In Conversation With… YONAKA

From day one Yonaka embraced originality, displaying a fierceness that is breathtaking to behold and a formidable talent that any fresh-faced band would seize if they had the chance. Brighton has been the band’s home base from the start, and it seems that it was always meant to be like that, offering the four-piece freedom to create in peace until they were ready to flip the platform and springboard into universal consciousness.

A band whose lyrics speak about important internal subjects like self-empowerment, mental health and self-worth, topical maybe, but it’s not down to good timing. Yonaka represent this generation’s youth in a way which most don’t even scratch the surface. A kind of comrade mentality is ingrained in the lifeblood of this band, offering fans and listeners a frequency that speaks directly to their own complicated feelings, inner demons and societal pressures. A band that represents where music is going, rather than where it’s been.

We meet Yonaka’s Theresa Jarvis (vocalist & songwriter) and Alex Crosby (bass and keys) in Manchester, at the tail end of their second headline tour of the UK, this year. In a backstage room in the University’s student union the conversation takes detailed and insightful turns, we discuss how they’ve negotiated their own path through the industry, mental health advocacy, the band’s breakthrough year, and the ins and outs of building a band from the ground up.

Good to see you.

Theresa Jarvis: “Yeah, nice to see you too.”

First off, I have to congratulate you on the album and the tour, it feels like 2019 has really taken to everything to the next level. How has the past year felt from your perspective?

TJ: “Yeah, really good… it’s weird cos we’re obviously always in it, we’re always like, ‘Is this going right? Is this going well? Is this happening?’ And then this tour, kind of, puts it all into perspective and we’re just like, ‘Ah okay. This is sick.’ Because we’ve got these audiences every night who are giving every bit of their energy to us, and it’s just incredible. Um. So yeah, it’s been really good. We’ve learnt a lot about ourselves, and where we wanna go, and where we wanna be. And obviously releasing the album was a big deal for us, our first album. So yeah, it’s been a really good year. Looking forward to 2020.”

The band was formed during your time at BIMM. What was it that drew you together as friends in the first place?

TJ: “So, we’d been friends for like… four years before the band, didn’t we?” [Directed towards Alex who re-enters the room at this point.]

Alex Crosby: “Yeah.”

TJ: “Hadn’t we, sorry. Okay, so, we all moved to Brighton and then we all became friends, we didn’t actually form the band until we left. But I said this earlier, it’s quite good because we’ve known each other… we’d been friends for a while so it wasn’t like this brand new thing that we didn’t know who each other were, or what they we were capable of.”

AC: “I think we knew that we’d be able to get on with each other, it wasn’t like just coming in cold.”

TJ: “Yeah.”

Charlotte, BSS: “It’s interesting as well because I saw that you were at YES earlier. Then I was going to ask you why that was, but I know what you were there for: [A BIMM student event.]”

TJ: “Yeah. Yeah yeah yeah. It was super cute. We did that today and we did one in Birmingham the other day.”

AC: “They were both really fun.”

TJ: “It’s so nice. Singing that early in the morning though is not very fun. I was like, ‘Woah.’”

AC: “It’s a strange environment to perform in, isn’t it?” [To Theresa]

TJ: “Yeah.”

AC: “Well, I wasn’t actually performing.”

TJ: “It’s quite nice though, cos obviously, like, I guess that was us once, and it’s quite nice to be on the other side of it. Like, experience both sides of it. So it’s really sweet. And everyone was lovely so it’s great.”

Do you think it is useful to learn about the industry and music theory before starting out?

TJ: “Um, if I’m being honest. I don’t think you learn anything about it before starting out. Maybe business, if you do business, yeah. But like, I think you only learn it when you get in it and then you experience it.”

AC: “Just learn through experience. I guess it could be beneficial to have a bit of knowledge prior.”

TJ: “Definitely.”

AC: “But for us, we just kind of learned as we went along.”

TJ: “Yeah. I feel like… because everyone’s experience is different, isn’t it? To where they go, what area they go in. You know, we take control of all of our—everything now. But we didn’t used to. It’s only been a recent thing, we’ve learnt so much from it. Like, ‘S***, this happens like this and this happens like this.’ So yeah. I think you have to do it to know it properly.”

AC: “I think, sometimes you can learn a lot more valuable lessons through failure and doing things wrong.”

TJ: “Completely.

“Yeah so sometimes we’d get angry at ourselves, we’d be like, ‘Oh f***, why did we do that?’ and it’s like, because we didn’t know any different. Because we’d never done it before.”

AC: “Yeah, you learn those lessons and you don’t make those mistakes again.”

Fashion and style seem very important to Yonaka, especially as a form of expression. I feel from day one, as a band, you were already thinking about how you presented yourself to the world. In terms of the clothes you were wearing, the coherence of your sound and the live show. At least in my opinion it all came across that way, which is probably the reason why Yonaka struck me so hard the first time I saw you play. That was at Gullivers.

TJ: “Oh really! Aw, I actually loved that venue. It was really good.

“Was that with Demob Happy?”

Charlotte, BSS: “No. It was your own show.”

AC: “Cos we did it twice.”

TJ: “Oh. Of course, yeah.”

Charlotte, BSS: “I was just invited. I didn’t know anything about you. I was just going to go to a show at The Castle…”

TJ: “Oh really? So you just came across as well. No way, that’s awesome. Oh, that’s so good. It’s so nice to now be here, I think there’s 10 tickets left to the show tonight, so it’s awesome.

“With the style thing though… well, I think at first we [didn’t] really have a clue. Our manager says that I used to look like a librarian. When I look back at it now, I’m like, ‘Yeah, it kinda makes sense.’ But I think fashion… I adore fashion. It’s amazing. And I think yeah, you know, you’ve gotta make a statement to people, I said this earlier, on this tour I’m wearing a boxing outfit because I wanna show strength, and that you can do anything you put your mind to. We have these quotes from Tyson Fury and Muhammad Ali before we come on stage, about not letting someone put you down and never being the underdog, and stuff like this. We think it’s really important. The way we dress and stuff… we all got this sense of style now that shows who we are and what we want to stand for—

AC: “Do you reckon when you put on the whole boxing thing… because you were saying earlier about like, you become a different person on stage, become this different character.”

TJ: “Yeah, I like crack into this strength and power.”

AC: “So I guess that, physically changing into an outfit can have an effect?”

TJ: “Yeah, completely.

“Like, if you feel really crap but you’re like, ‘F*** it, I’m just gonna make myself look better and make myself feel good.” That makes you feel good, doesn’t it?”

Charlotte, BSS: “Definitely. Yeah.”

When considering the key milestones up to this point, there are a few moments that seem significant to Yonaka’s growing connection with a wider audience: the release of ‘Heavy’—I feel changed quite a lot—, the amount of support tours you were given at one point seem to build momentum, and the last Neighbourhood festival show you played at the Ritz, that was something completely beyond. You could visibly see it.

TJ: “Yeah that was so much fun. That was so cool. Because we hadn’t played a show in a while either, so that was the first one for a bit, and we were just like, ‘Oh s***, okay. Okay. It’s good. It’s good.’ And it was really fun.

“So yeah. I think the album’s definitely a big one—which is so weird because, to me, right now, the album feels like it wasn’t even this year, it feels like it was a long time ago. But it’s not. It’s been like, what, five months? It’s crazy how time goes in your head when you’re in something every day trying to grind for it, like from the outside I guess.”

Within the band at what point did you start to feel a shift in perception, people recognising you and connecting with your music?

AC: “I guess it’s been quite gradual, hasn’t it?

TJ: “It’s been very gradual.”

AC: “There wasn’t this one thing that snapped.”

TJ: “No.”

AC: “So it’s kind of hard to pinpoint really.”

TJ: “I’d say that the album has definitely done something because, you know, we had space to really, really knuckle down in some areas, like key areas in mental health and stuff like that. Which, you know, I know is very… so many people suffer with that. I know people are talking about it way more now but, it’s like, I think that was a point where we connected with a lot of people cos it was like, ‘F***, I feel like that as well.’ So I think that was definitely something.

“And then this tour is like [insert audible motion sound here]. Well, okay. This is f***ing awesome.”

AC: “It’s been hands down the most fun tour we’ve ever been on.”

TJ: “Can’t believe there’s two days left.”

AC: “It’s nearly over.”

TJ: “Yeah.”

AC: “There’ll be plenty more after this.”

TJ: “Hopef—[Theresa corrects herself:] Definitely.”

Another point to mention is how your songwriting has developed between like ‘Heavy’, ‘Ignorance’, ‘Run’ to ‘Fired Up’ and the EPs as well… and the album obviously. Your voice going from narrative based ambiguity. I think it was quite ambiguous a lot of the stuff at the time—

TJ: “Yeah.”

AC: “Bubblegum.”

TJ: “Oh yeah. God knows what that was about.”

To now, where it’s more direct, personal, stream of consciousness, accessible for audiences… What changed?

TJ: “I think it was just learning and growing. Like, because we’ve been a band for four years now and it was, I don’t know, I felt like I had to experience—I needed to learn how I would put into words what I was feeling like, I needed to experience more things, we needed to learn what sounds we liked. The songwriting is like a growth thing… yeah, it’s literally just been like a progression. We would’ve never sounded like this at the beginning but we needed to learn and start there, and work out where we wanted to go and what we wanted to say, what we wanted to look like.

“I’m so much happier with the songwriting now. I feel like it’s in a place where it feels really good but it’s got a lot of room to get better. You know, we’re writing a lot for the second album and its lots of stuff to release, and it’s quite different from what we’ve already released. But in a great way, because I’d hate it if we released the same thing. But yeah, just growth I think. Just learning, isn’t it? Learning what’s good, what’s not.”

Did signing to a major label change the way you do things in the band?

TJ: “Do you know what? Um. Well, it’s really weird. So when we first signed, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. And there was so many voices in the label.”

AC: “Definitely. It was definitely a ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ situation.”

TJ: “Everyone wants to take over. But then we were kinda just like, ‘You guys need to leave us to our own devices so we can get something.’”

AC: “And they were really good with doing that eventually.”

TJ: “They’re great, they’re really good.”

AC: “With the album and the EP before that, and the one before that really. They kinda left us to do our thing.”

TJ: “So at first they put us in with some producers that they’d thought of, and we were like, ‘Okay, cool. Let’s try this.’ And it went really well. Then we’d do something else like that. Then, Al started getting better at producing and stuff, and we were like, ‘Let’s just try some of the stuff on our own.’ We were like, ‘Oh, we need one more song for this EP’—and we just ended up doing it ourselves, and then we were like, ‘Oh this sounds really good,’ and then the next EP, we did the whole thing. Then with the album, we were like, ‘We’re more than capable of doing this ourselves.’ And they were just like, ‘We’re fine with that. Go for it.’ And it came out really well.”

I find your live show to be one of the most invigorating experiences out there.

TJ: “Aw. Yay!”

How do you achieve the consistency and visceral power you bring on stage every show?

TJ: “It’s the energy from the people. It’s insane, like if that crowd are going… if I don’t feel like a 100% before I go on, or my voice don’t feel so good, or whatever, and I go out and everyone’s like, *hurrah*. This power comes through to me. It’s crazy. And then it flies by in like a minute.”

AC: “Yeah, we’ve been playing for like an hour but it just flies by, doesn’t it?”

TJ: “Yeah that power and energy comes from 1) what we’re singing about/ what we’re playing, and then 2) from the f***ing crowd, from the fans. They are the energy, it’s like magic. That sounds really weird but it’s… I don’t know, I feel energy is just pushing into me from all these people that are giving it whilst they’re singing and dancing.”

I was reading a post written by Theresa on Instagram and found it really inspiring and genuine: When I look at myself in the mirror, I see strength, I see purpose, I see fire. It feels good, it’s not always like that but right now it is. I hope you see the same when you look in the mirror.” Have you always been very open about your struggles in life? Or does this level of self-awareness develop more so because of the band and the platform/perspective it offers you?

TJ: “Yeah I think so. For me, it’s a thing that I’ve grown into, for sure. When I was younger I definitely didn’t have that kind of confidence, I think I was quite shy… I don’t know, when you have a band as well, you’re like a gang. So you can say all of this stuff and these people will back you up, and it’s quite nice. But also I feel like I’ve grown so much within myself because, I don’t know, I feel a lot stronger. When I said that ‘I don’t always feel this’ and I didn’t feel like that probably a few weeks before but it’s because I felt like I had purpose and I was doing something that was helping other people and I was standing up and being my true self, and that gives you something, and I was like, ‘F***, I feel really good right now.’

“But that’s up and down, of course, especially when you have mental health and stuff like that. But I think it’s important to show that. Like, when you’re strong, show that you’re strong. And when you’re not feeling so great, show that you’re not feeling so great. Just get it all out.”

Charlotte, BSS: “I’ve been embracing the same thing this year, yeah.”

While I suspect each of your songs arrive out of different places and dispositions, would you say there is an element that ties each together definitively as a Yonaka song?

TJ: “I don’t know, it’s weird because whenever we start writing a song we’re not like, ‘Right, this needs the time of that. This needs to sound like that.’ When we were doing the album we kinda narrowed it down because we didn’t wanna be like, ‘This song’s about driving fast cars. This song’s about partying. This song’s about wanting to kill yourself.’” [Theresa laughs but the weight of those words is imparted.]

AC: “Lyrically there is a theme that ties it all together, but musically I think it’s quite daring.”

TJ: “It just happens, doesn’t it? I think you’ll always be able to tell it’s us just because…”

Charlotte, BSS: “It’s coming from you.”

TJ: “Yeah. Yeah because we never make a plan for it to sound like something else.

“I think we wrote one song, um… called like ‘Uninvited’ or something like that, and it just sounded—this is probably one of the only times that it sounded crazy, weird, to the album and this other song called ‘Girl.’ And we’re like, ‘No. Can’t put that on the album. It just sounds like it’s not supposed to be there.’ Do you remember? [To Alex] We listened to it, and we were like, ‘That’s not supposed to be on the album.’ So it’s times when we would’ve wrote the song then looked back at it again and been like, ‘Nah. That’s not gonna make it.’ But not in the moment that we write it.”

As a band that creates heavier music with crossover appeal, where do you see rock going in the future?

TJ: “I think it’s just growing. Evolving. I think it’s not what it used to be because no one wants the same thing over and over again. I think it’s got a bright future. It just might not have the name ‘rock,’ if that makes sense? But it still has elements of rock n roll—

AC: “And that energy.”

TJ: “Yeah. It still has that fierceness and that dirty, that rock n roll-esque style but it’s not what you’re used to listening to. But I think no one wants that, we’ve had that. That’s had its time. Let’s put some new s*** in that has all that kind of influence.”

Charlotte, BSS: “Totally.”

As an artist who speaks openly about mental health through their music, what has been the response or feedback you’ve received from others, whether be it peers, the public or the industry?

TJ: “It’s actually been amazing. We’ll get quite a lot of messages, being like—which, this is crazy—so people will message and be like… someone told me, ‘This song saved my life.’ And I was like, ‘What the f***! That’s insane.’ People will say, ‘This album literally helped me get through all these struggles’ and I’m like, ‘That’s incredible.’ Like, we’re so thankful that that’s happened. Because when I was writing those lyrics, I felt in that place so if that can help other people, that’s f***ing awesome.”

AC: “Yeah, that’s amazing.”

Charlotte, BSS: “It’s something much bigger than yourself.”

TJ: “Yeah.”

AC: “It was cathartic for you and then to see that there’s people that have the same experiences…”

TJ: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s like, ‘Wow.’ It’s like some crazy s***.”

Is it important to you that your lyrics mean something?

TJ: “Yeah. Definitely. I do also not want to put that pressure on myself though, to be like, I have to say something and have it mean something. I’m not going to do that to myself. I mean, I’m only going to do it when it’s real and it has to come out. But, yeah, I love lyrics with meaning. Yeah. Definitely.”

Bringing it back to the present moment, you’re in Manchester tonight. A place that you’ve played many times before, what have you noticed about the city over the various visits you’ve made?

TJ: “It’s our favourite place other than home. It’s our favourite Northern city.”

AC: “Yeah, love Manchester.”

TJ: “It’s just so sick.”

AC: “We’ve had some of our best shows here, I think.”

TJ: “Yeah. Everyone loves it. Everyone’s really passionate about music. You know, you’ve got amazing vintage shops, and I dunno, it’s just good energy here and it looks really nice. The bars are cool. I don’t know, it’s just good. We always have a really good time here.”

Charlotte, BSS: “Yeah, well we always have good times at your shows. So yeah.

“Thank you. That’s everything.”

TJ: “Awesome. Are you coming to the show later?”

Charlotte, BSS: “I am, yeah.”

TJ: “Sweet.”

Yonaka’s debut album, Don’t Wait ‘Til Tomorrow is out now. Their current UK headline tour wraps in London on Wednesday 27th November at Electric Brixton – remaining tickets can be found here.

Photo Credit: Rory Barnes

Find Yonaka on Facebook and Twitter.

Charlotte Holroyd
Editor, Creator and Founder of Bitter Sweet Symphonies. A lover of music and cinema, who's constantly attending gigs and in search of a great experience.

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