Charlyne Yi’s stamp is everywhere. She voices characters on Next Gen, We Bare Bears, and Steven Universe, recently acted in Second Act and HBO’s Room 104, and is a published author of a short story collection titled Oh the Moon. In 2009, she was awarded the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for her documentary, Paper Heart, and has regularly performed magic-infused comedy at venues such as the Steve Allen Theater and UCB. This May, she will appear in Always Be My Maybe, directed by Fresh Off the Boat executive producer, Nahnatchka Khan.
This is only a snapshot of Yi’s diverse and growing body of work. While best known for her on-screen and stage talents, she has quite the impressive catalogue of original music. She has been in more bands than you can count on one hand: Old Lumps, The Rangdangs, Chandelier Teeth, the Glass Beef, Helen Hunt and the Twisters, Sacred Destinies…
...and she never sticks to one genre. Her styles travel from what could exist as a child’s lullaby, to another that is filled with screams of punk-laced rage. But what carries out thematically in all of her music is its ability to disarm and reward the listener with emotional payoffs. The charm of her vocals is that it sometimes quivers, and is always genuine.
Yi’s most recent vinyl release Open Your Heart is a soft hearted and spiritual journey that is easily love-at-first-listen. The opening track delicately repeats, “Don’t give up on me / I’m not dead yet.” There is an abundance of vulnerable lyrics: “I know you dream of meeting when we were young / But darling, don’t you know… we are / We are here, we are young,” from “Young.” If you need an album to cry or dance to, or just accompany you in your most tender hour -- Open Your Heart is your pal.
Yi was generous enough to chat with me about the process of writing the album, as well as unearth her truth and heavier experiences about family and abuse in the industry. When conversing with her, you quickly discover she is a resilient warrior, who is just as sincere and thoughtful as her work is.
I know you’re on a social media break right now, so I appreciate you fitting me into your schedule. How is that going? Do you have a particular ritual for digital de-gunking?
If I end up gravitating towards the social media, my punishment is pushups. So as I de-gunk, I'll either become really buff from bad behavior, or I'll earn my brain back from the internet shrinking it into a tiny raisin.
You’ve said your ethnicity is made up of Filipino, Spanish, Korean, Mexican, Irish, German, French, Native American. How has being multi ethnic or Asian American influenced you creatively?
In my youth, I strayed from talking about my background in my work. It just didn't come naturally, and to be honest, I didn't know much about it. My parents were hardly home, and wanted us to be "American." I wasn't the sort of person who made jokes about that sort of stuff. I mostly made absurd jokes. But most recently, I have been reading about the war. Recently I found an old newspaper from WWII about Manila, and I've been thinking about how my grandfather saw his father buried alive during the war, and how he raised my mom, and how my mom is mentally unstable. And the echoes of war within our lifetime and how it effects our generation. So some of my writings have been focusing on the exploration of my bloodlines' past, war, and how to process all the trauma passed down and find peace.
Wow, that’s intense. Thank you for sharing. My grandfather was a survivor of the Bataan Death March but I wasn’t able to ask him about it before he passed. Now I’m curious about how those traumas have carried into my family. Do you ever see yourself visiting the Philippines?
I'd like to visit the Philippines sometime, but it's confusing how to navigate feelings when seeing nice areas and then impoverished areas. Even in the US when going into neighborhoods where homelessness and starving children are on the street, I either shutdown or feel too much from the lack of understanding how to help. It's quite overwhelming. I wish there were more tools to help communities such as that, and ways to get involved. Guess I'll try to use my pen and art to address these things for now.
I would like to visit the Philippines and learn more about how WWII effected their mental health, and maybe record interviews on a cassette tape, and write a piece about how that trauma echoed in the generations after.
Regarding the Open Your Heart LP (which is so lovely by the way -- when I listen to it, I feel like I travel through an emotional path from a midnight desert into a spring). I noticed a few tracks are new versions of old songs. What was the journey like in recording this album?
Thank you, I'm always surprised if anyone's heard of my music. It took about two years.
First, My friend Steve Gregoropoulos arranged and produced a small string section for an album, but it was only 20 minutes long, and that wasn't quite enough to fill a 12 inch vinyl. So then the following year, my friend (and former trumpet teacher) Jordan Katz produced another set of songs to complete the record.
Side B was about getting a restraining order on my parents. Which was recorded first.
Side A was some old love songs, and some songs about my family as well.
All in all, the whole album is one break up album with my parents and past romances.
What inspired the narratives behind “Young” and “Crash and Fall”?
The song "Young" was inspired by the idea that people always say they're "too old" to do this or that, when age shouldn't define the possibilities and capabilities of love, learning, and living. I really think at a certain point, skin just becomes less elastic, but age is defined by experience and emotional intelligence.
"Crash and Fall" I wrote 5 years ago on tour with Casey Trela's band (Casey plays guitar and sings on my record too). We were in Seattle and it was snowing, and I was trying to sleep in freezing the van but couldn't. So I ended up writing an acapella song and recorded it on my flip-phone. I think I almost died from the cold, and I was imagining a woman singing inside a cathedral with stain-glass windows shaped like a face. And as she sang, the windows would burst and shatter as light projected the shards like a kaleidoscope.
The moon is a recurring theme in your work. Why do you feel its a constant muse?
One of my first memories was being in a moving car, one years old, and realizing the moon was following me. Every since, it's kind of been it for me. I'm not sure who's following who.
What’s the story behind “Down in the Valley”? It reminds me of the Mr. Sunset album when you collaborated with the children from Sri Lanka.
"Down in the Valley" is sort of about the revival of innocence and child in me, and finding peace and safety after the darkness of realizing how dangerous my parents were.
The experience in Sri Lanka... I was just thinking about that the other day. I was living in a boarding house for a group of young women who were being sponsored to get an education, an organization called Orphan Sponsorship International. We worked on music between two groups of girls: the Tamil and Sinhalese who had just ended a civil war 3 years prior to my arrival. We wrote songs about "crazy beautiful butterflies" and the magic of catching each sunset fall because of its uniqueness.The songs were written in both their languages, as well as English so that they would sing each others' language, and mine, as a bridge to all our worlds. And for a moment when we would all laugh, it felt like some tension would vanish. But obviously, the songs didn't solve anything, but it was nice to bond with the children and work on music as a team. The proceeds to that album helped fund their boarding home and education.
I suppose those two situations are related because I always felt like an orphan with my mentally unstable parents, and have chosen my own family of friends.
That’s a beautiful example of how music transcends all. You seem passionate about using your art to support non-profits. Are there any organizations in particular that you’d like to give a shout out to?
I'm not aware of enough small organizations, but the Downtown Women's Center, RAICES, the Trevor Project are a few that I try to fundraise for... are there any that come to mind on your end that I should check out?
There’s an organization called “APOPO HeroRATS” that help detect landmines and tuberculosis through African giant pouch rats. It’s incredible that their nose can identify these things in less than an hour, when it takes a human several days. I was worried about their treatment, but it appears they are humane. I also love “Southland Sheltie Rescue” in La Habra; I adopted my dog from there. As a veteran, I also appreciate “Veterans in Media & Entertainment.” They give so many opportunities to vets seeking work in the industry. There’s also “OMG Everywhere” where directors like Hiro Murai host free filmmaker workshops for kids, and “America For Animals” which encourages advocacy and community involvement. I am trying to find a trustworthy organization that supports the Philippines, but haven’t found one yet…
A few years ago I saw your marionette musical The Dodo & The Donkey at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater. Can you talk about how you got into puppetry and your relationship with it?
I was always a big fan of the Bob Baker Marionette theater, and they were going under because of debt. I wanted to create new content for them, but unfortunately there was only two runs of the show.
Bob's marionettes are all quite enchanting, so I felt very honored to write a show with some of his creatures he invented. I've always had a warm spot for wooden toys, automatons, functional anythings, animation, etc. I hope the appreciation for those simple magics never get lost.
They truly are wonderful. I try to influence my cousin’s kids by bringing them there… I really want them to become puppeteers, hah. Speaking of, and I bring this up because I’m a horror geek -- how was it working on Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich?
Oh my gosh, you should totally reach out the Bob Baker and learn. I know some people who have done that and love it. Do it!
I have mixed feelings about The Littlest Reich. I am afraid of scary movies, and should've read the entire thing before I said yes. It wasn’t till filming did I see a bunch of not PC things take place. Since then, I read everything and discuss about the implications of what the material means.
On the positive note, I did make friends with Jenny Pellicer who acted in the film, and is now who is one of my very good friends, and one of the most loveliest human beings. And we've been making art together lately, which is so fun.
So one, I feel like an idiot for not reading the material, but two, it'd be so to have not met Jenny.
Who or what influences you musically (lyrics, arrangements, subject matter, etc.)?
I used to listen to a lot of movie scores as a child, Danny Eflman's "Batman," "Edward Scissorhands," etc. I love Roy Orbison. I wish I could wear sunglasses like him to hide my eyes but I'm night blind, so I literally can't wear sunglasses unless I want to crash into a wall.
Someone should invent sunglasses for you that are only visible from the wearer’s perspective… like those one-way mirrors in interrogations. I’d buy them. If you could score any movie, which would it be?
I scored this movie called Call Me Lucky a few years ago. It’d be cool to get little orchestra for the next time and score a Fellini-esque surrealist movie.
I know some musicians refuse to use Spotify because they feel it rips them off. What is behind your decision to not release music there?
I am super incompetent with technology. I got an iPhone for the first time about two years ago.
That’s fair. Technology is insane. Have you discovered any interesting apps?
I tried to play a game called Old Man's Regret, but couldn't get passed level 2. Then, my friend tried it and in his first go got to level 4. I'm horrible at games. I deleted it because it was too difficult.
Thus far, what has been the most rewarding part of your career?
I've had a very very fortunate career. I've managed to survive on very little acting lines, economically as well, and been able to fund my weird little projects that make no money (ie: my trip to Sri Lanka and making that album out there), or my animations that I do for fun. I really like investing in my own little strange interests. Everything has been rewarding to be honest-- between funding my own art and being able to afford food to eat and rent. I remember I used to be starving all the time, and homeless. I still have my first piece of furniture: A bucket from Home Depot that I got for 1.79 (trash-bins cost at least 12 bucks at the store). My bucket played the role of my trash-bin, table, stool, chair, hamper, drum, etc. It's my finest sturdiest piece of furniture.
How about the most challenging?
The most difficult part of my career? Hm. This might be too honest, but oh well. There are a lot of people in this business who are abusive with their power, and feel like they can get away with being unkind at the expense of others. In the past, when I've spoken out about inappropriate conduct of any means of the spectrum, I had been gaslighted and told I was overreacting. I am very happy that things are changing and conversations about accountability is happening.
Not too honest at all. I actually appreciate you bringing this up and speaking up the way you did. It’s infuriating that this has been the norm for so long. What’s worse is that some don’t say anything out of fear of ruining their reputation or career. Do you have advice for those who are struggling on whether or not to call someone out publicly on their crappy behavior?
I think we are all learning about denial. It seems our whole society has been in denial about abusive behavior for so long (in all spectrums, big and small.) The amount of denial that our country has to be in has to be severe for Donald Trump to have become our president. Sometimes the troubling things are too hard to acknowledge because it's too scary. There are documents on the internet of Trump excusing his behavior by saying, "You can't rape your own wife," and his lawyer standing with that excuse. There are people who won’t even acknowledge his support towards the alt-right communities, and he’s denied knowing what the KKK is when his father had ties with it.
Seems like there is a lot of horror in this world but we are afraid to look at it because we don’t know how to address it. No one taught us to. Slowly we are learning how to speak about these unspeakable things. And even the law is incredibly flawed in its bias towards dangerous powerful people.
In regards to speaking out against someone being abusive in the career field…
I think when confronting such abusive powers it's good to have a supportive group and therapist on the chance it is not well received or heard. If gaslighting by the abusive party occurs, or a mob of people start saying cruel things, if you lose your job and a bad reputation occurs — it can be an insanely destabilizing thing. But it’s important to trust that your feelings do matter, that your boundaries should be respected, and the problem is not you speaking your truth but with society not having a good structure to help support people with dealing with situations like this. Thank god the Time’s Up Movement / Me Too movement is happening. I'm hoping more and more people become supportive of helping people feel safe.
I had a horrible thing occur with a man named Giuseppe Castellano who worked at Penguin for kid's lit department. We had talked about making a children's book but then he tried to abuse his power to have sex with me. I reported him to HR and sent them proof of emails where admitted to trying to have sex with me, and HR didn't take me seriously till I got some traction on the internet. The thing is, I am very privileged that anyone would've heard me out on the internet and given me more of a voice. The voices of others and belief in me made my voice heard, and HR was forced to listen. In most cases, I would've been the one punished for speaking out, and known as "the woman who invented traumatic lies for attention" and blacklisted. The only way he could've been forced to resign is if he had a track record, as my experience was not "enough harm" to have gotten reprimanded for. So for those working with Giuseppe, maybe did not feel safe enough to speak out, or maybe they already did and were unheard. And who knows if he gaslit them since he didn't think twice doing it to me.
HR then hired an investigator, to which they found more evidence, and Giuseppe was forced to resign. He gaslit me again in his resignation letter using the manipulation of saying that he had small children, a wife, and claimed that I was abusing my "celebrity" power when he couldn't even pronounce my name. The amount of lies he told and gaslighting was all really scary. In an email which I had sent to HR, he had said I didn't get "the joke" about him insinuating that we should have sex four or more times.
I was so horrified about the idea that Giuseppe could do this to more people, and was willing to be blacklisted from the book industry forever in hopes that he was accountable and could not harm another. I don't think we should have to live in fear of losing our jobs and reputations for expressing needs of basic respect and safety. Fuck that. People need to step up their game on how they treat others and accountability needs to happen so change can happen.
Even the outcome of him being forced to resign was very lucky, it could've ended in injustice like with what happened with Kavanaugh VS Ford, which is so incredibly upsetting. It'd be hard to not acknowledge how rare justice happens, but it doesn't mean we should give up or be discouraged. If anything, it means we should fight harder. Even with Cosby, it shouldn't have taken this many people to speak out, or this many years for him to finally be sent to prison. As a society, we have so much growing to do.
All I know is, hopefully truth will shatter this denial as we gain more tools of how to process things, and having a healthy supportive group and therapist around would be a good idea when dealing with something so intense.
I appreciate you being so open about this and I’m sorry you had to go through that. Your advice is really solid. I hope someone who reads your story will feel less alone. This just popped in my mind, but since you mentioned this was happening in the midst of brainstorming for a children’s book, I could see you make something that addresses these kinds of themes in an abstract way. It reminds me of “The Invisible Child” by Tove Jansson (of the Moomins series) where a literal invisible girl wasn’t letting herself be seen because she was abused by her caretaker. It’s a really beautiful short story if you are curious about it.
What are your top 5 favorite songs of all time? Currently in no specific order:
Unfucktheworld - Angel Olson
I Want to Hold Your Hand - Beatles
String Quartet No. 3 "VI Mishima - Philip Glass
Am I All Alone (Or is Only Me) - Roger Miller
Django - Dorothy Ashby
Are there any new or underrated musicians we should know about?
Darla Hawn, Casey Trela, Angelo De Augustine, Daniel Hart, Frank Maston.
If you could collaborate with any musician, who would it be?
An orchestra, and a choir.
Any last thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?
I read some good stuff lately that art helps you harmonize with the world and from losing your mind. I liked that. Also, I know I talked about some heavy stuff, but I have been realizing more and more that just seeing the good is repression, and just seeing the bad is depression, but to see both is reality and makes the world so humble and beautiful. It creates stakes, meaning.
Charlyne Yi’s Open Your Heart is available for purchase on vinyl with digital download exclusively on sixmagicnotes.com
— Xanthe Pajarillo, DJ