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YeulePhotography Neil Krug

Cyber-pop artist yeule is bridging the void between digital and IRL

As she releases her debut album Serotonin II, the Singapore artist talks artificial intelligence, real life avatars, and growing up online

yeule is as ephemeral as a holographic butterfly. And like a hologram, it’s sometimes difficult to determine if she’s even really there – but she’s trying to figure that out, too.

The musical avatar of London-by-way-of-Singapore singer, songwriter, and producer Nat Ćmiel, yeule acts as a subversive vessel for the artist’s most intimate expressions. Less a persona or alter ego than Ćmiel’s inner creative identity brought to life, yeule opens a meta-channel for the musician to ruminate on complexly layered topics, from self-presentation and gender to digital realities, all over a gossamer soundscape of ethereal electronic post-pop.

Her mesmerising debut album, Serotonin II, is an immersive exploration of identity-building, and one which may require multiple listens to absorb thanks to yeule’s cerebral lyrical poetry. Across a collection of hyper-dreamy synth-pop ballads and dance tracks, yeule sings of obsession and decay (“Pretty Bones”), the smothering weight of love (“Poison Arrow”), and the increasingly blurred lines between the digital and corporeal realms (“Pixel Affection”).

yeule’s music draws from a diverse archive of influences – all of which can be heard, to varying effect, in her work – from the jazz she listened to on her dad’s vinyl record player as a child (“Lots of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Blossom Dearie,” she says) to Björk’s Post, the first CD she ever purchased. “Since then, I’ve had a real obsession with her work,” she says. “I thought what she made was really different, like how it affected my head. It's the kind of music you need to be alone with, to really listen to. Maybe (that made me) more sensitive to how sounds made me feel.”

According to yeule, “it was a little difficult to be honest with myself, to write about my troubles outside of just metaphors” on Serotonin II. “I think the first time I started writing more honestly was on ‘Eva’. In trying to imprint more clarity in the poetry instead of leaving it ambiguous, it makes the journey through the dark feel more familiar,” she adds. “I write a lot of poetry on the reflections of the psyche and fabricated realities, experiences with people, and how a void opens up out of nowhere.”

How does serotonin – the neurotransmitter chemical that affects mood – relate to the overall message of your new album?

yeule: Writing the record, I was dreadful. I didn’t ask for much, I don’t need to be happy. I just wanted to be content.

So, creating the album lead you to a state of contentment?

yeule: It’s like having an out of body experience. When you listen to yourself sing, it’s almost like detaching yourself from your experiences and seeing through a different lens. I didn’t feel so locked up anymore. It’s kind of like dissociating, but this time you have some kind of reference point because you have little reminders of those memories. I feel like when I document these moments I can realise my progress and compare how I used to see things and how I see them now. Materiality of song makes things real, doesn’t it? Or not – it’s hard for me to tell what’s really there.

Do you think the increased digitisation of the world has hindered society in any way? 

yeule: I think it can be good and it can be beautiful, but somehow it’s a sad case of entrapment for some. 

For people who have become trapped, what do you think they could do to ‘free’ themselves?

yeule: I’m not sure if it’s the same for everyone, but I know for me it’s really important to detach yourself from the perception of ‘self’ you tap into when you’re online, if you feel trapped. Sometimes I take a break from it and go somewhere peaceful, where there is water is flowing and there’s lots of open, green space. You could follow what you are drawn to in nature. I love the rain, hearing thunder, foggy rivers, and the cold. I love seeing green, dark, and damp greens and big slabs of rock on an incline, and misty trails that lead to lakes. Maybe this could help you, too.

Do you think living too much of our lives online make us unhappier? 

yeule: It really is about what you let affect you. I think lots of behaviours online can warp your sense of worth. When you personify a user, when you humanise the digital, would you treat them differently? I think there’s a reason why people are tactless online. It’s really easy to be that way when you don’t know someone or think you know them through their public digital presence. The truth is, you don’t really know them, do you? It’s like treating a cyborg less than human. 

How did Final Fantasy XIII-2 inspire the name ‘yeule’?

yeule: The character of Nsu-Yeul in XIII-2 is a seeress (prophet) with a fragmented soul, (each fragment) belongs to one lifetime. She reincarnates in the game as you go through the timeline of history. At the end, you meet her last reincarnation in the void beyond, and she accepts the destruction and ends the reincarnating life cycle of her soul. Her fate connotes the acceptance of mortality – right here, right now, you’re born again with your consciousness in fragments. It’s as though inside your heart you can feel something from your past life and it guides you. Perhaps before my life, there was another soul (that existed) before me – exactly like me, a replica.

If you could collaborate with any video game character or virtual character, who would it be?

yeule: YoRHa No.2 Type B from Nier: Automata, ’cause I think she could kill me.

How has your Singapore heritage impacted your art, if at all?

yeule: It’s a difficult one, because I was always trying to run away far from this invisible mould built around the culture there. Going back to my hometown is like going into a simulation. I long to wake up. I didn’t have a good time with the education system there, and the nationalism can be stifling. I don’t really want to go into it, but don’t get me wrong, I do love that city in a strange way. After all, it’s where I’m from.

“There was a point in my life where I was very lonely and didn’t have a social life... I found my place online, going on Tumblr every day because the only real friends I had lived inside my computer” – yeule

Your upbringing has been described as ‘nomadic’, as your family travelled quite a bit. How did that impacted you as an artist?

yeule: Being so detached from my reality and not knowing (where) I could call home, I made a place inside my head. But when it gets too loud, I go to a place in the digital world where I can feel safe. I’m always online, somewhere in the dark. I think a lot of my work revolves around my experience in that space.

Do you feel you may have created varying versions of yourself in order to adapt to each new place? 

yeule: Geographical place in time doesn’t affect my person, but people and experiences on a temporal level do. I still can’t see myself well, but I’m trying to be the best version of what I can see. It’s okay to feel a little distorted in your self-perception, I think. You just gotta swim through slowly.

The video for “Pixel Affection” shows the avatar killing the user to obtain freedom. Do you believe we are capable of killing ‘old selves’ to create new ones?

yeule: If you can’t change the past, you might as well face it with open arms... and then slice its head open.

Do you believe AI is inherently at odds with humanity? 

yeule: “Pixel Affection” was meant to be a satirical critique on the ‘fear of internet culture’ and the invisible barrier which separates millennials and Gen Z from everyone else because of the difference in how digitally integrated those groups are. There are ideas of AI research being the start of the end, the fear of generating self-aware AIs, and the possibility of a fully integrated prosthetic human. These are all understandable mainstream extreme fears about how soon it can reach that point.

Looking at the Cambridge Analytica incident: they are already controlling people’s behaviour with AI tech using data. This inherently shows we have no control or freedom to what kind of politics governs our way of life. That said, I still think if used in the right way it can be incredible. But can we trust humans? I recommend reading Donna Haraway’s essay A Cyborg Manifesto as their writing is a good starting point to open up a dialogue on how we can judge the disorder of a post-technological era. But I can’t form my own opinion because I am living in the process of this unfolding.

What sort of relationship did you have to the internet growing up? 

yeule: If I were completely honest, there was a point in my life where I was very lonely and didn’t have a social life. At one point, I felt so depressed that I never knew what my place was. I found my place online, going on Tumblr every day because the only real friends I had lived inside my computer. Sometimes I forget they’re real because even though I’ve known them for years, I never met them in real life. We used to send each other letters just to remind ourselves that we mattered to each other. I guess we all felt the same way: incredibly detached, lonely, and trapped. It was the most authentic and real ‘human’ experience at that point in my life. 

I guess I was also really afraid to lose them… These people really helped me through a lot, without knowing it. I think that experience made me write a lot about cyber relationships and living – like, really living – online. At my lowest point, I really believed that I could leave this world and no one would notice, because I could just queue all these posts and it would be like I was still there, and they wouldn’t have to worry, because I’d always be online for them. I could just run a bot that would reblog x number of posts indefinitely as long as the computer was turned on. Isn’t that quite a thought? 

How did you navigate that?

yeule: When I was in my last year of high school, I made these friends who showed me genuine kindness. It was so different, now that I finally found friends in real life who lived most of their lives online as well. In 2016, one of my friends took their life. Their Tumblr still exists and the last thing they posted was a meme. I think much of this online integration makes you lose grip of reality. It’s so strange, isn’t it? How when a real life friend disappears, it’s like you can kinda see their username floating around your eye – last seen on February 14, 2016. Maybe it’s denial, maybe it’s not knowing where the digital realm ends. 

That was my reality at one point. I don’t go on that site anymore, but I still keep in contact with two of my online friends from that time. 

yeule’s Serotonin II is out now