Interview with T.E Yates

Most musicians boast of exploding onto their local scene in a glittering blaze of media hype and spontaneous applause. T.E. Yates, however, snuck in through an open window. His name was not on the top line of event posters but rather a discreet artist signature in the bottom corner; his first gig flyers and album covers were ones he designed for other bands not himself. He’s performed in front of huge crowds but always as a hired hand or supporting player, a multi-instrumentalist in the shadows – mandolin, banjo, harmonica, even musical saw – you may have heard him on the tracks of other artists without even knowing it.

To anyone new to your music, name 3 words that best describe your sound.

To quote three words from Debt Records co-founder Louis Barabbas, “unassuming, unusual and enigmatic” probably sums up my music pretty well.

If you could change about the music industry, what would it be?

Loads of things! I was diagnosed autism spectrum/Asperger’s syndrome as an adult at the age of 26 in 2014 – and, as a neurodivergent person, the present structures of the music industry present lots of barriers to artists like me. For a long time, I’ve felt like I haven’t made the same progress as my neurotypical contemporaries within music over a comparable timeframe. There are numerous reasons for this – many of them stem from difficulties in face-to-face social interaction and networking, a lack of access to finance and simply by having atypical approaches to the creation of music (and my other disciplines). Often these overlap – for instance, if you struggle to build up a fanbase because you don’t have conversations with enough people in the audience after a gig, or maintain these relationships in the same way as a neurotypical artist would, you don’t sell as much music and merch – so you generate less revenue from your creative output in order to sustain it – plus a smaller fanbase also makes it harder to utilise services such as Patreon.

It feels like you’re perennially stuck in the “emerging artist” category when many of the neurotypical artists who emerged alongside you from the same scene and on the same circuit have already toured around the UK and mainland Europe – and further afield – several times, regularly appearing on national media outlets. I absolutely don’t begrudge any talented artists who have worked tirelessly and made sacrifices to achieve what they have – quite the opposite as I’m genuinely delighted to see artists I love deservedly attaining acclaim and bringing their music to audiences far and wide – I just wish that these avenues were also more open to neurodivergent artists. Wider societal stigma, preconceptions and misunderstanding about autism has led to a reluctance – and fear – to declare this to industry personnel in advance – plus many venues and festivals don’t have accommodations or reasonable adjustments in place for neurodivergent performers.

Also, autistic people are often hypersensitive (too much) or hyposensitive (too little) to both external and internal sensory input – having a green room or a quiet space before and after a show would really help. I recognise that not every venue can do this but just an understanding that an autistic artist might need a bit of quiet time without this being seen as rude or weird would really help! Often, as an emerging artist, support gigs are a really important step – however, the green room is often reserved for the headliner and the support artist is expected to mingle in amongst the audience – which certainly doesn’t help pre-gig nerves!

Contrary to stereotypes, I genuinely love meeting new people and it always means a great deal to me whenever someone appreciates either my music or artwork enough to take an interest or occasionally buy something from me – however, being in a busy social environment is also something I find challenging – especially immediately before a live performance, or after a gig which hasn’t gone so well (thankfully I haven’t had a bad gig in a long time now and I’ve loved meeting new people and making new friends after performances)! I think it’s important to use my (albeit limited) platform as an artist to talk about these issues – our arts, culture and entertainment play a crucial role in shaping societal attitudes. However, on an individual level, I rarely tell people that I’m autistic – largely because attitudes and assumptions regarding autism are, presently, overwhelmingly negative – so I carry on letting people think I’m a neurotypical person – albeit one considered eccentric, quirky or otherwise different.

Attitude Is Everything and Next Stage – two related organisations – are doing a great deal behind the scenes to change things for the better and advocate for Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent artists. I’m really supportive of everything they do. Robin Jax (who writes and performs as Robin Plays Chords) founded Tiergarten Records – thus far the UK’s (and possibly the world’s) only neurodivergent-led label for neurodivergent artists. Artist Jon Adams at Flow Observatorium is also doing a lot of work to advocate for positive change within the arts as a whole. Harbourside Artist Management, representing artists from all over the world but based here in Bristol, do a lot of good work in terms of advocacy for disabled artists. Biggerhouse Film and Arts In Development also based here in Bristol do a lot to help neurodivergent artists locally too. So it’s great that so many people and organisations are starting to come together in order to enact positive change.

As an animator who embarks upon ambitious animation projects (my major works have all been animations made to accompany songs that I’ve written) – sometimes taking up to a couple of years to complete – I find that there isn’t much of a platform available to share this work when it’s done. The music industry seems to prioritise new releases – especially from emerging or independent artists – so an animated music video which is released two years after the music came out is seen as old! Similarly, in terms of the film industry, my work often straddles the boundary between “music video” and “animated short” without neatly pigeonholing into either category – so my work doesn’t tend to be picked up by film festivals. Maybe having processes in place enabling greater inclusivity in terms of showcasing work made by neurodivergent artists across the arts would be a welcome opening step.

Finally, organisations such as PRS have funding opportunities specifically available to under- represented groups – however, there’s comparatively little funding available for Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent artists. I believe that the solution would either be to introduce funds specifically for Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent artists – or to merge all such existing funding directives in order to accommodate all under-represented groups.

What’s the best advice you’d give to your younger self?

I’d give my younger self a big hug and say that everything is going to be ok! I’d tell my younger self to keep being me and to believe in my abilities. To shrug off the bad reviews, negative comments and criticism and not take it to heart. Or to take a breath, learn and address this positively – whilst outright ignoring the negative feedback which isn’t intended constructively. Listen to the people you love and to the artists you admire and respect. Cherish the wonderful friendships and be grateful to the many amazing musicians I’ve had the privilege of working alongside. Savour the incredible artists whose work I have been fortunate enough to have had the pleasure of experiencing. Always remember that music is a fundamental, intrinsic part of the fabric of my being and also one of the great joys that life has to offer, so not to lose sight of this and to remember that, even when times are hard, things will improve.

Enjoy the good times. I know it’s much easier said than done when things are going wrong, but stay positive. Find vitality in life through creativity. Don’t compromise your artistic vision or water down what you want to do with your life in order to appease others – particularly those with negative views – as, deep down, you know your own destiny. Don’t wait for permission to move forward with your work and your life. Take care of yourself and feel good about your achievements. Never stop learning and developing, both as an artist and as a human being. Be curious. Feed your imagination. Although don’t become frustrated when not making progress as quickly as you want to – be patient. Everybody learns and develops at different speeds. As someone who is geared more towards quality and precision over quantity and speed, play to your strengths. Don’t be so hard on yourself – we all make mistakes along the way and we learn from them.

When you feel invisible, know that the rest of the world will catch up one day. Don’t dwell – keep your head down, keep working hard and respect the dedication that you give to your craft. To be kinder to myself. And, as my former Debt Records label-mate Alabaster dePlume has used as a mantra, “be nice to people”. I suppose that a lot of this would be the advice I’d give to any young artist! Particularly those in similar positions and/or with similar life experiences to me.

Tell MoggBlog viewers about your latest release! What’s the inspiration behind that?

All the tracks for my new EP were recorded during the same sessions as my first LP Silver Coins and White Feathers – though referring to them as leftovers is perhaps a little unfair. Track 3 “Palace of Your Master” is my personal favourite – not only on this EP but from all the tracks recorded during these sessions as a whole. Some additional recording has also taken place on these tracks and my long-time producer Biff Roxby ( Honeyfeet trombonist) has done a lot of additional work on these tracks and also started new mixes on them from the ground up prior to release – treating these six tracks as a separate and distinct body of work in its own right. These tracks are also neatly tied together by recurrent themes – not least discussing my experiences as a neurodivergent person, led by opening track “Condition”. The EP title Strange Weather is taken from a line in the closing track “Mystery Window” and I think that the theme also works well In terms of how the EP flows – it’s an eclectic mixing pot, somehow tied together and cohesive – much like the weather of an unpredictable, changeable day here in the UK, with its notoriously broad range of weather patterns. I felt that now was the right time to put these tracks out – particularly given the growing public consciousness with regards to neurodiversity, one of the central themes of the lyrics on this release. Whereas in the past I might have been a bit more reticent to perform “Condition” in live shows and to present the track to the public, right now, it just feels like the timing is right. As always, yours truly has created the artwork and handled the design for the release – this time taking inspiration from Art Nouveau – in particular Alphonse Mucha’s various Four Seasons artworks.

Artwork and animation are also a big part of what I do and this release has been no exception – the exploration and integration of these different artforms is something I would like to be able to explore more fully in the future, forming a merged multi-disciplinary approach. It’s often said that you should never judge a book by its cover – or presumably, by extension, a record by its sleeve. However, as someone who always makes their own artwork to accompany their music releases, I can.

How do you feel the Internet has impacted the music business?

I used to refer to the Internet as a “double-edged sword” – however, I’ve moved away from using combative metaphors and analogies now! There’s a lot of really good things about the Internet as a musician – however, there are a few drawbacks as well. Either way, it is unquestionable that the advent of the Internet has indelibly changed the music industry. I see having a worldwide audience available at your fingertips as a wonderful thing. You can share your music worldwide at the click of a button. The Internet has also levelled the playing field, so to speak, in a lot of ways – an independent artist recording from their bedroom can share their music to the world, as can an artist signed to a major record label. It’s opened up a worldwide audience to artists who may not have easily had access to share their work on this scale before the Internet.

It’s also provided a wonderful opportunity for collaboration and discovery. There’s so much music out there to discover with colossal libraries available to stream through services such as Spotify – the world’s back catalogue is available to listen to instantly. I think it’s amazing that artists who did not achieve commercial success or reach a wide audience during their heyday are now having their music released across the globe and finally attaining the recognition they deserve – Sibylle Baier and Rodriguez are just two examples of artists who wrote and recorded primarily in the 1970s but have only become more widely known today, thanks to the Internet. There are, however, some drawbacks – and the reasons for the Internet’s great strengths are often also the reasons for its hazards, particularly as an independent artist. The ease of access and ability to record and release professional quality audio from the comfort of your own bedroom means that this is also available to millions of artists worldwide – consequently the competition is now much fiercer than it was before the Internet, making it harder to gain the attention of new fans. The formidable soundtrack of the 20 th century will not be erased and the amount of music out there is growing exponentially – perhaps decreasing its overall value in the ears of listeners.

I don’t like framing things in terms of competition and I think that major music television talent contest shows perhaps feed into this narrative of music as a competition in the general public consciousness. So it’s important to stress that music has an enormous power for collaboration and that engaging with other artists has also been a great strength of the Internet age. It’s much harder to generate a revenue as a professional songwriter or musician from recorded
music than it was before the Internet, simply because sales of physical formats have declined and that earnings from streaming are negligible. I support motions to change the way that artists are renumerated through streaming services – whilst I believe that streaming services are great, I also think that a lot more can be done to ensure that more of this money flows back to independent musicians in order to help sustain and build their work and assist artist
development. Relatedly, this has meant that, as a musician, most earnings now come from live performances – as was the case before the record industry came to be in the 20 th century. However, I expect that as a neurodivergent artist with an aversion to performing live, this has been deeply challenging. Whereas in the 20 th century an artist could build a career from behind the walls of a recording studio, this is no longer the case – with only a small number of exceptions. I should point out that, whilst our public and scientific understanding of our cognitive variations is growing and improving all the time, these cognitive variations have always existed and, as such, I expect that many artists seen as reclusive or eccentric geniuses who shied away from public life – and live performance – are, or were, probably neurodivergent. I do not believe that those artists would have attained the same level of success, or had their music become as widely known, in today’s climate – although the optimist in me believes that things can change to better support such artists today.

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