Death, Intimacy, and ‘All the Things’: An Interview with Emily Yacina

    Long Beach-based artist Emily Yacina started writing and recording songs in 2010 at the age of 14. She grew up in the same Philadelphia suburb as Alex Giannascoli, aka Alex G – with whom she has frequently collaborated – but has since been carving out her own style of bracingly vulnerable songwriting, marked by an earnest yet often surreal emotionality more akin to Frankie Cosmos or Lomelda. After putting out a series of lo-fi-leaning releases on Bandcamp, she came through with her debut studio album, Remember the Silver, in 2019. It was co-produced alongside Eric Littman, who passed away two years later. A few years earlier, Yacina had lost another close friend, Mark Ronan, to whom she dedicated the 2015 record Soft Stuff.

    This Friday, Yacina will be releasing All the Things: A Decade of Songs, a career-spanning compilation that begins with recordings she made in her teens and concludes with three brand new songs produced with Jay Som’s Melina Duterte. “Too fucked up to be real/ But I know more than anything you’d want me to laugh/ I want to dedicate my life to your mind,” she sings on the wrenching ‘DB Cooper’, in which she honours Littman’s memory. As a whole, the collection serves as a carefully curated document of her life in music as well her personal growth. The way it recontextualizes and draws a line through seemingly disparate songs is striking, revealing her unique perspective as a songwriter whose work has always been attuned to the soft edges of experience, but who, with time, has only become more aware of all the things – new, old, and all-consuming – that compel her to keep exploring.

    We caught up with Emily Yacina ahead of the release of All the Things to talk about the process of compiling her songs, how they relate to one another, grief, and more.

    What’s your headspace like with the release coming up? How do you feel about the new songs that are out?

    I feel really excited. The new tracks that are on there happened so organically, and they were meant to be the final songs to this ten-year group of songs. I wrote them in a very organic way, and recording them felt kind of the same. Sometimes you can be doubtful about things right before they come out, because there’s so much time between it being finished and when it’s revealed to everyone. Something I lean on in times where I’m feeling a little bit like insecure about things that I’m about to put out, I’m like, “I know that when I was making this, it felt very true and right and natural.”

    My friend, Matthew [James-Wilson], who I work with here in California, he’s a good friend of mine, and we met in college actually, probably in like 2014. We lived on the same hall, and we’ve been really tight ever since then. He was kind of the one who proposed the idea; I hadn’ really thought about a compilation or thought that could be possible. We were talking about it, and he knows me so well and knows my relationship with music so well. I was talking to him about just how my songwriting, even though it’s evolved for sure, I still feel like there’s like a lot of things that make it what it is, and the frustration that comes with that. I expressed to him feeling like I was like on the verge of something different, like I’m in a very experimental phase of my life and I don’t know how long it will last or what it will lead me to. But his idea was, why not make something to celebrate this time, all of this music that’s been made over the past 10 years? And to do it in a way that feels true to me, because I get to select the ones that I most resonate with and arrange the songs thematically and chronologically. It felt like a really nice way to honour this time, even though I feel like the world around me is changing so much and I’m changing so much.

    The collection starts with ‘As We Go’, which you put out when you were just 14 or 15. Given how some of the more recent songs deal with loss, I was struck by the line “I’ve got this silly fear/ That everything is leaving me.” It’s so close to the “everyone” that comes up a few lines earlier, but “silly fear” makes it a bit lighter, the “everything” less personal, though still genuine. What do you remember about writing it, and how does the song speak to you now?

    Yeah, that’s the oldest one that’s on there. I was a sophomore in high school, and I had a really life-changing year that year. I think a lot of people can relate to school being – you’re starting to understand who you are a little bit more and what the world has to offer to you. And for me, socially, that was a really impactful year. I wrote that song about this group of kids who were in my high school who were a few years older than I was, and they kind of took me under their wing. It was the first time that I was feeling so satiated by, like, people, and what other people were into, and it was just so exciting. I was like, Wow, there really is this whole world. But the impermanence thing, like “everything is leaving me,” I think I was thinking, like, ’cause they were seniors… [laughs]

    Oh, so it’s not like a mortality thing.

    Yeah, totally. But I almost feel like it kind of like holds hands with it in some sort of way. It’s knowing that this is so fleeting, and I feel that way about just life in general now. And a lot of that has to do I think with my relationship with grief. But for this song, I was just keenly aware that the way that this is happening now is only going to happen for this year, and then who knows? Who knows where they’ll be?

    ‘As We Go’ and ‘White Bull’ are separated by a decade, but they both, in some way, communicate the feeling of someone new coming into your life. But while in the first case it stirs up this fear of impermanence, on ‘White Bull’ you’re aware of the self-confidence that makes you embrace it, and it becomes almost dreamlike. Besides time, what else did it take to recognize that bravery in yourself?

    Everything that you said about ‘As We Go’ versus ‘White Bull’ definitely is true and resonates a lot with me. And yeah, I think just time and the quality of relationships that I’ve been able to obtain. I guess this is more like about romantic relationships, but not being ashamed of my needs, having them be met, and the confidence that comes with that. Like, I know what I need, and feeling way more assured in that, instead of like, Is this too much? Is this reasoable? There’s a confidence in knowing myself a little bit more through time. That’s definitely one part of it.

    Another part I definitely feel like is the experiences that I have had with death, and how those experiences have been the most formative in how I situate myself in life and how I feel about life. It’s just a knowingness that it is so impermanent. But also kind of leaning in to that, too, if that makes sense. Maybe acceptance, like there’s less of a fight – everything’s going too fast and I can’t like process it all and I don’t have control over anything, to more of a place of accepting, like: We’re only here for this amount of time, things change all the time. And the only thing that kind of centres me in that knowledge is just getting to enjoy everything when it happens and appreciating it. Expressing love to people is a big thing.

    I love the phrase “muffle the broken sound of everything” as a way of expressing that. It reminds me of ‘Soft Stuff’, where you describe this tender intimacy that fills up a space between two people. All these years later, what does “soft stuff” mean to you – not necessarily the song itself, but the thing it evokes?

    Yeah, it’s interesting. I haven’t thought about that phrase in a really long time, but it definitely has to do with a lot of things that you’re talking about. The intimacy that’s shared between friends or lovers, that is so fleeting and soft, like the opposite of concrete. I haven’t thought about that, but it’s so true that it relates to the things that we’re talking about.

    There’s a kind of vague vagueness to “soft stuff,” and I was surprised how often you use this sort of language throughout the collection – “all the things,” “all the pieces,” “all the stories” – all those everythings. But when you put them together this way, it made me think about how each everything, as honest and total as it can seem in the moment, is fleeting, more like a snapshot. And it’s always changing and expanding. I’m curious if arranging this collection has led you to that realization as well.

    Totally. And something that I thought of when you were talking about everything and how there’s a vagueness to that: I was just having a conversation with my friend the other day, and she told me – I was kind of processing something with her and explaining all the different feelings that were coming up in this personal situation – and she was like, “Isn’t it crazy how much we can hold at once?” You know, there could be like a primary feeling, but there’s also so many other things that you could be feeling at the same time that are in your body. I feel like that speaks to the everything, all the things – it’s not that there’s a limited space for everything, that there’s a capacity; all of these things are coexisting at the same time. And I think that’s also what I was trying to get at, too, with the title. I think I’ve gotten more comfortable with the idea that so many feelings can coexist at once, even if they seem like they’re contradicting one another.

    There are some of the earlier songs here that try to nail down a specific feeling, and then you get through the collection, and you get to ‘Dominos’, and that’s where all of these feelings that you wouldn’t necessarily imagine co-existing, do. There’s the all-consuming desire that you express in a lot of the first songs, and there’s the grief that permeates the newer ones. And they both feel like they’re part of the same thing. And there’s an acceptance that was absent on ‘As We Go’, where you’re maybe trying to suppress it a little bit – that fear – but on ‘Dominos’, you’re capable of embracing it.

    Yeah. 100%. [laughs]

    Do you want to talk a little bit about that song? 

    I’m really excited about that one. The first lines are, “That must have been you/ Moving balloons across the living room floor.” Last year, I was living with a really good friend of mine, and I have such a soft part of my heart for her. It was in the earlier days of the pandemic and we were feeling a bit more isolated. I had just moved to LA, and we were just spending so much time together in this home that we shared. It was just such a weird year, and she bore witness to a lot of crazy stuff in my life, and I did the same for her. It was a very specific time.

    It was her birthday party – I guess it was like two days after her birthday party, but we still had balloons in our apartment. And one of the balloons, we noticed, even if the air was off or the windows were closed, kept moving around. And then I kind of jokingly said to her, and to the balloon: “Mark” – Mark is my friend who passed away when I was in my early 20s – I was like, “Mark, if that’s you, I want you to move to my bedroom door.” And I said it completely just off the cuff, and the balloon started moving on a very straight path from my living room, and then went right up and knocked against the door to my bedroom. And that’s what that part of the song is about.

    I love that person so much, Mark. And it’s been I guess like seven years since he died. It’s so interesting, the ways that he’s still very much present in my world. And even though the edges are a little bit softer, with time, I still very much feel him, like, in me. I still kind of hear his reactions to jokes, or, like, new things in my life that he doesn’t know. I feel him all the time.

    If you’re comfortable, could you share a recent moment where you felt his presence in some way?

    Yeah, I’m trying to think. It’s interesting because, last year, I lost another really good friend of mine. And I don’t want to say that that experience has overshadowed my first experience with death. In a way, it kind of has made it all connect a little bit more to me. Really, it’s the only thing that I can compare this recent loss to, is my loss of Mark. It’s the only thing that I can relate it to. So, it’s been interesting, because as I’m processing this more recent loss, I’m thinking about Mark a lot – a lot more than I was the year before. And it’s in a way that’s helpful, but also has its own sadness. I feel like I now have the knowledge that time does go on, and that’s something that I’m really struggling with this most recent one: I know, because of this experience with Mark, that the world will in five years will look completely different than when this person was in it. And so, there’s that knowledge, but also, in a way, I feel like Mark’s kind of helping me with this most recent situation, if that makes any sense. That whole experience is informing my approach now, to grief.

    Something that I think about a lot is how that experience was so formative and felt so personal. And then with this most recent experience – and I’m sure anyone who’s had close death can kind of relate to this in a way – but with my friend who passed last year, there was this feeling like, Oh my god, this is a part of life. Like, this isn’t just a one-time, random, crazy thing. And in some ways it is, but the bigger picture – everyone is going to die. [laughs] And that’s the most unavoidable – that’s the biggest truth to me.

    I forget how I was gonna connect that to Mark, but I guess just that knowingness. I really try to internalize it in a way that makes me appreciative of the time that I do have with people. Going back to like the expressing love thing – that’s a big part of my life.

    There’s one part of it, right, which is about expressing that love in the present moment as truly and honestly and fully as you can. And then there’s another aspect of it, which I feel is partly realized through this collection, that has to do with the act of remembering and reflecting. I wanted to go back to the title of Remember the Silver, which I read is from a book about alien abduction, and it refers to this mantra about remembering how real everything felt. I wonder, when you look back on all this stuff – all the songs and the memories that they contain – what helps you remember how real it actually was?

    I think songwriting in general has always been a vehicle for that for me. Just trying to encapsulate exactly how real a feeling was at the time. It’s also the overarching theme, in a way, of this collection. A lot of the songs are old, but they’re so real in what I was experiencing at the time. And I think writing songs has always been a way that I can honour that. I’m really thankful to have had this practice for so long, because it’s a way to honour the weight of the feelings. Even if they change or if I grow, I did feel those ways when I was making those songs.

    I feel like it’s also a rare thing, because a lot of the time, musicians will feel more distant towards their songs as time goes by. Are you at all afraid that these songs might become less intensely connected with the feeling that they’re capturing over time, in a sense, that they will be just songs?

    Yeah. I also just think that that’s such a cool and unique part of music in general, it’s really such a time capsule. And even if you as the writer are no longer relating to what you’ve written in the past, there will be people who are feeling those things at that moment. If people message me about older songs, and they’re like, “I know exactly what you mean and I can relate so much this feeling,” I think that’s such a cool part of music and something that’s very specific to music. And even if I feel distanced from it because it is recorded in this place and time, there will be other people who are on their own journey who might come across it and relate exactly to 14-year-old Emily in that moment.

    You mentioned earlier that you’ve been experimenting with new sounds and changing up your process a bit, and we talked about how one way of channeling how real a feeling was is through music. Is that something that you’ve been considering as you’ve been taking this new direction? How to make a feeling sound more real and specific?

    Yeah, definitely. In music, yes, but also different mediums as well. And that’s been kind of fun, too, because I feel like I’ve been doing music for so long, and I’ve been trying to challenge myself to take on other creative projects. That’s always tricky – just for an example, with drawing, I’ve been trying to draw a little bit more and I’ve been noticing, like, Whoa, I have to be comfortable with being bad at something to work through it and feel good about the things that I’m making. But there are a bunch of different things that I’ve been thinking of that I feel similarly about.

    I’m working with two of my really good friends right now, one of which is my friend Sierra, who was my roommate last year. We’re writing a movie together, me, her and my other friend, Corinne. And that whole process has been such a trip, and it’s so different, because it’s so collaborative. We each are bringing all of our ideas to the table, whereas music is very much this insular thing, very in my head. This collaborative process that I’m experiencing is challenging in this whole new way, but it’s also going back to capturing a feeling – that’s also what we’re trying to do when we’re writing together. I think that’s something that hasn’t gone away with whatever art I’m trying to make. I think feelings are, like… [laughs] the best part of life. It’s what life is.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Emily Yacina’s All the Things: A Decade of Songs is out July 29 via Danger Collective.

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