Dec 2023 11

ReGen Magazine speaks with I Ya Toyah about the evolution of her music onstage and in the studio, touching on contradictions in everyday life, and more!
 

 

An InterView with Ania Tarnowska of I Ya Toyah

By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)

There seems to be no stopping the audiovisual onslaught of the one woman army known as I Ya Toyah, as the artist embarks on a new electro/industrial campaign. Under the moniker, Ania Tarnowska has made considerable strides with her 2018 Code Blue album and its 2020 remix companion, as well as her 2021 Out of Order EP, several singles and remixes, as well as collaborations with the likes of Tim Sköld, The Joy Theves, Julian Beeston’s Featured, and the Lifeline International benefit single from COP International. In 2019, she toured North America as the opener for the legendary Pigface, and did the same this year for longstanding alt. industrial/rock band Stabbing Westward – notable enough, but also sharing the stage with that band’s Walter Flakus for live performances of her latest single, “Panic Room,” which serves as a teaser for a full-length album to appear in 2024, with Flakus producing. To say the least, I Ya Toyah’s star is burning brilliantly, and ReGen was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak with her about her new music, the evolution of her live performances and visual presentation, along with a few sweet words about her dog Benek, and the possibility of an I Ya Toyah cooking channel and cookbook… wait, really? Well, read on and find out.

 

First of all, how are you? How is your health?

I Ya Toyah: Thank you for asking! I’m doing well. Unwinding after a busy year of touring, and finally being able to focus a bit more on my mental and physical health in a more settled, controlled environment.

Let’s begin with your latest single, ‘Panic Room,’ your first release after the Ghosts acoustic EP, and your first new material since the Out of Order EP. Tell us first about the songwriting, what are its lyrical themes?

I Ya Toyah: As usual, I write about what sits within me, what pains me as a human, in the human world. ‘Panic Room’ talks about the internal demons taking control over you at times you least expect them. It is a song about dealing with your mental health, self-awareness, and losing to the greater evil within you – whatever that evil might be.

Are they meant to be an extension or continuation of ideas you’ve explored previously?

I Ya Toyah: I usually write about feelings and emotions that I have a hard time dealing with. All my life I’ve struggled with prioritizing mental health as something that can make you or break you. I found that writing about these problems helps me get the dark stuff out, cleanse my soul in a weird way. And this allows me to be myself, fully defined, strong, not afraid to manifest the weaknesses within me. The best part though, I learned that many people feel the same way. They truly connect with those lyrics, and I get e-mails and messages all the time about how my songs help them go through the tough day.

 

 

You worked with Stabbing Westward’s Walter Flakus on the production and mix, and the two of you performed the song together on the most recent tour. He had previously remixed ‘Pray,’ but would you tell us first how you two met and how that developed into a collaboration?

I Ya Toyah: I met Walter at one of Stabbing Westward’s shows – the benefit for dear Charles Levi of Pigface and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult. But this one was a brief encounter. A couple of months later, I performed in Chicago and Walter came to this show! I was doing this thing where during one of the songs, I’d go off the stage into the crowd and sing in people’s faces, and they wouldn’t expect it. And as I dove into the crowd, suddenly I realized I was singing in Walter’s face! My idol’s face! He told people around him in the crowd that I really scared him, he didn’t expect it at all. (Laughter) After my performance, he came to my merch booth and said that he loved the show and what I do, and that we need to work together. And I definitely agreed, as I’m a lifelong fan of all his works and talents. And so, we did. All this happened after Walter already remixed my song ‘Pray.’ We’ve been chatting online about collaborating for a while, but this in-person encounter sealed the deal. At this time, I was building my Studio 333 Creative Hub in my house, so all my music production was put on hold, but once I wrapped the construction, I began writing and making demos. And then Walter came over and listened, and I was surprised how positively he reacted to these. ‘Panic Room’ is the first of many we tackled. And now it’s out in the world and it feels so good!

After he became involved, how much did your original conception for the song change from when you wrote it? What sorts of ideas did he bring in that you perhaps wouldn’t have thought of?

I Ya Toyah: As a song, we didn’t really change the original concept, but Walter’s involvement definitely elevated it, packaging it into a stronger, more accessible, and more punchy production. The song definitely went through a transformation. He would, for example, swipe the drum sound here and there, and suddenly I play the part back and my whole body just can’t stop grooving, when before, it would be sort of a lower energy jam on that section. He pushes me to work on my hooks too. This whole material that we are working on has those hook elements, while staying away from being cookie cutter or something that has been done before. I love working with Walter because he genuinely cares about the music. There is no ego in our collaboration, only a common good. But we both push boundaries a lot. We don’t settle. And that is the best part. I feel like I’m learning so much, and growing as an artist, bigtime. I can’t wait to release everything we’ve been working on!

I understand that you two are working on a full album together now. Is he at all involved in the songwriting stage?

I Ya Toyah: I do all the songwriting, creating the demos, and then we meet and listen and discuss the song. My songwriting doesn’t change, but the arrangements or certain layers of my compositions go through a transformation after these meetings, gaining new life. Usually after we meet, I pack and zip the production file with my demo, and then Walter plays with it on his own time, adding or tweaking some elements or parts. Most of my demo parts stay, even some vocals – yes, you will hear them on the record. But then everything Walter adds, tweaks, chops up, swipes, suddenly brings the song to the next level. Like, he will take out the harmony vocal in some parts, or a double vocal to make the main voice be so up close, so personal, to accentuate the intimate moment of the song. Or he will take that main synth element and chop it up and with ‘less is more,’ it suddenly becomes so much more. And so on. Also, he inspires me hugely. During this collaboration, I kept writing, and my last couple of demos definitely show that.

You’ve just come off of a tour with Stabbing Westward, and aside from Flakus joining onstage for ‘Panic Room,’ you’ve stayed true to your ‘one woman army.’ What do you find to be the major challenges in performing onstage entirely on your own?

I Ya Toyah: I guess the greatest challenge is technology. And I am such a tech nerd, so when I say this, I really mean it. My machines – I call them ‘band mates’ (laughter) – can be very moody, especially when you tour for a month straight and drive from climate to climate, with a trailer reacting to every pothole. So, my main challenge is always to make sure everything works, and then fix it on the spot if it doesn’t. I perform with my own light show and visuals, I also perform my guitar, synth, MIDI controller stuff and pedal station, and of course vocal live. So, there are lots of parts to consider and think about. Do all the wires still work? Is my interface okay? Is my click track still heard? In bigger venues, my in-ear sound usually needs some tweaking due to the amount of subbass onstage. This list doesn’t end, so I’m always very alert and focused when I prepare my performance. And I have the best crew to help me. They carry the heaviest stuff, they are trained to do load-ins, help with setups, do the teardowns and loadouts, so that I can be in my merch booth with people. They are also learning to spot and solve the problems as they arise. So, my challenges as a one woman act are really mostly troubleshooting. But it’s all worth it. Once I begin the show, all this goes away. I don’t have stage frights, and I love being onstage. Being in the spotlight doesn’t bother me; I enjoy it. There is just music, audience, and me, and that is my favorite setting.

Over the years, what sorts of improvements have you made – your equipment, your performance style, etc. – that you feel has strengthened your onstage presentation?

I Ya Toyah: My stage production has been going through the stages of elevation. I started with a very small lightshow, and then decided to invest in better lighting. Then with each performance, I was learning my actual needs, how to make things easier and faster to setup and teardown. As a result, there came my custom built towers; same with my ‘brain,’ the main operations station. I used to have every piece separately, power conditioners, interface, keyboards, and connecting it during the setup would take forever. So, I figured I need to have it all together, already connected, and today it takes brief minutes to get that big monster ready for performance. I also constantly elevate my fashion for onstage presence. I love fashion and I have a lot of fun with this element. Recently, I started performing in latex and reflective mirror based outfits. I put together my wardrobe thinking of the songs in my set. How I can make sense of what I Ya Toyah is, both in visual and audio form?

How do you keep your voice strong, especially for live performances?

I Ya Toyah: I am pretty obsessed with keeping my voice healthy. When I’m on the road, I always go fully straight edge – no alcohol for me. Also, no caffeine, and I love my caffeine, but on tour, I just stop. I do extensive daily warmups every day and vocal health tests to make sure my voice is ready to do all the heavy lifting for the upcoming night. I don’t do dairy when I have multiple shows in a row. I use a nebulizer, and I drink Throat Coat tea. When the rest of the crew parties, living a real ‘sex, drugs, and rock & roll life,’ I sleep to make sure my voice rests for the next day. The voice can be very easily affected by all kinds of things – weather, AC or heating, lack of sleep, certain foods, even mental health. So, I have to keep that in mind, and it’s not easy, I can tell you that. There is only so much you can control on the road. At the end of the day, my voice is a main non-tech I Ya Toyah machine. It’s also the one that connects everything together. If it shuts down, there is no show.

What do you think are the biggest difficulties with live performances right now? What do you feel artists, labels, venues, the industry as a whole should take away from the pandemic and use or think about going forward?

I Ya Toyah: It depends on where you and your career are in the music business. These challenges are very different for an artist and their team when it’s a major label act and Live Nations concerts. For someone like me, an artist who started her own independent record label, it’s a different reality. As a record label and an artist, I have to oversee every single element of the worldly changes and embrace it accordingly to make sure I can still have my career and growth that leads me to my lifelong goals. The media will tell you that the pandemic pulled us apart, but I want to believe that it brought us back together. And it shows in everyday life, but also at concerts. Even though the challenges are so different for each of us, we still have one thing in common – we only have this one life, and I think we get it now. It’s vulnerable. Everything is temporary. And that is the thought I think should guide us moving forward.

 

 

You’ve also made some music videos, and while the MTV generation is long over, we have YouTube, Twitch/livestreaming, lyric videos, etc. What are your thoughts on the significance of music videos – both as a promotional tool and as an art form? Do you find them to still be relevant or viable?

I Ya Toyah: One of my guilty pleasures is playing with visual art. I love building visual stories that can take a listener further than audio itself. Since I was a very young child, I loved watching music videos – this was how I would discover most of the music I liked at that time. As for the actual significance, I think music videos are a way to make an impactful connection with your audience, and also a perfect way to expand it. To me, it’s another form of creative expression that allows me to share who I am at the very core, and hopefully inspire others to not be afraid of who they are.

Do you have a philosophy around the visual presentation of I Ya Toyah – both in terms of videos and live performances – and how it complements or strengthens the music?

I Ya Toyah: I Ya Toyah, when spoken out loud in Polish, means ‘It’s Just Me.’ ‘I am who I am.’ The visual philosophy begins in my logo – the peace and anarchy merging together into the unique symbol of I Ya Toyah, circling back to the ‘It’s Just Me’ meaning. I love being transparent and not pretending to be something or someone I’m not. So, I’ll go full glam on my photoshoots, because I love that stuff, and then I’ll post a photo of myself with my dog Benek, with no makeup on, all over my socials. I’ve always been told that I am full of contradictions. I am happy, but my music is dark. I am skinny, but I can eat a lot. I am tiny, but I am strong. My blood is hot, but I’m always cold. These elements are me, and so I wanted to make sure they are a part of my musical journey as this career… it is my life. So, rather than pretending to be someone I’m not, I’ll be who I am. I Ya Toyah. Each thing I do musically and visually represents that. I write about my inner storms, about my internal struggles. Everything I do musically, artistically, visually, and in everyday life is peace and anarchy, coming back to the very core of who I am – a person and brand full of contradictions trying to survive modern reality.

At its heart, this scene has championed the voices of people not traditionally heard (women, POC, gay/bisexual/trans, kink/fetish, far left, etc.). There has been a general sense of misogyny in the mainstream musical community, yet you as the ‘one woman army’ are at least part of a powerful wave of women as leaders, leading bands, producing, etc. in the electro and industrial scene. What more do you feel must be done, or that we can/should do, to continue to empower women as artists and creative leaders?

I Ya Toyah: I always focus on humanity, on the human element in us, on what we have in common, not on what divides us. Yes, I sure have met a lot of people who would want to take my independence away, take me down because I’m a woman with a strong accent. But this independence is not to be taken away. It was never even given to me; I’ve built it from scratch, starting with nothing, on foreign grounds where I didn’t even know anybody to ask or any help. So, no one can separate it from me. I think what needs to be done, we’ve all just got to continue following that path. Building ourselves, and each other. Focus on what we can control, not on what we need to fight; what we can repair, not break. Choose wisely what values we want to promote and stick to them. Follow the path we can be proud of, not regret. It’s a long route, but because it’s genuine, it will be effective. This revolution needs to be mindful. Changes will happen, slowly but automatically. They already are.

Lately, nostalgia seems to have manifested in different ways – from the resurgence of certain musical styles to several artists and bands reissuing older albums, rerecording older songs, cassettes and vinyl have come back, etc. What are your thoughts on this? What do you feel have been the key factors toward these looks back to the past?

I Ya Toyah: It feels to me like a big part of this cultural movement is uncertainty. Times are very unstable now. We just went through a pandemic, our minds are a little wiped, to say at last. And nostalgia is so soothing. It’s a safe harbor. So subconsciously, we tend to go there to seek comfort.

What is your perspective on the current state of the industry and the many avenues that exist for independent artists to retain control of their creative destiny?

I Ya Toyah: I think it’s great that you can remain fully independent while doing something that becomes of recognizable significance for art, music, and communities. However, the surviving part, the ‘starving artist’ part, is very much imprinted in this journey for a majority of underground creators. Even if it’s not per se starvation, which for many is, it’s the choices that have to be made in order to have the revenue streams that will put food on the table and pay the bills. It’s definitely a twisted avenue. For example, Spotify just announced a bunch of changes that basically make things much harder for an independent artist, changes that will help big labels and popular artists in the mainstream, superstar, or legendary category, but work against developing acts. So, control is great when you are in control of the full picture.

Outside of music, what do you most enjoy? Movies, books, hiking, cooking, etc.

I Ya Toyah: I love my dog Benek! Anything and everything involving him makes me feel alive. I love nature. I’ll always take any watersport over lying on the beach. Hiking is my regular way to reset my mind and relax, while reminding me that I can achieve things I aspire for. Cooking is a huge passion for me. I always laugh that if I didn’t have music, I’d have to be a chef. I’m envisioning that that one day, I Ya Toyah will launch a cooking channel, followed by the recipe book. Talking about books, I love reading as well! I think it’s something my mom gifted me with, this joy of reading books. I’m always reading something. Right now, it is Sierra Demulder’s We Slept Here poetry book and Carl Jung’s Synchronicity. Books help me turn my mind off and build whole entire universes inside my head. It’s very relaxing! I also love fashion and makeup, and yes, I know these strongly align with my career as I design most of my T-shirts on my own, and I have a Death’s Kiss Lipstick line. But I also love fashion for how it reflects the current culture, how it leads the way from one chapter of humanity to the next, effortlessly. It dictates the trends we follow. It’s very inspiring. I love coming up with ideas for the next cyberpunk-meet-rocker outfit for my live shows, and creating featured clothing for the photoshoots by pairing stuff together.

What’s next for I Ya Toyah? I’m guessing more music, but… singles, an EP or album, etc.? What can we most look forward to?

I Ya Toyah: I want to share the music I’ve been working on! So, definitely there are some singles coming in 2024. Album? Definitely, but before that happens, I want the world to get to know I Ya Toyah a little closer.

Is there anything you’d like to add, anything I’ve not brought up that you’d like to talk about?

I Ya Toyah: I want to thank all my fans and supporters for all the love I’ve been getting from them! Art is nothing without the spectator, music is nothing without the listener. I Ya Toyah might be called ‘one woman army’ for some onstage and in studio shenanigans, but the real I Ya Toyah begins with you. Thank you! Much love!

 

I Ya Toyah
Website, Facebook, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, YouTube, Instagram

 

Photography by Krzysztof Babiracki – courtesy of Babiracki Images

 

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