By Harper Wellman
Yawn is the latest project for Vancouver-based artist and musician Julia McDougall, who began her musical journey in Saskatchewan before earning a Composition Degree at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC. Post-University, McDougall pursued her career—living and performing in Berlin, producing her self-titled EP alongside Andy Shauf, a Polaris prize nominee, and working at the Sarah McLachlan School of Music. Like McDougall herself, Yawn has seen a journey beginning in 2015. Initially recording and performing with other musicians, Yawn has been distilled down to its originator, following up a folk-influenced debut with a dream-pop statement of a new direction. With the release of Yawn’s new song, Wasting Time, and a new music video, directed by Leanne Kriz and starring dancer Shannon Gray, Yawn’s visuals and sounds are pushing their boundaries, exploring ideas of growth, isolation, and hope.
Thank you for talking with us. Can you tell us about your music career how Yawn as a project came to be? What was your vision when you started the project, and how has that evolved?
I’m originally from Saskatchewan, and I’ve been making music and playing shows since I was young. I grew up in a really small town where there was nothing to do. I have a memory of going into a wheat field to write poems as a kid. Writing kind of came first for me, then when I started playing music it seemed natural to me that they should come together. As a teen, my friends and I would book halls and organize shows and get bands from other places to come and play. I started recording and releasing music – it was all very cute and DIY. When I was older I left to study composition at SFU, continuing to write songs on the side. After university, I moved away to Berlin for a bit where I joined a psych-rock band, and then came back to go back to school for my teaching degree. It was around this time that Yawn started to take shape. It was a slow-moving project that began as a casual band in about 2015 and over the years grew into a more concrete ensemble. We released an EP in the summer of 2019 but for me, it never sat right. It felt close to what I wanted for a project but was somehow misaligned with my vision overall. I ended up parting ways with the band because I realized that I needed to trust my gut and not have to compromise on anything (so diva, right?). This is the version of Yawn you’re hearing today. A version that feels much truer to the project I’ve always wanted and more aligned with who I really am.
Wasting Time is much different from You and I. Lyrically, things are much more pointed. Can you speak to this transition and why for you, sometimes less is more? What was your intent, or inspiration while writing and recording Wasting Time?
Wasting Time took a totally new and different direction than You & I, which I think you can feel in the music. I wanted to fall deeper into the electro dream-pop world and leave behind the folk side of things. Interesting that you should say it’s lyrically more pointed, maybe I’m just getting to the point more succinctly? For me, the way that I write hasn’t changed since I was a kid writing poems in the prairies. I try to be true and honest about what I have to say. Maybe with Wasting Time I have a better understanding of who I am and what I want to say, which is mostly that I want to capture the kind of human experiences that leave you feeling a bit lost or confused. It’s a way for me to air out my thoughts a bit.
The song is about accepting life as an artist and persevering in the face of adversity.
My intent with Wasting Time was to bring a single from this new iteration of Yawn to the table. I had a really clear idea of what I wanted the song to feel like and what came out from this recording mirrors what I had in my mind. For me, the song is about accepting life as an artist and persevering in the face of adversity. It’s also just a reminder to myself, to say “Hey, don’t forget, this is who you are. You can’t run or hide from it, it will find you.” My inspiration really stemmed from frustration. I often feel frustrated by how little artists are appreciated (economically) and how much work it is to push for what you want. Sometimes a song is a way for me to acknowledge myself and hold myself while I’m working through it all.
Tell us about the video for Wasting Time. While you do make a cameo, it was filmed in LA, quite quickly, while you were in Vancouver. Can you tell us about the process of how this team and video came together? Were you involved in all aspects of the video, or were there certain things you had to entrust to your team?
The director of this video, Leanne Kriz, is a friend from Vancouver who’s based out of LA. During COVID she started developing these cool music videos and I asked her if she’d be interested in working with me. The way that the whole thing came together really surprised me. It was so natural, Leanne and I were so in sync in our ideas and she has a brilliant mind when it comes to art direction and design. I wanted the video to border pop and art, and I wanted it to be moody and magical. Leanne had this idea of a flower monster that is at first lethargic but over time they kind of evolve into this inspired monster. We circulated around ideas of coming to a kind of higher self or just coming to own who you are which is the essence of the song. I loved the idea and the result was so close to our original concept it was amazing. We had a shoestring budget to work with but Leanne and the team did an incredible job. It was shot in one day, and I should also mention our dancer, Shannon Gray, did an incredible job capturing the emotions of the song and evoking the ideas that we wanted to capture. When Leanne told her we needed to be an apathetic monster she said “that’s great, I did a whole performance workshop on apathy!” (Like, what are the odds?) Paul Helzer was also our lighting designer and he helped with some of the shots. To the team down in California, I am so grateful to you!
I was involved in all the conceptual aspects of the video but when it came to the actual shoot and execution Leanne and her team did all the work. I felt bad because she would text me photos from the set saying, “Do you like this?” Or “what about this shot?” I guess that’s how things have to work during COVID. I was lucky though because Leanne listened to me and was open to my input. It meant a lot to me and I could tell that everyone involved with the project was super dedicated to making the song come alive through this video.
I am curious to know how your work as a music educator has influenced Yawn, or your music generally. Do they inspire you? Or does your music provide a break from being an educator?
I’ve been a teacher at the Sarah McLachlan School of Music for about 5 years now. I think of teaching as very separate from the music I make but my students inspire me all of the time. They are always showing me new music and new ways of thinking. Or sometimes a student will say something so profound without even meaning to and it gives me life. The school is kind of my one working refuge that isn’t like real-world jobs and I’m very thankful for it. My colleagues also inspire me constantly – they are movers and shakers in the music world, each in their own way, and I look up to all of them.
With the year we’ve had, I think many people are looking for new music. Who are some of the artists that got you through 2020, and what does 2021 look like for Yawn?
That’s a tough one. I listened to a lot of different stuff over COVID but sometimes I found myself feeling like I wasn’t even listening at all, do you know what I mean? Like you’re so lost in what’s happening, so buried in it that really deep listening isn’t there for you? That’s what has been happening for me. Still, I listened to Caroline Polachuck a lot in the summer and Moses Sumney. I listened to Adrianne Lenker, perfume genius, Tirzah. Lots of things. Ethiopian jazz too.
For Yawn, I hope I can get lots of funding and make a record in 2021. That’s my biggest goal and I’m looking forward to achieving it. This is the record I’ve been wanting to make for a long, long time. I feel ready. I also hope I can just continue. I hope shows and festivals happen again. I hope we get vaccinated. I hope life can resume but I don’t even know what that means anymore. I’m still hopeful anyway, and maybe that’s enough.