The cover for Collander’s sophomore album, grim bitch/sick shit, features Alli Yates sitting naked in a bathtub filled with floating trash eating a greasy container of baked beans. Leaning against a faux marble wall wearing chartreuse lipstick, she looks oddly luxurious, sassily owning the sickly color of her modelesque pout.
Yates, who sings over self-produced lo-fi pop beats as Collander, said that the imagery came easily to her. Being a disabled and chronically ill person who rarely leaves her home, she can often be found in the bath — and not rarely, eating. “It became this joke among my friends that I should start a series of selfies of me eating all these different dishes in the bathtub,” she laughs.
But the cover also encapsulates a bit of what Yates’ music does, which is poetically speak to the experience of being a sick femme living under late-capitalism. Grounded in a disability justice framework, Yates makes music about everything from pain to heating pads to the "medical industrial complex," using an almost magical-realist approach to reimagining diagnoses and the sometimes-dark aspects of her daily life.
Yates first taught herself to make beats using GarageBand in 2014 during a six-month period when she wasn’t leaving her bed, resulting in five short songs collectively titled bed mongering. She eventually moved on to using a small synthesizer, sampler, and reverb pedal. Those were her tools when creating the nine tracks on grim bitch/sick shit, which she wrote and recorded over the course of three weeks early last year, when she was unpacking “varying amounts of trauma.” Initially, she told herself the music-making was only a reflective process — a low-pressure outlook that helped her finish the project despite being a perfectionist with limited energy — but eventually decided to release it online as well.
At the time, Yates was going through multiple breakups, having just left a partner as well as all of the doctors she was seeing. And the stripped-down songs reflect that ambiguous merging of romantic and medical experiences. In “blood left,” Yates’ high, shimmering voice softly sings over a pared-down composition of artificial drums and spacey gusts: “I don’t have any blood left for you/how could you still see it that way?” And in another: “Instead of empathy/you’re just medicalizing me/you’re a goblin of emotion/and I hate you.”
The songs contribute to a growing discourse around the ways that women with “invisible” illnesses such as fibromyalgia -- difficult to both diagnose and treat -- are often discredited and dehumanized by medical professionals. Yates, in particular, recalls frequently being driven to tears by the extent to which her doctors devalued her perspective and compromised her own agency over her body by insisting on constant tests and rigid treatments that she didn’t always find necessary or effective.
Rather than attempt to articulate the systemic inequities and power imbalances that contribute to the historic discrediting of women and other marginalized people within the medical industry, Yates’ lyrics succinctly cut through that fog with relatable poetry.
That approach, in part, is what makes “Collander” an apt name for her project. “It’s something that holds a lot but not too much, and it maintains some substance without trying to capture everything,” she says. “That’s an intention that I have generally for moving through the world, and it’s a realistic approach to trying to make meaning out of stuff.”
That lens also falls in line with the disability justice framework that underlies much of Yates’ creative and activist work — through her involvement with disability justice culture incubator Sins Invalid and through the work of other activists working in the field — which reminds us that people are born into bodies with varying abilities and varying vulnerabilities. “Disability justice is so brilliant both as a revolutionary politic and as an artistic practice and understanding,” says Yates, “because it’s so simple: It’s just the basic idea that we move from where our bodies exist within society, and for me, that is both really complex and super pragmatic.”
So, although Yates’ music could be classified as Bedroom Pop because it offers the low-production charm of that genre, she ironically rejects the label because it erases the fact that she makes music in her bedroom for very different reasons than most musicians with that sound. “I’m deviating from what Bedroom Pop is, I’m deviating from what Experimental Pop is, because I don’t have as much energy as the other people in this genre,” she says. And that’s something to acknowledge. “It might be ‘sick’ in a punk rock way,” she adds about other music, “but it’s not ‘sick’ in a, ‘I have a migraine and I’m not leaving bed for three weeks’ way.”
As is the case for many musicians, Yates’ lyrics — and chosen genre and moniker — are also simply a way to perform agency over the ways that her experiences and identity are defined. Drawing from and adding to the collectively and constantly evolving vernacular of online subcultures formed by queer, trans, disabled, chronically ill and other creatives, she thoughtfully uses language to add some fluidity and ambiguity to the sterile diagnostic labels that are often imposed on her. Her Bandcamp bio is merely one example: “a sick queer bed-mongering babyghoul eating salty snacks in the bay area.”
“To me, saying I’m a ‘babyghoul’ is one way of being playful and being like, ‘Yeah, I’m this strange little demon that’s gonna bother you at night,’” she says. “But, I’m also like, ‘No, I’m really sad and I’m lurking in the shadows too, and there’s some real shit going on here.’ I think a lot of haunted personas get invoked on the internet and in queer spaces because there’s something a lot more realistic there than trying to identify with something that’s more intact.”
Right now, Yates is working on a music video in collaboration with filmmaker Ariel Appel that starts off in a dreary doctor’s office, but becomes an enchanting dream world featuring a gang of fellow “crip femmes” (the once-demeaning insult "crip" having been reclaimed as a term of empowerment) in velvety and satiny settings. It's an aesthetic Yates calls “pajama luxury,” or “PJ Lux” for short, an ode to the things that make “being at home all the time a little more magical,” she says.
She’s also working on a new album and planning an accessible art fair and performance showcase featuring chronically ill and disabled artists — who, she points out, often get invisibalized because they are typically less physically present in their creative communities and therefore get forgotten. But she warns not to expect those things too soon, because she works in “crip time.”
“I’m learning how to really accept the slowness that’s already a part of my life and then to really encourage people around me to, I guess, dig deeper and move more gently and slowly and take the costs that come with that,” she says, “because the result is something really profound and so much more gratifying.”