Class of 2020: Emily Steinwall Spreads Universal Love as Yala the Leopard Queen

Class of 2020: Emily Steinwall Spreads Universal Love as Yala the Leopard Queen
Photo: Becca Hamel
Last year, Toronto's Emily Steinwall was touring as a backing vocalist for Brampton pop sensation Alessia Cara and performing at massive venues all over the world, including at New York City's iconic Madison Square Gardens.
Now she's gigging in small venues across Toronto, hosting open mic nights and recording as a solo artist between trips to Los Angeles and Sri Lanka. The change came in part from a decision to move her career in a new — albeit riskier — direction, but one that felt more authentic.
"The world," she sighs, "is very lost."
Before one of her gigs at the Rex — a well-known jazz club in Toronto — Steinwall sat down with Exclaim! to talk about her plans on the verge of releasing her debut album, Welcome to the Garden, and how she combats an increasingly hostile and disconnected world through her music.
"There are so many different conflicting opinions and viewpoints and religions and ideologies and values," she says. "They make for stressful living. They make for conflict and violence. Fifty years ago, people don't have to work three jobs [and] constantly be on call just to pay their bills. Money over humanity and stuff like that, right?"
These are the concepts that Steinwall is actively trying to dismantle with her art. An ambitious feat in itself — but she's armed with something powerfully optimistic: universal love.
"Being in the flow of the universe and doing things from the heart, doing things from a place of love, wanting what's best for your fellow man, wanting what's best for yourself — art has always been the medium of spreading that message," she says.
As a trained jazz saxophonist, Steinwall taps into that universal love through her improvised live performances, harnessing energy from her audience, which she in turn reciprocates through her striking voice and resonant tenor sax.
"All we're trying to do through music is to get to that place," she says. "You're tuned in to that universal frequency. Everybody's tuned into it. Whether we choose to be aware of it or not, we're tuned into it. You can't escape it. It's part of the human DNA.
"If I'm feeling amazing and If I'm feeling relaxed, I'm feeling present in my body and I'm tuned into that love, people are going to feel that. Whether they're aware of why they're feeling it or not. It's going to be felt. And because it's my stage, everybody's attention is on me. It's amplified. That's the nature of being a performer."
Beyond integrating universal love into her performances, Steinwall compartmentalizes facets of her personality to embody in her music and onstage as well. These facets come alive in the form of three distinct characters: the flower nymph (birthed from recording Welcome to the Garden), Princess Emily and the ever-enticing Yala the Leopard Queen.
Steinwall describes the nymph character as a "messenger of the Earth, a messenger of the natural world. But also kind of creepy… Kind of psychedelic." Princess Emily is a "vulnerable, tender, innocent little girl [who] thinks the best of the world and hasn't been tarnished by hurt yet," who expresses herself in Steinwall's more optimistic songs about romantic love.
"I think there's a lot of strength in softness," Steinwall explains. "Especially now, when nobody's being soft. You can be like, 'I want to fall in love,' and people [will be] like, 'Wow like, really? Because I want that too, but I was trying to be cool.'"
Yala the Leopard Queen is a powerful, ferocious creature who represents the most salacious characteristics of Steinwall's femininity and sexuality. Yala exists with "a leopard on a leash," Steinwall says, "So no one can fuck with her.
"She's singing about her portal of creation and destruction between her legs. She's powerful and she's terrifying and men are scared of her. People are scared of her, because she's expressing something that everybody feels inside themselves, but directly goes against our obsession with control."
Steinwall dates Yala's first appearance to a song called "Hysteria," recorded during her Peace Theatre Sessions last year.
"That was her first expression — 100 percent," she says. "And I really feel like the tenor saxophone is a really good instrument [for Yala] because it requires so much force. It requires so much actual physical power to make that instrument sing."
Steinwall is performing at Exclaim!'s Class of 2020 on January 17, a date that coincides with her birthday, and that of her bandmate and twin brother Jackson. The celebration will include wigs and wardrobe changes as well as plenty of universal love. "I just want to pour love into people through this party as I enter my next quarter of a century," she says. "I don't know where I want to be, exactly. I just know I want to go forward."
Emily Steinwall plays Exclaim!'s Class of 2020 concert series, co-presented by Collective Arts, on Friday, January 17 at the Monarch Tavern in Toronto with Myles Castello, Nutrients and Ferrari Garden.