Ya Tseen Tears Down Borders with Indian Yard

Ya Tseen interview with Northern Transmissions by Adam Fink
Ya Tseen photo by Christian Peteresen

Nicholas Galanin is a man of many talents. The Alaskan based artist has been creating some defining pieces of art for many years now. Born and raised in Sitka, from Tlingit and Unangax ancestry, Galanin creates from his perspective as an Indigenous person and his perspective is vast. His work calls for “an accounting of the damages done to land and life by unfettered capitalism while envisioning and advocating alternate possibilities.” In 2020, as part of the Biennale of Sydney, Galanin excavated the shape of the shadow cast by the statue of Captain James Cook, as a call for the burial of monuments to violent histories. The piece was lauded by ArtNEWS and Artsy. The New York Times called his piece Land Swipe, a painted deer hide that marks locations on the NYC subway map with sites of police violence against Black youth, one of “the most important art moments of 2020”. Galanin works in sculpture, video, installation, photography and jewelry to advocate Indigenous sovereignty, racial, social and environmental justice, for present, and future generations. Galanin is also a talented and respected songwriter, musician and producer, releasing albums under various aliases and collaborating with the likes of Meshell Ndegeochello, Tanya Tagaq and as a part of the art collective Black Constellation with Shabazz Palaces and Porter Ray. His work, musically, is as thoughtful and impactful as his visual art and with his debut album, Indian Yard, under the name Ya Tseen, Galanin brings his experience as an artist to an amazing peak. The record is profoundly beautiful, powerful and a personal statement that brims with the urgency of current social and environmental justice movements and absolutely radiates a sense of love and wonder. Working with his bandmates Zak D. Wass and Otis Calvin III as well as guest performers such as the aforementioned Shabazz Palaces, Nick Hakim, Qacunq and Alaskan rock stars Portugal, the Man, Indian Yard is another defining piece of work from an artist that doesn’t seem to slow down. When we reach Galanin, early in the morning at his home in Sitka, you can hear the sound of his family bustling around him getting the day started, one of the main things on our mind is if he approaches all these projects in a different way.

“No, I don’t think so,” Galanin explains over Zoom. “I don’t think they are different at all. They have always supported and benefited from each other. As a multi disciplinary artist means that there is so much potential for your time and where your energy goes. What deserves it, I suppose and when you learn to listen to that, nothing ever feels forced and not beat yourself up over it. The means when you are ready to work with it, you can always go back to it and it’s always fresh. Sometimes, like right now, I have a ton of different things in all different directions and I work with great people too and these don’t always hold all the space in my mind. Sometimes you have the most clarity when you aren’t staring directly at something. There may be things that I am working out in the back of my head but in the present moment I am working in something completely different but these things can cross my mind enough that I can grab it and write it down and then come back to it another time.” It is extremely impressive that Galanin can jump back and forth so easily between things but as he says it is most important to stay in the moment as much as possible. “You have to stay in the moment. I’m working on a canoe project at the moment. It’s a big process. A lifetime of training to understand these forms and it feels good to be doing that work, as well as a project that has been three years in the making and a couple of books, artworld stuff, and of course, this record. With it all, I want to get back to the music studio, it’s been hard because the time isn’t there for me at the moment but I know I’ll get back to it.”

Like his other work Indian Yard wasn’t something that was just created front to back over a couple months but an extended project that was initially started back in 2017. “It was years of building and capturing and then refining it all. The choices of which songs were going to come together on this project. There was probably about three albums worth of material that was captured and started, Galanin says. “There were a lot of ideas and these ideas shifted and with some of them I would still love to eventually finish and with others who knows if I will come back to them or not.”

With that amount of material you would expect that the process of whirling it all down to what is on the record was a difficult one. “It was kind of,” he explains, “but it became kind of obvious. Certain songs would finish themselves and with my process I tend to not hold anything too precious about anything so things can take really radical shifts if you are willing to take just a portion of an idea and explode it into something else.” The record does absolutely explode with life. From the opening track “Knives”, Galanin makes it clear that what is to come will be something fresh, exciting and completely unexpected. From that song’s motorik beat and squelching synths that jump all around the virtual space to the soulful piano and falsetto of “born into rain”, the album jumps flawlessly between genres and styles but the songs are always buoyed with wonderful arrangements, stellar performances and a genuine feeling of love.

“I really like that translation of it,” Galanin says when it’s mentioned that the record overflows with the feeling of love. “I can only hope to have that captured because there were so many moments of joy and these aspects of life that are captured in song. Song has the ability to say unspoken things or translate feelings or emotions that don’t have words. Oftentimes that’s a really deeply personal relationship to that so I genuinely don’t ever expect others to sense that or understand it but when that does happen, it’s wonderful to hear. A lot of care definitely went into it all. It is such an interesting group of songs and they travel a wide range potentially if you want to put up borders of music but I think the thing that connects them all is that joy and that love.” In terms of the record’s genre hopping aesthetic, Galanin explains that it is a reflection of his upbringing and through the work he has done as an Indigenous artist. “It is intentional as my multi display practice and arts is in a way,” he explains. “I feel as a student to my culture and community and engaging as a visual artist, early on I sensed this desire, as an Indigenous artist, to be consumed and placed in categories, to be compartmentalized or to be put into almost the equivalent of reservations even, these borders placed up. These colonial and settler forms of consumption and the way to sovereignty and freedom through that for me has always been creatively. It is power. So I feel like with the music it is the same. Some of the artists that I have loved in the past have established the ability to maintain creative curiosity throughout a career, that is what it should be, not replicating formulas or chasing algorithms.” With Indian Yard, Galanin is definitely not just trying to replicate ideas that have come before. The record overflows with an original perspective and with the amount of work that Galanin does, it is exciting that we will be able to take in and experience it will grow over time and as inspiration to the present and future generations his work is sure to touch.

Pre-order Indian Yard by Ya Tseen via Sub Pop Records HERE