical music, piano was my first instrument, and I ended up going to school at Berkeley and studying music. But it was such a snobby experience, you know, it was just so classical based – anything that wasn’t classical was jazz, and it was all about virtuosos. There was no rock and roll, and there were all these rules I learned in school, and what I loved about pop punk was that everything was simple. You know, you didn’t have to be this virtuoso, no rules, no rules, it doesn’t matter. You can play three chords and that’s enough. I really gravitated towards that simplicity. And on top of that, I felt like it just spoke to me on a more visceral level than classical music did.

Yea-Ming Chen, an Asian woman with long dark hair and a grey t-shirt sitting in a recording booth behind glass walls and plaing guitar while singing into a large microphone
Yea-Ming Chen in the recording studio. Photo credit Adam Thorman

Hiya: He’s a writer. Did you know he’s a writer? Dr. Frank is a novelist a couple times over.

Yea-Ming: Oh, yeah. Yeah, he wrote, I think like a teenage novel? I read maybe half of it.

Hiya: So I also wanted to talk to you about your name. Yea-Ming and I share this situation of having an interesting name.

Yea-Ming: Yeah. So okay, so my name confuses people. People don’t know how to say it. That’s our mutual thing, right? 

Hiya: No. I think it’s really interesting that people don’t have that much trouble saying my name, not as much as they do in producing the names of people of color that they find … unusual. Yeah. I’ve seen that again and again. I’m like, Oh, my name has so many letters. But usually it just pops right out. I mean, it rhymes with Budweiser. There’s that.

Yea-Ming: Yeah, so my name is Yea-Ming. And the way I teach people usually, when I’m introducing myself and people are like, “Oh, I’m gonna forget that,” or if they pronounced it wrong, I do this little thing where I go, “It’s Yea-Ming, like just pretend like you’re excited to see me and you’re like, Yay, me!” And every time I do it, it kind of like kills me a little bit inside, right? I kind of die a little bit. But then it’s okay for me because the ultimate goal is that they pronounce my name correctly. And so it’s a sacrifice.It also has that hyphen in it, which causes a lot of trouble. Like, for example, the state of California doesn’t allow hyphens in your name. So anyone here that has a hyphenated name knows the pain of that. And it’s really frustrating, because all of a sudden it’s my name without the hyphen. So I have a choice. I can either put a space in between, meaning Ming is my middle name, which is super annoying, because it’s not. Or no space, and it looks like a verb. Like the what is it, like the progressive tense of a verb? Like it looks like “yeaming” is your name or whatever, you know? And so it’s kind of like all little things, but it kind of just eats at you. It’s like this like little, like little…

Hiya: “Micro…” 

Yea-Ming: Microaggression. That’s the word I was looking for. It’s like a microaggression every time something like that happens. And in general, when people write my name in a text, if you miss the hyphen, or if you put a space in there, if you put it all in one word, it’s like, okay, it’s text. It’s texting, it’s fine. We’re all just trying to do our best with our thumbs. But then, in an email, it’s kind of like well, you know, you’re on your computer, okay? Like, let’s make a little effort. But you might be on your phone, so okay, whatever. It’s one of those things where I try to not be so precious about it. But if I get a birthday card and it doesn’t have the hyphen, I will remember that forever. 

Hiya: So we wanted to ask this audience to do us a little favor, and walk out of here just confidently saying “Yea-Ming.” Don’t listen, Yea-Ming, I don’t want you to die inside. [To audience] Can you say “YAY?”

Audience: YAY! 

Hiya: Great. That’s great. One more time, and you can throw your arms in the air and wave them like Kermit the Frog if you want. [Same again] Okay, thank you. So now you say yay, I’ll say Ming. 

Audience: Yay!

Hiya: Ming! 

Audience: Yay! 

Hiya: Ming! So now tell me the name of this beautiful woman. 

Audience: Yea-Ming! 

Hiya: Okay, great job, everybody. Thank you. One more note, the emphasis is on the second syllable. That’s right. It’s not YAYming, it’s yayMING! Last question. You’ve told me that you’re somewhat of a pessimist. But you’ve also said that your post-pandemic gigs have been much more positive. What’s made them positive?

Yea-Ming: I think that everyone is just much less jaded. Right? People are excited to see live music again. And I’m less jaded. I was at a point before the pandemic where I was tired of playing shows. The grind was just too much, and it was really killing me. So it’s been really nice to play in front of people and have it heard, and also to be engaging with an audience that wants to be there and listen, and I mean, this audience was amazing. 

Hiya: And they’re all people who are gonna buy your record So, Bird on Dandy Boy Records! All right. Well, I guess that’s all we have time for. Thank you so much for being with us. It’s a real honor. 

Yea-Ming: Thank you so much. I really, really love being here.

Yea-Ming, an Asian woman with shoulder-length dark hair and bangs plays an acoustic guitar seated on a chair under lavender and amber light, wearing a colorful striped shirt and jeans.
Yea-Ming Chen plays an acoustic set at Magic Theatre on Jun 27, 2023. Photo credit Nicole Gluckstern.