Everything is Going to Be Alright for Charlie Yin

How Giraffage became one of the most well-liked and critically acclaimed electronic producers in the Bay Area.

When Giraffage played Outside Lands, he was only a few blocks from his house. (Photo by Holy Mountain Photography)

Moseying through a nearly vacant mall in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo late on a weeknight in early October, Charlie Yin is easy to spot. Riding up the escalator to the entrance of Honda-Ya, one of the few places in the city where you can get izakaya at midnight, Yin hustles over with a warm wave. Having arrived in L.A. only 36 hours earlier, Yin hunkered down in nearby Highland Park with a lighting engineer, putting the finishing touches on video production for his upcoming tour in support of his debut album, Too Real, out now on Counter Records, part of Ninja Tune.

Clad in a long, plain black T-shirt with an inner arm tattoo peeking out, a beanie doing its best to cling to his short black hair, and a lanky, 6-foot-3-inch frame, Yin is the tallest person in the room. Zigging through the restaurant’s narrow walkway and tightly packed tables, no one recognizes him — and that’s how he likes it. Working under the name Giraffage, the producer behind popular remixes of R. Kelly, Tinashe, and The-Dream’s Love/Hate LP is more at home in his bedroom working on songs than he is in public.

Settling into his seat, Yin does his best to hide his exhaustion, but gives in to a few slight yawns. He says not to be offended, it’s just been a long day. Tracking the 21 songs that comprise his live show has been arduous. He’s only about halfway done with a 12-hour marathon session to complete the task. He’ll head back to San Francisco in 36 hours, before returning to L.A. in a couple weeks for tour rehearsals.

For the better part of the past half-decade, Giraffage has become known as a lauded producer who seamlessly fuses his own brand of electronica with R&B, along with some minimalist and urban elements. Managing expectations for a career that was more of a self-described “slow burn” than rapid ascent was the easy part. Life on the road was not.

Enthralling Bay Area music fans before he became an international touring artist, Giraffage has gradually climbed into your headphones, even if you haven’t realized it. “Be With Youwas featured in an iTunes commercial in 2015, its sparkly and breezy electronica serving as a complement to the tech giant’s product push. As dance music has become more popular, Giraffage’s slightly off-center brand has differentiated him from his beat-dropping contemporaries. Winning over his peers proved to be easy and fruitful.

But that didn’t mean that all was well.

Battles with himself — in particular, stress and anxiety over his newfound fame — tore him apart. Struggling with a growing notoriety from years spent gigging wore this budding producer down. Too Real was the culmination of Giraffage facing his fears, battling the mental malaise the album channels, and recapturing the fearless spirit that saw him rise from a UC Berkeley dorm room to international acclaim. Yet no amount of touring, fan approval, or fame could prepare him for the first major obstacle of his career.

Before he sinks his teeth into a salmon roll, Yin pauses. He looks down, then quickly up with a slight smile.

“It’s just been a busy day,” he says. “And a busy few years.”

Born in Santa Clara County to Taiwanese immigrants, Charlie Yin and his older brother Phillip were encouraged to succeed scholastically. Their parents wanted them to work hard so they could become white-collar workers — like doctors or lawyers. They had other ideas.

From an early age, the brothers were enthralled by music. Instead of doing homework, they’d plug in their headphones and listen to Blink-182 and 2Pac. Their parents — a father who is an electrical engineer and an accountant mother — had no idea what they were up to.

“We had the door closed and our headphones in and were quiet. How were they supposed to know?” Phillip, who is seven years older than Charlie, recalls.

“I remember the first song I ever liked was Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s ‘Crossroads,’ and I was only in preschool,” Charlie says. “Blink-182 was one of my first favorite bands when I was in second grade. I don’t even know if my parents knew that my brother was listening to that stuff.”

The Yins learned of their sons’ musical passion, and Charlie was given his first drum kit in elementary school, which Phillip and his friends would jam on in the family garage in Cupertino. Phillip may have broken it in, but the younger Yin wouldn’t let it collect dust.

In high school, when he wasn’t pursuing his other passion, photography, Charlie bounced around various bands. Banging on the drums in Time 509, a garage-rock outfit that emulated The Strokes — “Our demos are still on Myspace!” he says — was fun. So was grooving on guitar in the Masquerade, a metalcore outfit that channeled Atreyu. But thrashing wans’t quite as enjoyable as he’d hoped. One night, Yin retreated to his bedroom and decided to try something different.

He became intrigued by the electronic sounds of Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada, and by chiptune music. Writing his own songs on Tabit, a rudimentary software system that allowed him to layer instruments, Yin initially worked on a short-lived, unnamed indie-rock project. Ditching rock, Yin adopted “Robot Science” as his moniker and worked on an electronic sound.

“I was tired of hearing guitar riffs and the electronic music was me trying to find something new,” he says. “I find myself trying to do that to this day. I’m hyper-analytical of every song I listen to, and it can get annoying at times.”

The budding songwriter composed tunes in his bedroom when he should have been knocking out English essays and solving math problems. Focusing mostly on music eventually caught up with him. Despite being “less than an ideal student,” Yin skidded by in high school before enrolling at nearby De Anza College. Two years of honor roll-quality grades got him back on the academic path his parents hoped for, and he transferred to UC Berkeley.

Moving to the East Bay didn’t dissuade Yin from working on Robot Science, though. He’d ditch class to make music in his dorm room — but instead of failing out, his grades were solid enough that his parents weren’t suspicious.

“I think since I was in Berkeley, trying to get a degree was OK for them,” he says of the sly use of his time.

Yin shared Robot Science, receiving generally positive feedback. It was a much needed confidence boost. When Yin visited his parents, he’d take CalTrain instead of dealing with the treacherous traffic on Interstate 880. These trips gave him time to think and stare aimlessly out the window. On one such journey, Yin thought about working on a new project that would be sample-focused. Randomly glaring through the glass during a stretch near Palo Alto, Yin saw a phrase that would be the inspiration for a new name.

“There was this giant graffiti on the wall that said Girafa, who is a Bay Area graffiti artist,” he recalls. “I saw that and added [-age], and that’s how my name came about. Later on, he ended up hitting me up after hearing I was inspired by his work, and it was great to talk about that.”

Focusing on sample-based music, and inspired by Toro Y Moi and Washed Out, the college senior wanted the focus to be grounded in chillwave. The newly anointed Giraffage posted “A Bird in Hand,” and shortly thereafter his first proper release, the Pretty Things EP, on Bandcamp. To his surprise, people started buying them almost instantly.

As his cachet rose on Bandcamp, Yin attracted offers to perform. His first show was at a frat house at Stanford — which, he says, wasn’t ideal for him to launch his live career.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he says. “The promoter liked my stuff on Bandcamp and knew a lot of Bay Area artists. His frat had monthly or bi-monthly parties, so he wanted me for that. I had a bunch of my friends come, and it was them and people who had no idea who I was and what I was doing there.

“It was good for a first show,” he adds, “but looking back, there were definitely some weird vibes.”

Charlie Yin’s cat giving him a high-five. (Photo by Holy Mountain Photography)

Graduating with a political economy degree and a stellar GPA, Yin put a future in marketing on hold to focus on music. Years earlier, Phillip had dropped out of college — he’d originally studied computer engineering — to pursue his dream of becoming a sound engineer. Rather than being disappointed, Phillip says his parents were supportive of an artistic career. As Giraffage started making money from Bandcamp, the younger Yin was afforded the same career trial period, with his parents’ sign-off.

“I probably softened them a lot,” Phillip says. “When Charlie told them he wanted to do music as a career, they were more comfortable with it. My parents told him that if he didn’t make something of himself in a certain number of years, then they would have told him to become an engineer.”

When they discovered his plan to become a musician, they were pretty supportive, Yin says. “By letting Phillip try music as a career, they knew it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t have the same chance.”

Yin’s reputation grew, and the Bandcamp audience started buying his music. Now earning $50 to $200 per show — “It was a lot then!” he says — he thought Giraffage was on its way. His first manager, who was based in the U.K., and first booking agent each found him on Bandcamp. He performed sporadically in Europe, getting a broader taste of touring life.

Word spread, first on Bandcamp and later on SoundCloud. Giraffage made himself known to influential Bay Area music types. Posting remixes on SoundCloud won him a new audience — which, for a budding producer, is arguably more important in establishing credibility than landing a hit song. Having a Billboard hit is huge, but earning respect on a platform like SoundCloud was essential for Giraffage to appeal to loyal and knowledgeable music fans.

Armed with a tiny but fervent group of supporters, Yin emailed his material to local and national blogs hoping to gain exposure. Following the Stanford show, ahe was booked at a Noise Pop pre-party at the offices of hyperlocal S.F. blog The Bold Italic. That night, there were around 10 people in attendance. One happened to be one of Yin’s current managers and future girlfriend.

“I only found out about it two days before, and I saw a YouTube video of him playing in a car, driving around in wooded areas,” comanager Chad Heimann recalls.

“Pretty big night in hindsight,” Yin says with a smile.

Heimann and Yin became friends shortly thereafter, checking out shows together. A year later, Yin split with his British manager, asking Heimann and his partner Chris Crowley, the only other managers he knew, to represent him.

“Charlie — in a small music scene San Francisco had at the time — was the one guy, outside of garage rock, who was gaining a strong following,” Crowley says of Yin’s early career. “At the time, I wasn’t a fan of his style of music, but there was something [to] his stuff that was organic, bare, and pretty.”

Signing to Fool’s Gold Records in 2014 was one of the first major signs of success. The label released No Reason that year and helped him establish an identity as a left-of-center producer. He opened for ascending electro house DJ Porter Robinson that same year, which gave his career a critical boost during its formative stages. Several shows from that tour stand out, but seeing Bill Graham Auditorium packed with dancing, screaming fans was something the Yin brothers agree was one of Charlie’s biggest moments.

“Being on the Porter Robinson tour really helped,” the younger Yin says. “I think that was the biggest tour I’ve been a part of so far in my career, and to this day I still get people coming up to me and saying that they first heard of me when they saw me open for Porter.”

His older brother’s career as an engineer didn’t work out, and Phillip ended up working in corporate IT. But he’s always been his younger brother’s sounding board and biggest supporter.

“I’m almost living vicariously through him,” he says. “Seeing that whole place completely full, with tons of people, was crazy. Seeing how they reacted to him was incredible. Seeing him tour that night, I can’t put into words sometimes how happy I am for him. My brother made it.”

Performing at prominent EDM festivals exposed Giraffage’s music to a larger audience. Luscious soundscapes and atmospheric textures reflect Yin’s methodical approach. Constantly shifting and pivoting his sound allows fans to trust his ability to create intelligent electronic music. His live show includes fun imagery like dogs running, cats in bright colors, open skies, and planets, which add an extra layer of visuals. Giraffage may be an electronic artist, but he is not strictly EDM.

“The nature of the festivals I end up playing, it’s more on the EDM side,” he says. “I don’t feel like my sound is really too EDM-ish. It gets really stale watching some dude on a mic yelling. That’s not me. In that regard, I’m an outlier — and I embrace that.”

Touring Australia and India became the norm as he garnered a reputation for mesmerizing live shows. An appearance in an iPhone commercial in 2015 helped, too. Landing an Apple spot was a pivotal step in the careers of artists like Jet, Feist, and Florence + The Machine. It also introduced established players like U2 and Fiona Apple to younger audiences. At one point, scoring an iTunes, iPhone, or iPad commercial was more important than a No. 1 single. But it didn’t change Yin’s approach. If nothing else, the nonplussed producer finally had the tangible evidence that the leap from Bandcamp to the big time was closer than he’d ever expected. Fans and peers recognized Yin’s rigorous work ethic and familiar SoundCloud remixes, and he became a popular and reliable festival draw. His intricate sound and easygoing personality made him a favorite, and he quickly fit in with other DJs and producers.

“In addition to being one of the best dudes on the planet, Charlie has this incredible instinct for creating a vibe like no one else,” Porter Robinson says of his former opener. “There’s something really beautifully serene about everything he does.”

Within a year of the Porter Robinson tour, appearances at dance and electronic fests like HARD Summer and Nocturnal Wonderland, and more mainstream ones like BottleRock, and British Columbia’s Pemberton became increasingly regular. Then, a festival closer to home came calling.

Before 2015, the only way Giraffage could hear Outside Lands was from his Outer Richmond apartment window. Recognizing his ascent, the festival booked him for a coveted Saturday slot on the Panhandle stage. Relaxing before his 6:05 p.m. set, Yin nursed a few beers while taking in the magnitude of performing two football fields away from his house. Peeking out from the side of the stage minutes before his set, he was surprised by the number of people holding down their viewing spots. What he didn’t see were two older folks among the masses. Sporting Giraffage T-shirts in the middle of the crowd, Yin’s parents were in the thick of things. Beaming throughout and taking photos with fans, they saw firsthand how putting their faith in their son paid off.

Backstage, he knew the small stage is a no man’s land between the main area and the Twin Peaks stage. The positioning generally attracts curious festival-goers on their way to see bigger acts.

“Outside Lands is such a big deal,” Yin says, his voice rising. “It was crazy in the first place to even be considered to play it. The crowd was way more responsive than anything I’d played at before, and there had to be at least 10,000 people at that stage. That was the turning point in my parents’ eyes as to understanding what I’m doing. They just got it a little more.”  

The set — which competed against indie-pop outfit Milky Chance and the early part of popular fuzzy psych-rockers Tame Impala — was a success. Fans basked in the sun, screaming along with the music, and the crowd’s energy was so fervent that it caused folks on their way to see backpack rapper and Bay Area’s own G-Eazy stop and take in the action.

“I just put my head down and focus on what I’m doing,” Yin says. “I’m too focused on what I’m doing to really see what fans are doing. But I really enjoyed that one.”

Seeing so many fans turn out for a hometown festival was overwhelming for the DJ. While appearing proud externally, he was starting to face the pressures that came with being in-demand. Fans may not have noticed during his spellbinding performance, but dealing with success had challenges Yin hadn’t expected. He didn’t realize that the unorthodox hours and travel could affect his mental state, and leave him wondering whether or not hitting the road was worth the anguish it caused him.

Giraffage playing at The Annex at SFSU. (Photo by Steven Truong)

Performing between 50 to 60 dates per year, Yin became used to the grueling lifestyle, and the vices that came with it. He drank, partied, ate unhealthy food, and didn’t exercise. Being a public figure caught Yin off-guard as well. Introverted by nature, he wasn’t comfortable — although, he stresses, still very appreciative — with people approaching him on the street. Looking back, Yin admits he didn’t deal with the pressures of life on the road well.

“I have a lot of anxiety, so being recognized in public is crazy to me,” he says. “I’m a shy dude, so it’s weird taking on the role of being this known DJ.”

Being on tour and playing at festivals became an integral part of Yin’s schedule. As his profile grew after that iTunes sync in 2015, Giraffage shows pivoted to traditional concert halls instead of the dank clubs associated with electronic music. Each night, fans packed venues to see Giraffage perform, and with each tour, the crowds swelled. Although he had only a couple of EPs, singles, and remixes in his catalog, the producer’s rise wasn’t unprecedented — but it wasn’t typical, either. There weren’t external pressures, but Yin knew he needed to release a substantial debut or the hard work of the past would be for nothing.

When he finally returned to his apartment for his first extended period at home last year, Yin immediately unplugged. Wiped from years on the road, he knew something wasn’t right. He was lethargic and disconnected from even his closest friends. Responding to emails and calls proved challenging. Conversations with his live-in girlfriend were tedious and distant. Being around people as often as he was made the producer shut himself off whenever he could. Elementary tasks like going outside and engaging with others proved difficult for a man used to performing in front of tens of thousands of people.

“Touring a lot gave me a lot of anxiety and made me depressed,” Yin says. “Traveling for 30 days in a row, not getting any sleep, I feel like that’s shitty for anyone’s mental health, and it was one of the main contributing factors to why I was depressed. I think I tried to seize the opportunity because I knew that I could literally fall off quickly — in terms of popularity. People glamorize touring, but honestly, it’s different than what people expect.

“Not having job security and a lot of things about being a touring musician causes a lot of anxiety, which, in turn, can lead to depression,” he adds. “I feel like some relationships may have suffered because of that. Bingeing social interactions, then not talking to anyone at all has been an aspect of touring that’s really hurt me. I’ve overcome that now, but it was definitely a steep learning curve.”

Finishing Too Real, and putting that period of his life behind, allowed Yin to survive his bout with depression. It was a cathartic step forward knowing that the record was done, and that allowed him to be more hopeful about the future. He thought about seeing a psychiatrist, but ultimately, figuring out the issues on his own and establishing concrete goals proved to be the best remedy.

“This time, I’m not going to drink at all, I’m going to run every single day, eat only vegetables, and that’s just a start,” he says. “It’s going to be done in a more sustainable way.”

The busy tour schedule not only kept him on the road, but slowed down his ability work on his debut. It took Giraffage nearly two years to complete Too Real. Armed with countless ideas, Yin ended up putting 10 songs on his maiden effort. Michelle Zauner of rising indie rock band Japanese Breakfast, Angelica Bess of dance outfit Body Language, and singer Harrison Lipton have guest vocal spots. The inclusion of singers extended the production schedule, as did Giraffage’s in-demand live show.

“I love working with Charlie,” Taryn Haight, senior project manager at Counter Records says. “He’s one of the most chill people, and makes it really easy to work with him. His sound is really fun and uplifting, bright and summery. I love that he has that vibe about his music on everything he does. It’s what a lot of people are looking for right now.”

“Charlie has never done the same thing twice and continues to enjoy making music that he loves,” Crowley says. “You never know where he’s going to end up sonically, and that’s the most exciting thing about working with him.”

Yin working through his anxiety is channeled on this record. The album’s title refers to Yin’s battles with himself and serves as his creative mechanism for releasing his angst.

“For me, music is a snapshot to a certain window of my life,” he says. “Feeling the way that I felt during the time I was writing the album — I was able to channel that a little more than when I was happier. I put the emotions into what I was doing.”

Regardless of his past and current conquests, the 27-year-old DJ has no plans to tour past age 40. Instead, he hopes that his past, present, and future catalog as a producer allows him the opportunity to lock down in a studio where he’s at his most comfortable.

“I’m literally putting every cent I’m making on this tour on stage production,” he says. “Almost every song will be modified to work better in a live setting — the album was written for headphones, and the live edits of the songs will be meant to be heard live with lights and stage production.”

Walking out of the Los Angeles restaurant a few hours later, Yin is all smiles. He says he’s in as good of a mental place as he’s been since he first started the Giraffage project. With the cost of rent being what it is, Yin decided to leave the Bay Area, with a move to a newly purchased home in Austin slated for January. Being able to wander anonymously in a new city is conducive to his creativity and sanity, the producer says. Besides, it’s better than working in marketing.

“It’s still very surreal to me that something that started in my bedroom has gotten to where it is now,” Yin says as he stares into the L.A. night. “I have a better attitude about touring nowadays. I’m trying to do it in a more sustainable way where I’m able to be pretty normal and have a life outside of it. I hope I never stop appreciating it — because if I’m not, then it’s time to stop.”

 

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