JOOJ: weeding the garden of expressionism

Jooj 1On May 26, Sook-Yin Lee returns with a new band and her first album in five years. The Vancouver-born artist and host of CBC Radio’s Definitely Not the Opera teams with her long-time collaborator Adam Litovitz to form JOOJ. Last Gang Records will issue the duo’s self-titled debut.

Created entirely within the comfort of their home studio, Lee and Litovitz were able to take their time exploring her longstanding interest in tension. Through 10 haunting, impassioned torch songs, the duo prowls along the edges of dark musical terrain but never fully steps into the shadows; warm melodies balance sparse, alienating arrangements with an empathetic quality. Lee’s vocal performance is also at odds, with itself: at one moment, she is calm, even soothing. The next, she breaks into spoken word and primal vocalizations or descends into whispers that, on a song like the subterranean “Crystalline”, barely rise above the track’s gentle heartbeat-pulse. JOOJ is dynamic, and it is dramatic. It is as serene as it is unnerving.

Vancouver Weekly spoke with Lee about her ongoing investigations of tension, the value of working comfortably and at one’s own pace, the power of the human voice, and more.

Vancouver Weekly: You compared working in your private studio to “planting a beautiful garden together.” I get the impression that you were able to create at your leisure. How accurate is that? Did your label or any other party ever step in to push you along?

Sook-Yin Lee: There were no economic or time constraints. We made much of the music through a particularly brutal winter. We stayed indoors and focused on music-making. Our studio is in our home. Being near creature comforts allowed us to step away when we needed to. It wasn’t until the work was complete that we found a label in Last Gang, who were quick to want to release it. During the actual making of the music, there were no external pressures. We made what we wanted to and set to the task of writing, playing, recording, engineering, and producing the songs ourselves. In matters of art-making, I tend to have a strong drive to get the work done, so there was never a need to put a fire under our butts to push us along.

VW: Did anything besides having had your own studio make working on the album, as you put it, “a liberating and deep experience”?

SL: Adam and I are long time collaborators. We make movies together, dance-theatre, music. Our approach to this album was similar to how we make other work: with rigour, curiosity, and playfulness. We set out to make an album that generates a sense of comfort through difficult passage. A kind of salve through hardship. To achieve that required us to create a space conducive to free expression. Lots of space for rumination and consideration.

VW: JOOJ originated from the soundtrack of your video and photography exhibition, We Are Light Rays. How drastically did you two alter the tracks?

SL: More accurately, the musical score I made for the installation We Are Light Rays provided initial clues. We developed some of those instrumental sketches into songs. There was a quality in the sound of that original score that I was excited about – a kind of outer-inner-space. We took some of those instrumental sketches and designed song structures, melody, and lyrics. New songs emerged as a result of those interests. There were songs that did not make the cut, so we did have to weed the garden. In the final document, this album is markedly different from the score it was inspired by.

VW: You’ve called music the one expression that can “tap into [your] soul.” What is it about music that speaks to you more deeply than any other medium?

SL: Singing happens inside my body. It’s a core and primal experience. No extra apparatus required! When I sing, and it feels right, I’m aware of a particular resonant frequency in my body. I use that as a gauge – it’s a litmus test, a connection with myself I strive for when I sing. It doesn’t always happen, but it does at the best of times, when I hit the mark. I use this body frequency in my other work, when I make movies, and in various art practices. I aim to hit that resonant frequency, and if I don’t, it usually means I have to go back to the drawing board. I’m lucky to have that instrument to draw upon to guide my work.

VW: You’ve also called the human voice “the connector to soul.” Did you and Adam intentionally choose minimal instrumentation to emphasize the vocals?

SL: Our interest in minimalism has nothing to do with trying to emphasize vocals. The last thing I wanted to make was a folksy singer-songwriter album. I wanted to make an impactful, dramatic, and big-sounding album with few instruments. My interest in minimalism has to do with my interest in design. Good design often involves simplicity and bold choices. Too many audio tchotchkes runs the risk of cluttering a song up. Melody and expressionism were considerations in the overall sound design. In music, arrangement is key. You can ruin a good song by adding one too many choruses. We found ourselves culling back on what was unnecessary, stopping ourselves from adding more layers. We had to know when to stop to allow for space and silence. I’m not sure if we were always successful, but exploring the breadth of minimalism was a guiding principle. My ear was also attracted to sounds we could make through MIDI processing and otherworldly keyboards.

VW: JOOJ features two spoken-word passages, on “Crushed” and “Hard Feeling”. Do you feel that the voice is even more powerful as a “connector to soul” when speaking rather than singing? Why?

SL: Spoken words do not make a voice more powerful. A single sustained note or a guttural moan can convey a power that might be diminished by words. And yet words are powerful. It depends on what you’re saying and how much conviction you have. In the past, I’ve written all my own lyrics, but on this record, Adam and I often wrote lyrics together, lobbing passages back and forth … slowly shaping and forming, sculpting the words. Adam’s mom was a poet. Words are in his blood. He is a remarkable writer and thinker. These lyrics come from a poetic place, and we were in sync with one another.

VW: The image of your studio as a garden is particularly vivid on the delicately finger-picked “Ghost of Love”, especially as you repeat the word “marigold.” How naturally did this serene counterbalance to the album’s overwhelming murkiness result from having worked within a peaceful environment?

SL: Relaxation and focus allowed me to go to deep and difficult places these songs needed to go to. In the tradition of torch song, blues, and soul music, it was an attempt to provide comfort through upheaval.

VW: Speaking of counterbalance, or tension, you’ve referred to your tendency to be both introverted and extroverted as “paradoxical,” owing to a socially restrictive childhood. How much of your interest in tension is rooted in this paradox?

SL: Through his curiosity and philosophical bent, Adam has helped me recognize that there are no absolutes. Things are endlessly complex and interesting. These tensions continue to inspire me.

VW: The album’s energy feels very pent-up, almost muted: your vocals and the instrumentals seem to be on the brink of flourishing at any moment. Is the album’s “silent shout” quality the sound of you being caught in the middle of the aforementioned paradox?

SL: “Silent shout” is the clash of two different words that create temporary or permanent confusion when put together (a lexical paradox). I like that analogy. It reflects my experience of living.

VW: Your work is often biographical to some extent, and the album consists of “torch songs from an interior, expressionistic place.” How biographical is JOOJ?

SL: Real-life experiences or personal reflection may provide an impetus to a song, but invariably through the process of making music, the song enters the realm of the imagination and creation. When you incorporate say, a poetic phrase, or fictional character, the song transforms into something else. Our songs are never straight-up biography, though life experience can contribute to a song. In the last few years, I’ve wrestled some tough stuff: heart-break, death and sickness, psychological distress, self-doubt – simultaneously, there is tenderness and caring gestures, uncontrollable laughter and staggering beauty. These pulses find their way into the music and everything to do with this album, though I’m not sure exactly in what ways.

VW: Finally, you talked about having had “markers” that you wanted to hit with your theatre performance How Can I Forget?. Did you have any specific goals with JOOJ? What do you ultimately want listeners to get out of these songs?

SL: I hazard to impose any kind of take away on the experience of hearing our album, but there’s the the hope that listeners will be moved in some way. That they connect with some of what they hear, that they are comforted.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu