The Guardian: Ya Tseen

Ya Tseen: the Alaska-based star mixing psych pop and giant political art

Activist, musician, visual artist – the performer is always breaking down boundaries. His collab-heavy new album is potent, tender and all about togetherness

Photo credit: Merritt Johnson

Indian Yard may have been recorded in such far-flung locations as New York, Texas, Seattle and Lake Como in Italy – but right now the album’s creator, Nicholas Galanin, is home in Sitka, Alaska, with his feet up. Sort of. “We spend a great deal of time outdoors, hunting and fishing,” says the softly spoken Galanin, who is married to the artist Merritt Johnson, with whom he has six kids.

A prolific visual artist and musician of Tlingit/Unangax̂ descent, Galanin never really seems to stop working. As the rest of the world stalled last year, his art made headlines across the globe: his piece for the 2020 Sydney Biennale, Shadow on the Land, dug a grave round the shadow cast by a statue of Captain Cook; while his piece for the Desert X biennial this year, Never Forget, spells out the word “INDIANLAND” in Hollywood-style 40ft-high letters – referencing the US government’s historic erasure of individual Indigenous identities.

For someone so interested in boundaries and ownership, it’s not surprising that his own identity as an artist is fluid; why shouldn’t Galanin also be a brilliant musician? Indian Yard, released on Sub Pop under the name Ya Tseen, is not even his first album; he’s also recorded as Silver Jackson and Indian Agent. But this is the one he is most excited about. Featuring collaborations with Seattle hip-hop mavericks Shabazz Palaces, psych-pop crew Portugal. The Man, and futurist rapper Stas THEE Boss, Indian Yard is a lithe creation, gathering up spare, sensual R&B, lush electro-soul and flashy eyed, gnarly hip-hop in its embrace.

As eclectic a record as it is, one theme pulses through all 11 tracks: the universal need for connection, most evident on the breathy, ecstatic pop anthem Close the Distance. It will surely strike a chord with those deprived of contact this past year, sexual or otherwise; Galanin says he was recently struck by a documentary about Covid patients who were craving human touch: “We’re such social creatures,” he says. “The necessity of that, for everybody, is real.”

The album started emerging in 2017, and shifted considerably along its unhurried way. “Our experience of the world changed completely,” says Galanin, whose youngest son was born during this time. His baby’s entrance into the world is celebrated on At Tugáni (his son’s name), which evokes what Galanin describes as “the tender aspects of existence”. It is moving and meaningful beyond mere sentimentality. As Galanin says, Tlingit/Unangax̂ people are so often dehumanised, Indian Yard’s softer songs come out every bit as potent as its rousing, political ones. “The responsibility now is to maintain and uphold,” says Galanin, “and not have other generations have to fight for conversations.”