Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Yeule lead

Yeule and the scars of past memory

26 September 2023, 09:00

Singaporean-British singer-songwriter Nat Ćmiel – AKA yeule – tells Sophie L Walker about the struggle of interrogating personal trauma to make public art.

Yeule has never felt so real. There is incredible cognitive dissonance in encountering the artist in the flesh when they have held so much disdain for the limitations of the body; something so strange about seeing Nat Ćmiel anchored to a world they chose to abandon.

The digital realm felt safer: a new frontier where ‘reality’ was mutable and identity was an act of self-definition. But out there, beyond their bedroom door, those possibilities would narrow: the real world was rigid, uncompromising and beyond control. And so Ćmiel would not leave their house.

A self-described hikikomori, the Singaporean artist, who uses they/them pronouns, found refuge in electronic music – an introvert’s sonic ally. They announced themself with 2019’s Seratonin II, a cybernetic wasteland haunted by personas, the classical canon, shadows of pop sensibility and an entire internet’s worth of subcultural wanderings – all echoes of an obsessive, profoundly isolated mind.


Its 2022 successor, Glitch Princess co-produced with PC Music’s Danny L Harle was an even deeper excavation into intimacy, dysphoria, perfection and disgust for their earthly body. This was the last time I spoke to Ćmiel: they hadn’t left the house in two weeks, preferring to meet in the online realm rather than the real one. Thoughts of post-humanism, cyborg theory and different “translations of the soul” had been circling their mind; the connection would fail, and their voice felt untethered. Barely there.

But Ćmiel’s third record, softscars, marks a dimensional shift. They’re here in an act of exorcism: digging their fingers under scabs, reopening old wounds just to experience something real. The blood-let of “x w x”, with its hellfire of guitars and percussion punctuated with the sound of a cocked gun, is confrontationally physical. And then there is that ungodly, raw-throated scream, a sound completely estranged from Ćmiel’s typical world of gentle whispers. It’s a whiplash-inducing collision of the future and the past, caught somewhere between shock and a need for comfort.

4 yeule Neil Krug RGB Hi Res

Our conversation is only hours before one of their first performances translating this new world to the stage at End of The Road Festival. Their previous live shows have better resembled living, breathing art installations complete with immersive stage-setting and otherworldly costumes that kept Ćmiel firmly hidden behind a digital veil. But for the first time, aided and abetted by Sasami on guitar, they command an entire band to execute their vision – an act of togetherness. softscars is the product of Ćmiel and their close friend and executive producer Kin Leonn; they bonded over a longing for childhood and their shared Singaporean roots. “We wanted to take what we knew of alternative rock into new age, cyber-twee music – yeehaw cyberpunk - but also, emo music! And also, electronica!”, they explain in a half-ironic flurry of internet tags.

The seed of exploration was planted when Ćmiel and Leonn heard the B-side of A. G Cook’s 2020 album, 7G. Its tracks were inflected by lo-fi rock and shoegaze before throwing themselves into glitched-out oblivion. “I had a little chat with him in LA a couple of weeks ago and we were just nerding out about tuning shapes,” they recall. “I wrote my entire first EP in C major, and I’m really into that kind of shit: how far can I go using the same technique, but changing it ever so slowly? Most of softscars is in open E. Historically, a lot of shoegaze music has been written in open E, which is why people think this new album is shoegaze. Personally, I don’t think it is. When I was writing it, I was thinking more if My Chemical Romance was mixed with Arca. My non-binary romance.”


Despite nestling into the comforts of Radiohead, Avril Lavigne and Atomic Kitten - the soundtrack of their childhood in their mother’s CD collection - Ćmiel did not like growing up. “I wasn’t really supported. I grew up very isolated from the rest of the kids,” they reflect. I wasn’t even allowed to leave my house unattended until I was sixteen because my parents wanted to protect me. I associated, from a very young age not leaving the house with safety.” They admit they were a “problem child” who would get in trouble for biting and throwing sharp objects; often moving schools, their childhood was governed by constant disruption and instability. “Apparently, I didn’t cry as a baby,” they remark. “My mum said all my crying was saved for my teenage years.”

The aching 90s ballad “sulky baby”, warped by an unsettling electronic undercurrent, is Ćmiel in communion with their younger self. “When I went for therapy – when I could finally fucking afford it during the pandemic – I really tried to figure the great mystery of myself out,” they tell me. Much of softscars was a victory of deep personal excavation, journaling every day and documenting the memories that would wash up on the shore that she thought had been lost to sea. “My therapist was giving me all these tools to navigate through my trauma. I have PTSD, and I still don’t know if I’m ready to think about that, but the funny thing about that is you never know when it’s gonna hit you. Some things you see, feel, touch or hear will trigger something that you’ve blocked out of your head in order to survive,” they explain. “My therapist said, ‘Let’s try this: envision your younger self’ – and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t imagine a younger version of myself in my head. I chose to believe that I had no memories before the age of nine, but through visualisations over the last few months in therapy, I finally had an epiphany – and I found a lot of peace. You find out that child never leaves you.”

Despite their moth-like attraction to the physical, leaving the house was still a struggle for Ćmiel. What with the sanctuary the internet offers for insular minds, this isolation, they feel, is growing to become symptomatic of a generation. “I think a lot of people struggle with wanting to isolate,” they say. “Especially today’s youth. It’s more common than you’d think. This is why I’m so surprised that my fans come to my shows – because it involves going out.”

Being ‘terminally online’ is something that bonded Ćmiel and Mura Masa who Danny L Harle introduced: “I was telling him about my problem of not wanting to leave the house, and he was saying, ‘Oh yeah, that’s delegation.’ It means you have a little square of safety, and you can’t cross that border – sometimes it goes so far as to be the line that separates your room from the hallway. It’s that bad.” As Ćmiel and Leonn wrote softscars in a single, consuming week, he would have to import things from ‘the outside world’ to their inner sanctum.

The record is built on a foundation of life-changing events, dissecting the moments that tip the scale and leave you irrevocably altered. “So, have you ever seen someone die, right in front of your eyes?” Ćmiel ventures. I tell them I haven’t, but they have, twice: “One of them was an OD and one of them was from cancer. I experienced death at a young age, very closely. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I believe in energy passing through. I feel like people who have passed and people who I’ve loved who have transcended physically live vicariously through my love for them and my remembering them. My second EP [Pathos] was dedicated to one of my best friends in high school who killed himself on Valentine’s Day in 2016. I still think of him to this day and I celebrate his life because he was a very talented writer and actor. He was quiet, and he was stifled by religious dogma – and I grew up very religious, too. After doing a lot of work on myself, I started to think about my childhood and wondered what I could do to satiate their needs. softscars is a confrontation of all my flaws, and a confrontation of everyone around me who I loved way too hard and stifled way too hard.”

I ask if the reopening of those wounds on a public scale, on a stage for the world to observe and dissect, is destructive. “Interesting…” they pause, for a moment. “Yes. I have to take songs off the setlist. Sometimes, I feel like my entire career is based on my trauma, and I’m bringing in all that trauma to write good shit. I’m not perfect, and I don’t feel like all my scars are healed – but at least I can make something beautiful, sonically. Sometimes the music can keep you at a safe distance from the actual meaning of a song.”

Vasso Vu

The total of Ćmiel’s work is an interrogation of the personal nature of trauma and the very public nature of art. “I’ve always been drawn to the darker side of things because I find it really comforting knowing there’s something quite adverse against purity. It’s, like, poisonous, you know? You bite the hand that feeds you,” they explain. “But I also celebrate triumph. I celebrate a lot of healed battle wounds. I don’t even feel vulnerable as much as I feel powerful for confronting them.”

Through the moments of white-knuckled pain and euphoria that softscars encapsulates through retracing the past, how has this baptism of fire changed Ćmiel’s understanding of themself? “I would be lying if I said I loved myself and I’m living in daisies, super happy and frolicking through life. But I feel like I’ve made something, I’ve made something very pivotal on a flower bed – even though it’s rotting. And I’m happy about that. It doesn’t matter if I’m okay with myself or happy as long as I’m doing something that I find fulfilling. I’m content… but I’m not. It’s weird,” they say, another thought crossing their mind like a passing cloud, “every time I finish writing an album, I’m hungry. I want more.”

softscars is out now via Ninja Tune

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