Two singles into her career and Brooklyn-based Ysak already has an endorsement from legendary Berlin DJ Planningtorock, who promoted her latest track, "Crossroads," on release day. The boost is well-deserved, amplifying an artist on-the-rise whose music manages to bring deeply personal, queer admissions into an experimental pop space — and "Crossroads" is a perfect example of that fusion, featuring production from frequent collaborator Macy Rodman.
Ysak says she was listening to a lot of Donna Summer during the creation of this record, landing on a sound that feels like a darker, more entrancing take on "I Feel Love." Indeed, the subject matter is heavier than Summer's 1977 smash, as Ysak reflects on having anxiety disorder and wrestling with childhood trauma in her adult life. "The petrified child is still here," she speak-sings, her voice flipping manically between mousey tones and deep, robotic bellows. "I'm not alone, alone."
"Crossroads" follows Ysak's debut single, "Other Girls," which saw her team up with Rodman yet again to reflect on her dating experiences as a transgender woman in New York. "Would you love me if I stayed the same?" she asks a lover on the chorus. "Would you fuck me if I was just like other girls?" Both tracks, raw and unflinchingly honest, will appear on Ysak's breakout EP, scheduled for release later this year.
In anticipation of what's to come, PAPER asked Ysak and Macy Rodman — a dynamic alt-pop duo — to sit down and talk through "Crossroads" together. Below, they get into Ysak's "bald, scalding emotion" as a songwriter, the Mexican Courtney Love and all things sex, both good and bad.
Macy Rodman: Hi Ysak! I’ve gotten to see you a lot lately, which is so fun. We just had our scandalous photoshoot.
Ysak: It’s very escandalo, if you will.
Macy: How did you come up with the concept for that?
Macy: Those like sexy, naked... yeah, love those.
Ysak: I was like, "Someone needs to put their hand down my pants."
Macy: I had a question about fashion: fashion, you like it?
Ysak: I like fashion. [hairflip] I don’t know if you know this.
Macy: It plays a big role in your creative process, it seems, because during your performances the look is always really elaborate and cool; the images you create for album artwork are always incredible and it seems like you have a really rich collaboration with photographers and stylists. Who are your style icons and what kind of references are you pulling when you get dressed for a performance or a video?
Ysak: There’s the Spice Girls, Britney Spears... I used to be a gay man [both laugh]. There are so many Spanish pop stars and actresses. I couldn’t pinpoint one, I draw from all of them, honestly. But when I’m deciding whether it’s a cover or a video, it depends on what vibe I’m going for. [The cover art for] "Crossroads" inspo was kind of like Jennifer’s Body when she’s in the pool at prom and eating Needy’s boyfriend. But, obviously, not as gory. I wanted to go for that vibe, but not so obvious.
Macy: Yeah, it’s cinematic in a way where it tells a story, but it’s not costume really.
Ysak: Yeah, it’s a mixture.
Macy: Speaking of “Crossroads," the new single came out very recently, we produced it together. It is such a wild mashup of styles, I kind of saw it as bloghouse/electroclash meets Pet Shop Boys/Liza [Minnelli] in Results mode. How did you initially imagine it sounding and did that change?
Ysak: I remember when I started working on it, I was listening to a lot of Donna Summer at the time.
Ysak: I knew I wanted to make something that was super poppy, but not so much like what’s out right now. I wanted it to be more dark in a sense, but I still wanted to give that "I Feel Love" vibe, but I also wanted it to be entrancing a little bit. I guess that’s how my mind works a lot of the time where I’m like, “Oh, this is cool, this is cool, let’s put it together and see what happens."
Macy: Yeah, it also reminded me of Hercules and Love Affair or Jessica Six where it’s super reverent of disco, but also very interested in the production techniques of right now. I just love that track, I think it’s so cool.
Ysak: We made magic, baby [both laugh]. It was a lot of fun to make.
Macy: It’s got a really interesting spoken word mixed with melody, and I think something that has struck me a lot in working with you is that you have a strong element of poetry in your artistry. When you come to me with an idea, it’s like beautiful prose already. Do you have a background in writing poetry or is that something that you’ve ever been interested in?
Ysak: I was never a writer. In fact, when I was in school all my English teachers were like, "You’re really bad at writing," and I was like, "Cool."
Ysak: And I thought I was really good. Like I would write something and be like, "This is fab, I tore that,” and it was just one giant sentence. So I never got into writing ever, and then it was when I moved to New York, actually, I was talking to a friend and I was really, really depressed at the time. She was like, "I don’t know if you write or not, but it really helps to just write out how you’re feeling. Just get a journal and write.” I was like, "I’ll give it a try, I’m not like a writer,” and she said, “It doesn’t matter, you’re the only one that’s gonna see it." So I started doing that and every time I would get sad over a boy or sad over life in general, I would write, write, write. When I knew I wanted to start making music, I was like, "I have all this writing that I can use for reference." And for "Other Girls” and “Crossroads," a lot of those lyrics came from things that I wrote in these journals.
Macy: Speaking of “Other Girls"–
Ysak: "Other Squirrels."
Macy: It was such a strong first single, and such a fun exploration to find our style working together and find the common references that we both hold very special. I just love that song so much.
Ysak: Me too.
Macy: It’s so vulnerable, it’s so bold and just puts it all out there. How does that song and sound relate to the rest of the music that you’ve been working on?
Ysak: I agree, I think it was a very strong first single, and it was a very good introduction to me because, like you said, it’s very vulnerable. That’s something that people have said to me: "vulnerability seems like it comes very easy to you," and I think that’s just one thing that’s always been really easy for me. I’ve never been someone who can hold things in, I have to let them out. So with all my music that’s coming out on the upcoming EP, it has a lot to do with being sad and being depressed and going through shit. I didn’t have a typical “American life." I mean, who did? So I’m trying to figure out my life and figure out how to work through trauma, and it’s helped a lot.
Macy: It’s really brave and bald, scalding emotion. It’s really special, not a lot of people do that. It’s always somehow hidden or cloaked in something else to make it easier to digest.
Ysak: [Laughs] Right, where I’m like, "I’m in pain! I’m a sad girl!"
Macy: But it’s also not really that because the sounds that you’re playing with are so interesting and relate to the lyrics in a really interesting way that doesn’t make it self-absorbed or indulgent, you know?
Ysak: Ever since I knew I wanted to make music, I thought, "I want it to be about me, I want it to be real and I want it to be relatable to people, even if it’s just one person.” But I still wanted it to sound fun because I love fun music.
Macy: Because that’s the music we listen to.
Ysak: The mindless pop that melted my brain.
Macy: It’s such a delicious combination of that pop you say is considered mindless, or about something very superficial or not exploring desire or emotions very deeply. It's looking at the top layer of that, so it’s really tasty to have something that explores it a little bit more.
Ysak: You can have your cake and eat it, too.
Macy: Yeah, baby!
Ysak: C’mon Marie Antoinette!
Macy: Speaking of the EP, you found the perfect cover song that I’m so excited for everyone to hear. I don’t know if you want to reveal it or not–
Ysak: Yeah, let’s reveal it... [whispers] what is it?
Macy: [Laughs] "Volverte a Amar"?
Ysak: Oh, Yeah yeah yeah [laughs].
Macy: I’m like, "Honey, you don’t know what I got lined up for ya!" What made you pick this song to cover? I was so gagged to hear it.
Ysak: Alejandra Guzman was someone my mom used to listen to a lot. She’s a Mexican rock star, I say she’s like a Mexican Courtney Love.
Macy: That’s how you described her to me and I got that immediately.
Ysak: I had been listening to that song a lot, and my mom used to listen to her and Ana Gabriel and a bunch of other Mexican artists who would sing about like heartbreak and love and being mad. Also, at the time I was freshly in a weird place with my dad, which I still kind of am, and listening to it helped me work through those feelings. I was like, “I should cover this.” I also just really like that song, it’s really beautiful.
Macy: Yeah, it has that same kind of vulnerability with a hard edge, but at the same time really melodic and beautiful. The music we’ve been working on has been a lot about longing and feeling left out. How did you develop the sound palette for those emotions? Like when you’re writing something and you think, "This is what it should sound like,” what comes up most often?
Ysak: Honestly, FKA twigs. She’s also very poetic, and the way she words things in her lyrics is very beautiful. The way she sings is so interesting, she’s always doing really weird things with her voice, but altogether it just sounds really beautiful. It’s the same thing with Lana Del Rey. I haven’t really listened to a lot of the newer stuff, but in her older stuff I always thought her lyrics were genius. Also, I gravitate toward a lot of pop-punk and whatever was popular when we were growing up like Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance. I like things that make me feel nostalgic. Sometimes I’ll discover things that friends will show me that they listened to growing up, but my parents just never played, like Diana Ross and Donna Summer. A lot of Selena too, she’s one that I really grew up listening to.
Macy: Fab. That is the good and bad thing about the state of music, right now: everything is genre-less. Sometimes that’s really corny and the mashup of influences is really hard to swallow, where other times taking disparate influences and putting them together is super compelling and allows you to access certain emotions that we weren’t able to capture before.
Ysak: Yeah, it also allows you to blend those emotions.
Macy: Totally. What are you looking for in a man?
Ysak: [Laughs] Um, I’m not looking for a man... just kidding. Someone who can make me laugh.
Ysak: Someone who... is good at sex.
Ysak: And doesn’t smell, that’s always nice.
Macy: That’s where we’re different, I want 'em stinky and poorly dressed.
Ysak: You want a stinky lil’ dick.
Macy: [Laughs] Are you interested in telling specific stories about relationships in your music or do you like to keep it general so the audience can fill in the gaps?
Ysak: It’s a little bit of both. For “Other Girls,” it was pretty general. That song, to me when I was writing it and making the music video, it was an ode to all the guys that I’ve slept with as a trans woman.
Macy: All very hot guys in that video.
Ysak: Yeah, also the ones I fucked! [Laughs]
Macy: [To recorder] "Did you get that? I fucked guys that looked like that!"
Ysak: [To recorder] "I fucked guys, I'm not a virgin!"
Ysak: A lot of our experience as trans women, I’m speaking for myself, but I think a lot of trans people can relate: people aren’t necessarily nice.
Macy: [Laughs] Yeah.
Ysak: Especially when it comes to sexual stuff, you’re very objectified and you’re very fetishized. It’s not fun and it actually makes you feel like shit. It’s a battle because I love having sex, but I also don’t want to be treated like shit. Over the years I’ve gotten better at it where now I have dealbreakers. I tell guys, “If you’re not into kissing, you’re not coming over." Like I need more that someone who’s gonna come over and fuck me and then leave.
Macy: A lot of people want to support trans artists or whatever, but I have noticed that with some cis people, it’s hard for them to party with that idea because it makes them uncomfortable a little bit. Like talking honestly about our experiences as trans women is tough. And for us, it’s normal, it’s not devastating, it’s not the end of the world, but for someone who hasn’t experienced that, they’re like, "What?"
Ysak: Yeah, they can’t believe it.
Ysak: I remember when I first started transitioning, I would hang out with cis girls and I would ask, "What’s your friend’s deal?” And they would be like, “Oh, I don’t know if he’s gay.”
Macy: [Laughs] You’re like, “Didn’t ask that, that really has nothing to do with me."
Ysak: I would be like, “That wasn’t my question." But yeah, some of the songs are pretty general. There are a few songs that are very specific, like the closing song on the EP was definitely directed at a certain person that will remain nameless.
Macy: Oh, that’s the piece you produced yourself. That one’s sickening, I love that one.
Ysak: But then, for example, “Crossroads” is not even about anyone. It’s about me, and it’s about having an anxiety disorder and dealing with trauma, and childhood trauma and just acknowledging that I have dealt with it for many years.
Macy: Where do you want to take your music next?
Ysak: I think the next project I want to work on, I’m gonna take in a more... horny direction?
Ysak: I just wanna have fun with it. I’ve been in a better place mentally. I’m not as depressed, I’m on anti-depressants and I’ve been feeling good. I’ve just been like, "Wait, I kinda wanna sing about this and write about it and just be my horny little self.” I’m really making myself sound like I’m just... really into sex.
Macy: [Laughs] Well, ya know.
Ysak: Which I am!
Macy: Nothing wrong with that.
Ysak: No, I need to seek help.
Macy: So what you’re saying is that you’re a chronic masturbator? You’re actually doing it, right now.
Ysak: I’m doing it right now, I need it 10 times a day.
Ysak: I don’t know where it’s gonna go, not sure what’s in store for the future so, we’ll see.
Macy: I feel like that’s a natural progression for a lot of trans artists, myself included, to get out some of the more pressing issues, and then for the next project be like, “But I’m horny though, and fun!” [Laughs]
Ysak: Come and take a walk on the wild side, baby!
Macy: Miss Lou Reed!
Ysak: I don’t know, the world is changin’ baby. Guys have been real into us lately.
Macy: It’s true! I’ve noticed a big shift, I wonder if it’s quarantine.
Ysak: I think quarantine had a lot to with it.
Macy: Guys are just watching tranny porn, not being around their friends to get their opinion about said tranny porn.
Ysak: People are just caring less, you know what I mean?
Macy: Yeah, limited days on this mortal coil, we gotta do who we want.
Ysak: Representation is important!
Macy: Representation of their genitals on my genitals is extremely important.
Ysak: Yes! We want all your genitals on our genitals.
Macy: And mouth and ass.
Ysak: That’s actually gonna be the next video.
Macy: [Laughs] Hard. Core. Pornography!
Ysak: Hardcore tranny porn.
Macy: Gorgeous! Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
Ysak: Is there anything else you’d like to ask me?
Macy: How did you meet Adele?
- Macy Rodman Tributes Genesis P-Orridge in "Runnin Down My Back" ›
- Macy Rodman "Endless Kindness" Album Release Party - PAPER ›
- ysak Premieres Masochistic "other girls" Music Video - PAPER ›
- eBae: Bid on a Hot Date in Brooklyn at C'Mon Everybody ›