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Meet Stephanie aka Hustlekat

Today we’d like to introduce you to Stephanie Yu a.k.a. Hustlekat.

Stephanie, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, spent almost a decade in New York City, and moved back here about three years ago. I’ve come full circle.

My mother told me that I had a precocious interest in music as a child, and at age five had expressed the desire to play the piano. However, a teacher said my hands were too small and suggested the violin instead, which turned out to be a good choice. I eventually started taking piano lessons at an age eight, and casually played the flute in my primary school band. My parents, both immigrants from Taiwan and China, sacrificed much of their own passions to let me explore my own. While growing up, my family experienced a period of great difficulty due to mental and physical health issues. I was forced to mature earlier than the norm, and since I was a shy kid, I gladly buried myself in extracurricular activities as a mechanism of escape and expression. It wasn’t long before playing the violin took priority over other interests and became my main voice. Though I did plenty of competitions, talent shows, recitals and the like, contrary to stereotype my parents never forced me to practice or pressured me to be a performer. They actually discouraged me from getting too serious, knowing the volatility of the artist’s life, but soon accepted that I was heading in this direction.

People often ask me when I made the conscious decision to pursue music; I say God opened the doors and I’ve just been walking through them. Since my trajectory has usually been a bit different from those around me, I’ve gotten used to doing my own thing and adapting to new environments.

When I was 12, I left my local school to attend Orange County School of the Arts for junior high. My violin teacher at the time than advised me to apply for a scholarship to the Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences, a private arts school in Santa Monica. I transferred shortly after. My time there was an incredibly unique and enriching cultural experience in my life. I lived in the International House owned by the music institute during the week with other young, serious musicians; the family I lived with was African-American, which to this day, are still family to me. Looking back, I suppose not many kids could say they were from a suburb that was predominantly Asian, attending a school that was mostly Jewish, and living with an African-American family. When I wasn’t practicing or studying, I was trading mix tapes/CDs with my “house dad” and friends who were into outlying, underground artists. I also already knew that I had to live in New York City, and that dream was fulfilled after getting into Juilliard. All I will say here about my alma mater is that it is an intensely challenging, special place with the most incredible, disciplined individuals.

Upon graduating, all these interests that were pushed aside to focus on my craft resurfaced. Many nights I found myself seeing a New York Philharmonic concert and venturing downtown to check out a DJ. I loved learning about the pioneers of genres and artists dancing across spectrums. I also wanted to know the fundamentals of DJing. I stumbled upon DJ Scratch Academy in the East Village founded by Jam Master Jay, immersed myself in the community and wound up ‘graduating’ as a certified DJ a few years later.

I moved back to L.A. with the intention of experiencing a change of context, honing my skills, and finding more creative freedom. The west coast energy and pace of life has helped me expand my view of the possibilities of a life in music and achieve certain goals. I was curious about the recording session world here, which now that I’m a part of, have discovered is quite a staple of the city. I am a resident DJ for NTS radio in Los Angeles, a worldwide online radio station and eclectic community whose headquarters are in London. They provide opportunities to curate music for art and fashion related events. I also co-produced a few concerts at a gallery in Hollywood last year, birthing a series called No Time to Waste, which has featured a network of Juilliard alumni. These days I continue to record for film/TV, play with classical groups, and work on projects with various producers and artists whom I highly respect. I also plan to share an EP next year, with help from fellow friends and artists.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Not quite, so I am truly thankful to be alive and kicking still! Throughout my life, in the shadows, I battled with bouts of depression and anxiety, which affected my ability to perform and audition. Only in recent years have I reached out and gotten the necessary help to heal and strengthen my emotional bandwidth. I would liken the struggle to a thorn in my flesh, a blessing and curse that keep me humble. I’ve found that knowing the feeling of inferiority and wrestling through cognitive distortions helps me to connect with humanity on a deeper level and encourage others in need. This poverty of spirit contributes to the depth and complexity of my being and artistic output.

I’ve also grappled to reconcile my infinite curiosity with the reality of specialization. It takes an enormous amount of time and energy to play an instrument well, and to maintain that standard while continuing to explore other worlds and skills, can often feel difficult and overwhelming. With consumerist culture and the rising of social media, the world pushes an artist into a box, easily branded and packaged. While outside voices rush you into ‘success,’ I feel in order to make something real and thoughtful, you need to tune them out. It takes time to build and develop what you have to say with brutal truth, and that timeline is different for everyone.

Lastly, two traits I aspire to continue fighting for:
1. To stay open and hopeful in the face of rejection.
2. To stay kind even when people aren’t. (I believe they come around at some point)

What do you do, what do you specialize in, what are you known for, etc. What are you most proud of? What sets you apart from others?
I am and will always be a violinist, playing, performing, and recording in varying capacities- those are my roots. I’d say my artist name ‘Hustlekat’ is an extension of my core, which continues to branch out and develop. Most people know me as a musician, DJ, curator, connector, humanitarian, and more. I like taking action when possible, rather than speaking empty words; and what sets me apart from others is my ability to lay a firm foundation in various worlds and my unwavering commitment to skills, projects, and communities I choose to be involved with. I’m learning to embrace my curiosity and versatility, rather than being apologetic about what makes me unique in my field. Ultimately, I hope people feel richer in spirit after sitting with me as a human being, or my work as an artist.

What are your plans for the future? What are you looking forward to or planning for – any big changes?
I need to stay stimulated and challenged with the new, so I am currently exploring the realm of Music Supervision. I’ve enjoyed gaining knowledge about the industry and the whole process of syncing music to image. I’ll see where that may take me. I mentioned earlier as well, I’m working on a personal EP that will be coming soon. I’m looking forward to new creations, collaborations, more Djing, and performances. In terms of a few live ensemble gigs coming up, I am excited to play with The Who at the Viejas Arena, Jónsi at the Orpheum Theatre, The Midnight Hour (Adrian Younge & Ali Shaheed Muhammad) at the Lodge Room, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 with the San Diego Symphony’s new music director.

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Image Credit:
Nikko La Mere, Olivia Diehl

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