Yang Chen Is Cultivating Happiness


By: Laura Stanley | Photo by Evie Maynes | Art by: Laura Stanley

Over the wretched winter of 2020/2021, a pandemic period marked by lockdowns and loneliness, Toronto-based percussionist Yang Chen longed for community.

In December 2020, Chen conceived of a collaborative project that would allow them to reconnect with the friends they so dearly missed. By the new year, Chen decided to quit their job as an administrator at a music school to focus solely on writing a grant proposal that would fund the project. Chen sent what they characterize as “an infosheet” to friends who are musicians, composers, and improvisers that expressed how much they missed them and invited them to collaborate on a piece together. Chen also included an artistic prompt: “What are you longing for?”

Chen received the grant money, and the resulting project is their debut longing for _, a genre-blurring album of percussion-centric works, released this month via People Places Records.

“I think that this project could have only happened like this over the pandemic,” Chen says. “During that time I was also renegotiating with myself and asking, ‘How do I sustain relationships with anybody? I love seeing people in person, but now I can only see them on the screen. How can I connect with that?’ Sustaining creativity was right alongside sustaining friendships. At that time, these collaborations were like a lifeblood for me.”

Chen has always been drawn to how music facilitates community. In the early 2000s, Chen’s family immigrated to Toronto from Nanjing, China. Their family moved around a lot because of Chen’s dad’s work, and while living in Texas, Chen joined the school’s marching band. As a self-described “quintessential marching-band nerd,” Chen loved the structure and the camaraderie it provided. Later, when the family moved back to Toronto, the city may have lacked a marching-band culture, but that passion for percussion still helped Chen form relationships. These days, Chen spends their time gigging with orchestras and ensembles, playing taiko with RAW (Raging Asian Womxn) Taiko Drummers, and is the drummer of folky R&B/pop band (and “pioneers of soft mosh”) Tiger Balme.

“Playing music really helped me to not feel lonely,” Chen says. “I could connect with other people in a group—or even if I was playing solo, I could connect with the composer in some way, which I think is a theme that is still central to the music that I make today.”

With longing for _, Chen exemplifies the breadth of their friendships. Over the course of about a year, Chen and eight artists scattered throughout North America and across disciplines exchanged ideas, experimented, and grew as artists. While grant requirements meant that the project had some hard deadlines, Chen ensured its timeline put the artists’ well-being at the forefront.

“There was a lot of trial-and-error to accommodate growth, but I also wanted to tell people that if what we record on the album is a recorded iteration or version of your piece, that’s okay. I really believe in investing in artists,” Chen says. “I really value—especially in this project—people’s personal joy and what they are proud of showcasing. If that means they need an extra two weeks to master their electronic track so it sounds exactly like how they want it to sound, then that’s okay. That was time that was built into the project. When we’re happy, we’re happy, and then we put the piece on the record.”

“I wanted to give people the opportunity to work on a project that was by their design and to fulfil their artistic goals,” Chen adds. “I was seeing a lot of musicians and artists burn out during the pandemic, and I just wanted people to find something in the project that could compel them to continue to be artists because that’s what I was looking for myself, too—something to keep driving me.”

Multidisciplinary artist Andrew Noseworthy is one of Chen’s collaborators on longing for _ and he mixed and mastered the record. Chen gave Noseworthy, who previously had only mixed and mastered a few EPs as well as his own recordings, the opportunity to develop his audio engineering skills. With the grant money, they helped Noseworthy upgrade his home studio set-up and gave him the time and encouragement to learn.

“Something that I really appreciate about Yang is how fluid, multi-faceted, and sensitively they approach everything they are involved with,” Noseworthy says. “No matter what the situation is, they’re very good at giving people the space to be who they want to be and do what they want to do.”

The process of composing each piece varied with each artist. “It’s hard to talk about this album as a whole because each one of the pieces really exemplifies a very unique relationship that I have with the composer,” Chen explains. “crank/set,” a collaboration with composer Stephanie Orlando, a textured mélange of sounds that includes the whir of bicycle wheels, was a pretty standard commission. Chen asked Orlando to write a piece of music set for five minutes, and she delivered it. 

“Silt,” a piece by flautist and improviser Sara Constant, was, as Chen describes, an entirely unique creative exercise. “Sara is a really dear friend of mine, but she was like, ‘I’m not really a composer.’ I know that she has a background in improvising, so she gave me 15 or 20 little cards with grey watercolour images on them that she had created, and she said, ‘I want you to interpret each one of these cards as a graphic score and record something from that, and we’ll go from there.’ That was the beginning of a process of discovering each other through improvisation.”

The other side to longing for _ is each track’s short film. From conception, Chen wanted to include a visual component to provide multiple levels of engagement. “I don’t want to call them accompaniment because they really are one unit—the video and the audio,” they emphasize. After seeing videos that other contemporary classical artists were releasing, Chen set out to make something different.

“I kept watching these livestreams of concerts that were trying to get as close as possible to a concert-hall experience. For me, it’s nowhere close to sitting in a concert hall with other warm bodies in an acoustic space. I kept watching them because I was supporting my friends, but then [came] away feeling dissatisfied,” Chen says, adding with a laugh, “kind of like when you eat chips, but you really want steak.”

To help facilitate a different approach, Chen turned to friend and filmmaker Serville Poblete. Mirroring the creative process of the music pieces, the videos were rooted in experimentation. Poblete ended up producing three of the videos and producers Christy Kim and Michelle Ngo developed the others. In the dizzying Poblete-directed video for “EUPH0RIC,” a collaboration between Chen and interdisciplinary artist Yaz Lancaster, a dancer moves gracefully among tulle that hangs from the ceiling until finally they stand free under a warm light as the words that Chen speaks at the beginning of the piece still ring in your ears: “I am worth more than my labour.”

“I really felt that in the wider artistic community people were suffering financially and that was something that was driving other factors, like people that I really admire quitting the music field or mental-health stress. So I was like okay, I want to involve more people in this project, and I thought if we’re going to produce all of this digital art, we’re going to do it in a way that’s actually meaningful,” Chen says. 

Given that each track is a collaboration with a different artist, it follows that the pieces on longing for _ are tonally disparate. “All Good Pieces Have Two Things,” a joint effort between Chen and Noseworthy, contains some of the record’s harshest moments, thanks to his outbursts of distorted electric guitar. “til the dam breaks,” on the other hand, is an R&B track that features Chen playing the steel pan and Sarian Sankoh warmly singing an urgent-sounding melody. 

What ties the pieces together, of course, is Chen. Although they admit that any aesthetic cohesiveness of longing for _ was unintentional, when each piece is built with the same foundation of love, friendship, and joy, the end products share an inherent connection.

“I realized in the pandemic that I don’t have to do music as a career,” Chen says. “I could go be a baker, an electrician, or a paramedic—but I didn’t go and do any of those things because at the end of the day, music is what makes me happy. I am driven by happiness, and I hope to cultivate that in others, too.”

Daisy Garland – Open Country

Daisy Garland
Open Country
Strawberry Coffin Records
Vancouver, BC
RIYL: Hank Williams; Lee Hazlewood; Ghost stories

The songs of Open Country roll into one another like a tumbleweed moving across the plains. The 20 country tracks of Daisy Garland (E.S Peters)’s double-album mix outlaw country with psychedelia and surf-rock to make one long strange trip for listeners. It’s an album full of cavernous twangs, hymnic vocals, love, and ghosts. In all of its run-on glory, you will also hear:

There’s forty-five hundred channels of shit on my tv Clem’s Creek she carries with her a bag of yarn the constant state of forward motion PRAISE THE LORD I SAW THE LIGHT it’s a horizontal cross I’ll stay up writing till Christmas passes I’m left to the bottle alone and so blue greener pastures for every light must come to an end.

On the way out of Open Country is the 13+ minute long closing track “Midnight on the Farm.” The full moon is shining on two dancing lovers, except they are not there – it’s just the swirling fog at midnight, and Daisy Garland and accompanying band the Thick Silver  transform the track from a lulling lament into sweaty, fevered chaos. It’s an electrifying conclusion to a thrilling journey. 

– Laura Stanley

Malaika Khadijaa – 18

Malaika Khadijaa
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Daniel Caesar; Cleo Sol; blowing out birthday candles

At the end of “Let Go,” the boldest track from Malaika Khadijaa’s 18, the voice of collaborator Alexander Gallimore emerges from the echoes of a ripping guitar solo and outlines the heart of the EP. Gallimore says:

You ask me big questions
“Why are you leaving?”
“Where will you go?”
“How will you get there?”
But I can’t tell you
I can’t tell you because I don’t know
Isn’t that beautiful?

Khadijaa’s 18 is full of the excitement, fear, curiosity, and beauty that’s coupled with becoming an adult. “Let Go” and opener “Need Me,” an outstanding R&B track that begins with a lone piano before drums and strings kick the song up a notch, are about setting relationships and expectations free. On the former, Khadijaa repeats “gotta let go” like she’s shredding pieces of paper. But within the warm rhythmic currents of “Nyota,” she is her own guiding light, and by the final song, “R4C (afterword),” Khadijaa embraces the uncertainties of the future: “I’m ready for this change.”

Khadijaa has a powerful presence on 18. Her voice is so dynamic that it’s in the EP’s quietest moments when the songs often shine the brightest. “Olive Tree” is a blissful acapella song where her vocal control is on full display, and when she welcomes change on “R4C (afterword),” Khadijaa is accompanied only by a simple guitar melody that allows her words to ring even louder. 

Laura Stanley

Tunic – Exhaling

Artoffact Records
Winnipeg, MB
RIYL: METZ; KEN mode; White Lung

Within the last year or so, I have spent a lot of time reflecting and I have come to recognize how angry I am. Now I am forced to reckon with how to put down all of this anger. Exhaling is the sound of Winnipeg noise punk trio Tunic putting down their anger. In press materials, lead singer and guitarist David Schellenberg notes, “I need that catharsis of screaming about these things over and over again. These are all things that have unfolded in my life and I use Tunic as a coping mechanism.”

Exhaling is a deep breath out, but instead of a quiet flow of air it’s a frenzied expulsion of squealing guitars, pummelled bass and drums, and ragged yelling. The album’s 23 songs come at you fast and are unrelentingly loud and energetic. Just when I thought Exhaling couldn’t become any more chaotic, the closing track “Frontal Lobe” comes teeming in and makes all of the other songs feel like easy listening music. Here Tunic gives one final tug at their tightly knotted emotions, rip themselves free, and find, I can only hope, clarity.

If you are the type of person who drapes themselves in din, Exhaling has everything you are looking for.

Laura Stanley

Thierry Larose – Cantalou

Thierry Larose
Bravo musique
Montréal, QC
RIYL: Gab Bouchard; Joel Plaskett Emergency; the smell of popcorn

On occasion, I will become obsessed with a small detail in a song. Often the delivery of a word or phrase is the cause of my fixation, but when it comes to the self-titled track of Thierry Larose’s debut LP Cantalou, I am obsessed with a noise. It’s a high-pitch whiney sound that arrives a few seconds into the song. I think it’s a squealing guitar coming to life, but it sounds like a balloon when you slowly let the air out. It’s a weird and funny moment, and it’s probably a very annoying noise if it stood alone, but it doesn’t; it acts as the welcoming committee for the rest of the band to arrive and pulverize their instruments to emphasize the word “Cantalou.”

The pleasure that this sonic detail gives me aligns with the delightfulness of Cantalou as a whole. It’s a playful pop-rock record full of drama and unexpected moments. “Chanson pour Bérénice Einberg” is a moody love letter to the main character of the novel L’Avalée des avalés, and the raw energy of “Rachel” and the nostalgia-fueled “Club vidéo” make me long to hear Larose play these songs live and to move in unison with a sweaty crowd. But for now, I will sway in my increasingly worn-out desk chair to the lively guitar melody of “De la perspective d’un vieil homme” and dream of a brighter tomorrow.

– Laura Stanley

Laura Niquay – Waska Matisiwin

Laura Niquay
Waska Matisiwin
Musique nomade
Trois Rivières, Québec
RIYL: Lisa Leblanc; Jeremie Albino; Julian Taylor

There’s a steady energetic hum woven through the grungy folk-rock of Laura Niquay’s Waska Matisiwin. It reminds me of the din of the beginning of the summer in the city orchestrated by ramshackled air conditioners and cicadas: it’s exciting and charged with possibilities. 

Instead of a booming greeting, we wade into the powers of Waska Matisiwin with layers of Niquay’s vibrant and gravelly voice rumbling beneath our feet. Eventually, the rumbling gives way to the thunderous stomps of “Moteskano (Les sentiers de nos ancêtres).” On tracks like the tightly delivered “Kinoce Ickwecic (Petite fille Kinoce),” the stormy “Icpimik (Le sommet, vers le haut),” and the reggae-influenced “Nicim (Mon petit frère)” featuring Shauit, the moods differ but the hum remains. 

Across Waska Matisiwin, Niquay—who sings in Atikamekw—meditates on family, love, loss, and nature. There is grief present on the record, but there’s also hope and so much strength. On “Aski (Terre),” Niquay is revitalized by the four elements, and the relief that she feels, like all of the emotions she expresses on the album, transcends language. As does the vitality of Waska Matisiwin.

– Laura Stanley

Keeper E. – The Sparrows All Find Food

Keeper E.
The Sparrows All Find Food
Halifax, NS
LHM Records
RIYL: Sylvan Esso; the Postal Service; being seen

Recently I was doomscrolling while listening to Keeper E.’s The Sparrows All Find Food, and I saw an unrelated tweet by writer Brennan McCracken that now pops into my head everytime I listen to Keeper E’s record. McCracken’s tweet reads: “Seeing and being seen.”

The Sparrows All Find Food is a record about seeing, and it will make you feel seen. On “Please Don’t Tell Me,” a glistening, standout tune, Adelle Elwood (Keeper E.) underlines this notion: “I’ve been looking and seeing and hearing lots,” she sings. Swimming in warming waves of electro-pop across the album’s seven songs, Elwood taps into her wants, needs, and regrets. Her anxiety is palpable and, at times, incredibly heavy as she navigates personal turmoil and climate grief. “We’ll all be underwater someday,” Elwood laments on “Telling the Truth.”

When I listen to The Sparrows All Find Food, I find myself in “I’m Sorry to My Spider Plant,” a forlorn anthem for anybody who has neglected (or overloved) a plant, whose instruments are covered in dust, or whose to-read pile is precariously stacked like a game of Jenga. I’m also in “Telling the Truth,” which has a line that made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it because of how precisely it summarizes me: “I think I’m the most serious woman to call herself a silly girl.” How reassuring it is to find out that you’re not alone.

– Laura Stanley 

Julian Yi-Zhong Hou – Grass Drama | Selected Works

Julian Yi-Zhong Hou
Grass Drama | Selected Works
Second Spring
Vancouver, BC
RIYL: Joseph Shabason; Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith; cloud gazing

Julian Yi-Zhong Hou’s Grass Drama—a collection of works whose original forms were largely multi-media art exhibits shown across Canada—is as entrancing as long grass dancing in the wind. There are lo-fi folk songs, orchestral and New Age elements, and tracks that centre on spoken word pieces. When you read all of the materials that accompany Grass Drama, you learn that Hou has woven into each song stories about his family, mental health, addiction, and the search for harmony.

Grass Drama is an immersive listening experience that I keep returning to because, although the album unfurls slowly, there is so much to absorb, and I don’t want to miss anything. What stands out during each listen are the spine-tingling whispers and sighs within the sparse “Solitaire” and the beautiful hymnic pacing of “Pink Cloud.”

The description of “Grass Drama,” the centrepiece of the album, on Hou’s website, provides insight into his measured approach to making art: “Hou developed this project over a two-year period, guided by a process of sensitivity training involving divination, hypnagogic practices and expanded states of consciousness, which took place alongside (and within) the slow construction of the artist’s backyard studio-shed and garden. The length of time is significant, Hou suggests, because it echoes the time required for many rhizomatic plants, such as hops or ginger, to mature and bear fruit.”

If you purchase a vinyl copy of Grass Drama you will also receive Selected Works, a collection of previously unreleased recordings that have accompanied Hou’s art installations over the last few years. Similar to Grass Drama, Selected Works, which is available to stream on Spotify too, has a mixture of swooping synths and piano-led pieces and is occupied by numerous voices. Although there are groovy moments like “Prince of the Blues” or “Fuse,” it’s largely a dirgeful collection of songs that leave you feeling unsettled: “How do you approach the end?” a voice asks on “The Sun.” But, like me, you will return to Hou’s releases again and again because you too are restless for answers.

– Laura Stanley

Afternoon Bike Ride – Skipping Stones

Afternoon Bike Ride
Skipping Stones
Friends of Friends Music
Montréal, QC
RIYL: Teen Daze; Khotin; bike rides

Here is an incomplete list of what causes immense joy as found in Afternoon Bike Ride’s Skipping Stones:

  • Sunrises
  • Whatever or whoever you define as home
  • A cup of tea
  • Long, meaningful conversations on a couch that you can sink into
  • Skipping stones
  • Afternoon bike rides

The Montréal trio’s EP is a blissed-out array of blinking electronics, hushed guitar-picking, synth melodies, and LIA‘s balmy vocals. In tandem with a crackling lo-fi homespun quality, Afternoon Bike Ride infuse a thoughtfulness into every note that helps it pair nicely with your “stupid little daily walk” and any/all of the above list items. 

There’s a familiarity to Skipping Stones that’s hard to dispute. If you frequent any of the lo-fi study or chill music streams and playlists on YouTube or Spotify, these songs sound like the majority of what you hear on those. But if you have found tranquility in these songs when it feels like the world is in short supply of calm, does it matter? On “Couch Party,” LIA sings, “I’m okay. Are you okay?” and you want to shake your head in the affirmative. Skipping Stones is a pocket-sized paradise.

– Laura Stanley