Not even a global pandemic could stop Russian-born, New York-based electronic wizard YAA! Koala from making his mark with his debut project. Described by his team as “joyful, optimistic, and endlessly danceable,” the 7-song collection is an energetic thrill ride, marking a promising debut for a genre that continues to be a mainstay in pockets around the globe.
I had a chance to virtually sit down with the artist to pick his brain about career beginnings, current industry trends, and insights on the future.
UNSOLICITED: Let’s start from the beginning. Did you always plan on music being your career? What was your first experience with the craft?
YAA! Koala: I started off doing international law – hard to get a green card as a musician. Once the green card came in, I quit the firm and went all in. I had a hip-hop duo that ran for a couple years. Unfortunately, the better we did, the worse our relationship became and we ultimately split. YAA! Koala came next. But to take it way way back, I remember writing a song about polar bears when I was six (I’m Russian, so naturally).
U: Who are some of your biggest musical inspirations? Who are you listening to now?
YK: That’s an impossible question for a musician to answer. My inspirations include: Nirvana, Tyler, the Creator (OFWGKTA!), Childish Gambino through Because the Internet / Kauai era, 808s/Yeezus-era Kanye, D’Angelo (Voodoo), Erykah Badu, Meshell Ndegeocello, Mac Miller, Stevie Wonder, Skrillex, San Holo, Diplo, Getter, DJ Snake, Lil Peep, XXXTentacion, Lily Allen, Sara Tavares (Balance & Xinti).
Currently I would say Angèle, Aitch, Kero Kero Bonito, Oliver Tree, 100 Gecs, Easy Life, Joji, Poshlaja Molli, CHAI, Michael Brun. I could keep going for days.
U: Dream collaborators?
YK: Skrillex, Aitch, Videoclub, Beabadoobee, Minesweepa.
U: What are your thoughts on the industry as it stands today, do you feel an increased autonomy with streaming or that it’s daunting and oversaturated?
YK: The industry is what it is. It has never been easy. The diversity and quality of music these days is incredible. The arms race pushes the quality way up, unfortunately at the expense of healthy lifestyle and mental health. That said, it’s hard not to geek out listening to a Zeds Dead compilation or Minesweepa. At the same time, Jace Mek is open about working at an Amazon warehouse, despite placements on major labels. There needs to be a better way.
U: How has the current pandemic inspired and/or stifled your creativity?
YK: It hasn’t affected me much. It exists mainly in the news and on social media. I still get up, exercise, run up to the mountains (got stuck in Cape Town during the lockdown), and then go on about my day. People are irrational and it’s frustrating to see the world come to a halt in this case, while we continue to ignore a million other risk factors (horrible food, lack of exercise, pollution, smoking, stress, driving, etc.)
U: Where does the name “YAA! Koala” come from?
YK: YAA! means “I” in Russian. It is also fun to do a call and response at shows. And koalas are warm and cuddly, which kind of captures the feel-good vibe of my sound.
U: You’ve talked about exploring psychedelics on your social media pages. What is your relationship to them and how have they informed your art?
YK: Microdosing psilocybin was the first step getting above water after years of fairly severe depression – I also highly recommend the book Lost Connections by Johann Hari. The ego dissolution from a larger dose was quite special – probably deserves a separate interview. Not sure whether psilocybin has had an impact on music that’s currently out, but going forward, I will keep trying to make it more vivid, to create a space through which the listener can travel. Jack Stauber does this brilliantly in his Micropop releases. So far I’ve found it hard to balance making a track that snaps in a club with a more intricate composition with greater depth, but I’m going to crack the formula one day.
U: What is something you learned through the process of creating Choir Boy?
YK: Let songs sit for a few weeks before finalizing or releasing — do your best to hear them as an outsider, which is always a challenge because you spend hours, days, weeks working on them.
U: What was the most challenging aspect of the record’s recording process? Most rewarding?
YK: Getting the song from the initial creative idea to the final product. The actual composition that involves creativity is probably 10-20 percent of the song. The rest, especially in electronic music, is getting the mix right, making sure that it’s clear, impactful, and translates well on different speakers – none of which is particularly sexy or fun. So getting a song across the finish line is both challenging and rewarding.
U: Tell me about your apartment situation and your current quarantined life in Cape Town. How has that been? Has it led to creating any music?
YK: Umm. Good times. I was in South Africa when the world went offline, borders were closed, and flights were cancelled. Still here, though cannot complain — the place is magic. The downside is I had squatters move into my New York apartment, and because of New York’s bizarre tenant laws, I have to go through months of legal process to throw them out, all the while paying rent for them. That has been insane.
U: What’s one thing you want audiences to know about you that may not be reflected in your music just yet?
YK: I like playing guitar. I feel like I will have a San Holo moment, when I will incorporate more of it into my songs.
Choir Boy is available now on streaming services.