Sarya Wu and the Journey to Self-Expression
Updated: Aug 12, 2020
“At the end of the day, what people hear is not you, the artist, but themselves reflected in that work. It’s providing people with the expression that they themselves could not make.”
Sarya Wu photographed by Erietta James
Sarya Wu’s existence proves it’s never too late to pick up a guitar, express your truth and be the representation you were searching for your whole life. The Taiwanese-American artist sees no barriers. Whether that means moving to Scotland on her first visit to the UK, exploring contrasting genres of music or rejecting society’s limited labels. Hearing Sarya’s music is a voyage through unique experiences of gender-nonconformity and her self-expression today as a result of growing up around Taiwanese social culture.
Read on to find out more about Sarya’s sounds and the importance of relatability,
HOW DID YOU MAKE YOUR WAY TO SCOTLAND?
When I was in high school, I was determined to go somewhere other than Taiwan and America for university. Since I could speak English, naturally, I wanted to go somewhere like the UK or Australia. I had a very sassy British-Spanish teacher who strongly encouraged me to study in Edinburgh, and after some very ignorant research on the internet and Google Earth, I found myself in the UK for the first time, moving North. When I reached Waverley Station, it was my favourite shade of green. I knew I was going to have a good time. I’ve never looked back. It was refreshing to go somewhere that I knew no one and nothing about - and no one knew me. It meant that I could be whoever I wanted.
WHAT ARE THREE WORDS TO DESCRIBE YOUR WORK?
Playful, banshee-screaming and melancholic.
CAN YOU TRY TO EXPLAIN YOUR MUSIC STYLE?
I’ve settled for a genre that I call “emotronica” (or sometimes, “melanchronica”). I’ve changed a lot from my early days since I use more electronic sounds now. It’s always been characterised by extremely emotive lyrics though. I’m highly influenced by Scandinavian and Indie-Folk/DIY music such as Múm, Mr. Silla, Death Cab for Cutie, Joanna Newsom, Bright Eyes and Daniel Johnston. The most important factor to me is that people feel moved by the music I make. I have a variety of styles: I rap a little, make cute pop music, or folky guitar tunes. What I want most from my music is to make you think, reflect, smile, then cry.
Sarya Wu photographed by Erietta James
HOW DOES YOUR TAIWANESE CULTURE INFLUENCE YOUR MUSIC AND SPOKEN WORD?
I think Taiwanese culture can be really subdued and this manifests itself in extremes. For instance, since people don’t usually speak directly about what they feel - in my experience - emotions are either really light-hearted or dramatic, and people speak in hyperbolics. I think being from there and then ‘escaping’ allowed me to unleash repressed energy into my music. This is probably why it is so orientated around super melancholy, yet silly humour. Taiwanese culture can be considered pretty silly. Despite being one of the most progressive countries in Asia, Taiwan is not as liberal as most Western countries. My experience in Taiwan compared to here allowed me to reflect on how oppressed I really was while growing up. That really influenced my poetry and music when I first moved to Scotland. I’m not out at home, and I don’t speak of anything significantly personal openly. It’s a miracle to be here and to be able to express myself.
YOU ARE FAIRLY NEW TO THE MUSIC SCENE, BEGINNING IN 2017, DO YOU EVER WISH YOU HAD STARTED EARLIER?
I couldn’t have started earlier! I didn’t even know how to play an instrument until 2016. I wish there were more sources of encouragement to make music since it’s a daunting field to enter if you don’t know anything. Thankfully, I got a ukulele for my birthday, and I was going through a strange period of isolation during my Erasmus year, which allowed me to spend 6 hours a day singing to myself in the darkness for about four months. The change from poetry to music felt really natural since a lot of my poems can be made into songs quite easily.
Music can be such a male-dominated sphere, which makes it seem inaccessible since it feels really awkward, as a newbie, to ask anyone to explain things to you. Especially since I’d never really seen many Asian-female musicians, it felt really unlikely that it was something that I could be. I learned mostly everything from the internet, and whenever any lady or enby folk tell me they have a desire to make music, I give them all my encouragement. I always reassure them that it’s actually far more achievable than they would think. Especially the fact I was able to, and I still know nothing!
HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE IN SPOKEN WORD POETRY CONTRIBUTED TO YOUR MUSIC TODAY? ARE THERE ANY TECHNIQUES AND RHYTHMS YOU FIND YOURSELF USING?
Absolutely. I would not be a musician without my poetry. In fact, I would say that I am more of a musical poet because I consider lyrics the most important part of my music. Spoken word is all about immediate relatability, and accessible music is the same. I try to write catchy tunes that are true to how we experience this weird and beautiful existential world. I find that music is able to convey more symbolic meanings with fewer words. This allows the listener more room for interpretation, plus the element of melody and atmosphere.
When you learn a bit about songwriting, there’s a certain structure that you use. One big element of music that I love - which doesn’t get used often in spoken word - is choruses. Enforcing an emotional and musical idea through repetition can make it stick in someone’s head before they realise what it actually means. That happens to me a lot. When I like songs, they circle in my brain for a long time. When I finally scrutinise the lyrics and think why I like them, I find the words are actually so personal and full of meaning to me. I often wonder if that happens to others.
TRACKS LIKE “IDK” AND “INSOMNIA SONG” ARE VERY PERSONAL AND REFLECTIVE, HOW IMPORTANT IS IT FOR YOU TO BE HONEST AND SPEAK YOUR MIND THROUGH YOUR WORK?
I am terrible at making stuff up, so what I end up making is always based on or inspired by actual life events. It is 100% essential that you can hear my truth through my art. At the end of the day, what people hear is not you, the artist, but themselves reflected in that work. It’s providing people with the expression that they themselves could not make. What is the point of making music that isn’t relatable? As a Buddhist, human connectedness is everything, and relatability is merely an acknowledgement of how we have the capacity to feel empathy for one another. If even one person feels less alone after hearing my music, then I’ve done what I’ve come out to do.
WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF THE QUEER AND ETHNIC MINORITY CREATIVE SCENE IN EDINBURGH?
Edinburgh is really lovely and open. I am happy that it’s pretty safe and no one is an asshole about LGBT+ stuff, for the most part. But, to be honest, it’s pretty lacking. Being on the scene feels pretty lonely, despite having made excellent queer and QTPOC+ friends. We stick together because we are it. The queer itself scene is limited and tends to reside between university communities, which feels sometimes odd for obvious reasons, and within that, queer POCs are far and few between. Even after half a decade, I’ve not met very many Edinburgh-based Asian musicians or artists during my time in Scotland. I hope that by being visible that it gives someone else the representation and inspiration that I never really had.
Of course, this is not to say that those of us who are here are not amazing. To name just a few, Jess Brough orchestrated the wonderful Fringe of Colour, and Natasha Ruwon is an amazing artist and DJ. These people are amongst just some of my friends who are doing brilliant work for visibility and representation in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
WHERE CAN PEOPLE CATCH YOU WHEN PERFORMING IN EDINBURGH?
I perform most places around town and sometimes in Glasgow. I used to busk a lot in the tunnel next to Potterrow. These days, if you stay tuned on my Facebook page and Instagram, I’ll do a random livestream and the occasional music post. I release music pretty regularly, so keep an eye out.
ARE YOU OPEN TO ANY COLLABORATIONS, IF SO, WHAT?
Collaboration is extremely important to me. I love the process and I have many musician friends who I work with. I work with friends who are artists to make cover art, so I’m always looking for collaborations.
Currently, I'm working on a project called SHEY/THEY with Callie of Lonely Carp making faerie electronica. Working with such a talented and amazing friend is always conducive to queer music magic, and we're both really excited to show what non-binary femme musicians can do. I'm also working alongside amazing producers including Calum Cummins of Yoko Pwno and Robin Brill of Honey Farm, making sweet indie pop tunes.
I also like making video game music, so if video game developers are looking, please hit me up.