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Interview: JIHAE

The artist on working with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics and co-writing music for a Leonard Cohen poem about an orgasm

by Nara Shin in Culture on 23 September 2013

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Many singers these days produce albums that have been laboriously groomed and primped—from almost-too-perfect Autotuned vocals to the overly airbrushed album cover—so it's refreshing to meet a singer and songwriter with a sultry voice and raw energy who's not afraid to express her opinions. JIHAE isn't a new face in the music industry: her debut LP My Heart Is An Elephant featured guest percussion from filmmaker Michel Gondry and Lenny Kravitz on guitar and bass, while 2008's Elvis Is Still Alive showed off her dynamic vocal range and more avant-garde musical influences.

She's performed at Cannes Film Festival, the United Nations and even received a nod from Hillary Clinton, but JIHAE's talents aren't just limited to her smoky voice. The artist has composed scores for The North Face Japan + Nanamica and more, wrote and directed a multimedia rock opera with Academy Award-winning playwright and director John Patrick Shanley and if her face looks at all familiar, it's because JIHAE's been a regular model for Eileen Fisher ads. In the midst of all these creative endeavors, she's somehow also found time to start a hybrid indie label and multimedia company, Septem, to support rising artists as well as social causes.

It's these years of experience and her worldliness (having lived in South Korea, Nigeria and Sweden before settling down in New York) that set JIHAE apart from emerging talent. We sat down with the artist at the High Line Hotel in Chelsea during one of the hottest days this summer and learned about her upcoming studio album, Illusion of You, which is being executive produced by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics.

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You've been through a wild goose chase in London, jilted by major record labels, to get where you are today—is it about being in the right time in the right place, and not giving up?

I'm so grateful that things didn't work out so early on when I was so underdeveloped, because at that point I wasn't writing music, I was writing lyrics and melodies. And I don't think I was evolved enough to go out into the world.

It reminds me of how the music industry works in Korea, where kids are caught and trained starting at a young age and groomed into other people's ideas of an artist—and can't stand on their own.

There's an artist and an entertainer. But, especially in Korea, they're grooming entertainers, not necessarily artists. There's no real room for artists to grow; it's the same in this country. England is one of those places that really great unique stuff comes out of and it supports that. They have Radio 1, they have NME, they have Camden Crawl–such a support system for new music and for artists. There's no such thing here.

Is that what you're trying to do with your label, Septem?

Yeah, I want to create a community. I'm considered new as well because I'm not as well known but—because I've been through it, I feel like what's lacking is not just the support system but the community of artists. Back in the day, people played on each other's records, they jammed together all the time and had so much fun together. And maybe that's because they were less in number as artists or because people were just more open and friendly and more soulful back then.

I've learned a lot from Dave Stewart; he's a serial collaborator. He's co-written songs with more people than anybody I know—like the most incredible people too. That kind of rubbed off on me because there's something you always gain when you're collaborating with someone, so I'm in the process of collaborating with a number of people.

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Can you tell us more about your upcoming album, Illusion of You?

The theme is based on the concept of illusions. Illusions that we have in our everyday lives as individuals and as societies and groups. There's so many different types of illusions; our lives are an illusion in a sense. It's what we project and what we create in our lives that we manifest.

That's so pertinent right now, Facebook and Twitter are the first thing that come to mind.

I'm working on some art installations based on this crazy, mad world that we created; of always having to show, always having to be seen. But it's an illusion that we show of ourselves. Who are we really inside?

And then there's also such divide in the world. As a society, there's a terrorist or extremist society that really think they're justified in suicide bombings and hurting people. There's also the opposing side of wealthy countries going in and having colonized and having stolen other people's resources and thinking that's justified.

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How does Illusion of You differ from your previous albums?

My first album was very eclectic and very soft as a vocal expression. This new one is more rock and more raw. Dave kind of pushed me in that direction. There's more soaring tracks, a lot more energy, high energy, a different kind of energy. Very dynamic. Probably more friendly than ever—without compromising.

It's also the first album you are funding through Kickstarter.

Kickstarter is such an amazing platform, it really is. It's something great for independent artists of all kinds because every musician and every artist needs help to produce the record, make the record. It's like the modern day patronage. It's turning to your direct fan. It's a good motivator too.

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How did you come to meet Dave Stewart, who's become quite involved with this album?

Through a mutual acquaintance who sent him a cover demo song. He's one of those people that researches stuff. He went through all my work and really liked it. We started communicating on email and we were supposed to meet when he was coming to New York to work with Stevie Nicks for a show. And then he was like, "Oh, I'm so sorry I'm not going to be able to come," because Stevie got pneumonia and ended up canceling the show.

He's based in LA, so I took the initiative of locking down time to write with him. I tried to figure out when he was going to be in New York, if I would ever be in LA—and then he's like, "I'm going to be in Harbor Island [in the Bahamas] over the holidays." I must find a way to go. So I got a group of friends to rent a cheap house and we got to the island. He was only there for a week and that's when I met his sons and he sent me the poem he wrote with Leonard Cohen, saying, "I think you can do this justice." I wrote the music to the poem on the island. It's called "It Just Feels."

And so Dave and Leonard Cohen basically sat down together one day in the '90s to write a song based on an orgasm. I don't think they had it together but… Funny enough, they gave it to a French singer back in the '90s and she did her version of it. And obviously I didn't listen to that before writing it, and I didn't expect any kind of writing credit because the poem itself was previously released—I don't think she had writing credit—but I basically recorded it, performed it live, Dave sent it to Leonard and said, "Hey, what do you think about giving her a co-writing credit on the song?" and he said, "It's beautiful and brilliant."

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With guest artists including LA-based indie band Nightmare and the Cat, Illusion of You is set for release in January 2014. The title track will be released next month. Visit JIHAE's Kickstarter campaign to pre-order her upcoming album and peruse the more unusual offerings such as personally-designed leather jackets and private home performances.

Portrait courtesy of Alina Negoita, all others courtesy of the artist

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