Yu Su (苏玉) spent the summer playing festivals across the world, but nothing quite beats coming back home to Vancouver.
“I was away for almost four months. And then when I got home, when I landed, I just got out of the airplane and smelled the cedar and the ocean,” she tells the Straight over the phone. “I just started crying. I was so homesick.”
Su, one of the city’s most interesting electronic music producers, had an unlikely road to success. She was raised in Kaifeng, and grew up studying classical piano.
“Debussy is a big influence,” she says. “I realized it’s because Debussy’s composition, it’s the closest to, I think, modern ambient music. So that must have really struck me back then.”
While Su moved to Vancouver in 2013 to go to university, it took a few more years before she was introduced to the electronic music scene. Right before she was about to graduate, some friends persuaded her to go see British DJ Floating Points (Sam Shepherd) play his first show in Vancouver.
“Some friends took me to this party, this underground party here, which was at the time the first party I’d ever been to in my life,” she recalls. “I went in without knowing anything at all. There was like zero electronic music knowledge back then. So I just went there and stayed to the end, and it was just completely life-changing.”
Su now counts Shepherd—who, interestingly enough, also cites Debussy as a musical inspiration—among her friends. But Su’s inspirations are all over the place: avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson, minimalist composer Terry Riley, 80s icon Phil Collins. Centuries-old trees. The West Coast landscape. Where she grew up.
Yellow River Blue, her debut album released in 2021 after a string of EPs, draws its name from the Yellow River that runs along Kaifeng’s north edge. Her music moves through different genres, but feels perfect for a West Coast November: it evokes winds moaning, rain-drenched landscapes, banks of grey clouds brooding over misty mountains to the tune of moody slow-burn house vibes.
After radio station KEXP asked Su to play a live set last year, Su initially refused. “I don’t really play live, other than site-specific sound art installations,” she explains. But then she got talking to some of her musician friends, and decided to try out playing together to see what happened. “We kind of sat there for just a day and somehow figured out how to translate the album I’d written completely with computer synthesizer softwares into a band form, translating arpeggio sounds into guitar riffs.”
They didn’t know what the reception would be, but Su says there had been a really positive response. The band opened for indie rock band Parquet Courts in New York earlier this year, and more recently played some dates for Japanese psychedelic band Kikagaku Moyo’s farewell tour.
“The experience of playing with a band, performing music versus being on my own DJing, is completely different. And it’s so exciting and inspiring so far,” she says.
Now the band’s headlining Fortune Sound Club in a hometown show, and Su says there’ll be a mix of old tracks and new songs. Since the band project started, her songwriting inspirations have grown even more.
“Growing up, I didn’t have so much background or access to Western music in general, so everything I’ve been discovering since I got into producing music has been changing. For example, I most recently got into rock music,” she says. “I listened to Nirvana for the first time, Pink Floyd for the first time.” Right now, she’s “really obsessed” with the Talking Heads’ vibe.
Working with a band means a second album is taking much longer to put together. Before, she would “go to an island, go somewhere semi-remote outside the city and sit there for a couple of weeks and just write an entire album.” But that’s less feasible with so many other people involved. It’s also the first time she’s added words to her compositions.
“I’ve never written lyrics, and English is not my first language. So I was kind of self-conscious about it. But then I was just like, ‘Well, it’s music. Lyrics don’t always have to make complete sense.’ I just write whatever I want,” she says. “I have some stuff in Mandarin as well.”
That’s one of the things that Su is most looking forward to showcasing at the Vancouver show.
“It makes me the happiest when someone comes and starts speaking Chinese to me. It’s such a nice feeling, you know, electronic music is still very Eurocentric, the audience is mostly English-speaking,” she says.
“There are many people with Chinese-Canadian backgrounds in Vancouver who follow my stuff. I’m very excited to sing in Chinese.”
Yu Su & Her Band play the Fortune Sound Club on Nov. 26. Tickets are available here.