New York is only just now feeling the inevitable descent into winter, but when I met up with Yaeji, we were graced with an enjoyable day that made it perfect for us both to venture into Manhattan from our respective Brooklyn homes. She had a full meal before I arrived – a classic at Cafe Gitane and her personal favorite, couscous. We chatted over after meal Americano's about her recent milestone – quitting her day job as a graphic designer – to pursue her music full time. A goal which many artists dream of but might not see to fruition, she has a motivation in her to keep going, keep building her career, after achieving such a goal. Hard work has led her here, and to the release of her EP2, which she treated as an honest project to herself, she detailed the creation of music through a tediously composed diary of lyrics and music. Using her composition as therapy, Yaeji brings us in even closer through EP2, as we see her adjust to her growing fame.
"EP2 came sooner than I imagined. But I think I was also ready because I've going through so many growing pains from everything exciting that's been happening recently."
Yaeji is known to friends as Kathy Lee. Under her producer alias, she's started nothing less than a movement online with her grassroots approach to growing a community around her music. Like her online persona, she is approachable and unassuming, still using her own public Facebook account. She cares about her contemporaries, about her community, in a way that reminds us what coming up in the music industry used to be like – and should still be like. And her international upbringing has led her for a constant search for creating her own art, understanding people and creating a meaningful community in relation.
Known for her frequent events around Brooklyn, Yaeji's ascent is something of nostalgia. From creating a space for herself in the local music scene, she has also created a community – one that has expanded beyond the local borough into Boiler Room sets and a new EP. But it all started in her love for Brooklyn, a place where the international meet amongst a meeting of an adjacent rainbow of cultures – something hard to accomplish in a notoriously segregated New York City. Heading from Pittsburgh, where she went to college and a place without much of a music scene at the time, to Brooklyn's vibrant underground, she quickly created a space for herself to meet people and play her music. She found that the people she surrounded herself with had some of the same mission, and gave way to her Curry in a Hurry party – a get together she's held at her house or local venues like Kinfolk, where people who like the same music can actually socialize over some food beyond the concert to concert interaction they usually get.
"I just love meeting people at shows. And I saw myself losing touch with these people if I don't have a separate relationship with them and didn't want that to happen."
Through these projects, she met people in the industry who have helped her become the notable name she is now – from Discwoman and beyond. A trajectory that speaks to the confidence Yaeji has talking to new people, and her love for playing literally any show she can get her hands on. Now, that's translated to her helping other people have the ability to play unique shows alongside her.
Yaeji's personal history is a big influence on what makes her music and brand so inviting, no matter what kind of music preferences you have. Born in Flushing, to say she had an international upbringing would be an understatement. After her parents decided to permanently extend their honeymoon, she grew up in Queens as a small child, moved to Atlanta in the 90's and spent the rest of her teens living in various places in Asia. While she considers Korea her home there, she spent time in China and a year in Japan.
My parents came here on their honeymoon and decided to stay – honestly I'm so glad they did. I'm really happy I'm American and I have that, because growing up in Korea would have been great but I probably would not have ended up doing music."
Moving no doubt affects your mindset as you are faced with the new challenges it brings from a young age. I should know – I moved around a bit within the US growing up as well. But for Yaeji, her travels not only gave her the ability to adapt but gave her the motivation to understand things from many points of view, expressed through her art. "It affects everything I see and hear and do now." We both ended up in New York after college, and for her, she made it clear "there's no other place I'd go right now," as the city literally pulled her in because its music diversity and offering. While expressed in her art, that understanding of others isn't just through her music and art, but things like food as well. "Who am I to tell you that "Oh this tastes really delicate and floral but sweet and tangy," when you have completely taste buds from a completely different history and background? It's things like that which we don't always think about.
Being open minded is important to me because being exposed to different cultures, I learned over and over again that some things just don't matter. Whatever something means here can mean something completely different somewhere else and vice versa. That just made me think that I can't fixate on small things and I can't expect certain things, and I have to be open. Being faced with completely different circumstances and rules and cultures and understandings I had to learn really quickly how to be. How easy it is to meet new people and to not be stressed out because i was the new kid.
After an intensely competitive schooling experience in Korea where getting into an Ivy League meant everything, Yaeji found herself on a different route. Headed to Carnegie Mellon, a place she fell in love with through research and in practice in attendance, she faced herself with a "very nice step back into American culture." Not only that, but she found her true passions – the intersection of art and music. While attending for the arts, she ended up in a self-directed major that allowed her to experiment out of the box to find answers to her search for understanding. "That's when I started doing music too, because the flexibility of the program allowed me to just do whatever i wanted and I was seeing music in the form of art."
There, Yaeji got involved in what she notes gave her the "textbook college experience" in joining college radio. Finding home in that community much in the way she has found her community in New York City, she found a place she could be herself and make music that represented that self and its intersection with her artistic experience. "For me when I found college radio it wasn't just about finding all of this cool new weird music, it was 'Oh I've found people who are just as weird as me who will totally take me exactly how I am, and I don't have to change a little bit.'" It was a welcoming influence for Yaeji to get into music alongside art. "That's how I fell in love with music because it came hand in hand with me feeling like, 'I don't have to change.'"
Original music quickly evolved from those two experiences intersecting. She would explore the meeting between her work and different senses, and the process of synthesestia. These even translated into experiential pieces, including one which was held at an open DIY punk venue which, at the time in Pittsburgh were abundantly available for the local community and art community to take advantage of. Attendees would be blindfolded and immersed in sound and actions to activate their senses in relation to that sound as they sat on blankets on the floor. One act they performed was shining different colored lights on each person with curated music of her own, or different scented materials that they would place under people's noses. This, all combined with specific music, is the manifestation of the intersection of art and music for Yaeji. "It definitely made people uncomfortable. We probably couldn't do that in New York now." her interest started in the relationship between the senses, and how different people experience music and art differently – an interest, no doubt, that is rooted in her experiences growing up exposed to so many different cultures.
Yaeji's music is true to all of these experiences, and herself. The music she made when she discovered her love for its creation is similar to the music she makes now: electronic, incorporating her vocals and focused on textural and subtle emotions. Now, her music is the most – and she wanted to use quotes here – "aggressive" her music has been yet. But aggressive might be a strong word, as on EP2, there is an ebb from minimalism through gentle synths to flows of underground house beats. Since her college days she's learned engineering elements put to use on this EP, but is proud that she is still connected to that time in her life by keeping consistency in her music, and staying true to herself.