By Audra Heinrichs

Chinese American rock musician Yvette Young opens up about  embracing art for art’s sake, and breaking into progressive rock as a woman. From Mission’s BIPOC issue.

To mark Women’s History Month, we’re looking toward the women making history who’ve featured throughout Mission’s archive.

Yvette Young wasn’t supposed to be a rock star. In fact, the daughter of Chinese immigrants was raised to favor classical music. As a child, Young was encouraged to learn piano at the age of 4 and violin at age 7, eventually competing in international piano competitions and touring with two different orchestras.

But while she excelled in the genre, a different one would come knocking in her teenage years and provide her with a newfound comfort during a particularly traumatic time. Approaching high school, Young was diagnosed with an eating disorder that left her hospitalized and without access to many creative outlets. Until one day she picked up a guitar and taught herself how to play by ear. The rest is history. 

Young, now 30, is associated with a subgenre of music known as progressive rock, a hallmark of which is the use of unusual time signatures. She’s the frontwoman of the California-based progressive rock band Covet, an occasional instructor to budding musicians, and a social media wonder thanks to the head-scratching and awe-inspiring videos of her playing one of her many candy-colored guitars. For Young, though, music is now less about mastering a craft or winning competitions and very simply a vehicle for exploring the unconventional and creating something unexpected.Mission recently caught up with Young and discussed creating in a pandemic, navigating the music industry as a Chinese American woman, and evolving as an artist.

Audra Heinrichs: How was music introduced to you?

Yvette Young: Both of my parents are from China, and the cultural background of China during the Cultural Revolution, when they were there, didn’t really allow for classical music. It wasn’t a welcome genre because it was a Western thing. When they came to the United States, they could fully enjoy classical music, and to them it was a huge privilege. That’s the environment I grew up in. I played piano when I was 4 and violin when I was 7, and I was in a couple of orchestras. I wouldn’t say it was my passion at the time, though, and there was a lot of pressure that came with it.

AH: How did music come to play such an important role in your life?

YY: Around the end of middle school, I developed an eating disorder that persisted through high school. I had to be hospitalized for it because my heart kind of stopped working. Through recovery, I picked up guitar, which is something I’d always wanted to play. I grew up going to shows and even sneaking out sometimes because I loved watching bands play and that was music I truly liked. I kind of equated classical music with high-pressure environments, so this was my escape. When I was in the hospital teaching myself guitar, I was like, “OK, this feels empowering.” Part of anorexia was being hyper-fixated on numbers, and I used guitar to make the transition from my self-worth being derived from my external appearance to what I could do with my hands and what I could use my mind for, because I was also writing music. Those things were such wonderful outlets, and I truly think they kind of saved me from that really dark period.

AH: Speaking of empowering, did you feel in any way disempowered by the past year and a half? How has the pandemic affected your creativity?

YY: I think it’s my personality type, but I actually have flourished. It’s not to say that I don’t love friends and seeing people and stuff like that, but I really do think Covid-19 happened at the perfect time. I wasn’t able to deal with my mental health because I had just put out a record where everything was kind of rushed. At the beginning of the pandemic, I felt excited because I now had time to learn something new. I learned how to self-record, and that was a game changer for me. I was always afraid of technology, and this is a whole new world. I also hadn’t painted for leisure in forever, so I started painting during quarantine. I finished one big one, and I was really happy with that because I hadn’t been able to do something fun for a while. I guess the overall theme of lockdown for me was doing stuff for fun and not having a utilitarian purpose for the art you create. I think it’s really important to have that mindset, because ultimately, it’s a luxury to do things for fun and not to make ends meet. There’s something cathartic about exploring a craft or something where it doesn’t matter if the outcome isn’t perfect and ready to market to the masses.

AH: How has your identity as a Chinese American woman affected your presence in the music industry? 

YY: I feel like the music industry, even though they’re making a push, still has a lot of elements that are geared against women. The whole progressive rock scene hasn’t been very welcoming to women, so that’s been hard to navigate. But I think there are positives to being Asian. People do notice you. So many people come up to me at my shows and say they’re happy to see me up there. That encourages me and makes me feel like I can do something different—that I can do rock ’n’ roll and scream. I think as long as you’re getting out there and people are seeing a less homogeneous industry, that’s a positive. 

AH: What are you working on now? What’s next?

YY: I’m about to go on tour in a week and a half for the first time in forever. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to be in front of audiences and feel normal again, because it’s been so long since I’ve been around that many people, but I’m excited.

@yvetteyoung on Instagram

Images courtesy of Amy Huang and Yvette Young

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