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With 'Zero Grasses,' Jen Shyu Forges Grief into Revelation

Jen Shyu
Wolf Daniel
/
Roulette Intermedium
Jen Shyu performing here piece 'Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses' at Roulette in April 2021

"More and more I've wanted to tell my story, as who I am," the singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu says in this episode of The Checkout. "And also really thinking about others who might look like me, or feel, perhaps, othered or marginalized."

That impulse, extending both inward and outward, informed Shyu's audacious and deeply personal new album, Zero Grasses: Ritual For the Losses, released this spring on Pi Recordings. A meditation on mortality and identity, it bears a dedication to her father, Tsu Pin Shyu, who died unexpectedly at his home in Houston in 2019.

The album features an ensemble that Shyu calls Jade Tongue, with Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Mat Maneri on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass and Dan Weiss on drums. Shyu herself plays Taiwanese moon lute, Japanese biwa, piano and percussion on the album — though of course her primary contribution is on vocals, singing in a range of styles and delivering spoken word both poetical and diaristic.

In concert, Zero Grasses unfolds as a performance piece, with Shyu incorporating choreographic movements and embodying multiple points of view, all against a multimedia backdrop. At Roulette this past April, Shyu brought a direct dramatic interpretation to some of the stories behind the songs — including her disconcerting experience with fertility treatment, and a racist confrontation during her adolescence.

"When I have power," Shyu sings on a piece bearing that title, "I'm going to set things straight." The words are pulled directly from her diary at age 15 (in an entry dated Oct. 11, 1993), and they illuminate a central tension that Shyu is determined to explore.

What does it mean to wield power, and how can it be redirected? How can a clearer sense of oneself — and the place one inhabits in a community, or a continuum — help create a better world?

Zero Grasses: Ritual For the Losses is available now on Pi Recordings.

The Checkout is produced by Simon Rentner.

Nate Chinen