Richmond based punk artist Yonder opens up about his art and music career, and the role that mental health plays in it. He discusses how his “outsider” attitude and vulnerability in his work is rooted in his experiences growing up as the “black sheep” of his family and how creating music helps him deal with his own mental health challenges. He also talks about his experiences with the music scenes in Baltimore and Richmond and how he has diversified his career to include creative direction and other art forms to sustain himself.
Alright, let’s start from the beginning. Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Yonder, from Baltimore. I consider myself a punk artist, ’cause I do more than just make music. But it started with me drawing on T-shirts when I was 12, trying to wear something that nobody else was wearing and branding myself early. That’s how it all began.
When people look at your work, there’s definitely an outsider element to it. Where does that attitude come from?
When you say “outsider element” what do you mean?
Well, you have BDSM allusions in your work, a kind of “fuck you” attitude. It’s almost like not caring about being accepted, but at the same time, there are people who are very accepting.
Gotcha, I think being the black sheep of my family, and in my life, made me understand that the only thing we can control is ourselves. I used to make music for the listener, thinking someone will like this or that. But once I started to be vulnerable within myself and with my art, that’s when it felt more true to myself and genuine. So I think that’s where the “fuck you” attitude comes from. Because it’s like, I don’t care if you like this or not, this is true and this is real.
You definitely have hip-hop influences and punk influences. Is that from growing up in Baltimore? What’s the scene like up there in Baltimore for that?
I’ll say, we have one of the best scenes in the nation. I just think we’re overlooked because of being Baltimore. People are a little intimidated, but I guess for the right reasons. Unfortunately, pain breeds the best artists. But I think the scene has come together in the past 10 years, but particularly in the past five years, it’s really strong. We’re supporting artists that are different. We don’t have major artists coming out of Baltimore, like Atlanta, Cali, or New York.
But now we have artists like JPEG Mafia coming up out of Baltimore, who is big in the scene. He brought a lot of people with him, and now we’re getting a little recognition. Usually, D.C. and Baltimore don’t really work together, but now we’re starting to close that gap and become more supportive of each other instead of being competitive.
Now that you live in Richmond, do you see parallels between Baltimore and Richmond? How do you feel the Richmond scene has been for your music and creativity?
Richmond has been very accepting. Like any city, you go through tests to see if people want to see if you’re authentic or how much you care about your art and passion. But once they see that, they’re very accepting. The only difference is that Baltimore is a little tougher, while Richmond is a little more peaceful, which is cool, and more creative. You don’t have to look over your shoulder as much. But Baltimore’s toughness has its own originality.
You make music, you also direct and create. Just talk about that process of having to do all of that.
I feel like as an artist, I had to do more than one thing to pay the bills, whether it be helping somebody else with their song development or doing a treatment for another artist, or doing a photo shoot for another artist. At a point in my career, I was like, “I’m just gonna focus on my own shit.” But then it’s like, “I gotta pay the bills with my art, I gotta work a job.” So I had to figure out ways to build my name and make money in other avenues. That’s how I got into creative direction, it started with people asking me “Hey, do you ever think about doing that? Or this video?” And I’d be like, “Yeah, for sure.” And then I’d have to research and figure out how to do it. That’s how I got into doing everything.
From what I’ve seen in your work, there’s a mix of anger and vulnerability. You mentioned the aspect of mental health. How is it that your creativity, your music, is helping you deal with your own mental health?
I tried traditional therapy for five years and I was a little frustrated with it. I didn’t have good luck with the people I was talking to. But once I started creating, I felt healthy, in a sense. I didn’t have to go into those moods that I was going into. Once I figured out if I can create every day, maybe this was my therapy. If I can write and get these thoughts out of my head, instead of keeping them inside. If I can put these actions into my music, rather than doing them outside, that’s therapeutic. I kind of wanted that to be normal for black men, ’cause mental health in black families isn’t even a thing. We don’t even talk about it. Men have a hard time seeking out therapy. So I wanted to make it normal to find your own form of therapy, whether it’s talking to someone or drawing, fishing or whatever is healthy for you. Just make sure it’s truly therapeutic and be honest with yourself about it.
Let’s talk about your influences. Where does your music come from? And how did it start? You said you were making music you thought people would like, but when you started making your own music, what were the influences? What are the influences now?
When I was young, I was listening to rock music and punk music and stuff, and rap music, like 50 Cent, who’s probably my favorite rapper. But I would also listen to bands like Bad Brains since I was 12. So it’s weird that it came back around, like, this is what I should have been doing to begin with. It’s like, I’m mixing my roots and what I know, you know, all together, so it forms its own genre. I guess my inspirations are Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and 50 Cent.
Also, Three Six Mafia because I like to put some weird samples into my music sometimes, especially in my new project. There’s a techno DJ named Lorenzo that has some crazy influences, like I’m mixing grinding techno with punk because I want people to dance and mosh. But yeah, techno and punk are my main influences right now.
You’re hitting people from all sides. So, you have a new album, or EP, coming out, right? And you’re putting out a bunch of videos, too. You want to talk about that project a little bit? What’s it called?
It’s called Men in White Coats and it’s going to be the first project put out under just Yonder. I was formerly known as Earl from Yonder. But this project has a lot of religious and therapeutic-related substance. I grew up very religious, but I’ve strayed away from religion and moved more towards spirituality. So it’s interesting what I’m talking about now, and I never thought I would talk about these things when I was younger, in church and stuff like that. But I think it’s good to bring awareness and start conversations. That’s the whole point of the project. It’s going to have seven songs, but we’ve made 17 songs in the recording process.
Let’s talk about your creative team. You bring up your team a lot, so I wanted to get a sense of who they are.
Shout out to Pete Rango. He’s from Richmond and we only had two sessions together before I brought him to the recording trip, but we were able to knock out 17 songs in just two days. Luke Herold is my engineer, I’ve been working with him since the first time I ever recorded in a studio. He’s one of the top engineers in Maryland, he’s currently mixing for 21 Savage, and other big names. Hazel is another producer on my team, he’s also from Richmond. Courtney Lang is my go-to photographer, and he will probably end up shooting my cover for my new project, which I’m really excited about.
What are you most excited about for this year?
My focus for this year is on growth. I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself by setting specific goals, but I think this will be the best year of my life so far. I want to thank Don Zientara, Lucas Bockelmann and Tara for taking a chance on me and working with me, it’s changed the project and made it authentic to who I am. It’s real punk music, and it doesn’t sound like anything else. I’m hopeful for what’s to come.
I like what you’re bringing to Richmond. And I also like what Blackliq is doing with Armagideon Time and crossing over into punk music too. Punk has always been a core of the creative scene here. Since eighties, and before that, it’s always been a space where people can be creative and deal with whatever frustrations they have. You see people mature from that, make different kinds of music, or some people just stay in it. But yeah, I like seeing more minority faces and voices in all scenes. Richmond is a good place for it.
It’s one of the reasons I moved to Richmond. I did my research before I moved here and I saw there was a lot of room for growth in Richmond and a lot of room to bring creators together. I love being a connector, and I have a pretty good lineup of shows coming up where I’ll be showcasing a lot of artists, I won’t even be involved, I’ll just be putting together shows.
Shout out to Fallout, because we have two shows that we’re putting together in February that are very special. We’re also working on a ball, the first ball of Richmond. I know there aren’t too many houses here, but if there are houses and you’re listening or reading, we would love your help. We want to do the first ball ever in Richmond, put some houses together and really put on for the LGBT community, because I think it’s the strongest since Baltimore that I’ve seen.
The LGBT community is so strong here. And when you say ‘houses,’ what are you referring to?
Yeah, houses are our families in the community that do a ball, like voguing and the whole outfit, put on the whole performance. Houses compete to see who’s the best.
Oh, New York House of Fashion type stuff. I haven’t heard of that here in awhile.
So I think it’d be the first in Richmond, and I think it’d be cool for the community. As a punk, I like to do things that have meaning. I think everybody deserves a voice. As a ‘cis man’ as they call me, I like to be the person who says ‘fuck that.’ I don’t care. I still think everybody’s beautiful, and I want to bring everybody that’s beautiful together. Maybe I can open up other people’s minds, so there’s less judgment in the world.
Oh, damn, I appreciate that. That’s cool.