Artist Voices: T. E. Yates

Tell us about your music, when did you start making it and what inspires it?

I remember hearing music around me from being a very young child onwards and it’s something which has always evoked a response in me. My mum is really into soul music – so I heard a lot of Motown and northern soul as a kid. Although it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started to play music (ignoring recorder in primary school, which sounded awful and certainly didn’t make me want to learn to play music – and occasional dabbles with a 1980s Yamaha keyboard which belonged to my auntie, loaned to my sister). I began by borrowing harmonicas from my grandad, a habit he picked up during his days in the army and one which he used to entertain my sister and I as children.

However, it was only as a teenager that I really started to find myself as a person and to simultaneously grow as a musician and a songwriter – so it was from this time onwards that I really started to begin and to develop my listening taste in music, as well as my own musicianship. I’ve always had an eclectic listening taste in music and I think that I absorb all these influences into my songwriting, like some kind of insatiable sponge. Although, naturally, with most of the instruments I play being acoustic and associated with folk, old-time, country/Americana etc then I’m certainly inspired by this music – amongst many other genres.

I’m almost always listening to music – from the earliest recorded blues, jazz and country/old-time of the 1920s and 1930s up to ambient and minimalism of today – you’d be as likely to find me listening to Blind Willie Johnson as you would to Boards of Canada. So, whilst folk is probably at the core of what I do, and one of my leading influences as an instrumentalist, I have a broad listening taste which, in turn, influences my composition, writing and approach. 

I do listen to a lot of music from the 1960s and 1970s, so this era is of particular interest to me – guitarists who began recording and performing in this time, such as Richard Thompson (who began as a guitarist with Fairport Convention), Bert Jansch and John Renbourn (both of Pentangle), John Fahey, Nick Drake and Robbie Basho are probably some of the more conspicuous influences over my guitar playing. Though I very rarely learn to play their songs – indeed, I haven’t included covers in my live sets for a really long time and I’m yet to record a cover – their approach to the guitar definitely comes through into what I do. Songwriters such as Tim Buckley, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan have also been strong influences over my music.

As a lyricist, lots of things influence my writing. Politics, personal experiences and surrealism tend to seep in there quite often, amongst many other themes – so it’s quite a broad span. Often there’s a mashup of multiple lyrical themes within a single song, although some are a bit more consistent.

I was a latecomer in terms of becoming a musician compared to my peers – a lot of people I went to school with started to play an instrument when they were about 14 or 15. I was about 17 when I borrowed my grandad’s harmonicas and I was almost 18 when I started to play guitar. I started writing my first songs very shortly after I started to play guitar, so I’ve been a songwriter for pretty much the entirety of this duration. Most of my early songs were quickly left behind as I’ve evolved, although one of my earliest efforts, “That You Knew”, made its way onto my first EP, Possessed and I still play this live on rare occasions.”

What impact would you like your music to have on the world?

If my music resonates with someone then I think that I’ve achieved something positive. If it can provide some enjoyment, entertainment, inspiration, solidarity or be thought-provoking then I’ve done my job. If my development in music makes a meaningful contribution to others, in any positive way, then this means that it’s having a good impact.

For my more upbeat output (musically, at least – one recurring habit of mine is to juxtapose my most upbeat songs with some of my most downcast lyrics, which some fans notice and find amusing), it always makes me smile on-stage when people start to dance. It’s not always easy to make people dance, especially when you’re performing original music that many audience members won’t be familiar with, so this always feels like an achievement when it happens!

For either my more gentle output, or for my darker and moodier compositions, if someone can find solace in this and know that they’re not alone, or find calmness, peacefulness and tranquillity there then I’ve managed to share and convey these emotions well, enabling the music to connect with others.

Personally, I always want to continue developing and improving my craft as both a songwriter and as a musician. Ultimately, I simply want to become the best that I can be, so if I feel like I’m making progress then I’m happy. I don’t like to feel stagnant. Hopefully this development is rewarding for listeners and gig-goers too. In continually pushing my own boundaries with music, hopefully I can also help open minds and encourage others to develop their music too.

As an artist and award-nominated animator, I’d love to continue exploring integration between music and other, visual, artforms. My project ideas are usually quite ambitious and I’d like to continue pushing this aspect of what I do. Hopefully this inspires others to explore interconnectivity with other musicians and other artists from different disciplines – as well as exploring their own creativity.

I’d like to inspire other autistic and neurodivergent people to make music and to help realise their potential. I also want to try and make a small contribution towards reshaping public perceptions and attitudes towards neurodivergence for the better.

I’d like to inspire other autistic and neurodivergent people to make music and to help realise their potential. I also want to try and make a small contribution towards reshaping public perceptions and attitudes towards neurodivergence for the better.

Additionally, I’d like to continue pushing other social and economic issues in my lyrics, using my platform as an artist to try and have a positive impact on the world. I want to write and sing more about the climate and ecological emergencies we face too – though it can be hard to do this well. Sometimes political music and art can be seen as too didactic, although I’ve always thought that art provides a good platform to share important messages and to call for change. Striking a balance between doing this whilst also being an entertainer can be difficult to pull off but it can be done nonetheless.

Have you faced any barriers within the music industry?

As an autistic person, I’d say that the biggest barriers I face relate to networking, audience building and funding. The first two (and, to some extent, the third as well) stem from difficulties in face-to-face social interaction, plus making new, and maintaining existing, relationships.

From my own experience as a neurodivergent creative practitioner, it’s possible to attain remarkably high skill levels at a rapid rate – although I’ve often felt an overwhelming sense of underachievement when compared with my neurotypical contemporaries. It’s been really frustrating at times. Particularly when I was younger, I often felt invisible – it felt as though it didn’t matter how good my music is, how competent I am on the various instruments I play or how strong my performances are – it just didn’t feel like the opportunities would arise.

Many people who see or hear my work are surprised that my income is so low. Aside from emergency Covid relief grants, I have never made a successful application to receive funding from an arts organisation. In line with statistics for autistic adults, my income is well below the national average.

Some people have wondered why I can appear so confident on a stage – something most people would find extremely difficult to do – and yet struggle in everyday social situations. The truth is that the whole social dynamic is completely different. Speaking to an audience is not the same as talking to someone in a pub. It’s sometimes a relief to stand on stage so that I’m removed from the busy crowds of people.

Often these barriers and difficulties overlap – for instance, within music, if you struggle to build up a fanbase because you can’t have conversations with enough people in the audience after a gig, or you don’t maintain these relationships in the same way as a neurotypical artist, you don’t sell as much music and merch.

It feels like I’m perennially stuck in the “emerging artist” category, when many of the neurotypical artists who emerged alongside me have already toured around the UK and mainland Europe multiple times. I turn 35 within the next few days (writing in early September 2022) and I’ve been doing this seriously since I started playing guitar as a teenager. Whilst I’ve done Glastonbury Festival for the first time this year – a long-held dream – it feels like it takes me a lot longer to reach these milestones. I would have been wholly capable of doing this to the same level ten or fifteen years ago – indeed, many of the songs I performed live at Glasto this year are ones I wrote a decade or more ago now and have been staples of my live sets for many years. I’m yet to do my first full UK tour or, indeed, to tour further afield. I’d love to do festivals such as Green Man and End of the Road but don’t feel too much closer to achieving this at present.

I’m genuinely delighted to see artists I love deservedly attaining acclaim – I just wish that these avenues were also more open to neurodivergent artists.

I should be very clear that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with achieving your goals later on in life or in making progress at a slower rate. I’m delighted to finally be feeling like I’m reaching some long-held goals and that things are moving in the right direction – and a lot of my frustrations are dissipating as a result.

I was ready for this a long time ago but, as an autistic person, the opportunities didn’t seem to come up. If these opportunities had opened when I was in my 20s, I’d probably be even further along now than I currently am.

Whilst these examples are drawn from my experiences within the music industry, the reality is that these also apply to our creative industries more broadly – including my other disciplines of animation and artwork. I would like to see a world where stories like mine are based on what we can achieve – not on what sets us back.

What improvements would you like to see in the music industry?

Firstly, I’d like to see the recommendations made in Attitude is Everything’s Just Ask campaign adopted as standard practice within the industry. It’s such a simple thing for venues, promoters and festivals to do – yet it would make such a big difference to Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent performers. I struggle to ask for help or assistance – and I know other Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent artists who feel the same – so shifting the onus away from the artist with regards to access requirements and additional needs would make such a big difference.

Funding is also a big problem for me – aside from emergency Covid relief grants, I’m yet to make a successful funding application to an arts organisation. I’m also on a very low income, so it’s hard for me to subsidise projects which are important to the continuing of my musical development, such as recording sessions.

I believe that, when identifying a problem, it’s always best to try and offer proposals for a solution. Some organisations offer funding opportunities specifically available to certain under-represented groups – however, there’s comparatively little funding available for Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent artists. I believe that there are two possible solutions, which are related but slightly different. One would be to introduce more funding opportunities specifically for Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent artists. The other would be to merge all such existing funding directives in order to accommodate all under-represented groups – so that there is one big pot. That said, I do appreciate that it is harder to make these demands when there is less funding available overall.

Although Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent artists are, currently, largely left to apply for the same funding opportunities as non-disabled and neurotypical artists, the amount of support – and accessibility of the application format – varies greatly between organisations. If funding cannot be ringfenced, I’d like to see better accessibility – and more support in place – for applicants, including paid support for people who can help applicants with their applications (some organisations, including Arts Council England, offer this – others don’t). I’ve been very lucky to work with David Richmond of Arts in Development / Walks in Development here in the south west – without Dave’s kind and generous support, I might not even have secured the emergency Covid relief grants (which were essential as I didn’t qualify for government support) as these applications are so difficult for me to navigate, evidenced by my track record with funding opportunities.

I’d like to see are more support in terms of networking and audience building for neurodivergent artists – including more third party representatives within the industry (such as managers, booking agents, labels) who are able to help neurodivergent artists make progress in their musical journeys.

Other things I’d like to see are more support in terms of networking and audience building for neurodivergent artists – including more third party representatives within the industry (such as managers, booking agents, labels) who are able to help neurodivergent artists make progress in their musical journeys. Also, perhaps allowances made from venues, promoters, festivals etc when neurodivergent artists are asking for gigs – to give their music, emails and other communications a bit more time under the expectation that we might not be easily able to build up a relationship with them and network face-to-face.

As an autistic artist, access to quiet spaces before and after the performance is something I’d like to see more, wherever possible. Many headline artists will be given access to a green room but, as a support act, you’re often left to mingle in amongst the crowd before and after the show. I appreciate that not all venues can accommodate an extra room to set aside as the premises, particularly for smaller venues, simply don’t have the space – however, whenever and wherever possible, a movement towards this is something which I think would be beneficial.

Finally – I’ll keep this brief – there are, outside of issues relating specifically to disability and neurodivergence, many broader concerns within the music industry which I’d like to see change for the better. For instance, I support campaigns such as Fix Streaming, launched by the Musicians’ Union and The Ivors Academy.

Do you include your disability in your music?

Yes – my song “Condition”, which I wrote around ten to twelve years ago, pre-dating my autism diagnosis at the age of 26 in 2014, is the most forthright I’ve been about my lived experience as an autistic person to-date. Though, if I were writing this song now, I don’t imagine that I’d choose the same lyrics!

I came together with my friends Tom Stubbs and Stephen Clarke of Bristol-based Biggerhouse Film to make a video for this song. All the participants, including myself, are neurodivergent and have been involved with Biggerhouse Film’s Different Voices project (you can find out more about this video via my website). Contributors include much loved Bristol-based gig-goer and artist Jeffrey “Big Jeff” Johns and Michael Smith, director of soon to be released feature film Dawn of the Dark Fox.

Naturally, my lived experience as an autistic person is a recurring theme throughout my music – and a subject matter which I fully intend to revisit and explore more in the future.

“Lately I’ve been increasingly outspoken about neurodiversity on-stage, including my three performances at Glastonbury Festival. I believe it’s important to talk about neurodiversity in a positive way and to show what neurodivergent creative practitioners are capable of. If I can make other neurodivergent people feel proud of who they are then I’ve achieved something positive with my message.”

I’ve worked with – and continue to work with – other neurodivergent musicians. I’ve worked with other autistic musicians in the past, as well as dyslexic and ADHD musicians – hopefully showing the power of neurodiversity and the beauty that we can create when our minds come together. I’ve often chosen to work with neurodivergent musicians without being aware of their neurodivergence beforehand – I’m always impressed with the abilities and unique approaches which those of us who think differently can bring. Generally I’m quite a rational person, though I’ve usually gone with my gut instinct when it comes to choosing which musicians to invite to be involved with my own music – and many of these musicians are neurodivergent.

I’m about to join Gideon Conn, who is also neurodivergent and a multi-disciplinary artist, for three consecutive dates on his UK tour, as a support act, which I’m really looking forward to. I’m sure that I’ll continue working with other neurodivergent musicians, artists and animators in the future – and that I’ll continue to include this topic in my work, whilst also speaking about it publicly.

Can you tell me about a positive experience you have had with a venue, festival or organisation?

There have been lots of gigs and festivals which I’ve enjoyed immensely and have had wonderful experiences with – though these haven’t always been particularly easy for me to do and haven’t necessarily catered to my needs as an autistic performer. Even if I enjoy doing a gig or a festival, I often find myself experiencing very high levels of anxiety and stress, for instance, and there doesn’t generally seem to be much in place to help accommodate autistic performers, especially at the grassroots level in which I operate. I often find that I need several days of recovery time after doing a gig or a festival.

Things like access to quiet spaces, a visual guide of the venue/festival and a good amount of information sent well enough in advance would really help but broadly seem to be lacking.

I believe that the work of Next Stage and Attitude is Everything is really important – and I’m optimistic that the wonderful work being done will help bring about some positive change within the music industry.

I have a lot of admiration for Robin Jax at Tiergarten Records – the first, and so far only, neurodivergent-led and focussed record label in the UK – possibly the world. I also respect the amazing work that Ben Price is doing at Harbourside Artist Management, based here in Bristol. It’s wonderful to see that there are organisations who are working to improve the experience for Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent artists and gig-goers alike – and it gives me hope for a better future.

Fell Foot Wood in Ulverston, Cumbria is one of my favourite small festival locations – I’ve played there a lot over the years, since my earliest days as a performer (I think my first time there was in 2007). It’s a beautiful location overlooking Windermere and, if you feel like you need a bit of time and space, it’s easy to just disappear into the woods for a bit! Barry Houghton and his daughter Hannah always do a wonderful job of hosting events on the site – I’ve always been given food there (plus it’s never been a problem to accommodate dietary requirements) and felt looked after and valued as a performer.

I appreciate that it would be impossible to eradicate sensory overload – it comes with the job, being a musician who performs live – although taking some small steps to help mitigate this, such as reserving a quiet artist camping area and/or backstage area, plus signposting to this, would be really helpful.

I’m still wary of disclosing my autism diagnosis to venues, promoters and festivals – partly due to the stigma which comes with this, or through fear that I may lose out on opportunities due to societal conceptions surrounding autism – but I hope that I can do this in the future with confidence. Again, the implementation of the Just Ask campaign’s recommendations would make this significantly easier.

To hear more from T.E. Yates and listen to his music, check out his website:

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