I meet yyu in a coffee shop in Pilsen on a rainy Friday afternoon. Standing about six feet tall with braided blonde hair, they’re waiting by the window in an oversized green parka. It takes me a moment to realize this is the artist I’ve been speaking with online for weeks: like the vast majority of their audience, I’ve never seen their face before.
For the last five years, the musician known as yyu has been quietly releasing albums and playing shows around the country. In the few photos of them that exist, they’re either shrouded in a sheet or hidden from view, like a shy fifth-grader dressed up as a ghost on Halloween. It’s a predilection for anonymity that bleeds over into the hazy, blurry architecture of their music. On any given track, acoustic guitars and click tracks stutter up and down, their falsetto vocals sometimes slowed to a baritone or pitched up to a helium whine.
For all of its warmth, it’s the sort of music that’s almost impossible to pinpoint to a place, a time, or even a person. There’s a fundamental sense of mystery to yyu’s soundscapes, something agoraphobic about the empty spaces that their choruses reverberate through.
Since moving to Pilsen in early 2015, yyu has continued to juggle a variety of different projects. When not editing videos or performing in venues like the Jacket Contemporary art gallery, they’re involved with the operation of 90.5 KGHI Terry Radio, an online radio station named after a former neighbor, or developing a footwork side project inspired by the death of their pet rat. Yet it’s the music they record that takes priority.
After a string of self-released recordings, yyu made their full-length debut with 2012’s TIMETIMETIME&TIME, released on cassette tape through Beer on the Rug records. TTT&T brought yyu some media attention, with a glowing review from Tiny Mix Tapes and a nod from Stereogum. Two years later, they returned with Room Music.
Although born in California, yyu was raised in Wichita, Kansas (a place they describe as “desolately Soviet”). Some years later, they moved to Missouri, where they spent most of their adolescence making music and listening to Now That’s What I Call Music compilations. (The photograph on the cover of Room Music, they tell me, was taken in Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.)
As we drink coffee, I ask yyu about their stage name. “I was like eighteen when I made it, and I was fascinated by the letter ‘y’,” they say. “I just love the geometry of it…and ‘y’ is also important because of gender identity, extremely important.”
They also prefer for it to be spelled in lowercase: “When the first ‘y’ is capitalized, it looks like an elementary school handwriting exam.” It’s just as well, since a Turkish university that goes by the same acronym has been competing with them for legitimacy on Facebook, they say.
The minimalism of yyu’s work, however, goes beyond their name. “I like the simplest lyrics,” they say. “I think lyrics get too complicated [in] tracks where you have to spell something out or hold someone’s hand to explain something.”
At one point, they mention their love for Chicago’s footwork and juke scene—particularly the practice of naming a song after its vocal samples. “Why would you call that track something else, right?” they ask. “If I’m channeling a bathtub, I’ll name the song ‘Bathtub.’ ”
It’s thanks to this straightforward honesty that yyu’s music seems to have a sense of humor at first glance—after all, it’s a discography that includes an EP called ghost toast and a song named “toastaoven.” But in spite of the disarming titles that they attach to it, yyu’s oeuvre can be heartbreakingly sentimental. With little more than guitar and vocals, they’re almost overwhelmingly vulnerable on songs like “BREAKFASTSANDWICH” from HAWAIIBREAKFAST. (For what it’s worth, yyu says they’ve never been to Hawaii).
As we talk, I ask yyu whether their music is lo-fi by choice or by necessity. “I would want to say one hundred percent [it’s] deliberate, but there are so many elements I like working with that are unpredictable,” says yyu. “In Room Music, when I was living in this apartment, the fire alarm was going off all the time. I was like, ‘I can’t stop this fire alarm, and I need to record, so a lot of the tracks on Room Music have this beeping sound.’ ”
“Also, any cats or dogs that I live with end up finding themselves on the records, and I love that,” they note.
During the recording of 2011’s MILKMILKMILKMILKMILKMILK, they say they used an old keyboard to record drum sounds; since then, they’ve used everything from silverware to guitar tapping as a substitute for traditional percussion. Nonetheless, yyu is resistant to pigeonholing. “A lot of my early stuff was just tapping of the strings, and now I just want to get more and more stupid,” they say.
A self-proclaimed homebody, yyu is at ease recording music, but the process of releasing it is another matter, especially after RAMP, the UK label that released their last 12” single, broke off communication without sending them any artist copies. Nonetheless, they plan to release two separate collections of music in the near future. One, consisting of what they call “nutty” experimental music, is set to be distributed through Chicago-based Lilerne Tapes later this year. The other, which they describe as an “intimate, acoustic record,” will be self-released. On January 26, they quietly uploaded memos v.1 to their bandcamp page, consisting of nine remarkably soft acoustic songs.
When I ask if they’d ever consider signing with a major label, yyu shrugs. “It’s hard to be anonymous if you’re going to be big. Anonymity means freedom. It means that you don’t have to be judged or considered. You are completely your own.” And so, at one point, I ask yyu why they perform in such secrecy.
“Looking at someone doing something is nice, but when you’re listening to music, you don’t see someone doing what they do. When you’re watching someone perform, seeing just the essence of that person moving, or just amassing energy in one place is different from seeing their face or their hands.”
“The sheet, though, just got too hot,” they joke. “Nowadays, I just hide where I can hide.”
yyu will be performing as Wiggle Room at the Southside Hub of Production on Sunday, February 7 at 7pm. Their music can be found online on yyumoo.bandcamp.com, beerontherug.bandcamp.com, or soundcloud.com/yyu.