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Holy Hum is Learning to Live

Andrew Lee, aka Holy Hum, released his first solo album All of My Bodies at the beginning of last October on his own label Heavy Lark Records. Three months later, he uprooted himself from Vancouver to join his partner in Brooklyn. “It doesn’t care about me,” he says of his bustling new environment. “You need to raise your voice a bit if you’re gonna get people to notice. I actually haven’t done much in New York just for that very reason. I’m not ready to announce my presence.”

But Lee’s been getting ready. He’s been exploring neighbourhoods, seeing live art performances, and touring museums, discovering spaces where his work – drifting, cascading, ambient rock that he frequently enhances with visual projections – might fit. He’s taking in New York City with an anonymity that makes him feel free, that exhilarates him, even, before channelling his field research in creative ways.

By steeping himself in the unknown that is NYC, he might temporarily distract himself from thinking about his father Joo Won Lee whose passing from thyroid cancer in 2011 was the singular event Andrew grappled with on All of My Bodies. But since Andrew began his tour in Chicago on April 3, he has found himself alone in his car with plenty of time to think. He has, however, also been whittling away his time on the road by listening to podcasts about mindfulness and philosophy and meditating on the virtue of “going town to town and singing these songs about death.” “It’s my personal sorrow. It’s my personal tragedy,” he says before wondering, “What benefit is it to myself, and what benefit is it to someone else for me to go and do in front of other people?”

Lee has acknowledged the potential to retraumatize himself by repeatedly performing and discussing All of My Bodies. But as he has publicly grown with the album, he has gained new perspective on loss and life. He is not afraid of death, just more aware of it.

“I’m just kind of roaming and roving through the country ringing a little bell being like, ‘We’re all gonna die. Be nice to one another. Be nice to yourself.”

As Lee processed his thoughts aloud, he realized he was doing for his audiences, exactly what Phil Elverum, aka Mount Eerie, did for him. On last year’s A Crow Looked at Me, Elverum mourned his wife Geneviève Castrée who died of pancreatic cancer in 2015. In doing so, Elverum gave Lee the courage to bare his emotions in the same way with All of My Bodies. “The only way out is through,” Lee says, a message he hopes to spread.

Before Lee went on tour, he managed to catch Elverum performing in Brooklyn. “I distinctly remember watching the show, and everyone who was there was prepared to cry. Everyone who was there came knowing that they were just gonna get devastated with his story. That was a very, very strange thing because when you go see your favourite rock and roll star, you go because you want to have a good time. You want to hear it loud.”

Lee also marvels at Elverum’s follow-up album, last month’s Now Only, which is essentially a companion to A Crow Looked at Me. “Now Only is even better. He’s just singing these songs in a matter of fact way. He’s done it again. It’s so poignant. I don’t know if he’s capable of doing that continually. I know personally for myself, I’m not going to do this again.”

On All of My Bodies, Lee is less sure about existential topics including morality, life after death, making one’s own meaning in life, and whether or not he’s doing the right things. But he feels he has a clearer stance now thanks to the support he has received from his family, friends, colleagues, and even total strangers including the press since releasing his album. “It was a new experiment to be so vulnerable and be public about it,” he says reflecting on the past six months. “I think that being reminded of death and being reminded of the finiteness of your life is a very, very refreshing thing.” He has emerged from his loss feeling more grateful for the time he’s had on this planet.

Lee’s also grateful for Ash Poon, Rob Tornroos, Ryan Flowers, Tegan Walhgren, and Brian Chan, the Vancouver-based artists he has enlisted for a special full-band hometown show taking place at the York Theatre on April 21. “The people I play with, they’re my friends. It’s truly, truly an honour that they want to play alongside with me.” More significantly, he elaborates, “They’re the ones that supported me and were there for me when my father passed away. So I think it’s very nice and beautiful and a good story they’re going to play with me in Vancouver.” Perhaps session musicians would have sufficed, but his elected few can tap into the source material in deeper ways than just being able to perform the songs. “They know me. They know my story.”

His week of rehearsals will be eased by the fact that although he has been playing “interpretations” of the songs on his tour, the band will be playing them as they appear on the album. His ensemble will also include video artist Kurtis Yu who, in contrast with the musicians, will be less beholden to the source material. “I definitely gave him range to interpret it, but I gave him a little look-book of images, but they were very minimal.”

Hours before Lee performed in Chicago, he took to Facebook to reflect on two of his other good friends “T + K” who lost their mother to Parkinson’s a day or two earlier. “I have nothing poignant to say to anyone who has lost someone they loved before it was their time,” he said in his post. Such was true for himself when he lost his father. But it was not for a lack of anyone’s trying. “There was nothing that anyone could say to me that would make me feel better.” News of his friends’ mother “just reminded me that, man, there’s nothing I can do to make this any better for anybody.” Even if no one looks to him for solace or empathy when they experience loss, he feels like there’s an expectation for him to say the right things which he can’t as much as he wants to. “[The post] was sort of a disclaimer before I started showing up in all these towns: ‘I went through this thing, and maybe you have, or maybe someone you know has, and I’m not gonna show up and make it any better or make you feel better.’” He asks, “What’s the alternative? You try to fix it?… It’s not a bad thing, but it’s awkward to try to fix something you have no facility to fix.”

Lee says he still hasn’t found the purpose of touring his “death songs” across the continent. But like realizing he’s doing for his audiences what Phil Elverum has done for him, he might, in time, realize that spreading his renewed view on life – that we must cherish and make the most of it in the face of its finiteness and brevity – is the purpose, a purpose that, stuffed in a car by himself, he is giving all of his body to.

Holy Hum performs at the York Theatre this Saturday, April 21 with guests Hello Blue Roses as part of Soft Cedar – Unconventional Concerts at the Cultch. Tickets are available at Red Cat Hastings, Neptoon, Highlife, Zulu, and online.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu