Yumi Zouma on “Willowbank”

Not Just One of the Guys

Nov 20, 2017 Photography by Aaron Lee Issue #62 - Julien Baker
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Even before they settled on an approach for writing and recording their sophomore album, Christie Simpson and her bandmates in the rising New Zealand synth pop troop Yumi Zouma knew what they wanted to avoid.

"The goal is to not just be guys who are just being dudes, in another indie rock band, not being particularly groundbreaking," she says with a playful chuckle about she and her bandmates' determination to set Willowbank, their sophomore LP, apart. "So many festival lineups now are full of guys, in bands, being dudes. I don't know if we avoid that, because I'm the only woman in the group, but our vibe is different."

It'd actually be downright tough to accuse Yumi Zouma of being generic, in large part because of Simpson's soothing, fluttering voice. She's always been integral to the band's sound, even before their 2016 debut LP Yoncalla.

"In the beginning the guys didn't want to be the face, it was supposed to be anonymous, maybe just let people assume that 'Yumi Zouma' is one woman's name," she says of the preference of her bandmates (Sam Perry, Charlie Ryder, and Josh Burgess) to let Simpson's voice be a major focal point in their smooth yet hazy sound.

And while it may sound like she's the star, Simpson didn't quite feel that way while working on Yoncalla. She explains that "Willowbank sees me and Sam having more input and being more solidified members in the band, and everything meshing tighter."

That's because their debut featured lyrics primarily written by Ryder, a childhood friend of Simpson and Burgress' (Perry linked up with them later on). And while most of those lines came from Ryder, he "doesn't write about his personal experiences very much. So sometimes he'd just be imagining what a woman would write about, which sometimes wasn't accurate, so I'd have to workshop it with him," Simpson says.

So they opted for a more inclusive process for Willowbank, spending plenty of time cobbling its lines together in the studio. The result: engrossing, idiosyncratic lyrics that are distinctly Yumi Zouma's own while still being ambiguous enough to soundtrack various listeners' experiences. On "Depths (Pt. I)," for instance, Simpson sings of being "seriously in lust" over synths and drums that practically pulse enough to set a disco ball alight. And on the harder driving, more minimalistic "Persephone," she sings of an old fling's advance and describes him simply as "a troublemaker at best."

"I'm definitely prouder of the lyrics this time," she says of Willowbank, adding that parts of Yoncalla's lines had "lyrics just for the sake of lyrics, and not a whole lot to them. That eventually starts to grow a little tiresome when you're singing them live all the time. But I have feeling that won't happen with this album. I'm so very excited that we worked harder to create these songs, and that it paid off and came out sounding how we wanted it to."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Fall 2017 Issue (October/November 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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