Yaeji: All together now
There’s a special kind of moment you can experience once, or maybe a handful of times if you’re lucky, at a live show.
Your favourite artist is performing and suddenly you’re overcome with feeling, like you’ve been enveloped underwater in a heated pool. Every sensation is heightened, mind and body connect together in boundless ways; here is where you are supposed to be. Maybe you cry, or scream, or grasp the hand of the person next to you. Or maybe you’re dancing hard at Panorama Bar in August 2018, having a sweaty, messy time of your life while watching singer and producer Yaeji play to a packed room, and in the heat and rush of it all, you and your partner decide you want to be together for the rest of your lives.
“I was like, wow, I can’t believe that can happen, that kind of moment,” Kathy Yaeji Lee tells me, as we sit across from each other in her Bushwick studio on an overcast October morning. It was her first time playing the storied Berlin venue, and the crowd had been sending her messages throughout her set with memo paper from the bar. When she went through them all at the end of the night, she came across a note that gave her pause. “Thank you so much for this moment,” it read. “Thanks to you, me and my partner got engaged on this dancefloor right now.”
She takes a deep breath to steady her voice as she continues: “Whenever something like that happens, I really try to put myself in the perspective of when I loved going to a show so much that it put me in a completely different place, or mood, and the power of that. Then I get really humble and appreciative of touring again.”
© Neva Wireko
Top: Vintage Galliano from James Veloria
Though this is the first major interview Yaeji has sat down for in 18 months, she’s relaxed and at ease, choosing her words with genuine and expressive verve. Cosy in the studio, she looks effortlessly put together in wide-legged black jeans (“I love big pants”), a black and white striped shirt, and an array of round gold accents – glasses, nose ring, hoop earring. We’re speaking at the tail end of a long process of self-reflection, growth and hard work, and in anticipation of a big 2020. Though the details are hush for the time being, two things are for certain – there will be a new project and an upcoming tour, during which she’ll perform a new live show. We sip hot drinks as she brings me up to speed on her life after 2017’s breakout EP2.
The release was a watershed moment for Yaeji. Warm, inviting tracks like raingurl, drink i’m sippin’ on, and a rework of Drake’s passionfruit attained a passionate cult virality, along with her music videos, which all bear the mark of Yaeji’s unique visual aesthetic: glowing light and shadow, a balance between comfort and style, the ability to make any space feel intimate. Her newly dedicated following came out to see her perform at events like Coachella, All Points East, several venues across North America and Elancia, the rave that she threw in a Brooklyn warehouse in September. It all happened very fast, and in a way that was nearly impossible to prepare for – she went from making music in her home, playing one-off shows around the States, and working a day job as a graphic designer, to doing music full-time and touring all over the world. Very quickly, she had to navigate being thrust into the spotlight, and talking with adoring listeners, many of whom lined up after gigs to express their gratitude for her music.
“I needed time to soak it in and actually go through the growing pains,” she recalls. Though being able to focus solely on making music “felt like a dream,” the speed at which everything was unfolding was, understandably, a bit disorienting. She began to take stock of her newfound circumstances, and realised she needed to slow the pace to reassess where this path was taking her. “I was [thinking], what do I signify to these people who love my music and listen to me or look up to me? I really sat with it and wanted to make sure that I understood myself and caught up to myself 100 percent before I [kept going] or else it wouldn’t feel like honest music.”
© Neva Wireko
(Left) Top: Vintage Galliano from James Veloria
Jewellery: Yaeji’s Own
(Right) Top: VeniceW
Raised between Queens, Long Island, Atlanta and Seoul, Yaeji eventually moved to Pittsburgh to attend college at Carnegie Mellon University, where she studied painting, conceptual art, and graphic design. Pittsburgh was where she discovered her love of the club – both within the student radio station, WRCT, and at the legendary queer rave Hot Mass – and began to DJ and produce her own tracks. Upon moving back to New York in 2015, she took to Brooklyn nightlife with a fervour, dancing hard more days of the week than not, and soon enough, she was playing out and throwing her own parties. At the end of 2017, after a year of two EPs, multiple music videos, and hype coming in from all over the world, she quit her job to make music full-time.
In the two years since EP2, Yaeji has become a fully independent artist. It was a decision spurred from the desire to have full creative control over herself and her music. She’s deliberately assembled a new team of her closest friends to act as managers, creative resources and collaborators, while also experiencing “extreme [personal] growth.” This period of growth, she explains, was not necessarily related to, but perhaps accelerated by the development of her artistic process and the meteoric rise of her music, which has led her to this point and this place, right here: a swivel chair in between two white Yamaha monitors, in front of a computer with almost-finished versions of the new project. Though she appreciates the opportunity to connect face-to-face with her fans on the road, she’s an artist who prefers being in the studio. You can feel it when you walk in; in addition to the homey touches and decorations, the space has a calm, positive aura.
The studio proper is painted white with gloriously high ceilings, soundproofed by Yaeji herself. A Korean flag hangs near the lofty windows. On the other side of the wall from the studio is the room that she and her crew use for meetings and creative workshops. One of her managers sits on his computer across from a support beam covered in Polaroids; each photo depicts friends, musicians, and other assorted visitors, laughing or smizing for the camera. A large IKEA shelf, the kind most people use to store records, holds a different artefact per square: two kinds of Pocky (chocolate banana and matcha, for the heads); a plastic Pokeball perched atop a stack of magazines; a pink potted plant; a single spray-painted CDJ. Yaeji moved out of her living room studio (which followed her bedroom studio) in early 2018 and into this building, wanting to more concretely separate her work life from her home life, and logistically needing to establish a physical headquarters for her team.
© Neva Wireko
Top: Yaeji’s Own
“The Yaeji that people see is a culmination of all of my influences and all of these friends that inspire and help me put it together”
Other “rotating homies” use the studio as well, she clarifies with a grin. The importance of not only creating but maintaining space for her community, be it permanent and physical like the studio, a temporary environment like a live show, or the strong, intangible bond between friends (the word appears 21 times in the transcript of our conversation) near and far, comes up again and again as we talk.
“This project is obviously called Yaeji, and that’s my Korean name and my middle name that was given [to me] by my grandfather,” she says. “But at the same time, the Yaeji that people see is a culmination of all of my influences and all of these friends that inspire and literally help me put it together. I see it almost like a family business in that way, which is such a Korean thing too – to entrust your family to take on business because you can’t trust anyone else.”
This sentiment is embodied in her new music as well – one song is explicitly about treasuring your friendships. Though she’s recently worked with Charli XCX and Robyn, and hung out with Arca at a Korean arcade, she wants to use her platform to put on artists who aren’t exceedingly well- known. She plays me an interlude, on which a few of her friends freestyle playfully into the mic, pitched up in a way that’s goofy and charming.
The former track boasts a bassline that’s surprisingly sexy for the subject matter, but also demonstrates the organic trajectory of her sound, which seems fuller and more comprehensively fleshed out than the most recent music she’s shared with the public (2018’s One More). There’s icy house, ravey breaks (a reworking of a piece she performed for a show at London’s Serpentine Gallery), and another new one that they’ve all been calling the “Linkin Park song” which, believe it or not, makes a cheeky kind of sense.
© Neva Wireko
In her own words, the music “sounds better [and] cleaner than before,” which she attributes to putting in the hours learning how to use gear (though she’s been using more plug-ins lately) and watching tutorials, as well as more fully understanding how to mix and hear the nuances of sounds. “It’s easier for me to make stuff now, and therefore easier for me to communicate an idea I have right away,” she theorises. “That’s really the biggest change – feeling comfortable.”
For Yaeji, the approach of taking things at her own pace extends to more ineffable elements of production too. Her lyrics, previously informed by the notes she took on the subway to and from work, have become less literal and more like abstract unbridled streams of consciousness, based around whatever thoughts and feelings she’s having at the time. Previously, she treated her studio sessions like a full-time job, heading into the ‘office’ at a certain time and trying to fill eight hours each day. “Now,” she reflects, “I’ve been so much more relaxed, like if I’m not feeling good that morning, I’m gonna stay home and do some housework or whatever until I feel OK, and then come in and assess – OK, what happened? It’s almost like self-therapy too. I’m giving myself some space.”
With her main artistic focus at present being music, she’s been able to play around with her visual art practice, often with (who else?) her friends. Though she calls them passion projects, each endeavour is fun and impressive in its own right: there’s the pixel art-based redesign of her website, where you can draw a scene with items modelled after her friends’ living room; a small-scale online RPG, which takes place in a town where there’s “only a juice shop and a club,” and your club experience is informed by the type of juice you drink. Lastly, a short animation that features Subwoofer the Venue Dog, a sunglasses-stealing pup who loves dubstep, and his best friend DJ Bong Water, the father of ghetto house, who’s trying to get his shades back from Subwoofer by trading him a valuable dubstep record.
© Neva Wireko
(Top) Jacket and Trousers: Penultimate
(Bottom) Top: Yaeji’s Own
Socks: Comme Si
As a musician, it’s clear that Yaeji’s accomplished what she set out to do when she became an independent artist: work on her own terms and her own time, all while surrounding herself with the people she loves and cares for the most. The new live show she’s developing will heavily involve choreography and dancers, as well as new forms of set and stage design she’s put together with her creative director. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is the dawn of a new era, bolstered by years of careful and intentional planning; later, when we consider our personalities as two slightly reserved Leos, she asks, “are Leos thinking a lot?” and then answers herself almost immediately: “‘Cause I am.”
She was certainly thinking a lot about her show in Seoul months before it happened, and the idea of performing for a Korean crowd was on her mind during her entire Asia tour last summer. Seoul was the last stop, and it’s also where Yaeji spent her teenage years, and where her family lives. “Imagining the scenario of ‘Oh my god, I can actually talk to these people in my language’ made me so emotional through the whole tour,” she says. “A lot of [my] songs are so personal and private, and part of the reason why I can sing them is because most of the people I perform to might not understand what I’m saying. But in Korea, they know everything crystal clear, there’s no hiding myself. That was a very sensitive but special thought.”
To no one’s surprise, the show was “absolutely crazy.” The crowd sang and screamed along, and when she began to cry while telling the audience how much she had been looking forward to the show and how proud she is of being Korean, everyone else started crying with her. And whether in a 1,000-capacity venue filled with family, friends, and fans in the city where she grew up, or a darkened club where two people come together in the midst of it all and decide to be together forever, it’s clear Yaeji naturally creates spaces of connection and community, love and support. It comes through in her music and her studio, in the places where she performs, and lingers and lasts for a while. At the end of the Seoul show, she remembers, “Everyone was like ‘don’t cry, don’t cry,’ and I started crying more” – she smiles – “and then it was a happy ending.”
Photography: Neva Wireko
Styling: Monica Kim
Makeup: Dana Akashi