Jonathan Yang is making his mark with brutally honest music

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Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud.
Many faces, many experiments, but still the same musician underneath.

At Mosses, an indie art bookstore nestled in an alleyway in Wan Chai, Jonathan Yang and Billie Ho are improvising a song about a “sad tampon” before a small crowd of introverted attendees that have plopped themselves onto the floor, faces flushed with wine. Winter has vaguely wandered into December, and it is finally chilly after a series of broken promises from the weather. Warm lights and soft music adrift in the air, Jonathan gives an exaggerated wince every time he plays a wrong note on the guitar, then follows with a disarming smile.

Most musicians have a public persona they adhere to, for consistency of image, whereas Jonathan puts all facets of his personality on full display, shapeshifting with every new role. Here was Jonathan the friendly boy-next-door, but in gigs throughout the past year there’s been many other Jonathans—the quiet, brooding bassist lurking at the back of the band, the confident singer-songwriter wielding his ambition unapologetically, the vulnerable musician who wears his heart on his sleeve. He knows he can still afford to experiment: after all, time is on his side.

Jonathan is twenty-three this year. His youth surprised me, but not because age was necessarily any indication of talent or skill—there’s no doubt he has plenty of both, with one organiser recently describing him as a “child prodigy”. Rather, it was more that he always exudes a hint of melancholy underneath his messy bob cut and playfulness, which made him appear a lot older. At shows he frequently reveals too much about himself, so brutally forthcoming with his emotions that I had to look away. Then suddenly he gives an age-appropriate, uproarious laugh and all is well again.

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Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud.

Jonathan had an early start: as a child, he was hooked on his mother’s favourite music—The Carpenters, Bread, Sam Hui, Laura Fygi, to name a few. He picked up the guitar in secondary school, covering Jason Mraz songs and entering singing contests, and later transferred to the Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity, where he was a student of seasoned musicians Kung Chi-shing and Ahkok Wong.

“There was a lot of new 衝擊—experimental, sound, noise, fuck!” he recalled with relish. “Many things started blossoming in my head—all because of [the school],” he says. It was there that he formed his first band, Ketchup & Mustard, “an alternative pop rock band with some flavours of blues, neo soul and rock.” Since then, while busking on the streets and taking on temp jobs like chef’s assistant, Jonathan’s played in at least six different bands, all with wildly different styles.

In 2017, he released his debut EP, It’s Time I Head South, an ambitious endeavour that mixes electronica with softer ballads, veering from exuberant to heartfelt all in just under thirty minutes—perhaps a surprising record for those familiar with Jonathan’s more stripped-down acoustic live performances. “Solace”, the first song, opens with an eerie, disembodied voice screeching:  

Bright lights / Disturbance / December / Air conditions / I feel / I think I feel / Something strange

The album was written during a time when Jonathan had been sleeping on the streets, crashing with friends, or locking himself in his room for days and only drinking water. He rarely took showers. Sometimes drugs were involved. This period came shortly after the Umbrella Movement in 2014, which left him questioning the city’s future—and perhaps by extension, his own. “I didn’t give a shit about my life anymore. So it’s like whatever I do, it didn’t matter… It was like ‘how to disappear completely’,” he says, citing a Radiohead song.

But even being a fuck-up for prolonged periods could get boring after a while, and once he started picking himself up, he put his energy into making a record. The resulting EP naturally became a chronicle of his mental state and perhaps even physical condition during that tumultuous time, documenting his coming of age.  

From track four, “Sleeping on the Edges”:

I got something on my chest / responsibility / Heads and shoulders straight up / straight up ribbons bind along with us / And we’re sleeping on the edges

Jonathan is very defensive about his lyrics, and dismissing the effort he’s put into them is a surefire way to piss him off. “Someone once complimented me on my music, and I asked them what they thought of the lyrics,” he says. “And they said, Well, you didn’t write them with much thought, right? And I was like, No! I was so hurt!  I fucking put my heart into this stuff and nobody cares!”

This protectiveness could have to do with an intention to follow the footsteps of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, a lyricist who imbued his songs with timeless poetry. Another may be just how much of himself he pours into the words. We find traces of his sentimentality in the margins of the EP, which is dedicated to his “broken hearts”, and his lyrics are even more confessional. In a yet-to-be-recorded song, “Forecast”, he sings, over and over again in the refrain:

Do not hurt me / Do not forecast the days

For a sensitive young musician, Hong Kong can be a stifling city. Jonathan confesses that he’s thought about leaving: “I love this place and I love the people I’ve met here, but it has its flaws and they are fucking killing me sometimes.”

Two years ago, he spent a month in Germany, playing gigs and small festivals around the country, and he’s recently just returned from a Taiwan tour with fellow musician Tomii Chan. These experiences showed him a world where independent music was not marginalised, and taken seriously as a vocation rather than a hobby.

At shows he frequently reveals too much about himself, so brutally forthcoming with his emotions that I had to look away.

Despite this, Jonathan isn’t done trying. Hong Kong could be a “very good training ground,” he says, with all its hurdles and indifference. “Sometimes I’m a bit arrogant and I get ahead of myself, I’d be asking others if they know of any overseas labels. But then I think to myself, why don’t I make it here first, since I’m from here?”

“I want to stay here a little while longer and do more here,” he says. His occasional self-deprecating humour aside, it’s clear that once Jonathan has his mind set on something, he’d go all out. Last year alone, Jonathan partnered up with Billie and formed Mothgown, played bass for David Boring, and opened for Taiwanese band Deca Joins. He performed everywhere—industrial buildings, co-working spaces, Freespace fest, weddings. He put together a release show for his EP. He even starred in a Stranded Whale music video, playing a character with an odd fixation with mannequins. He’s currently working on material for a full-length album.

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Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud.

Jonathan has many roles, but he faces them with the same conviction to be genuine. At a small, intimate gig he co-organised last year at a band rehearsal space, he ended his set with a Cohen cover for his ex-girlfriend, whom he had once serenaded with folk songs. When I ask him about the unusual, deeply personal move, he says it was a challenge he had set for himself for the show: he wanted to be as honest as possible.

But Jonathan has never been one to put on an act, let alone be dishonest. “I’m a very straightforward person… to some extent I can’t really hide my emotions,” he admits. “And music is so naked.”

Editing by Still / Loud’s Holmes Chan.