interview by Michael McCarthy
all photos by Chris Bogard (@chrisbogard_ on Instagram)
all videos filmed by Rebecca Cave
I first interviewed Camryn Nichols way back in 2013 when he was one half of the indie pop duo Ugly Bunny along with Gwendolyn Giles. Their album Tokyo was one of my favorites that year and I still think it’s a fantastic electro-pop gem.
These days, Camryn is also known as Yayah (pronounced yeah-yeah), which is his drag queen alter-ego. And I dare say that Yayah’s debut album, Dreamland, is even better Tokyo, a veritable masterpiece featuring more colors than a Crayola 64 pack. In fact, listening to it is like looking through a kaleidoscope as it turns — ever changing — from song to song. Each image is unique but also connected to the previous and the following. Another thing I find exhilarating about the album is that it has high highs and low lows, exploring many different emotions and their extremes. In terms of influences, I hear everything from uppity ’80s new wave to ’90s loop-filled electronica to edgy modern pop. There are even a couple of songs that have trap rap style hi-hats, namely “Shadows” and “Against the Wall.” That said, I’m not a fan of trap and I didn’t even notice that element to those songs until I’d already listened to them 15 times — according to my music player — so it’s very subtle and easy to ignore if you dislike trap. My point is that Yayah has taken a little bit of this and a little bit of that and turned it into something unique and special.
Aside from the Dreamland, Camryn and I discussed many things about drag queens and their scene and there was a lot that I didn’t know. Perhaps this one will prove educational for you, too. Read on and listen below.
MM: First of all, I’ll admit that I had to do a little research into what the difference between being transgender and being a drag queen is. The simplest explanation I found was this: “Transgender refers to a personal gender identity and an authentic, lasting sense of self. In contrast, “drag” is a temporary and deliberate performance of gender.” Would you agree with this definition?
Y: Yeah, I would say that’s pretty accurate. I also appreciate you looking into that. That’s really cool. I am not a transgender individual. I’m just a drag queen. So, I do identify as male. However, when I perform, I’m portraying a female identity. But that’s not who I am, you know?
MM: Sure. I was a bit confused by the definition because a friend of mine had a friend who was a drag queen and she totally wanted to be a woman, but this was around twenty-five years ago and transitioning was even more difficult than it is today. She wasn’t even out of the closet as a gay person, never mind a woman. So, she dressed up as a drag queen because that was the only thing she really could do at the time.
Y: And I think for a lot of transgender individuals that’s the first kind of gateway into understanding their identity as a transgender individual. I work with a lot of transgender drag queens that identify as transgender in their daily life but perform as drag queens as well. It’s important to separate the two, but it’s also important to recognize they’re not mutually exclusive.
MM: How old were you when you started doing drag?
Y: I started doing drag when I was nineteen years old. I’m twenty one now.
MM: Was there someone who showed you the proverbial ropes so to speak?
Y: Yeah, I started dating this guy named Jordo. He’s a drag queen named Roselia Valentine. We’ve been together for three years now. He had been doing drag a few years prior to us dating. He’s the one who introduced me to the local drag scene and Ru Paul’s Drag Race and just from there I started diving into the history of it and getting really interested. That’s kind of how I got into it.
Yayah performs “7th Element”:
MM: Do you just do performances in drag or would you go out on a date in drag?
Y: I only perform in drag. I don’t really live my life as a drag queen outside of my performance identity. Like when I go to the clubs and stuff, and I’m just in my regular boy clothes, people will call me Yayah and refer to me as Yayah because that’s who they know me as, which is fine, but, yeah, I would never get in drag just to go to the movies or something.
MM: How did you learn to do the makeup? Was it the same person who taught you that?
Y: Yes, so Roselia taught me a lot of the foundations of makeup and then just with all the access there is nowadays with Youtube and all those tutorials I just self-taught myself a lot of that, too.
MM: Did you choose your own clothes for the Dreamland album cover? In other words, do you style yourself as well?
Y: I do a lot of my own designing. I don’t sell or construct most of my costumes. And if I do it’s very hodgepodge. I mix in a lot of garments from local designers and other drag queens that do so. But I always have like a very – what’s the word? I’m very much a part of the process. I’ll make the designs or I’ll tell them what I’m looking for. So, yeah, I design it. I just don’t make most of it.
MM: I love the album cover. Very Bowie-esque. Who’s the artist?
Y: The record cover was hand painted by a local artist named Le Joe. @lej0e on Instagram. The idea was to come up with something abstract, surreal, puzzling, and ambient and he captured it beautifully!
MM: When you’re doing drag, how much, if at all, does your personality change. Do you take on a larger than life persona or are you still the same personality?
Y: I would say it’s the same person amplified. I think doing drag has kind of introduced me to a newer version of myself in a way. Drag has given me so much more confidence and so many more references to pop culture and politics and media, and all of that kind of feeds my drag personality, but then it’s just me. I think it’s the same person in and out of drag.
MM: What’s the story behind the name Yayah?
Y: It’s actually kind of a funny story. As I’m sure you loosely remember, I used to be in a band called Ugly Bunny four or five years ago and when we broke up I wanted to start a band called The Yeah Yeahs, but then I quickly realized that’s a super rip-off of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. So, then I thought maybe I’ll find a way to just make it one word. So, I just did Yaya. It was Y-A-Y-A then I found out there’s a DJ in Brazil with the same name so I scratched that and I just added the H at the end and everyone kept pronouncing it Yayah [ed: like YeahYeah] so I was like, OK, Yayah works. And then I couldn’t get a band together so I just adopted it as like a stage name when I was performing music. And then when I started doing drag, I just decided to keep it for that. And then, ironically enough, when I looked up the name on Google, yaya is actually a word used in Greek culture.
Yayah performs “FROOT” mix:
MM: It means grandmother, right?
Y: Yeah. A respectable woman or an older, mature, highly-regarded woman. So, I thought that was interesting.
MM: I understand you’re doing a live competition of sorts right now. What can you tell us about that?
Y: So, earlier this year I competed in a competition called The Slayground, which is held at Faces in Sacramento. Hosted by Hellen Heels. I won that in January and so now this month we’re just regrouping. All the winners throughout the year are going to put on a show together. Then in December, I’m going to be competing in another competition called Dirty Work with Delta, and that’s been a year-long competition that we’ve been competing in, so the finals are next month.
MM: On Facebook, you mentioned that sometimes you sing and sometimes you lip synch. Is lip synching common at drag competitions?
Y: Oh, completely. Ninety-five percent of drag queens lip-synch. Most of my performance is lip synch based. I’ll do a lot of spoken word comedy mixes and I do occasionally sing live. My own music.
MM: I would think you’d get more fulfillment out of doing your own stuff.
MM: What are some of the songs that you’ve lip-synched?
Y: Oh, gosh. My go-tos? I do “Kill V. Maim” by Grimes a lot. That’s one of my favorite songs to perform. What else? There’s this song called “Seventh Element” by Vitas. He’s like this Russian pop star and the song’s not even in English, but it’s just this goofy, wacky ’90’s pop song that I like to do. And then “Sex Dreams” by Lady Gaga is another go-to of mine.
MM: When you do the drag appearances, are you competing at all of them or are there some where you just perform?
Y: Most of them are just performance. I’ve competed a couple of times, but most of the time they’re just regular drag shows at nightclubs and stuff.
MM: Are people in the drag queen scene generally supportive of each other?
Y: I would say yes. After being a part of the local music scene for so many years when I came into the drag scene the first thing that I noticed was that there was an overwhelming sense of camaraderie that doesn’t exist in the music community anymore. As a drag queen, it’s like everyone is bouncing ideas off of each other and everyone’s trading services and costumes and hair. Some queens are really good at making costumes. Some queens are really good at styling wigs. Everyone just kind of works together to put together these personas.
MM: When you made your new album, Dreamland, were you more so Camryn or were you more so Yayah?
Y: Well, I started making the album four years ago before Yayah had even really been something I was working on. So, I think the album is kind of both. Throughout the past four years I’ve been working on this album, I’ve been cultivating this artistic persona of mine and I think that’s a lot of thematically what happens on the album. You just kind of see this journey of self-discovery. And most of the time on the album if it sounds like I’m singing to another person, and I’m singing “you this” or “you that,” the whole album is me talking to myself and this alternate identity that I have that I’ve come to accept as my alternate persona, you know?
Yayah performs “Into the Groove”:
MM: Makes sense. Is it from Yayah’s perspective then when you refer to yourself as a man on “Dancing”?
Y: Yes, I would say so. I thought that lyric was really funny, actually. Because “Dancing” was the last song that I wrote for the album. I really only wrote it like probably four months ago. The first thing I sang was “I’m just a boy, I’m just a man.” And I felt like that was a powerful statement to make since me appearing on the album cover and everything is in drag. That was kind of a way to say that there’s all this happening, but this album is really just about me as a person. Behind this big drag persona, I’m just a boy and I’m performing, you know?
MM: Who were your primary influences when you were making Dreamland?
Y: Musically, I’ve always been really inspired by ’80s new wave. Depeche Mode. New Order. I love The Eurythmics. But then there are other influences in there as well. Like more modern pop influences. So, yeah, a lot of just ’80s references. There’s a song called “Shadows” on there that I think is a lot more punk rock inspired because I used to listen to a lot of Ramones and Misfits. So, there’s a lot of edgy rock ‘n’ roll sounds on there as well.
MM: There was a song that reminded me of “People Are People” by Depeche Mode, but I can’t remember which one it was. Is that particular song a favorite of yours?
Y: I love “People Are People.” I love the whole Violator record, which was a huge turning point for me musically. I just remember in high school I would play that record back to front, front to back over and over and over again.
MM: Are you self-releasing Dreamland or are you trying to get a record deal for the album?
Y: Right now, it’s just an independent release. I don’t really plan on pursuing any record label funding right now just because I was on a record label for a while and it was one of the worst experiences ever. They ended up owning everything that I put out, so all the music that had been put out through that record label wasn’t mine anymore, and it doesn’t exist online anymore, so I’m not dying to get back on a label.
MM: That makes sense. And I’ve read that you can make more money doing it yourself as opposed to through a label because the labels always take their cut and you’re not losing 30 percent or whatever to the label.
MM: The beats on “Dancing” in particular, but also elsewhere on the album, remind me of the late ’80s but also early ’90s pop. Are you old enough to remember either of those periods or did your parents listen to them a lot when you were growing up?
Y: It mostly comes from my parents. Because I grew up listening to Hilary Duff and Jesse McCartney and that was the stuff when I was a kid that I was hearing all the time. My Mom always had Iron Maiden playing and Metallica, but then she would also play Madonna and Whitney Houston. So, I was always listening to that with my mom. And then my Dad was always listening to Cher and Fleetwood Mac and Abba. I’m all over the place. ’70s, ’80s, ’90s.
MM: Do you have any influences from, say, the past five years?
Y: Five years… Let me see what’s in my music library. [Laughs] I really like Banks. I don’t know if you’ve heard of her.
MM: Oh, I know who she is. I saw her in concert earlier this year.
Y: Yeah, she’s amazing. Charli XCX. FKA Twigs. I love Björk. Grimes as well. Flume – he’s like a producer. I would listen to a lot of his instrumental stuff for a while. That’s probably about it. Imogen Heap. She’s really cool.
MM: Did you work from samples and loops or did you use an ’80s drum machine to make the music? What was it made with?
Y: I did use some loops. A lot of sampling from like older music of mine. I would make beats and stuff and kind of archive them so I brought a lot of those out and worked with those. I did use some drum machine, like 808s and stuff like that. Just a little bit of everything. And there are also real drums on the record that I played.
MM: What program do you use when you’re tracking the album? For example, do you use Pro Tools or Acid?
Y: A lot of the songs were written on Garage Band in my garage or in my drum room, but when it came to actually tracking the final versions I used Logic Pro.
Yayah performs “Secret”:
MM: The way you sing “Alive,” especially at the beginning, almost makes it sound like a Bollywood song to my ears.
Y: That’s interesting.
MM: Is that music an influence at all?
Y: I wouldn’t say so. To me, that song, musically, I see it more than I hear it if that makes sense. For me, that song’s very visually invoking. I just a picture – like a dirt landscape, a gray, cloudy sky, and just crawling out of the ground. That’s what I saw. So, I wanted to be able to hear that visual.
MM: Some of the percussion on “Alive” reminds me of “Terrible Lie” by Nine Inch Nails. I was just curious – did you sample that one on there?
Y: No, there’s no Nine Inch Nails samples. But I don’t listen to Nine Inch Nails a whole lot. Unless it was something my Mom had listened to growing up and I’ve been exposed to. So, I would say that that really heavy, industrial, electronic sound is an influence on me.
MM: You refer to a monster and a nightmare on “Monster.” Is that song about your own self-doubt terrorizing you or something like that?
Y: Yes. Exactly that. I’m trying to think where I was when I wrote that. I think I wrote that when I had moved back to Sacramento from San Francisco. I had just dropped out of college and there was just a lot going on, and I was battling depression and anxiety, and that song was a big breakthrough for me to write because it’s very self-reflective but, yeah, it’s very much about is someone out there sabotaging me or am I sabotaging myself?
MM: I wonder about that all the time.
Y: Yeah. [Both laugh]
MM: Was the Dreamland album your first time producing an album?
Y: No, I produced Ugly Bunny’s first record. And I’ve produced demos for Dog Party. I’ve recorded other people and stuff, but this is my first collective piece that is exclusively written, recorded, performed, produced, and mastered by me.
MM: Why did Ugly Bunny come to an end?
Y: We were super young when we were doing Ugly Bunny. Gwen’s priority at the time was starting college and then pursuing her music career through Dog Party. They’ve done well and toured with Green Day and stuff. All these awesome opportunities. And then during that time it was my senior year of high school. So, she was away at college, and I was finishing high school, and it was something that we really couldn’t make a lot of time for.
MM: From when to when was Dreamland written?
Y: I started writing it in 2014 and then finished writing it two months ago.
MM: From when to when was it recorded?
Y: Same time period. A lot of the songs that I had recorded in 2014 or 2015, I re-recorded or I revisited and re-sang some parts or just modified things so it would sound more like a collective piece. Because none of the songs were recorded with the intention of being on an album with other songs. So, a huge piece of it was going back and just making it sound like it made sense together.
MM: That’s what they usually do when they master an album, right?
Y: And that made the mastering process so hard for me, too. Just because there were mixes from 2014 when I was 17 years old and didn’t know what I was doing. Mastering those was insanely difficult because nothing was recorded properly. The gain structure was incorrect on a lot of things. Then songs that I had recorded in the past six months were all so easy to master just because I had a better skill set. So, it was definitely a big learning curve for me, too. To get them to sound like they’re in the same playing field.
MM: The album, to my ears, sounds like it was made to listen to at night. Was that one of your intentions when you were making it?
Y: I never consciously thought about that, but I think I pretty much wrote and recorded and produced the whole thing during the night. A lot of listening for me – when I listen to other records and stuff – the ones that stand out are the ones that I listened to the first time when it was raining and dark outside. I don’t know if you’ve heard Night Time, My Time by Sky Ferreira?
MM: I love that album.
Y: The first time I ever heard that I was just driving around downtown Sacramento in the rain at nighttime and that always stands out to me. Another record is Nabuma Rubberband by Little Dragon. I first heard that when I was on BART [ed: the subway system] in San Francisco at the time in the bay area. Where you listen to music, and what the weather is like, and where you’re at, is really important the first time you hear music. Because that can make so many other associations with the music. I think for Dreamland optimally I would love it if someone heard it for the first time while it was raining at nighttime in December.
MM: I know you’re from Sacramento, but I lived in L.A. myself for a few years so I was wondering what are your thoughts about L.A.?
Y: I’ve wanted to move to L.A. on and off for the past few years. I know some people who’ve moved to L.A. and are doing amazing, and are so successful, and I know others who moved to L.A. and moved back six months later because they couldn’t figure it out. So, I mean, it’s something I’ve always been interested in, but it’s also something that I’m also fearful of. Because I don’t come from money. I don’t have like rich parents. I don’t have anything to fall back on except myself. So, if it was something that didn’t work out for me, I would probably have to come back to Sacramento. But I would love to make it in L.A. I think that would be so cool.
MM: How would you describe Sacramento?
Y: That’s a loaded question for sure. [Laughs] I would say I love and hate it. I don’t think anybody on the planet ever said to themselves I’m going to pursue my dreams and move to Sacramento. It’s definitely not a very hustle bustle place to be. I don’t think anybody here is necessarily paving the way for the arts or anything like that. There’s a lot of hard-working musicians and a lot of hard-working artists and drag performers. There’s always something to do and to see here. There’s no lack of artistic performances and venues. I just don’t think there’s energy in Sacramento like there is in L.A. or in New York.
MM: What three albums do you cling to like oxygen when you’re depressed?
Y: Nabuma Rubberband by Little Dragon. Violator by Depeche Mode. I’m trying to think of another one… that’s hard. Maybe Medulla by Björk .
MM: What’s the worst day job you’ve ever had?
Y: I worked in insurance for three years and that was pretty daunting. Yeah, that.
MM: If you were rich and famous and could request anything on your contract rider insofar as food and beverages go, what would you ask for?
Y: Food and beverages… I would say cucumber and lemon water and baby back ribs. [Laughs]
MM: Name a few movies you can watch over and over again.
Y: Some Like it Hot is my favorite movie ever. A Clockwork Orange. Strangers on A Train. Invasion of the Body Snatchers – the original, not the ’70’s remake.MM: There was a remake, I think in the ’90s, that I liked.
Y: Yeah, I’ve only seen the 1950s movie that I’m thinking of. ’40s or ’50s, probably ’50s.
MM: Do you listen to more albums that are new music experiences or do you listen to more albums that make you feel nostalgic?
Y: I love listening to new music, but I also love listening to music that I have associated feelings and memories with. It just depends on the mood. I would say I gravitate more toward go-to records.
MM: Do you listen to more singles or albums?
MM: When was the last time you went to a record store?
Y: It was probably Dimple Records sometime in the last six months. I love to just go in there and walk around. My favorite is when I see a local band and they’ve been signed and their record is out. The last time I went to Dimple Records they had the Dog Party vinyl and I thought that was so cool because I know them.
MM: What did you buy the last time you went to the record store?
Y: It was a vinyl. I had just gotten a record player. It wasn’t Björk. I have it somewhere… I bought Robbery by Teena Marie. I also bought the Melissa EP by FKA Twigs and Sister Crayon, their debut album Bellow, but they’re now known as Rituals of Mine.
MM: If you were going to move to a foreign country, where would you move and why?
Y: I think I would go to maybe Iceland. I know a lot of people who’ve vacationed in Iceland and everyone says really nice things about it. And I love cold weather.
MM: If you could resurrect any one musician from the dead and they would be happy to be back, who would you bring back and why?
MM: Were you a big Prince fan?
Y: I was. And I had missed an opportunity to see him when I was younger. He did a show at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco probably in 2012 or 2014 or something like that. At the time I wasn’t super into Prince and when the opportunity presented itself I was like, oh, no, I don’t really care. And then years later I got so into Prince and right at the peak of my interest in Prince’s music was when he passed away. And with that I felt so much regret for never going to that show.
MM: I regret never seeing him myself. On another note, if someone was giving you a million dollars to give to charity and it all had to go to one charity or cause, which would you give it to?
Y: I’ve always wanted to start my own non-profit, actually. I would love to open up an art school for children with autism. My brothers both have autism so any charity that has art and music therapy for children with disabilities.
MM: Final question. What is one question you’re always wishing interviewers would ask that they never do and how would you answer it?
Y: I wish they would ask me what my goals are in terms of performances.
MM: What are your goals in performances?
Y: I think, as a drag queen and for the drag community in general, it’s really confined to gay clubs and nightclubs and bars. I think it would be so cool if there was a drag queen who pursued musical venues and did an actual tour in mainstream music venues. I would love to go on a theatre tour. That would be so cool.
MM: I think the only one right now that you’d see doing something like that would probably be RuPaul because he has the clout that he could definitely sell out some decent-sized venues.
Y: Unfortunately, RuPaul doesn’t perform anymore.
MM: Does he still sing on his albums? I saw that a new one came out today.
Y: Yeah, Ru Paul still puts out records every now and then, but I think Ru Paul’s main focus at this point is just feeding his legacy and continuing to do RuPaul’s Drag Race and RuPaul’s Drag Con.
MM: Are there any drag queens who are almost as popular as he is?
Y: I think a lot of the queens who have been on RuPaul’s Drag Race have reached that level of stardom. Adore Delano is a queen who is on season five and she’s a musician and she does a lot of touring.
MM: I’m pretty sure I have an album by her and I didn’t even realize it was drag queen related. [Ed: I actually have two of her albums, After Party and Whatever.] A queen who hasn’t been on the show who I think is just as popular and cool as RuPaul is is Coco Peru. She’s done a lot of films and she’s super funny and now she has a Youtube series. She’s old school and awesome.
Follow Yayah on Instagram: @YayahTheArtist
Dreamland will be released on November 16th but can be pre-ordered now on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/dreamland/1439811481
And, yes, I had to post that awesome cover again!