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Yaeji’s new mixtape is a window into her world

WORDS BY TORI MATHISON 

And yes, she is every bit the down-to-earth cool girl that she seems.

In the minutes leading up to my video call with Korean-American DJ and producer Yaeji, I was in two minds. One was that of a very serious and very professional Fashion Journal writer, while the other was my 20-year-old self at Meredith Music Festival in 2018, about to absolutely lose my shit that Yaeji was about to appear on stage. 

The most incredible thing about seeing Yaeji live wasn’t having the chance to be an enviable 20 metres away from her; it was being able to experience the unimaginably special atmosphere that she creates with her live performances. Yaeji captivated every single person in the grassy bowl of the amphitheatre. At the spectacular moment when her iconic track ‘Raingurl’ played, and coincidentally it began to rain down on us, every single person in the audience was suddenly dancing with one another. 

And now, with the stage being replaced by the screen of my laptop, I sat face-to-face (albeit digitally) with Kathy Yaeji Lee, who was sitting in her New York apartment, looking fresh-faced, in a beige oversized hoodie and gold-rimmed reading glasses.

Earlier this month, Yaeji released her biggest body of work to date; a mixtape titled What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던, comprised of 12 very different tracks, some of which she’d been sitting on and fine-tuning for a while. The first track of the album, ‘Waking Up Down’ dropped in early March, and gave us an insight into some of the themes Yaeji was going to be exploring on the album, but more covertly what she’d been navigating for the past two years. The feel-good track has all the qualities of a danceable bop, all the while dealing with themes like mental health, self-care, and the small victories of daily life, like waking up each morning. 

“When I wrote that song, it was actually a moment of me really feeling myself. And feeling like ‘Oh I really have these basic, almost like, necessities down that make me feel good and make me feel healthy.’ So I started writing it, intending it to be purely a feel-good song.”

In many of her tracks, she moves fluidly between English and Korean, and Yaeji explains the more introspective narrative of ‘Waking Up Down’ that’s delivered in Korean to me. “It’s kind of like the inner voice inside of me, telling [me] ‘You know it’s actually okay if you slack off again, and lose track of some of these things. It’s not the most important thing in life, it’s not too late, it’s never too late to pick it up again.’”

Yaeji’s music career was thrown into motion following her 2017 release, EP2. The five tracks, including ‘Raingurl’ and ‘Drink I’m Sippin’ On’, quickly cultivated a dedicated following and rapidly lay the foundations for her public persona – an identity that is equal parts cool-girl and down to earth. Unsurprisingly, it’s very close to the person she genuinely seems to be. 

In an effort to press pause following her breakthrough success, Yaeji spent two years producing independently, exercising her autonomy as an independent artist and creating at the pace that she wanted. Her experience being independent, as well as releasing the single ‘One More’ while being unaffiliated with a label, bolstered her confidence and comfortability with making music as a career. “I think prior to that, things were happening too quickly for me, which obviously was so exciting and felt like a blessing but the other side of it is an immense amount of growing pains and uncertainty of what’s going to happen next,” she tells me. 

Yaeji speaks slowly and considerately about the journey behind What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던. “Yeah, it’s like a little snippet of the different sides of me and the different things that have happened to me in the past two years basically.” She notes that another reason for slowing down was giving herself the time and the space she needed to repair.

“I think that the reason that I could make this mixtape now is because of all these things I’ve talked to you about… awareness of mental health and allowing myself time to self heal. And that went hand-in-hand with me being independent and directing things at my pace, with my time, and my ideas. Then pulling together the right team members for ‘Team Yaeji’ who are all close friends that I met on the dance floor that I now work with every day. So, all of these things helped me feel confident and also feel liberated. So that I’m not held down to this image I have to fulfil, or the sound I have to sound like. I now feel comfortable being completely myself.”

Like any celebrity in the 21st century, there’s an expectation that artists be as active on Instagram as the rest of us, if not more. Yaeji’s Instagram is refreshingly unpretentious and surprisingly interactive, with her presence being felt more sincerely than most public figures with almost 200, 000 followers under their belt. I ask Yaeji how she feels about this. “Sometimes it gives me anxiety like it does to a lot of other people, but I think I’m learning the value of communicating with all these people who have listened to me and have found it being soothing or being empowering.” 

I’m curious to know whether she feels any pressure or responsibility having such a large following. “I am careful to not think of it as a responsibility. I totally agree that it is this, and anyone with a platform that’s as big should feel responsible, but for me, it’s been just a part of my everyday life.” She pauses a moment, considering this. “Like even before you have a platform, and people are listening to you, I think it’s important that with whatever you can do locally, even to the people you’re just talking to every day, to be able to empower and strengthen people that are marginalised or experiencing various mistreatment or trauma.”

Yaeji clarifies that her approach is to connect with those closest to her first, those who she can most tangibly support, but she naturally moves her response towards a broader context, acknowledging that there are many things that need to be changed in the world. There are conversations that need to be had and many things that need to be talked about, starting with the city she calls home. “Even just thinking about America, it’s really, really a lot.”

But I can sense this personal narrative stretches far beyond social media interactions. She pauses before focusing in again on her interpretation of ‘responsibility’. “It’s just like no questions asked… I will do this because that’s just what I’ve always wanted to do, what I am doing every day [and] what I will be doing tomorrow. Even if it isn’t in a public way… I think it’s important to have conversations and just live it out in every way.”

I ask her about my favourite track on the album, ‘In The Mirror’, which is a noticeable departure from the other songs. She’s amused by my interpretation when I tell her that I can imagine it as the backdrop to an epic fight scene in a fantasy-action movie. “For me, that song is like me letting out my anger, which still feels a bit reserved.”

She laughs, telling me, “The idea for that song started when I was in an aeroplane in the bathroom looking in the mirror, and I like couldn’t recognise myself. Not literally, but because I was really exhausted and really sad.” She pauses for a moment. “I hear that when you’re in [the] air, because of the high pressure or something, you do get more emotional. I don’t know if this is like a proven scientific fact,” she laughs.

“So I was definitely in my emotions, but also I think I was in a pretty tight scheduled tour…  it was pushing kind of like my mental and physical limits, so I just couldn’t recognise myself and I felt really lonely, and separated, and really missed home. I started writing those lyrics based on that… But when I brought it back home and was finishing this song, it definitely became something else for me.

“It became something really cathartic in the way you know, it’s loud and aggressive compared to anything else, and the slow build-up in the beginning builds up for that anticipation. So yeah, that was really cathartic for me and got me really excited to perform it live, just imagining how I would express that physically and how the crowd would feel that energy and reciprocate it.”

As we wrap up, I congratulate her again on the mixtape, letting her know how our discussion has given me a newfound appreciation for the strength and vulnerability behind her music. For long-time fans and new listeners alike, What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던 is a crystal clear window into the creative workings of Yaeji’s soul. For me, it’s a welcome reminder of the magic I experienced two years ago, underneath a rainy sky that night at Meredith.

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