Whether you know him from his appearances on different BIRP Indie Playlists or from his involvement in Cape Town indie group The Plastics, Yellow House (aka Emile Van Dango) is certainly one of many South African artists who have the potential to take their music to an international level by virtue of his distinctive sound and painfully honest lyrics. This time we decided to catch up with the 23-year-old and talk art, success, and the temptations presented by life.
You’re in a popular band (The Plastics), you’ve done tours in a variety of countries, and a while ago the group received more than a million plays on Soundcloud … Despite this good run with the band, what drove you to start with Yellow House as a solo project?
As an artist, as a thinker, as somebody requiring constant ways to make sense of my surroundings, I need a platform to tell my stories. The only way an artist can truly contribute to this world is through sharing his or her unique interpretation of it, and in doing so, one hopes to bring some form of relief or understanding to the audience. Yellow House is by design an open book. An unashamedly honest glance into the psyche of man torn and twisted by the world he is surrounded by. It is therapy. It is documentation. Identity. Pleasure.
On occasions, if I meet someone who enjoys your music, the frequent comment that comes up is the oddity of the name ‘Yellow House’. How did the moniker come about?
The Yellow House is a painting by my creative idol, Vincent van Gogh. During his time in Arles, he lived in what was to be known as The Yellow House and crafted some of his greatest works there. What gripped me about this phase of his life was the juxtaposition between this incredibly raw, untainted beauty of his newly flourishing work, and the rapid demise of his sanity and happiness arising simultaneously. I always felt that this stark contrast of beauty and pain existing side by side was the perfect symbol of what my project encapsulates.
So recently you released your latest project titled Sermon on Desire, and even though one can easily tell it’s one of your works, the feel of the project is quite different to your previous project, A Carnival of Fears. Sermon on Desire seems to have a darker atmosphere compared to Carnival … Could you take us through your headspace during the production of your latest offering, and was there something you were trying to achieve?
The mental processes during the two works were completely contradictory experiences. I feel that when listening to A Carnival of Fears, you can hear the innocence and naiveté of a new discovery taking place. I had finally discovered my sound, I was freshly in love, and the exploration was one of pure wonder, newness, and excitement. During the making of Sermon on Desire a year later, I had grasped full control over what my vision for Yellow House was, and rather than granting creativity full right to the reigns, I sculpted the Yellow House sound to portray the settings in my mind. I started writing Sermon during a rough stage of mental illness, dealing with the turbulent concoction of bipolar and worldly excess. The EP intimately chronicles a man battling through an existence of confusion, delusion, lust, and love.
On the track description of “Heaven Knows,” you stated that “It tells a story of a man desperate to maintain his natural devotion toward the light, yet met with the demons of his physical reality around every corner.” To you, what exactly is this ‘light’ and what or who are these demons? In my culture (Xhosa), we’d say that you’re bewitched with things like that 😉
I felt that my life was at a critical point during the making of this EP. I found my soul at a crossroads so to speak, being roped in by the darkness of my city existence down one avenue, and an underlying calling to remove myself from that world and head for the quiet, safety, and serenity that awaits down the other. It is this push and pull feeling between the two potential paths for my soul that led me to feel as though I was in a spiritual battle for my life.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but within your music, traces of R&B, Dream Pop, and Hip Hop can be found. With this melting pot of genres going on, who are you actually making music for?
My sole aim when writing and producing, is to create something that is unequivocally me. The tempos, the beats, the tones and the effects, they’re all chosen to represent my experience of the world at that given time. I never write with a particular audience in mind. I use the beats to grip the body, the lyrics to grip the mind, and the dreaminess to captivate the soul. The end product draws in like-minded individuals from all corners of the world, who value the honest, unashamed approach to art in whatever form it comes in.
What is your definition of success and which well-known person do you think closely resembles that definition?
Success in the workplace is the ability to create a body of work or set a living example that absolutely captivates people and has the power to sculpt and mold the way people think and ultimately live their lives. For somebody’s contributions to the world to be so moving that it can shake the foundations of a fellow human and aid in their rebuild is the mark of a true success. People like this are Plato, Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Viktor Frankl etc. But we also find them in our own homes, and in our own inner circles.
By the way, it seems paintings play a large role within your visuals (video and images), particularly from Van Gogh. What is it about his works and life that have you so drawn to him so much?
In my opinion, Vincent embodied all that a true artist could ever dream to be. He valued every tiny detail that the world offered him. Be it the sweetness of nature or the tenderness of somebody he loved, no beauty escaped him. His love and passion for the world shone through so explicitly in his work, and his undying love for his painting is one of the greatest stories of romance ever. To absorb all of the world’s hate, ridicule and rejection of your work, yet wake up each new morning and dip your brush once more is an immense achievement in itself. Even in death, he remains an undefeated artist due to his devout passion for his work. He was a true artist. And as a true artist, you shine on through pain and through pleasure, because we are called to do it.
On the topic of art, Picasso used to have a collector who would select the works that would be displayed at various galleries. There were instances where Picasso didn’t relish the choices of this collector, but regardless of how Picasso felt, the works that his collector chose would go on to do amazing things for Picasso’s career. This suggests that creators of the actual art, whether it is music or paintings may not know what is best for their own art. Care to share your opinion on this?
I would say this holds a lot of truth. When you’re enveloped in the state of creativity and are absorbed by your work for long stretches of time, you begin to lose all objectivity. You see your work for the full journey you’ve had with it rather than for the whole-bodied finished article it has since become. Often we know our work too intimately and lose sight of the essence that it gives off to a first time experiencer of it.
What do you like about the South African indie scene and what you don’t like?
Hmm … I truly admire the undying love that South African musicians have for their craft. The ability to throw yourself into a project with absolutely no guarantee of any financial gain or critical acknowledgment proves that the passion is earnest and pure. What I don’t like is the lack of density in the scene. There is so little competition within the scene that bands can grow to a certain level, gain monopoly over a scene, and stagnate all within a year. There is a simple reason cities like New York and London birth so many incredible acts. Those artists are thrown into a death pit of artistry, where you have to constantly create something truly remarkable to stay afloat and gain any recognition and longevity.
If you were given the chance to spend a week in the studio with any artist/band –dead or alive – who would it be and why?
Wow. I could spend an entire interview on this question … After much deliberation, I think I would have to settle on Jim Morrison. For me personally, Jim is so much more than just a musician. The man managed to turn his entire existence into a work of art. His words, his vision, his enigmatic energy was that of divine creation, and I would have loved to absorb all his beautiful mind had to offer. Spending a week sharing bottles of whiskey, talking Wordsworth, pining over lost lovers, and discussing spiritual possession at the local topless bar. I’d sign up for that.
The craziest rumor you’ve heard about yourself?
I remain so isolated, people don’t really talk about me much. I’d love to change that though. Maybe I’ll become the face of a revolution and disappear to the Congo basin and change my legacy.
What would you put on a billboard?
Relief is a just listen away. Come on, step inside the Yellow House.