Holy Hum is learning to bare his soul

Vancouver Weekly interviews Vancouver’s own Holy Hum

Photo by Javiera Bassi De La Barrera
Photo by Javiera Bassi De La Barrera

Earlier this month, Vancouver sound artist Andrew Lee released his debut album as Holy Hum. All of My Bodies is a drifting confluence of field recordings, musical improv, classical instrumentation, post-rock grandeur, and inspirations drawn from poetry, literature, the sci-fi synth sounds of the original Blade Runner, and sublime scores like that of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s.

The pivotal influence though – the event without which All of My Bodies would not have been possible – was his father Joo Won’s passing due to a rare form of thyroid cancer on Boxing Day, 2011. In fact, the month Lee spent by his father’s hospital bedside influenced more than just the album’s title: Lee derived the moniker “Holy Hum” from the hum of the machines that kept his father alive.

Broadly, the phrase “all of my bodies” refers to a tenet of Lee’s religious upbringing: “the idea of sacrificing the body in order to achieve some type of transcendence,” he explains. Specifically, “all of my bodies” refers to his desire to give his body to his father in order to save him. “Its’ kind of like a liminal space that the title is referencing…. It’s not a real tangible thing,” he acknowledges, “but the feeling, and the inertia, and the emotion, and the desire is very real.”
Despite his efforts to avoid writing about his father’s death, Lee’s words inevitably turned to that very subject. Realizing he had to “get it out of [his] system,” he set to work through his emotions via his art.

Photo by Ryan Walter Wagner
Photo by Ryan Walter Wagner

The prospect of repeatedly playing his new songs live seems counterintuitive to that goal, and such is not lost on Lee. “That’s sort of why it took me so long to put this record out, because I was like, ‘I don’t really know if I really want to have this exist in the world.’ I just wasn’t really thinking.” Now that the album is out and he is partaking in interviews, “it’s interesting because I don’t know if I’m re-traumatizing myself,… This is me learning and experiencing what it’s like to bare your soul on a record and having to deal with the consequences. Who knows? I may never perform these songs,” he says hypothetically with a nervous laugh.

Although Lee completed Bodies in 2015, he shelved the album for two years. In the meantime, amongst other works, he released the hour-long Appendix C followed by the Appendix A + B EP. He calls these literal appendices to the album “kind of a way to frame a story by preparing myself maybe to be ready to put out a more personal record.” By releasing them in reverse order, he let the story reveal itself backwards. More pragmatically though, the Appendix series resulted from him experimenting with sound’s ability to evoke stories. “I don’t know if I succeeded or not, and that’s not really the point of those exercises, but I definitely felt the stories and felt the narratives within those non-lyric-based compositions.”

Unsurprisingly, Lee explores many existential questions on Bodies. “Ready to Have It” contemplates writer’s block as a type of death and what that means for one’s identity as an artist. When faced with death in such an immediate way – literally holding his father in his arms – he admits: “[A]t the moment, it isn’t a priority. But after the fact, life, meaning, and things like, as an artist, your creative identity took on even a greater role. You’re faced with the cold, cold, hard reality that you have to make your own meaning,…”

Since his father passed, Lee has learned what gives himself life: not only making music but sharing music too. He could have held onto Bodies, but powerful, cathartic recent albums like Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree, Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell, and Mount Eerie (Phil Elverum)’s A Crow Looked at Me encouraged him to release Bodies. “I was like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of people who deal with death, and they’re so bold to take it on head-on like that.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, well, it’s time for me to just get this out into the world.’”

Lee recorded parts of Bodies at Elverum’s studio The Unknown in Anacortes, Washington, but the two artists did not bond over their respective experiences with family illness. (Elverum’s wife, writer and musician Geneviève Castrée, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015. At the time of Lee’s stay, however, “No one was really talking about it.”)

Regardless, Anacortes left an indelible mark on Bodies. Lee described the buzz of the fluorescent lights above his father’s hospital bed as “a constant fog or mist that permeated the room” and took acute notice of the similar weather in Anacortes. Many of the album’s foley sounds of water and walking were recorded while he ambled about and reflected in Anacortes. “‘What’s the best way for me to remember this?’” he wondered. Sound having been his language, he captured his environments with a handheld recorder. “Listening to those sounds can teleport me back into those moments.”

Some of Bodies’ most moving moments are such wordless passages. Having struggled with how to honour his father in his art though, he turned to telling a story the way it occurred. This approach worked on a song like the title-track, but he stresses that he would not put any precedence on sound over words. “I think that both can tell a story. Often times I think the sound does a better job. I think language is very messy and can be gravely misinterpreted whereas sound doesn’t necessarily always try to tell a story. But it definitely always puts people in a certain mood.”

Lee has performed as Holy Hum in various configurations and spaces: with several musicians as well as solo and in art galleries, a mall, a planetarium, and conventional concert venues. But he admits he did not think much about logistics when he composed Bodies. In fact, when I arrived at his East Vancouver studio for our conversation, he had just returned from searching for a cable required to enhance his live solo set-up. “I think of the recording studio as an instrument and as a tool, and it’s where you can do things that you can’t do live, so I don’t limit myself when I’m recording,…” When asked if he enjoys the challenge, he immediately replies with an exhausted “no.” For him, playing live requires rehearsing “endlessly.” “When you see me perform, I’ve thought about it for a long time; I’ve had to work at it.”

Lee’s transition from his previous project, the now-dissolved indie rock band In Media Res, to Holy Hum was a slow one. “I was still trying to figure out, ‘How can I be a musician? How can I still do this thing that I want to do?’ And it’s just kind of arrived at just me, myself, and I.” This is a fitting outcome: All of My Bodies soundtracks one person’s journey in dealing with the immediacy of death, its aftermath, and questions of mortality. But in time, like Nick Cave, Sufjan Stevens, and Phil Elverum, Andrew Lee may learn that baring his soul by grieving publicly will connect him to a greater shared human experience.

All of My Bodies album art work by Andrew Yong Hoon Lee
All of My Bodies album artwork by Andrew Yong Hoon Lee

All of My Bodies is available now at Heavy Lark and on Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, and Deezer.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu