Yvette Young: “I want people to sing along to my riffs… then get annoyed because they can’t get them out of their heads”

Growing up with piano and violin, the competitive nature of the classical world made Yvette Young fall out of love with music. On picking up the guitar, however, the Covet bandleader began to understand that not only could it be an outlet for positivity, pain, and pressure – but also a tool to transport listeners to other worlds…

Yvette Young: “I want people to sing along to my riffs… then get annoyed because they can’t get them out of their heads”
Sam Law
Adel Rabinovich

Few musicians understand the balance between aptitude and artistry better than Yvette Young. Sitting down with K! to discuss catharsis – the excellent third album from her band Covet – the San Jose native is already one of today’s most renowned rock virtuosos. But as the record’s title suggests, it’s about using that vertiginous skill to purge the pressure within.

Starting piano at just four years old, then violin at seven, Yvette’s talent was prodigious. But under the expectant gaze of Beijing-born parents, who themselves met through and excelled at music, the beauty of the form was eclipsed by the strictness and stress that accompanied it.

“To be blunt, I developed an eating disorder,” Yvette identifies the nadir of her relationship with performance as the turning point that made her the player we know today. “It left me hospitalised and took me out of school. I hated music at the time because I associated it with stress. It was in this competitive environment, like, ‘I’m supposed to ‘beat’ this other person by playing some Beethoven piece perfectly!’ That just didn’t make sense to me.”

Rather than turning her back, Yvette redirected down a different path. Bridging the worlds of classical, popular and alternative, guitar had been a longstanding fascination. Suddenly, she had the time and freedom to explore on her own terms. More modern, mobile and independent than what she’d played before, it became an instrument of liberation.

“With guitar, there were no rules!” she smiles. “I was teaching myself, and I did so in an unconventional way. I came at it from a place of exploration and doing what excites me rather than following what’s ‘correct’. I felt that excitement again, learning a new skill, writing material of my own. I began to understand that music is supposed to be an outlet. It redirected my self-worth away from my ‘achievements’ to what I could dream up with my mind and make with my hands. Without being over-dramatic, it helped me feel like I had control, which allowed me to lift myself out of that depression and disordered mindset.”

If discovering the power of guitar was a first step that Yvette had to take by herself, navigating into the rock world was about getting comfortable in a whole new community.

“I’m a late bloomer,” she laughs about getting into a scene that many would consider the polar opposite of the buttoned-down classical circles she’d previously known. Not “allowed” to delve too deep into heavy sounds, her “kinda sheltered” upbringing was first really pierced by hearing The Darkness’ 2003 classic I Believe In A Thing Called Love while on a flight, then tracking down the none-more-colourful music video: “Watching a man gyrate on a circular space-bed in a skintight catsuit? That was my gateway into the rock world.”

Although there was no instant aspiration to carve herself a space in that landscape, starting to sneak out at night to attend punk shows and basement gigs, Yvette was drawn to “countercultures and subgenres”: irregular, boundary-breaking movements that chimed with her own reasons for finding the alternative scene. As the desire grew to get back into performing, however, she discovered that there were still a few barriers to overcome.

Bog standard “imposter syndrome” about being that self-taught, late-coming interloper inspired impossibly technical online showcases to earn people’s attention. “Initially, I felt the need to shred all over the place,” she shrugs “I wanted to prove exactly what I could do.”

The lingering misogyny of the rock and metal scenes (“not from peers, from fans”) took its toll, too, particularly following her receipt of sponsorship from revered six-string makers Strandberg. Indeed, she framed her face out of so many of those early playthrough clips to draw attention away from her gender. “People tend to consume with their eyes first,” she sighs, “always talking about women’s bodies and trying to downplay what we do or to attribute it to something else.” The reason much of early Covet material is instrumental was down to apprehension that her voice might give away that “there’s a girl in the band!”

In many ways, Yvette’s career since has been about overcoming those cloying insecurities and distractions. As well as three albums at the helm of Covet – 2018’s effloresce and 2020’s technicolor paving the way for catharsis – she dropped four solo EPs between 2014 and 2019. Listening chronologically, there is a retreat from guarded technicality to more open expressiveness. It’s a process that catharsis’ refreshed Covet line-up (seeing the arrival of bassist Brandon Dove and drummer Jessica Burdeaux) has only accelerated.

“When I didn’t have a band, I wanted to sound really full by myself,” Yvette reasons. “When you’re trying to grab the attention of people scrolling through a feed, you inherently try to show off. As I started playing live, and with a band, I realised that’s not something I really enjoy. It’s hard to be emotionally engaged when I’m hyper-focused on getting every note perfect. I play the best shows when I’m able to emotionally enter the song. Also, I realised I should occupy less space to leave some for other instruments. And I don’t want to send a message to listeners that, ‘You can’t do this!’ I want to say, ‘Everyone can do this! It’s so healing and wonderful and it can unite everyone. And look how fun it is! I can jump around and smile and look cool and not worry about people being conscious of me messing up!’”

True to that, there is a fresh, freewheeling energy running through catharsis’ eight tracks. From grungy opener coronal through the almost country-fried surf rock of firebird (an ode to Yvette’s mother’s old car), the sprawling post-rock of vanquish to playful, sax-infused closer lovespell, they’re bite-sized portals into other worlds. Every song begins with a sound, Yvette explains. It’s about figuring out which world that sound belongs in, then trying to transport the listener there. “A lot of my guitar parts are quite lyrical,” she gestures, ardently. “They start with me singing a tune, then teaching myself that on guitar by ear. It’s an approach that doesn’t let the limitations of the instrument come into it. Plus, it’s a way of pushing myself to play things that I can’t already, which in turn makes me better at guitar.”

It also makes for music that doesn’t sound quite like anyone else. Tellingly, Yvette is reluctant to more specifically categorise what she does than “rock” or “math rock”, but there is a fascinating tangle of ideas at play. Influences as varied as “poppy but proggy” Danish alt. rockers Mew and Illinois emo icons American Football, anime soundtracks and electro trailblazers like San Francisco’s underscores and experimental pop star Jean Dawson are name-dropped during our chat. It’s not a comparison Yvette jumps to herself, but she sees the parallels with Texan trailblazers Polyphia, who’re even more at the forefront of the current wave of highly-skilled players helping take guitar back to the cutting-edge of cool.

“What Polyphia are great at is creating guitar music that doesn’t sound like ‘guitar music’. People don’t think that you can transform the sound of a guitar, but you can put a trap hi-hat behind it and have it sound almost electronic. People need to hear guitar music in a different context. It’s so exciting when you hear it turn up in different genres like EDM.”

There’s no trend-hopping here, though. The goal must always be to create something that’ll last. New sounds are great, but they need to be underwritten with enduring emotion.

“I embrace feelings,” Yvette explains. “I like to be light-hearted. I like to keep it catchy. I want people to sing along to my riffs… then get annoyed because they can’t them out of their heads. Going back to my classical roots, I’m able to reference music that has a mass appeal, but also a timelessness. It’s possible to make guitar music that’s just as timeless.”

There is more to Yvette than music, too. She’s a passionate about fashion, shopping second-hand to help the planet while dressing others and herself. Before going out on tour, she had an apprenticeship as a tattooist. Plus she loves animals, currently keeping eight chickens and a pet duck called Mr. Flaps, as well as harbouring the ambition to one day adopt a goat. Having originally walked away from her studies – she double-majored in Visual & Performing Arts Education/Fine Art at UCLA – it’s perhaps most telling how she’s gravitated back to those roots, using visuals as an alternate method of expression and education to spread the empowerment through expression from which she so greatly benefited herself.

As well as creating album art and merch, she has painted guitars for the likes of good friend WILLOW (“She’s there leading the way for young girls to feel empowered. I fuck with that heavy”). Teaching at guitar hero Steve Vai’s ‘Vai Academy’ has planted the seed of desire to open a guitar camp of her own. “My parents were like, ‘You’re not gonna use your degree!’ and I’m like, ‘Watch me!’” she laughs. “Education is so important to me. I’m passionate about helping people level-up and feel powerful because they’ve learned a new skill. One of my favourite things is to see that increase in someone’s self-esteem.”

As Yvette’s own self-esteem grows, we should expect bigger and better things. She teases a return to poppier, more vocal-driven solo work after this album cycle. Completing the score for a Netflix project with composer David Fleming has pushed her creative horizons. And, further down the line? Only the infinite possibilities of a future that’s unwritten.

“I always say that I haven’t released my best music yet,” she concludes, with real warmth and tangible hunger for more. “I guess that feeling is gonna haunt me forever. People associate Yvette Young with this shreddy, prog world, but I’m excited to show them I can do a lot of different things. I love so many different types of music. And I want to dip my toe into every pool and learn and grow with each new genre explored. I’ve barely scratched the surface of all that I want to do, so I’m just going to keep going. I’m so excited to see what happens next!”

catharsis is out now via Triple Crown

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