How EEJUNGMI found closure in creativity
On her debut EP, electronic pop artist Katie Lee forgives and forges on
By Jesse Locke | Photo By Fatine Violette-Sabiri
Two years ago, musician and DJ Katie Lee spoke out against her former bandmates in the group Braids. In response to an essay written for Pitchfork by singer/guitarist Raphaelle Standell-Preston called Why I Fought The Sexist Gear Community (And Won), Lee posted on social media about how “the performative allyship reads everywhere,” based on how the band had publicly defamed her and silenced her voice. CBC Music’s Melody Lau then published an interview with Lee, providing a platform for her to talk publicly about her experiences for the first time since leaving Braids in 2013.
This article is not meant to rehash those events, but instead focus on the resolution that has followed them. In 2019, the three members of Braids flew Lee to Montreal, where they engaged in a mediated conversation. In Lee’s words, that meeting allowed her to forgive them and move on, finally empowering her to return to making music. Nearly a decade after her departure from the band, Lee has released a debut solo EP under the anglicised Korean name EEJUNGMI.
The experimental electronic pop of EEJUNGMI’s Contribution EP shimmers with a beautiful sparseness that both surges forward and freezes time in its tracks. Pulsing beats, undulating synths, and Lee’s airy voice weave into the mix, while allowing its grooves to ride for as long as 10 minutes on the EP’s bonus track, “Yearning.” Inspired partially by her experience hosting a dance-music-focused radio show on n10.as, Lee cites a unique list of influences that includes the late Italian film composer Ennio Morricone, prolific producers Omar-S and Galcher Lustwerk, and the boundless creative trajectory of Björk. Whether she’s confronting the feelings that emerged from her time in Braids and reflecting it inwards on the EP’s title track, or simply including the sound of her breath on “Breathless,” these songs have a powerful intimacy.
Since moving back to her hometown of Calgary to pursue a career in architecture, Lee has maintained involvement in socially conscious grassroots organizations such as A.A.S.K. and the Unreal Life Initiative. She remains vocal about the ongoing systemic issues faced by both small communities and the industry at large. We’re all lucky to have her music contributing to these conversations as well.
Jesse Locke: After all this time away from music, what inspired or empowered you to start working on your new EP?
Katie Lee: Honestly, it was after my conversation with Braids that I started feeling like I could finally move on from that part of my life. The year after the CBC article came out, Braids flew me to Montreal so we could have a mediated conversation. It was a really productive and positive conversation for me, and also for them. From that time forward, I felt a lot more empowered to write music again. Part of it had to do with the fact that before that, any time I sat down at a piano, I went back to my time in Braids. It just brought up a lot of pain and insecurity. There wasn’t ever closure, so that conversation represented it for me. I was finally able to move forward on my own.
JL: Has it felt even more healing to release the EP now?
KL: Definitely, 100%! After making this I feel like I can move on to work that has nothing to do with that time. I needed to do this to address what happened. Now I can actually move forward and make other things. I’m excited to let this go and start writing other stuff.
JL: Lyrically and conceptually, are these songs about that time?
KL: Yes. I would say half of the EP is about that time, while the last two songs are more about self-reflection or where I’m at now with regards to thinking about those experiences.
JL: What do you think about those experiences now?
KL: I’ve just learned so much about myself after going through all of that. I gained a lot of knowledge and tools for moving forward when it comes to conflict, standing up for myself, empowerment, and working within a group. It’s brought me closer to a lot of people that I continue to work with today and that I trust. I was also able to connect with people who experienced similar things. My story isn’t a new one. Even though it was one of the more painful experiences in my life, the comeback from it has been worth all of that pain.
JL: Oh wow, I’m so glad to hear that!
KL: Yeah, that’s how I see it now. The healing put me in a place that’s way better than it would have been to continue working in a toxic environment. I brought a whole bunch of wisdom with me, and with everything I’m doing now I’m able to apply what I’ve learned.
JL: When did you first start working on these songs?
KL: “Contribution” was written in 2014, very shortly after I left Braids. I wrote it as an attempt to understand what they were thinking at that time, and how they were thinking about me. I guess you could say it’s a bit salty because there are a few jabs in there. After looking back on it when I started working on the EP, I rewrote some of the lyrics, but the essence is still there. It can also be read as something I said, so now I see it was also an attempt to understand that what I thought they were doing to me was also something I was doing to them. Even though I was critical of them, there were aspects of my behaviour that might have been reflected. We were just so close.
JL: You grew up together, right?
KL: Yeah, exactly. I feel like we were always bouncing ideas back and forth, and how we were treating each other was very similar. Reading back on it, the criticism I had for them was also criticism of myself. Those things blur together.
JL: So you wrote and recorded the rest of the songs since you’ve been living back in Calgary?
KL: Yes. I started writing everything in September of last year and went full on recording in the fall. All the production, post-production, and mixing took place from January to March. I was supposed to release it that month but then COVID happened and everything was delayed.
JL: What sorts of sounds or musical directions were you interested in exploring? Were there things you did with these songs that you had never done before?
KL: I feel like why I started feeling more confident in writing, beyond my conversation with Braids, was DJing more. That allowed me to approach music with more of an openness. As a DJ, you’re always looking for things and really listening to what you’re playing. That brought a sense of curiosity back for me to start writing again. Obviously DJing pushed me towards dance music, and I just love dancing in general. I appreciate the community in the culture of raving, which is why I originally loved being in Braids. That aspect of openness is something I was really missing. You can definitely say my new EP is influenced by a lot of electronic music, house, and techno. I want people to be able to dance to this music for sure.
JL: There are definitely some moments where you just let the groove ride.
KL: Yeah! That was a challenge for me because I’ve never written music that’s this danceable. Even just writing very minimally in terms of lyrics was an interesting way to pare down what I was trying to say, while also focusing on the vibe.
JL: On your radio show, you’ve talked a lot about your teachers. Is that part of the concept behind this EP too?
KL: I wouldn’t say so because this EP is such a personal one, but a lot of my influences are in there. Part of how I’m expressing myself is the way in which these amazing musicians express themselves. In the Jackie McLean documentary, there’s a scene where he mentions how Sonny Rollins wrote all the names of the people who inspired him on his album. For my next release, I’d like to make that more of a conceptual thing. All artists should be doing that because music is history. It’s always taught by someone who was taught before them.
JL: I’ve learned so much over the years from reading liner notes or checking out things people mentioned in interviews. Is there anyone else you want to mention as influences on this EP?
KL: Ennio Morricone for sure. There’s just something about the mood and the vibe he created. I always go back to him. Omar-S is such an important influence for me, and almost every other electronic musician I listen to. Galcher Lustwerk is another big one because of the way he expresses himself through singing or speaking his lyrics. I think he needs to be mentioned more. He’s expressed that people always erase him from their influences for some reason, or steal his work.
JL: I’d say Omar-S has expressed similar things by calling his album Fuck Resident Advisor.
KL: These people are important players who continue to do amazing things but never seem to get the platform that they should. Even visibly just seeing people like Yaeji do her thing has inspired me to start writing my own music. Björk has always been huge for me since the beginning. Listening back to her older albums I realize that everything I do comes from something she did before. I think she’s just so giving, sharing her wealth of knowledge and talent with everyone.
JL: Even this year, Björk re-released her albums on Bandcamp with all of the proceeds going to Black Lives Matter. She’s explored so many different genres and featured so many different artists. For example, the first time I heard Tanya Tagaq was on her album Medúlla.
KL: Right! She just knows. In terms of how to operate as a musician, Björk is just amazing.
JL: You’ve mentioned that you had hoped to write an opinion piece in response to the one Raphaelle from Braids did for Pitchfork, but that never happened. Are there messages you would have written that you still want to get out to a wider readership?
KL: I’m disappointed in music media in general, but I was so thankful that Melody from the CBC interviewed me and gave me that platform. I feel like I’ve learned so much even since doing that last interview. I don’t have much else to say besides the fact that I’m pretty disappointed that Pitchfork ran a review of Braids’ latest release and mentioned me as a way to prove their point on the criticisms of the album. I wrote to Pitchfork back when Raphaelle’s opinion piece originally ran, but didn’t receive a single response from them. It’s insulting.
My belief is that [Pitchfork] didn’t want me to write an article after Braids sent their apology because I didn’t have anything juicy to report back. We had a really great conversation and I forgave them. It’s pretty exploitative, honestly, for them to continue using the story of our initial disagreements as an angle for their review. They’re profiting off my name but didn’t ever want to hear how I feel about things. There’s a fine line between me wanting to tell my story and other people gossipping about it. It’s a story to sit with, not one to just eat up. I’m happy about the CBC article because I thought it was very thoughtful and not just clickbait. But then Exclaim! also used quotes from the CBC interview to make their own article that was more juicy.
One big thing, and I think I said this in the CBC interview, is that it’s not just about Braids as an entity of three people that I had conflict with. My perspective now is that what I thought of the music community at the time and people who were close to me, including Braids, is who failed me. There were other people in Montreal who never even asked me about it or asked what I needed. That’s the biggest thing I took out of the experience: how communities continue to fail the people who need support most. If I had a supportive community of people behind me, it wouldn’t have taken this long to write new music.
JL: I think people are just scared to live in a difficult situation, but that’s the only way you can work through it and move past it.
KL: Exactly. And I’m happy to say that I do have a real community now.
JL: Is that in Calgary, or is it spread across different places?
KL: It’s all over the place! Including Calgary for sure, but I feel like I’ve made some really solid friends across the country.
JL: The final thing you said in the CBC interview is that “it’s an easy thing to like a post or sign a petition, but how are you helping and empowering other voices that need to be heard?” Have you seen any kinds of real action like that being taken two years later?
KL: Interestingly, I feel like since the pandemic has started, I’ve seen more people not just share and like a post but show up to do work. The URL Initiative is a great example of that. It’s awesome to see how many people are interested and want to organize as opposed to just asking me what they can do. I will also say that after the CBC article was published, I was doing similar kinds of work with a bunch of people at that time, but got burned out. There was a lot of knowledge shared then, but maybe people didn’t know what to do until they sat with it. This year people have gone back to that time when they learned all that stuff. Since they’re being called to do things, they’re actually moving forward and putting it into action.
JL: What I’ve been seeing is that since musicians aren’t touring this year, they have a lot more time to reflect and start volunteering on a local level.
KL: Musicians are so good at bringing people together. The sense of community is way stronger in other quote unquote industries, like my background in architecture. I have architect friends who are so jealous and wish this kind of thing was happening there too. Clearly we have something special and it’s why we’re actually showing up and organizing right now. I think people are willing to do more things now. Maybe it’s a perfect storm because of the pandemic, but let’s use this time to build something up so it can last.
JL: You mentioned that you’re planning to release a follow-up album next year. Have you started working on that already?
KL: I haven’t written anything yet, but I’m going to sit down at my piano to start thinking and writing again soon. I had a really amazing piano lesson with Nick Dourado about a technique they call the decolonial way of playing the piano. It blew my mind! I really want to practice that and write something new based on that idea.
JL: Can you tell me a bit more about it?
KL: The way the piano is set up with white and black keys forces you to think about it in a certain way. It’s as if the black keys are secondary to the white keys, which is totally racist. If you colour it differently, some of the black keys are white keys and vice versa. There is no hierarchy. There are 12 notes, so you can divide that up mathematically really easily. Nick was able to show me how you can think about that in terms of horoscopes, the stars, and astrology. I think it’s beautiful to think about music as if it’s connected to life instead of just this theory thing you have to memorize.
I remember learning about scales through this really silly system: Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle. I explained that to Nick and they were like ‘what the fuck? Get rid of that.’ It comes from the church and that’s why we think about music the way we do in the Western World. Nick says we need to start thinking about it in terms of life and mathematics. They’ve even started applying it to guitars, and there all of these beautiful patterns that look like DNA. Once you start seeing music in that way, you can really understand your instrument. If I had learned piano in that way, I would know how to play it so much better.
JL: So your next album might be more experimental?
KL: Maybe! It’s been really nice to self-release this EP and write it on my own. That gives you a lot of freedom to play with it and not feel so stressed about creating a product. I would love to always approach music in that way. It’s just something I share with people.
JL: I’ve started to think about writing the same way with all of the newsletters and other self-published platforms that are popping up. As opposed to just covering something that’s tied to a release schedule, with me trying to sell an article to a publication, I can write about it for fun or just because I want to share it.
KL: My belief is that language is poetry. The way you write about something is the way you express yourself too, and that’s beautiful. Everyone should be thinking about that in all of their industries. A lot of people write music to make money, and that needs to be reckoned with, because it’s not traditionally or historically why music is made. Just be generous with yourself and your creative practice.