Neo-R&B Artist TIN Premieres “Yellow Gem” and Talks Identity, Performance, and Art-Making

Photo by Gillian Milberg.

Last year, Brandon Mai burst onto the Brooklyn music scene as TIN with his first single “RGB,” and today we have the privilege of premiering his second single, “Yellow Gem,” which not only showcases his dynamic vocal skills but also his ability to cleverly toe–or even erase–the line between popular and experimental music. Since the music video for “RGB” was released last November, TIN has accumulated a significant and quickly growing fanbase throughout Brooklyn and beyond. His unique artistic vision is made clear not only through the smooth, experimental sonic environments he creates in his songs, but also in the confident visual aesthetic that accompanies his social media presence and live performances. This summer, his artistic work has been recognized by the Uncaged Heroes competition, put on by Tiger Beer, HYPEBEAST, and 88rising, in which he will compete as a Finalist on July 12 in San Francisco.  

To accompany the premiere of “Yellow Gem,” TIN gave us some deeper insight into his early influences, his recent live show at Brooklyn venue Baby’s All Right, and the powerful ways identity and collaboration can influence creative work.

Tin, you have called your music “neo-R&B” and “anti-pop.” What do those terms mean to you?

Anything that dips its toes in more than one pool has always intrigued me. There are interesting, creative collisions happening when you hyphenate. I’m inspired by “neo-R&B” and “anti-pop” because they dance around in opposites and refresh a traditional, beloved sound. This makes them an exciting bleeding edge in popular music (for now) that I like challenging myself with.

Where do you find inspiration for your songwriting? Are there particular musicians who have inspired you?

If you stole my first generation iPod shuffle – the one that’s useless and tiny – you would find a diverse, intense set of John Mayer music I religiously listened to (which is my less obsessed way of saying “worshipped”), through my impressionable years. Play any half-second of any part of any John Mayer song, and I’ll tell you which song it is! TRY ME. At that age, I barely branched out to listen to other artists, except some Coldplay and Frank Ocean’s “nostalgia, ULTRA.”

John Mayer, and now also Frank, influenced me so heavily because as their sound has evolved through different albums, they’ve successfully stayed true to their unique sonic identities. John Mayer had bent his genre in every which way through the years, but there was always that mark of his signature wordplay, slightly left-of-center pop melody, and mesmerizing guitar section. And that unlocked songwriting for me, because I understood what “writing your truth” was through the musical storyline of their careers.

Can you speak more about the decision to perform under Tin, your real name? On your Soundcloud it says, “call him tin his parents said / like metal in english / like trustworthy in vietnamese.”

The name “TIN” couldn’t have been more perfect when I realized it actually meant one thing in English and another in Vietnamese. It mirrors the duality of my identity by being both Vietnamese and American.

Photo by Gillian Milberg.

Your songs deal a lot with the discrepancies between your own identity and other people’s perceptions of you as a Vietnamese-American man. What have you found to be the most effective way to squash stereotypes and misconceptions, either personally or artistically?

Having music as a consistent part of my Viet-American life always inherently broke the stereotype through the years. My voice was a super power that made me matter to social groups growing up. And then it became a little addictive to me to keep pushing myself out of every Asian stereotype, until I took it too far and became ashamed of being Asian.

It wasn’t until this music project as “TIN” that I’ve fully embraced my identity and pushed that back into the very place that took me out of it: my musicianship. And now this feels like the best form of squashing stereotypes or misconceptions, because what I’m saying comes from a truer place –  an Asian-American one. So now the goal isn’t to limit myself to exclusively writing about stereotypes/misconceptions either; it’s about showing people the complex and vast number of experiences an Asian person can go through. Anything from unrequited love to nostalgia – a lot of stories and character types have yet to be associated with Asian people.

Can you trace the moment when you decided, “I’m going to be a musician now, for real”? Was it a long time coming?

As an Asian man, I was conditioned to think of music as a hobby and so I never gave myself the chance to mature my love for creating it. It wasn’t until I had the freedom to investigate myself through it by moving away from my home in Oregon at 22, that I valued it above anything else I was doing. 

So yea, definitely a long time coming – I feel more myself now.

TIN performing at Baby’s All Right on June 10, 2018. Photo by Natalie Miano.

Tell me a little about your recent show at Baby’s All Right. What do you do in a live show to shake up the status quo?

Here’s my thing about live shows: I think Beyoncé is my personal end-all of ~live-in-concert show~. I don’t think we’re going to get a more breakthrough or innovative art performance in that category. After years of Prince, MJ, Bowie, and countless other legendary rock stars, she has literally done it all and put a nail in the coffin of that kind of live performance in a big space, with big lights, and the whole thing. I’m looking towards a different status quo. I’m inspired by Solange performing among Donald Judd works in a desert town or serpentwithfeet at a theatrical, interactive party in a Yonkers garden.

So at Baby’s, my goal was to break the typical indie live performance format as much as I could, with the resources I have as a currently self-sustained artist. I brought four other Asian artists on stage with me to develop the choreography and look of the show. We began the show by ceremoniously marching in with my drummer hitting a gong – all with red poncho hoods on (like the one from my music video for “RGB”). That theatrical intro really changed the mood and perspective people had of the show.

What about the other visual aspects, like the face paint and the use of the color red?

Red is just so loud and arresting, it’s purely for the attention it can hold. And it’s whole lot louder than if I used yellow (my skin color).

The face paint is one example of how I’d like to collaborate with Asian artists as I evolve as a musician. The artist behind the makeup for the Baby’s show is a Filipino artist named Keith LaFuente aka Mahal Kita. In the future I hope to keep elevating and creating alongside other Asian creatives I’m inspired by.

What effect has your journey into music-making had on how you see yourself or other people?

My lyric writing often floats around storylines and moods, so what I end up with is usually a spectrum of meaning I’m not sure I ever fully understand. I’m a big fan of letting a song’s narrative flow naturally, so that its implications come through organically from collisions and flows I didn’t even plan. This way, I feel like new meaning keeps arising out of things I notice later on, and that’s helped me interrogate feelings I didn’t even know I had to confront about myself or others.

What trends in contemporary music excite you right now, and how do you see yourself fitting into those trends?

There’s so much genre-bending, experimenting in both sound and message, and I feel excited to create in it because I think it’s more challenging than ever to say something different or profound. This kind of trend is helping someone like me who’s still playing around and discovering those things – it sets me up to always have an attitude of just trying it out. I think that’s a major ingredient for great art making.

What’s next? How can readers keep track of what you’re up to this year and beyond?

I’ll be in the final round for HYPEBEAST/88rising/Tiger Beer’s Uncaged Heroes music competition on July 12 in San Francisco – stay tuned for that. Follow me online by clicking these links: Soundcloud and Instagram.  My Spotify debut will be coming soon.

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