VMP Rising is our series where we partner with up-and-coming artists to press their music to vinyl and highlight artists we think are going to be the Next Big Thing. Today, we’re featuring the new album gelato from boylife.
As young children often do while discovering their interests and hobbies, Ryan Yoo started playing piano and clarinet before moving onto the process of self-teaching guitar in middle school. Music hadn’t been on the horizon for him. In fact, he never even deeply considered it until college. Even then, it was a process of trials and errors, but between the exploration of both sounds and self, something indelible had arisen. Finding creative freedom is an aspiration for many artists that can ultimately become a life-long journey, but for Yoo, he found exactly that in his solo project as boylife.
“I set out doing each project with different priorities. With the solo shit, my intentions were very specific. I decided early on that I was fully doing this for myself. It didn’t matter if it got a single stream or if it got a billion streams. It was fully about saying my piece and satisfying my soul. It was not at all about the reception or the perception of the project,” Yoo explained. “That was something that I found very creatively liberating, because for me: The instant I’m happy with a song, I’ve won. It’s something I get to enjoy, because I already have the satisfaction at that point. I’m not sure if everybody sets out with that intention, but I had to make it very clear for myself from the beginning. With my solo shit, this is my sanctuary.”
VMP: I feel like it’s very apparent in your music that you’re very honest and bare with who you are. I know gelato was a four- or five-year process for you. You were probably working on this during the pandemic as well. Did that affect your creative processes at all or change the way you approach your music?
boylife: During a lot of the pandemic time, I wasn’t able to go to studios. It changed things a little bit in that my tools were slightly more limited, and my schedule was also a lot more open. Beyond that, I don’t think it changed how the music was going to turn out. The way the album came out, it was going to land that way either way. The one thing that might have been different would have been maybe more strings, if I could have done that. I feel like a lot of artists were like, “Yo, the pandemic did this to me or did that for me.” Artistically, it didn’t really do much. It didn’t make any difference for me, honestly.
Like I said earlier, I know gelato was a long process for you — four to five years. That’s a really long time for anyone. A lot can change in between. How have you seen yourself grow or change from where you started at the very beginning compared to now with the album being finally completed?
It’s been a long-ass time. I’ve definitely changed as both a person and an artist. When you’re young, every year is a huge difference in terms of knowing yourself and being confident. That’s the only big difference for me. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. I think earlier on when I was making music, there was an insecurity there and I wanted to prove that I could do something. I wanted to prove that my vision was singular, which is part of how “church” came about. I was like, “I’m going to make something that doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before.” I still do that, but the intention has changed. It’s more about chasing my spark and chasing what gets me off artistically. In the beginning, when I was making boylife songs, I didn’t know that I was making boylife songs because boylife wasn’t a thing. I was like, “This doesn’t fit into any project I’m working on, but I need to make this.” Eventually, all the songs that were born of that urgency became the boylife songs. That’s also another change that happened over the last four or five years — is that the project was invented.
While I was listening to the album, something I noticed is that a “lush 2” comes before “lush” on the tracklist. Can you talk about the connection between the two songs and what guided you to have that intention for people to hear “lush 2” before “lush”?
I made “lush” before I made “lush 2.” “lush” initially started out as another piece called “sober” and it was a two-part song. Part of why the word “lush” got incorporated is that “lush” is an old-timey word for a drunk. That song got cannibalized and morphed into another piece, which morphed into another thing, and it became “lush” as it is now. But the title stayed the same. It has nothing to do with being drunk besides maybe the part where you’re being too honest. “lush 2,” I wanted it to be — if I was super fucking drunk, what would I be babbling about?
The guitar playing and the rhythms are the same on both tracks, so to me, they’re sonically a little bit similar. That’s the connection. Very loose, very random. But they’re both vaguely connected to alcohol, I suppose. [Laughs] As far as the sequencing goes, “lush 2” comes before “lush” because thematically, at that point in the album, it was important for me to put that message where it sits. It was important for me that it sits next to “bummy.”
“bummy” is almost like feeling shitty, but not taking it super seriously. I’m bipolar, so that’s what it’s about. And then “lush 2,” to me, was about showing a different side of that. “bummy” is almost celebrating it and being like, “Yeah! This is it!” The energy’s raucous and crazy. With “lush 2,” it was the opposite end. For me, it was important to put them next to each other because they’re speaking to two sides of the exact same coin. After “lush 2,” is “superpretty,” which, to me, also speaks to another side of the same thing. They’re all connected, in my opinion.
I think that opens up a lot about the intention behind the album and how it’s incredibly well thought out.
It’s important to me that the songs are stronger in their context than in isolation. If I’m being very honest with myself, I don’t think there’s anything remotely close to a hit single on the album. I think the songs are great on their own, but I feel that the strongest presentation is when you listen to them all the way through, because they speak to each other in that way.
On the topic of “lush,” it touches on someone who’s unable to be honest with himself at the beginning. It’s funny, because you yourself are unapologetically honest about who you are and your experiences. Like you mentioned, the whole purpose of boylife is to just create and be who you are. Have you ever had any difficulties with showing this intimate part of yourself in your music? Or is it something that just comes naturally to you?
It’s definitely difficult. If I don’t feel that discomfort that comes from just getting a little bit too honest about something — if I don’t feel awkward playing it for somebody, then it does not make the cut. I have to feel a little bit naked playing it for somebody. I felt that with every single one of the songs in the album. The first time I played “churches” for one of my friends from church, I was thinking, “Why did I do that?” And he said, “This is sick.” That was a nice early piece of encouragement that I could just be honest, and if there’s something real in there, then I can trust that somebody in the world is gonna resonate with that. It’s definitely difficult though, very effortful. In the case of “lush,” specifically, it’s kind of meta to be honest about not being able to be honest [laughs], but I definitely just tried to embody that within the song as much as I could. That song is always a little bit awkward playing it for people though. Not a lot of folks get past the first line [laughs].
I know you talked about some of your previously released music before and about the experiences that shaped the songs such as “peas” or “bummy.” Can you dive into the newer songs on your album and what influenced the topics on them?
Every single song is attached to a story or a moment. I make the boylife music super slowly because each song is like a container that I pour a little piece of my soul into, and for each one to be different, I feel like my soul has to be a little bit different. And for my soul to be a little bit different, a good amount of time has to have passed or a new experience has to have happened. So each one definitely carries a different thought or different experience at the center.
In the case of “hey,” for example, that came toward the end of the album-making process and I was reflecting on all the different pieces. I realized, “Oh, this is a self-portrait.” That’s essentially what this album is. It’s a self-portrait. I’m just showing these different pieces, the different sides. It’s almost like a meditation on my relationship with myself and how I see myself. It’s kind of a weird lyric. “Hey gelato, I’ve been loving you violently.” But, somehow that feels right to me.
Some of these other tracks like “church,” I could never make again. Maybe “peas” is the only one that I could make at a different point in my life, because that one is a reflection on something I grew up with. But maybe I couldn’t, because the time I made it was when I was reflecting on it intentionally and reshaping my relationship with my parents at that point. So maybe I couldn’t do that again.
When I first heard “peas,” I bawled my eyes out, because of how relatable it was. I’m also Asian American, and had that generational and cultural gap with my parents. When you were writing it from the perspective of your parents, did it change the way that you view your relationship with them? Or did it kind of help you come to understand them a little bit better?
I would say the song didn’t directly affect anything. It was more of the byproduct of things shifting and seeing how my parents loved me. I had a pretty difficult year — one particular year where a lot of intense shit was happening to me. My parents were just there for me. I could sense that they had no clue what was going on, but I could feel clearly how much they loved me. The plate of fruit is the universal sign of love, or, “Hey, are you hungry? Have you eaten?” That’s the Asian parent way of saying I love you. I was reflecting on all that, and after that period, it made me appreciate the way that my parents see me and love me in a new light.
I was still finishing up college when the pandemic hit, and I moved back home. I was always afraid of my mom showing up in my Zoom classes with a plate of fruit. [Laughs] I definitely appreciate that.
It’s funny how universal it is. When I was making this, I wasn’t thinking, “This is for the immigrant children.” It was just some shit about my life.
Throughout the album, there is the overarching theme and the lyric of “gelato” popping up a lot. What does that phrase mean to you and what is that theme throughout the album?
Gelato is delicious. You have to eat it before it’s fully melted, while it holds its shape. For some reason, that became the ultimate metaphor for each of these things that I’ve been living. The first song says, “It’ll all melt away like gelato.” That’s my version of saying the classic phrase, “This too shall pass.” With that in mind, it was important to capture each of these moments as I was living them in as honest and direct a way as possible. Because they’re moments, and they’re going to pass. And before they do, I want to make sure that I was present for them. That’s one of the main ideas with the whole gelato theme. For the introduction piano refrain, I have it come back multiple times and the album is almost like a symbol of a reminder that this, too, shall pass. It’ll all melt away. That’s really the idea. Also, for some reason, I don’t know how or when this happened, people call me Gelato. So there’s that as well. Ultimately, the album was a self-portrait.