Lindork’s Lists #10 with Nicholas Yee
Originally published to newsletter subscribers on Aug 8, 2021
The tenth person I’m profiling in my new paid newsletter subscriber Q&A series is:
Nicholas Yee, Musician and Creative Director
Getting to know Nicholas Yee:
Nicholas Yee is an incredibly talented, multi “hats” creative director and musician in Edmonton, who I first started following because of his stunning photography.
THEN he started producing the Is This For Real? podcast, which in its first season explored policing issues in Edmonton (and I think smashed local Patreon records by getting nearly 300 patrons contributing over $2,500 a month to support the project when it was initially announced last summer).
And then I learned he was a creative director for a company that facilitates premium merch for content creators! So—as I said, many hats, many talents, many interests, thus making him, I think, a very Interesting Person.
Nicholas shared such great insights in our Q&A that I’m excited for you to read, including insights and advice as a creative professional. I hope you’re inspired by Nicholas’ story!
Let’s Dive Into the Q&A with Nicholas:
Can you tell me about the work you do? I feel like there’s a few different pieces here, so I’d love for you to break down each of your ‘roles’:
What do you do with Juniper Creates—what is it, why did you start it?
Juniper Creates is a studio that designs physical products and online stores for creators — YouTubers, streamers, musicians, food channels, and more. People typically think of “merchandise” as cheap, basic items like t-shirts and mugs with logos, but we’re trying to change that perception by putting the world’s best product capabilities into the hands of independent creators.
You and I might have grown up with classic toys from more mainstream brands like Disney, Hello Kitty, or Lego. Kids today have such a strong connection with creators and their communities, and we’re giving those creators the ability to make special items that will become hallmarks of the next generation’s childhoods. We’ve made lots of custom items like plushies, figurines, stationery kits, and onesies, and helped creators craft that kind of journey with their fans.
I’m currently the Creative Director, which means I manage the design teams and look out for overall brand direction — how we’re presenting ourselves to creators and customers. I didn’t start it, but I’ve been involved since the beginning after working with our CEO Joel Wegner on another startup before. With all of the good and bad experiences I’ve had working in graphic design over the years, I’m really motivated to create a space where design is valued and creative spirits can thrive.
I’ve also been an online creator myself for almost 10 years now, so I’ve really gotten to see the space evolve and expand over time. It’s really exciting to be a part of shaping this industry, and hopefully we’ll all be able to enjoy a future where independent artists have more control over their careers.
What do you do with your music! How long have you been a musician? Why the cello?
I started taking cello lessons when I was a kid thanks to my parents. I originally wanted to learn the upright bass, but you had to be older to start learning so I went to the next largest string instrument instead.
It’s weird to think about, but when you’re growing up learning an instrument, I think the choice of instrument has a big role in shaping your values and your own perception of yourself. The orchestra kind of becomes a metaphor for society — there’s lots of stereotypes about the personalities that play different instruments. So I feel lucky to have been around a lot of more laid back people who didn’t take ourselves too seriously.
I started uploading to YouTube back in 2012 after I finished high school. I’ve had a lot of fun over the years experimenting with the instrument and using it as a way to get creative with talented friends. I think having that kind of outlet has really kept me grounded in terms of finding my voice and the kind of stuff I like to make, regardless of the medium. And there’s a certain level of catharsis in getting something out into the world and allowing yourself to move onto the next thing you want to play around with.
What do you do with Is This For Real podcast—explain to those who don’t know what it is and why did you get involved with this project?
“Is This For Real?” is a journalistic podcast we started last summer to address anti-Black racism in Canada and specifically in Edmonton. Bashir Mohamed, a writer and researcher from Edmonton, was really central in getting it off the ground. Bashir and I had worked together a number of times over the years, from student politics and municipal campaigns to community projects addressing institutional racism. With the mainstream spotlight on anti-Black racism last summer, we really felt like there was a lack of a local perspective. The issue was being discussed very visibly, but also very broadly and without any kind of real accountability.
So we saw a need to highlight the experiences of Black people in our own city, and to hold local institutions accountable. The season started out with a focus on police, but we kind of expanded that scope throughout the season to include municipal government and local media. Inevitably these systems have so much overlap and the same oppressive results, and it’s important to build an understanding of that interconnectedness because issues like racism are typically discussed in such an isolated manner.
The show is hosted by Oumar Salifou, a local journalist who used to work for the CBC. I first met Oumar when I was working on Bashir’s student governance campaign a few years ago, and Oumar was a reporter with the university’s student paper. At the time I remember being really impressed by the level of knowledge and also genuine care for student issues among the reporters, especially in contrast to the candidates themselves.
So I was really excited about helping out with the podcast, because of a belief in the mission and also a trust in the integrity of the people involved. I’m really just there to support in any way I can, whether that involves photography or audio mixing or just bouncing ideas around. It’s definitely been challenging to execute, both because of the isolating nature of the pandemic as well as the difficult subject matter.
These issues clearly aren’t getting solved anytime soon, and in a lot of ways are only getting worse. But we’re fortunate to have supporters (like yourself) on Patreon to keep the project going and provide resources for upcoming plans. As a disclaimer, I don’t take any payment from the project. You can support this project on Patreon here.
Would you consider yourself a photographer too? If so—again, when did you get into photography and why?
I’ve probably been taking photos casually since I was about eight. My family would take a road trip every summer to visit family in Manitoba and Ontario. I had a little camera and I really just enjoyed starting to see everything around me as an interesting still frame, whether it was grain elevators in the prairies, waterfalls in Ontario, or just some random detail in my grandparents’ house. So photography for me has always been really connected with travel and taking in new surroundings.
About all of the ‘roles’ you have—can you share why you’re passionate about these different areas? What do you enjoy most about doing each ‘thing’ you do?
Right now I’m really happy to be in roles that give me an opportunity to give back. Having done a lot of work in creative industries and knowing other artists, I’ve really seen the way that creative professionals are typically undervalued. I’ve been really lucky over the years to have people who trusted in me and gave me the freedom to shape those projects, and also to have a supportive online community.
So at Juniper Creates, I’m really trying to establish an environment where designers, illustrators, and copywriters can work for clients that really appreciate design and where they have the creative freedom to explore their own style and vision.
What’s something that people might know about, that may be surprising, about the different roles you have, something they may not know about producing a podcast? About being a creative director of an online commerce brand for creators? About photography? Or being a musician?
Creative professionals tend to be very emotional about their work. And I think that’s a good thing — we have to care deeply about what we’re doing, in order to create work that is meaningful and compelling to ourselves. And whatever we make has to be compelling to ourselves, otherwise it’s not going to be compelling for audiences. So as soon as you start deviating from that by watering down the vision or trying to achieve too many objectives at once, you end up with something that isn’t authentic and therefore won’t resonate with people in the same way.
I think this is why so many designers, writers, illustrators, etc. are sick of working for companies where they’re put into a box, or where they have to undermine their own vision in the name of fulfilling a corporate goal. We want to work with people and teams who value our ideas rather than just our skills, and respect the value of human decisions.
Can you share some memorable moments or ‘successes’ for one (or more) of your projects that you’ve been proud of?
Being on YouTube has definitely led to some interesting opportunities that I would never have even thought to seek out. I took a trip to Germany in 2019 that was a sort of culmination of a few of those opportunities. I was there to play at a wedding outside of Hamburg (probably one of the most beautiful weddings I’ve been to), and the couple had reached out after seeing my Kanye West medley.
But I started the trip in Frankfurt to visit a friend and fellow cellist that I had met through YouTube — we did a road trip around Germany on our way up to Hamburg, and I borrowed his cello to play at the wedding!
And on the way we stopped in Dresden to do some recording for a guitarist and neuroscience researcher who I had met the previous year during an artist residency in Banff, something that I also got to do thanks to YouTube. So the whole trip was an opportunity to appreciate life’s serendipitous moments.
I saw you have had 9.2 MILLION streams on Spotify!!! Please talk about that!
I was definitely surprised by that number! I think I probably benefited a lot from the fact that more people were working and studying from home in 2020. My music tends to be quite laid back, and of course it’s all instrumental. So I know lots of people like to listen to it in the background to help them focus. I’ll be surprised if I can get the same numbers this year, but of course I’m just happy that people are listening and enjoying the music I’ve put out there. Follow Nicholas on Spotify.
Side note from Linda: Over 5 million of his Spotify streams come from his beautiful BTS medleys! lol BTS ARMY (fans of BTS) is here to support anyone who wants to create BTS content, but especially when it’s so beautifully done like Nicholas’ music. Love it!
Can you share challenging moments or obstacles you’ve had to overcome in the projects you’ve been involved in?
At the start of 2020 I was really excited about getting more involved in live performances. I performed my Nutcracker medley with the principal cellist of the Edmonton Symphony in January. I got to perform with Kokopelli Choirs and was going to tour with them in the spring. I was planning a big show with my friend and guitarist David Jay, and I had quite a few weddings booked in the US that I was excited to travel for. Obviously all of those were cancelled due to the pandemic, so I really had to rethink my priorities and be deliberate about what to focus on rather than just following opportunities that popped up.
At the time I was only involved part-time at Juniper Creates, but there were a lot of opportunities for improvement that I saw throughout the years and wanted to be a bigger part of. So that was really the time that I decided I was going to commit to the team full-time and be a part of making those improvements as we grew.
It’s a bit of a cliché answer, but I think a lot of artists who depended on live performances had to get really creative during the pandemic about other ways to pursue their projects, connect with audiences, and ultimately make a living. And it’s been really inspiring seeing the way other musicians are picking up new skills, incorporating new technology, and bringing new ideas to the table to push the industry forward.
Can you share advice for other entrepreneurs, business owners, even musicians, around the topics of taking risks, pursuing their ideas/dreams/passions, etc.?
Embrace failure! Over the years, there were so many times when I was hesitant to start a new project or take up a new skill because I didn’t think it would be “successful”. Or when I didn’t want to let go of something because I was afraid to accept that I had failed. I think part of this comes with age — you inevitably fail to meet the goals you set up for yourself or to live up to a personal idea of success.
But you end up gaining an appreciation for something you never considered before, or you meet some amazing people who end up shaping your values. Or you fall into something that becomes your new passion. At the very least, you get to step outside of your own bubble and evaluate your journey from a different perspective. And then you realize what you missed out on when you held back in the past over fear of failure. But it’s also never too late! That’s something I always struggle to remind myself of too.
Wrapping up our Q&A:
What show would you recommend people watch on Netflix (or other streaming services) and why?
I would probably say that Ugly Delicious is my favourite show on Netflix. I love the way it blends genres to create such a unique style of documentary that’s true to the kind of bold sincerity that David Chang has in his exploration of food and people. The second season especially has a kind of personal vulnerability that you don’t often see in food documentaries.
Of course I also have to recommend the Studio Ghibli collection which us Canadians are lucky to enjoy on Netflix. A couple of personal favourites are From Up On Poppy Hill and Ocean Waves because of their unique soundtracks and slice-of-life narrative styles. And I think watching the journeys of those protagonists always makes me want to be a better person.
Is there a book or podcast you recently read (or doesn’t have to be recent) that you would recommend to others and why?
Over the last couple of years I was closely following the show “Rising” on the YouTube channel The Hill. The hosts, Krystal and Saagar, come from the left and right of the traditional political spectrum but both take an economic populist approach. It’s a refreshingly productive and unifying approach that really seeks to empower average people who are typically exploited by politicians and corporations.
True to form, they recently left The Hill to start their own independent podcast called Breaking Points, where they continue to challenge those in power. To anyone who recognizes that we have big problems to address as a society but is fed up by the counter-productiveness of partisan politics, I would definitely recommend giving them a listen and supporting independent media in general.
What is one of your favourite restaurants or stores you’d recommend in Edmonton?
Teapsy opened a couple locations on campus in the middle of my time at the University of Alberta. This was a big deal to me as there hadn’t been any bubble tea shops on campus before. I went very often and got to know the owner — Ivan is so friendly and generous to his customers, and genuine about building a wholesome community. They have their own standalone location on Whyte Ave now, and it’s a super friendly atmosphere with brick walls and tasteful neon signs. I was recently looking to get a neon sign made, and the first thing I thought of was the signs on the walls at Teapsy. I went in to ask Ivan where he got the neon signs made, and it turns out he also runs a custom neon sign business! Clearly there are a lot of people in our city who wear many hats, and I was happy to be able to support him in more ways than one.
What’s something about Alberta you love or recommend others check out?
I’ve always said that I really enjoy the seasonal changes we get to experience through the year, and the opportunities it creates for personal closure and growth. We’re enjoying such long days now and of course it will suck to go back to six hours of daylight, but it’s also so beautiful to see familiar places frozen over and coated in snow.
I grew up close to the Capilano Bridge, and one of my favourite things to do in any season is walk across the bridge and take in the view of downtown, the river flowing underneath, and the distinct trees along the water. When I see those trees barren in winter I get to think about everything that’s changed since the last time I was there. And then in the spring when everything is blooming again, it’s just another reminder of second chances and opportunities to take on new challenges.
So I would definitely encourage everyone to find those spots that are personally meaningful to them, and then revisit those scenes in different seasons to keep creating new memories.
Thank you Nicholas for sharing your story!
You can connect with Nicholas online at:
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