Jen Shyu On New Album 'Zero Grasses: Ritual For The Losses,' Overcoming Grief & Discrimination In Enlightened Spaces

Jen Shyu

Photo: Daniel Reichert


Jen Shyu On New Album 'Zero Grasses: Ritual For The Losses,' Overcoming Grief & Discrimination In Enlightened Spaces

On her new album, 'Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses,' vocalist, composer and multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu gazes unflinchingly into the maw of grief and discrimination

GRAMMYs/May 12, 2021 - 07:58 pm

It’s a fact: Asian people face discrimination in America. And as composer and multi-Instrumentalist Jen Shyu points out, it happens everywhere—including the conservatories and concert halls on the coasts.

The comments and microaggressions in those spaces come fast and hard. At an upstate artist's residency, she was called "an Asian Meredith Monk." The vocalist/composer is frequently mistaken for various musicians of Asian descent—and vice versa. One time, a composer approached her and complimented her bass playing—and Shyu replied that she wasn't Linda Oh. 

"He scurried away like a rat!" Shyu tells with a sharp laugh. "And I just wish I could remember his name!"

Shyu takes these instances in stride and files them away in her memory bank. This is apparent on her new album, Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses, which came out on Pi Recordings on April 12. A harrowing-yet-beautiful grief journey, the album braids the shock of Shyu's father's death with memories of racism and sexism from throughout her life.

On tunes like "Lament for Breonna Taylor," "When I Have Power" and "Father Slipped Into Eternal Dream," personal and global sorrow pool into one. "I just think these themes are interlinked," she explains, in the context of a deadly pandemic and continuing police violence. "You kind of see how differently that manifests for people, depending on your privilege." But by examining both micro and macro grief through the same lens, Shyu sees both with more clarity—and by communing with Zero Grasses, listeners can too. caught up with Jen Shyu over Zoom to discuss the traumatic experiences that informed Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses and how she continues to rise above daily challenges in her field.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This album is about grief in various forms. The pandemic and police killings add new dimensions to global sorrow.

I just think these themes are interlinked. You kind of see how differently that manifests for people, depending on your privilege. Now we're seeing it with Daunte Wright. It's frightening and can be paralyzing. You see no justice being served. It's hard to fight through that and carry on.

When my friend Joko [Raharjo and his family were] killed in a car crash, his mother and I were texting and she wrote, "I've cried all the tears." This is all in Indonesian. "I don't have any more tears left. But we still have an obligation in this life. Those of us who are still alive still have an obligation in this world." That has really stayed with me.

The word for "obligation" is wajib in Indonesian. So, indeed. That is the effort to carry on and inspire and comfort.

I can connect the dots as to how a family dying in a car wreck would compel you to express yourself in an unvarnished way. Loss makes it incumbent to tell people the things you always meant to tell them because they might not be around tomorrow.

Yeah, absolutely. It comes from life experience. I think this will always be part of my artistic output—immediacy. Wanting, being hungry for that rawness. When I created "When I Have Power"—where I talk about the young boy calling me a ch**k—that was written in August or September of 2019. That was before the pandemic. And the text was from when I was 15; it was from my diary. 

So, it's like: "Oh, that's always been there." It just happened that this is coming out when there have been incidents of violence [reported] in the media. These instances of violence have finally been shown. That feeling of anti-Asian racism has always been there. All these things—if they stay hidden and remain unspoken, nothing's going to be done. Nothing's going to change. 

Just to speak these things out: First, it makes people aware, and second, if it's visible, then OK, we can do something.

Jen Shyu. Photo © Marco Giugliarelli for Civitella Ranieri Foundation, 2019.

I'm curious as to where this album fits into your larger body of work.

This is my eighth finished recording. The first featured standards done in an unusual way. I did a couple, then, that were just digital. You can find these on Bandcamp. But then, when I started working with Pi, the first album was a duo with [bassist] Mark Dresser, who's amazing. 

After that, I went to Indonesia right away! I got my Fulbright. That was 2011. I became a dual citizen of East Timor since my mom is from there. I came back and did [2015's] Sounds and Cries of the World. It was personal, song-to-song, which I recorded after producing my first solo theatrical work called Solo Rites: Seven Breaths that involved a lot of that music. It was autobiographical in the sense that it was about a woman on this journey to, first, her homeland, and then to all different areas and what she discovers. Very abstract, though.

That was the first time I connected the theatrical and the dramatic with the musical aspects of my vision. Definitely, an early influence on that would be Meredith Monk, whom I got to meet when I was at Stanford. She was kind of the first example of that for me.

Now, funny story! [sharp laugh] This is evidence of what one goes through as an Asian artist. There was this residency I was doing and this very famed composer—more in the classical world—he was at that same residency. I think this may have been at Yaddo, which is an artist residency upstate in Saratoga Springs.

We often do these presentations for each other. It's all voluntary ... So, I presented something and this composer came up to me after. He was like, "Oh, Jen, that was amazing. Your voice is so incredible. You're like an Asian Meredith Monk!"

And I was like, "Oh, thank you! Yeah, she's great!" Because he clearly meant it as a compliment. And then I thought about it: "Oh, I don't know about that!" So, yeah, that was pretty interesting.

Do you get patronizing comments like that often?

All the time. Oh my god! All the time. In different forms. There was a manager who's a veteran. I won't mention her name. She had told me, "Oh, yes, I looked at your work. Ostensibly, you'd be a perfect client for me, but I just signed a koto virtuoso and I think there might be some overlap there."


[loud laugh] I looked her up and she's not a singer. She's not a composer. She just plays koto, and she does some interesting projects. She's great! But not the same, you know? The only thing we had in common was "Asian woman." Alright.

There are so many examples. First of all, I always get mistaken for Linda Oh, and she gets mistaken for me. Susie Ibarra. We get mistaken for each other. There are so few of us, perhaps. That's a big thing. It's the white male gaze. That's nothing against you personally. A lot of the gaze is from that perspective.

[Being mistaken for Linda Oh], that was at a Henry Threadgill concert.

An academic, learned crowd.

[This guy] introduced himself to me and said, "I'm so-and-so. I'm a musician. I just wanted to say: You are an amazing bassist." I was like, "I'm so sorry, I'm not Linda Oh." And he literally ran away. He scurried away like a rat! And I just wish I could remember his name! It's too bad.

It's even from friends. Recently, a friend just sent me a link to a video that an amazing gayageum player made. She's come to a lot of my shows. She's from Korea; she went to New England Conservatory. Amazing player, and I love her. She made this beautifully edited video that had her singing and playing.

This friend of mine sent me this video and said, "Hey, have you seen this yet? It reminds me a lot of you and your work." It kind of makes sense. She's been following me and she said I've been influencing her. But I kind of just told him, "You know, I've often been told this." People say, "Oh, I saw Bora Yoon and I thought of you!" She's a friend of mine also! But very different! So different!

It's this grouping together that's frustrating. People can't see the difference. It's like, "All Asian people look alike." This is what we're up against. Not only are we grouped and stereotyped, but if that's already what people can or cannot see, then how is our music going to even be appreciated?

I’m an artist who really embraces my ancestry. I go deep into it. That’s my path. But I know how frustrating it must be for other Asian artists who people might expect that of them. They just want to make music, you know? It’s just being the other. I’ve never let it stop me because I’m so hard-headed. I just go forward.

Inescapable Progression: 10 Jazz Labels You Need To Know In 2021

Rosalía Announces First Solo North American Tour


Photo: Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images


Rosalía Announces First Solo North American Tour

El Mal Querer Tour, named after the Spanish pop star's latest album, will come to Los Angeles on April 17 in between her Coachella performances

GRAMMYs/Mar 20, 2019 - 12:25 am

Rosalía is set to perform at some of the most popular music festivals around the globe, including Primavera Sound in Spain, Lollapalooza (Argentina and Chile) and Coachella, but the Spanish pop star isn't stopping there when she gets to the States. Now, she has announced her first solo North American Tour with a string of dates that will bring her to select cities in the U.S. and Canada.

El Mal Querer Tour, named after her latest album, will come to Los Angeles on April 17 in between her Coachella performances. Then she'll play San Francisco on April 22, New York on April 30 and close out in Toronto on May 2.


RELATED: How Rosalia Is Reinventing What It Means To Be A Global Pop Star

"I’m so happy to announce my first solo North American tour dates," the singer tweeted.

Rosalía won Best Alternative Song and Best Fusion/ Urban Interpretation at the 19th Latin GRAMMY Awards in November and has been praised for bringing flamenco to the limelight with her hip-hop and pop beats. During her acceptance speech she gave a special shout-out to female artists who came before her, including Lauryn Hill and Bjork. 

Rosalía has been getting some love herself lately, most notably from Alicia Keys, who gave the Spanish star a shout-out during an acceptance speech, and Madonna, who featured her on her Spotify International Women's Day Playlist. 

Tickets for the tour go on sale March 22. For more tour dates, visit Rosalía's website.

2019 Music Festival Preview: Noise Pop, Coachella, Ultra & More

Walk, Don't Run: 60 Years Of The Ventures Exhibit Will Showcase The Surf-Rock Icons' Impact On Pop Culture

The Ventures


Walk, Don't Run: 60 Years Of The Ventures Exhibit Will Showcase The Surf-Rock Icons' Impact On Pop Culture

The exhibit, opening Dec. 7, will feature late band member Mel Taylor's Gretsch snare drum, a 1965 Ventures model Mosrite electric guitar, the original 45 rpm of "Walk Don't Run" and more

GRAMMYs/Nov 22, 2019 - 01:44 am

Influential instrumental rock band The Ventures are getting their own exhibit at the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles that will showcase the band's impact on pop culture since the release of their massive hit "Walk, Don't Run" 60 years ago. 

The Rock Hall of Fame inductees and Billboard chart-toppers have become especially iconic in the surf-rock world, known for its reverb-loaded guitar sound, for songs like "Wipeout," "Hawaii Five-O" and "Walk, Don't Run." The Walk, Don't Run: 60 Years Of The Ventures exhibit opening Dec. 7 will feature late band member Mel Taylor's Gretsch snare drum, a 1965 Ventures model Mosrite electric guitar, the original 45 rpm of "Walk Don't Run," a Fender Limited Edition Ventures Signature guitars, rare photos and other items from their career spanning six decades and 250 albums. 

“It’s such an honor to have an exhibit dedicated to The Ventures at the GRAMMY Museum and be recognized for our impact on music history,” said Don Wilson, a founding member of the band, in a statement. "I like to think that, because we ‘Venturized’ the music we recorded and played, we made it instantly recognizable as being The Ventures. We continue to do that, even today."

Don Wilson, Gerry McGee, Bob Spalding, and Leon Taylor are current band members. On Jan. 9, Taylor's widow and former Fiona Taylor, Ventures associated musician Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and others will be in conversation with GRAMMY Museum Artistic Director Scott Goldman about the band's journey into becoming the most successful instrumental rock band in history at the Clive Davis Theater. 

"The Ventures have inspired generations of musicians during their storied six-decade career, motivating many artists to follow in their footsteps and start their own projects," said Michael Sticka, GRAMMY Museum President. "As a music museum, we aim to shine a light on music education, and we applaud the Ventures for earning their honorary title of 'the band that launched a thousand bands.' Many thanks to the Ventures and their families for letting us feature items from this important era in music history."

The exhibit will run Dec. 7–Aug. 3, 2020 at the GRAMMY Museum

2020 GRAMMY Awards: Complete Nominees List

Alicia Keys Unveils Dates For New Storytelling Series

Alicia Keys

Photo by Isabel Infantes/PA Images via Getty Images


Alicia Keys Unveils Dates For New Storytelling Series

The artist will take her upcoming 'More Myself: A Journey' biography on a four-city book tour

GRAMMYs/Mar 5, 2020 - 04:07 am

After performing her powerhouse piano medley at the 62nd Annual GRAMMYs, R&B superstar, GRAMMY-winning artist and former GRAMMY’s host Alicia Keys has revealed that she will set out on a four-stop book tour next month. The storytelling tour will support her forthcoming book More Myself: A Journey, which is slated for a March 31 release via Flatiron Books and is reported to feature stories and music from the book, told and performed by Alicia and her piano, according to a statement.

Part autobiography, part narrative documentary, Keys' title is dubbed in its description as an "intimate, revealing look at one artist’s journey from self-censorship to full expression."  You can pre-order the title here.

The book tour will kick off with a March 31 Brooklyn stop at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. From there, Keys will visit Atlanta’s Symphony Hall on April 5 and Chicago’s Thalia Hall with Chicago Ideas the following day, April 6. The short-run will culminate on April 7 in Los Angeles at the Theatre at Ace Hotel.

Pre-sales for the tour are underway and public on-sale will begin on Friday, March 6 at 12 p.m. Eastern Time. Tickets for the intimate dates and full release dates and times are available here.

Keys won her first five career awards at the 44th Annual GRAMMYs in 2002. On the night, she received awards in the Best New Artists, Song of the Year, Best R&B Song, Best R&B Album and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance categories respectively. She has received a total of 29 nominations and 15 GRAMMYs in her career.

This year, Keys will also embark on a world tour in support of Alicia, the artist’s upcoming seventh studio album and the follow up of 2016’s Here, due out March 20 via RCA Records.

Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Brittany Howard

Photo: C Brandon/Redferns/Getty Images


Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Proceeds from the event will be go toward loans to small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses, via Accion Opportunity Fund

GRAMMYs/Jun 16, 2020 - 04:13 am

This Saturday, June 20, artists including Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz and more will come together for Small Business Live, a livestream fundraiser event for small businesses facing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Proceeds from the livestream will go to Accion Opportunity Fund to support small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses.

“Entrepreneurs of color are denied credit more often and charged higher rates for money they borrow to fund their businesses. We need to accelerate support to underserved businesses in order to reach our full potential,” Accion Opportunity Fund CEO Luz Urrutia said. “We have to decide what we want our Main Streets to look like when this is over, and we must act decisively to keep small businesses alive and ready to rebuild. This is a fun way to do something really important. Everyone’s support will make a huge difference to small business owners, their families and employees who have been devastated by this pandemic, the recession, and centuries of racism, xenophobia and oppression.”

Tune in for Small Business Live Saturday, June 20 from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. EDT on The site also provides a full schedule of programs and links to watch the livestream on all major digital platforms. To learn more about Accion Opportunity Fund, visit the organization's website.

Ivan Barias On Silence As Complicity, Holding Major Labels Accountable & How To Be A Non-Black Latinx Ally