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Yvette Young: Singer, Songwriter, and Storyteller

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 21 – Fall 2022

Musician and songwriter Yvette Young uses her music not only as a form of self-expression but also tells riveting stories through her art. Born and raised in San Jose, California, Young spent a lot of her childhood playing the piano and violin. It wasn’t until later, during a lengthy battle with anorexia, that she started expressing her artistic vision through the guitar. “I feel like guitar really transformed my relationship with myself,” Young shares. She has been very open about her struggles and overcoming obstacles. “I didn’t really have a lot of friends in school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I started playing guitar. I didn’t really know much about myself and had very low confidence. Then when I started playing the guitar, I felt more like myself.” 

In the math rock band Covet, Young is joined by bassist David Adamiak and drummer Forrest Rice. The trio are currently working on new music which they hope to release by the end of this year or early 2023. She tells us, The overall theme is like some kind of conclusion or some kind of catharsis or something like that. Because I think this record will be the last one I do with the lineup I have, and it’s bittersweet but absolutely necessary. It feels like it’s an end to something. But it doesn’t mean no more music’s going to come out. It’s like this is the end of a chapter, but the next one’s going to be better.”

When discussing musical influences, Young shared with us, “I just wanted to be in a band . . . I didn’t know anything about guitarists, and I’m learning now retroactively. Steve Via’s music is so cool. Van Halen, Rush. A fun fact about me is I grew up super sheltered, and I wasn’t allowed to listen to anything except classical music and hymns growing up. So I skipped the rock world, which is crazy. Like it was horror music, and now I’m revisiting that. When I first found rock and roll, I was like, this is sick. And then I got into Midwest emo and post-rock and grunge. I listened to a lot of Minus the Bear, Grown Ups, Tera Melos, TTNG, American Football, and Toe — that’s the kind of stuff that I got into while I was learning guitar.

But prior to that, I really loved good songwriting. Through all the stuff I was into growing up, the common denominator would be just good songwriting music. I got into bands like Copeland in high school. Deer in the Headlights was a big one for me. I’m obsessed. And I still am obsessed with this band called Mew; they’re so cool because they took like progressive rock elements and packaged them up in this indie pop sound. Nobody really can tell that they’re doing all this impressive modulation stuff, but it’s just so dancey, and it’s so cool. And the way they represent themselves visually aligns so well with their music. I truly cannot think of another band that sounds like them.”

Expression is something that Young believes is an important part of making music. It is not just writing notes to make the music but telling stories through her music. She goes into detail about her songwriting process, how she breaks down music, and what inspires her to keep creating. From the stories she tells through her guitar to her illustrations, Yvette Young creates stories with her music that resonate with her audience with its dreamy sound.

“It made me feel so whole in life. I felt so empty without it before I knew how to play.”

Photo by Jack Lue

Yvette Young on her background and how she discovered the guitar.

I am born and raised in San Jose, California. My parents were both from Beijing, China, so I’m a first generation. I grew up playing classical piano and violin. A lot of my family members were all like concert pianists, and I was definitely kind of going down that route. I played in a bunch of orchestras when I was in high school and middle school. But long story short, things at home were turbulent, and it was just a lot of pressure for me to constantly — I just didn’t really get a chance to be a kid. I didn’t really get to choose anything for myself. And I think the pressure of having to fulfill other people’s expectations and live for other people kind of got to me, and I developed an eating disorder. I was anorexic for probably five to six years of my life. I had to stop everything — I was pulled out of school. 

It was during this time that I was like, I wanna play guitar. I wasn’t allowed to do schoolwork or have any sort of extracurricular pressure. So I started and taught myself when I was recovering in the hospital. My parents got me a Martin acoustic — I still have that acoustic — it’s one of my favorites. 

The whole goal as an inpatient at this eating disorder treatment place was to focus on my recovery. And part of my recovery was art therapy. I have always loved painting. And teaching myself guitar ended up being a great outlet for me because I could convey my feelings in lyrics, which I wrote at the time. I was just noodling around on guitar, trying to learn other songs that I liked, but also trying to figure out how to write my own music because that’s always been my primary interest. 

When I got discharged from that treatment program, I ended up really loving guitar. When I went to college, I double majored in education and fine arts because I wanted to be a teacher. I just love the idea of music and art as an outlet because that’s what it did for me.

I feel like the guitar really transformed my relationship with myself. I always tell people the guitar saved my life. It sounds like hyperbole or some kind of exaggeration, but I really do strongly believe that if I didn’t have the guitar, shifting myself worth from maybe how I looked or how my parents perceived me to like the things I could create with my hands and my mind, I think I wouldn’t be in the healthier place that I am now.

I know that sounds very hipster, but for me, it’s just like I’m not great at being in public — it’s not like my dream or anything. What’s crazy is being in a touring band was never my dream. I always just wanted to be like, I don’t know, a painter, a tattoo artist, a t-shirt designer, or something where I’m helping others. But one really cool thing that’s happened is I feel like I got gifted this wonderful position where I am in the public eye, where I get to inspire people to pick up a guitar and find an outlet in music and use music as a healing experience. That’s something that I feel really grateful for. I thought I would be teaching, but I think life, the universe, or whatever had other plans. 

Yvette Young on guitar as a healing tool.

Well, I get a lot of younger people saying that they didn’t think they could play guitar or were always intimidated by it. I got put in this virtuosic category, which is very, very flattering, but I don’t even consider myself particularly virtuosic. I don’t even know what I’m doing because I taught myself, so I think it’s cool. A lot of people think to play guitar, you have to shred or have this rockstar attitude. First, I think being a rockstar is just owning yourself and your decisions. It’s all about just going for something that’s scary and unconventional, owning your decision-making, and being confident in that path. A lot of people come up to me and say, “I didn’t think I could because I thought that you had to be this shred person, or it’s all guys.” I have a lot of girls coming up to me saying, “I thought it was just an all-guy thing.”

I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to have to write stuff that was really shred. Now I realize that the whole basis behind playing guitars is it’s fun and this wonderful, expressive outlet rather than a way to compete against other people. 

I don’t think I’ve been completely changed. I think there are parts of me that had to die, and there are parts of me that have grown a lot. And if anything, I feel like I have a clearer vision of what I want to do with art. I always knew that I wanted to help people. I always knew that I wanted to keep the gospel of how art and music can transform your life, and I was trying to do it with teaching, but now I think I’m just supposed to make music and try to make people really happy.

I’ve had to learn how to be more social — I was more shy before. I’ve also had to learn how to make difficult decisions. Definitely, I don’t think I’ve ever played it too safe, and taking risks has been scary, but it’s always been beneficial for me. 

Yvette Young on her songwriting process.

My background is in painting and drawing, so when I sit down and write, I have a color or a mood, or a story in mind. It’s like, where’s this location I’m trying to take people to with my music? Sometimes I start with an effect like mm-hmm combination effects. And then I’m like, oh, this, this sounds like it’s in this mystical forest. So I’ll write a melody that helps bring that mood or setting to life.

Other times I want to tell a story of this evil king or whatever, and then I’ll write a melody that goes through a whole character arc. I work in mostly alternate tunings and sing or hum everything first. I’m like, oh, I like this melody. And then, I teach myself the melody on the front board without knowing how to play it — I just use my ear to find it. It’s a slow and laborious process. I feel like I’m not really the best jammer, but I can write for days. 

And at the end of the day, I think it’s because I come from a classical world like I’m used to composing. The difference between jamming and composition is that composition is just jamming with decision-making factored in. Somehow this magic thing happens where at the end, I’m like, how did I write a song?

I do hear stuff in my head. Sometimes I’ll be like, oh, that’d be so cool if there’s melody, so I will just hum it. And then sometimes I’ll be driving or something, and I’ll put it in my voice memo on my phone. Then I’ll go home and build off of that. So more often than not, it comes from inside my head, and then I translate that to the front board, but sometimes I accidentally play something cool. And I’m like, oh wait, what was that? And then I will spend five hours trying to extrapolate on that one thing I did by accident. 

Every song starts with just the guitar. Then when the guitar part is ninety-five to a hundred percent done, my drummer will put drums to it. There’s some stuff going on with my bass player, so I basically wrote all the bass for the last record. I’m also working with a session guy because when I play bass, it sounds like a guitar person playing bass! So I bring in my ideas and ask what he thinks, and then he’ll put it through a bass lens filter.

Yvette Young on connecting with listeners through her music. 

I think it varies from song to song, but overall — like the last record and the record before —I was going through really difficult transformational periods in my life, and I needed comfort. And for me, music has always been comfort. So I’m hoping that the music feels like a big reassuring hug. I like optimism. I would say some, not every song, is particularly optimistic, but I think deep underneath it, there’s like this feeling of an unconditional love I want to convey. Even if it’s a tragic song or something that feels kind of painful, I don’t want people to leave feeling negative.

It’s like this healing thing. I can relate to this song because it’s not all happy, and that’s life. Life isn’t just achievements and victories. Sometimes you get setbacks, and it’s kind of fun to try to make music that’s all-encompassing and music that has this depth to it. It’s a cool challenge, and it feels like I’ll never get one hundred percent good at it. It’s a lifelong goal, but we can try to get close. 

And especially, it feels crazy when I play a song to someone, and they’re like, “That made me feel like blank.” And then I’m like, “That’s exactly what I wanted, or that’s exactly what I was thinking. That’s so cool that you heard that.” That’s the power of music. It can transform how you feel — not only as a listener but while you’re playing it. There have been so many times when I’ve been depressed as hell. And I write something that I want to sound like a comforting hugger to uplift. And after I play it, I’m in a better mood. 

Yvette Young on finding inspiration.

A lot of people are like, “I gotta be sad to write songs,” but I actually find that I prefer making music when I’m like mentally healthy. But it is a great outlet for me when I am feeling down, too. So having music be an outlet and an extension of my inner self; that’s inspiration. I like to write music that is healing, like a reassuring hug. This sounds so silly, but it’s my deep care for others that inspires that. Also, my love for storytelling. 

I used to write when I was walking home from school. A really fun fact is I used to have really debilitating OCD, and I would have to do the same thing over and over. Like going home from school sometimes took two hours because I would walk, and I’d have to do the same things over and over again. And it would be this annoying process where if I did something wrong, I had to start over.

So one thing that has really helped me was listening to music because it distracted my OCD brain. Then I would imagine music videos and stories or movies that would match the songs that I was listening to. And so I feel like now, as someone who doesn’t have that anymore, music is still a very visual thing for me. So when I write, I am very inspired by visual art and just visuals in general. So like movies, paintings, costumes, fashion, I think it’s all this beautiful, cohesive thing that is just waiting to be expressed. 

Yvette Young on her gear.

I overuse the chorus — I think chorus is the coolest effect because you can use it dramatically, like a chorus vibrato. You can max out the depth and the rate and have it sound so seasick and wobbly and Lo-fi sounding, but then you can also sound like the Police. You can even use chorus to fatten up distortion or add a little bit of width. Like you can make just things sound huger when you have chorus. I think it’s just one of the most useful, versatile, and fun effects. 

And then, I love delay. Delay is one of those things where I feel like it just takes something from sounding flat to sounding like it’s like fireworks or blooming. 

Because I come from a visual arts background, for me, melodies are kind of like a black-and-white drawing that I sketch out, and then effects are kind of like parts that I selectively color in on the drawing to help it come to life. And I feel like my writing process with effects is very much like that. I think about where in the song needs a little bit of color, and then I’m like, ok, what effects would work there

My joke “Yvette Young Starter Pack” tone thing would be some kind of tube amp, stereo chorus, maybe a delay — one that’s subtle — I love subtle delay. You can use it in place of reverb, and I feel it adds a little more character to the decay. Then I love really dramatic delay where you can use it rhythmically. I love a good EQ gain pedal that to kind of shape my tone. Any sort of gain pedal where there’s built-in EQ is a big positive to me.

I use a lot of Walrus and a lot of Caroline Guitar Company effects — they’re really fun. Electronic Audio Experiments make my favorite gain. I love fuzz — I just got into the fuzz game mad late, but better late than never. It’s so much fun. Meris makes my favorite reverb, the Mercury 7. Everyone always asks me about my Hologram Microcosm. That one’s a really unique, interesting pedal. It’s so versatile — really beautiful for ethereal soundscapes and whatnot. Another part of my sound is the OC 5 Octave pedal, which I use a lot now. BOSS makes some really cool, cool pedals — easy to use.

I would say that I still haven’t accomplished my dream rig right now. I’m in the process of trying to make half my stuff stereo, and I’m also trying to run some things for when I record. When I record, I run stuff parallel so that the clarity is preserved, but I haven’t been able to do that in my library yet; I’m trying to work with signal splitters and stuff. 

If I had to choose just one pedal, I could cheat and say a multi-effects pedal, like a Helix or something. But my practical answer is a tuner or compressor. And delay is fun to play with just because it can enliven your playing. And a little bit of chorus too. I feel like those two effects are really fun starting points if you want to write with a little character. 

For guitars, I play my signature Talmans from Ibanez, and they’ve got these custom Seymour Duncan pickups in them. For amps, I use an AC30 live and AC10 at home, and I recently acquired a JC-40, which I’m obsessed with. Shout out, Roland. 

Yvette Young on guitar picks.

I only use a pick when I’m doing tremolo picking for a background thing in the studio. I played piano first, so I feel more connected to my guitar if I have a direct connection to it with my fingers. I’m actually so horrible with a pick. It’s hilarious! However, sometimes in certain parts of a song where I need more attack, I’ll actually use my nail — I’ll like make a pick out of my nail and pick with that, if that makes sense.

Yvette Young on her guitar as a spiritual extension. 

I definitely feel like I don’t know where this music comes from. It honestly still feels like a crazy magic trick every time I write. I just taught at a songwriting camp, and I wanted to convey to everyone who wanted to write their own music that you can’t force creativity to happen. But what you can do is you can try every day. The more frequently you exercise that muscle, the more consistently you can use it.

When I’m trying to write, I sit down every day, and I feel like it’s problem-solving to me. I can’t describe how I feel, but it’s like I kind of enter into a trance, and eight hours can easily pass without me eating or drinking — just trying to chase this melody; it feels like chasing something. I don’t know what it’s gonna look like yet, but as I fumble through the darkness, I kind of find it. But I also feel like there is this logical part of my brain that’s being activated, and that’s just like trying to problem solve and trying to figure out how am I gonna get this thing I hear in my head to translate to my hands. So yeah, I guess it is kind of spiritual, and it feels like a magical thing that I can do.

Yvette Young on recording techniques. 

When I’m in the studio, I entrust everything to the engineer. I write everything for the band, so I have a very clear picture of what I want to sound like because I demo it all. I just learned how to record over quarantine. I used to be afraid of it, but it changed my life when I learned how because now I can bring the recording engineer the finished song and say this is what I want to do. And then, we can go from there and translate that in the studio.

Yvette Young on her practice routine. 

I’m awful at practicing — I don’t practice enough — I’m like the worst guitarist. I say that because every time I sit down and write, I don’t know how to play it yet. But I get better at guitar every time because I will spend five hours teaching myself a riff. It’s like I’m practicing while I’m writing, which is kind of crazy. To get performance ready. I play everything half-time because true mastery —sometimes, when you play really fast, you BS your way through, so it’s really important to have clarity in what you play and play it as slow as possible and still be able to finish the song. I try to make sure that I’m not BSing and playing solidly. I’m actually playing every note. 

So I would say to get ready for gigs, practice your songs at half-time, and also practice jumping in at random points because you never know when something’s going to happen. And for people who have to start over every time they mess up, it’s like, oh, that’s not gonna fly in a show setting. So it’s good to practice figuring out a good place to enter the song. Just basically trying to account for anything going on live. 

Yvette Young on performing live versus being in the studio? 

I always say that between writing, playing, and performing, my favorite is writing. Then, second place is recording and playing, and then performing is my least favorite one. 

Recently one of the rock and roll things that I learned was to abandon my classical perfectionist mindset and learn that part of a fun show is when s–t goes wrong, and you recover from it, or you make do with what you were dealt. Sometimes there’s stuff out of your control, and you have to roll with the punches. I had a show recently where my amp blew up halfway through the set, and I had to borrow a random amp I had never used before. I did not know what I was doing on that amp, but I finished the set, and it was funny, and everyone remembered that show just because my amp died.

Another thing I ended up learning to love about performing is seeing how happy it makes people. When I first started playing, I did not want to look at the audience because it made me nervous. But now that I’ve been at it a few years, I actually quite enjoy looking out. And I see a lot of girls and people who are Asian — it’s a big deal for me because growing up and going to shows, Asian people did not go to rock shows. It’s just kind of rare; we’re the stereotype in the classical world. Rock shows are too rowdy. But it’s cool because I see half the crowd is girls, and a good portion of them are Asian. I get really happy and stoked seeing that and seeing how happy everyone is; it’s contagious. And I’m like, you know what, who cares that I’m messed up? People are having fun.

Photo by Jack Lue

I think the whole point in passing down the guitar torch is if I make it look like this difficult ego-filled thing, then it’s not encouraging. People don’t want to play guitar when it looks unapproachable and inaccessible. But if I sit up there and dance and have fun, I think that’s the best way to get people to want to pick up guitar.

Tara Low

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