Without a doubt my favorite part of SXSW is the connections we make. Over those ten days, we have the profound opportunity to talk to people we may never otherwise even know. By extension, one of the pleasures of being able to interview indie artists is their willingness to share parts of themselves they usually don’t have the chance to. Such was the case when Rock N’ Seoul sat down with Luna Lee.
For those who don’t know, Luna had one of the strangest journeys to Austin this year, all of it stemming from the South Korean government pulling her funding because they apparently didn’t realize she wasn’t a K-pop star and thought better of spending money on her to show exactly she was capable of. But in rushes the K-music community, ready to do anything they could to get this gifted musician to grace Austin with her presence.
Thankfully, she was more than willing to set aside some time for us to get to know her a bit better. As a result, all the ladies at RnS have found a friend in the passionate artist and her translator.
First Meetings & Fast Friends
We made our way to what had become our “spot” in the Southby madness — the backroom of Starbucks. She was already siting there, waiting for her interpreter to get out of the never-ending line in front of the cash registers with her coffee. We finally settle in, beginning as always with the usual pleasantries.
“So how about you introduce yourself to our readers.”
“I’m Luna from Korea,” she begins with a smile. “I play Korean traditional instrument called gayageum.” Even if she wanted to hide her enthusiasm, Luina’s energy is contagious. Her adoration for the genre suffuses everything she says, and we can’t help but smile whenever she opens her mouth. She’s really that ebullient.
She continues, “I [have been doing] my own music based on YouTube since 2009. My main genre is rock music, so I love to play rock music. I have my own original songs of rock music, so I’m excited to be here because my favorite genre is rock-blues. I’m so happy to be here and play. I can get a great opportunity to perform here. So I’m so happy.” And of course we’re ecstatic that she managed to make it here. In fact, we share with her that as soon as we found out she needed help to get here, we were instantly moved to donate to her cause. She shyly let’s out a bright, “Thank you,” and we can’t help it; we’ve all become enamored of the young musician.
Luna’s is a talent that’s been nurtured since she was just a girl in grade school. Having started playing gayageum at eleven years old, however, one has to wonder if her attentions were ever drawn in a different direction. After all, children being what they are, mostly precocious and ready to try any and everything to find that one thing that holds their attention, it’s hard to believe she picked up this traditional instrument one day and just stuck with it. “Did you always want play gayageum? Did your parents have something to do with it? Or did you want to play something else?”
“Something else?” she asks, thinking back to her first experiences with music. “Actually,” she continues, “I loved to the play the piano since I was seven. My parents thought music would be very good for me. My mom wanted me to play some very special instrument, so she suggested to me to play the gayageum. And luckily I really love to play the gayageum. Yeah.” She punctuates her conviction with a head nod and a small smile.
Almost instantly we’re introduced to her incomparable passion, her love of what she does and her desire to get the world to see the beauty of an instrument she’s loved since she was a child.
As it was her mother that turned her on to the marvels of the traditional Korean instrument, she must have been surprised when Luna decided to take her love of gayageum and mesh it with the gritty power inherent in rock, and by extension blues-rock. “What does your mother think about the music that you choose to play?”
“My parents are very supportive of my musical working, and they love music also even though they’re not majored in music. She’s a music lover, so they’re very happy about my music.”
This question of overall support, particularly from one’s peers, is a topic that often comes up. In an industry that’s not particularly kind to its indie artists, it’s important to have the backing of somebody who sees what you’re doing and appreciates it. However, there’s an added layer of pressure, or even barriers when one dares to challenge the structure and history of traditional music, adding heavy Western influence to a sound that’s steeped in culture and history. When we spoke to Jambinai last year, the overall response was at first to reject the brashness of their sound, the aggression with which they attacked their instruments. Of course, over time they found a massive audience, both within and outside of Korea’s traditional music community. So what kind of response has Luna received as a result of her melding the rough texture of blues-rock with the serenity of gayageum?
“Actually I was worried about it a little bit because my teachers and people seniors majored in traditional music. They could be see me and [think it’s] the wrong music. But most of them are very supportive about my music.” In fact, she mentions, during her showcase she was pleasantly surprised to be well met by a sizable Korean audience. She expressed her own elation at noting their positive reception to what she had to offer.
As it turns out, positive reactions to her skill and energy have followed her since her middle school days. “My middle school was specialized for traditional music, gugak jung hakgyo. So at the start [I] concentrated more on traditional music.”
Rock & Soul
That certainly would explain how she was able to cultivate her talent with the instrument, so much so she was able to adapt to something as disparate as rock music. But what was it that got her into the genre in the first place?
“Actually, before I loved rock music, or I listened to rock music, I loved to play acoustic guitar music. When I was young I already knew about Korean acoustic guitar musician, so I covered some of the acoustic guitar musicians’ songs. It was the start.” As a musician who meticulously studies the craft, she obviously hears music differently than most. So it’s no surprise when she reveals that her ear was attuned enough to the differences and similarities between her gayageum and the acoustic guitar that she loved. “In my ears, the acoustic guitar melody is very similar to the gayageum melody. I love to play gayageum. That is my favorite instrument, so I loved to play the music that I love with the instrument that I love.”
Which begs the question, how in the world did she even come across blues-rock music to know that’s what she wanted to do?
“Let me think about it,” she says with a giggle. After a few moments of considering her history with the genre, she continues, “As I told you, I loved to play acoustic guitar music first, and then I got to know there are other types of guitar. It was the electric guitar, and it was amazing!” Again we’re blessed with that infectious effervescence. “The sound was amazing to me when I first heard the sound. But it was not blues music, like Steve Vai, those are rock musicians, and I loved their music first. They also used a different tone scale. It looks similar to gayageum melody, so I followed them. At some point I found Jimi Hendrix, so from him I started to learn about blues music.”
That’s certainly one hell of an introduction. One can do worse than follow the example of someone who also took the traditional structure of blues and transformed it into something out of this world.
Just as Hendrix, though, Luna had to make modifications to her instrument to at least get the sound she coveted. From what we’d learned, her gayageum is the first to be electrified, but she clarifies, “Actually my gayageum is not electric. It’s an acoustic gaygaeum, and I added in some modified things. I added acoustic guitar [features] inside the body. And it helps me to make various tones like a guitar, and more loud—it helps. So that’s why I can use some of the guitar pedals and things. It’s very helpful whenever I try various types of music. I needed to make particular tones, so I started like that, just like guitar players.” She catches herself. For a moment she’s become overwhelmed with the task of explaining the details of her gayageum and how she gets it to bend to her will. Then she continues, “But yeah, so it’s pretty hard work but also very exciting work, and some day I want to make a electric gayageum. At this moment there are some problems to make the tone that I want, so someday…. Yeah, someday I hope I can make an electric gayageum, and then I can use my electric gayageum just like an electric guitar. It would be fantastic!”
Jenna remembers watching bands like Jambinai and SU:M, how their gayageum players handled their instruments. Naturally, she had her eye on Luna’s instrument, noting with fascination, “Well, that’s different.”
Luna clarifies, “Acoustic gayageum is made for acoustic music. I loved to play acoustic music, but I want to play the rock music and rock n’ roll blues music, and those genres can be played with acoustic instruments, but sometimes I need some dry tone distortion tone, like Stevie Ray Vaughn or Jimi Hendrix. I’m crazy about them,” she says emphatically, almost sighing into the words with how much adoration she has for the legends. “Also,” she continues, “I think the sound is pretty similar between gayageum and guitar, so my work is this kind of thing.”
Noting her struggles to capture the essence of her favorite genre, Luna must have had moments when getting the sound she wanted with a particular song fell just outside her grasp.
“Sadly there are so many songs [like that]. My instrument is gaygauem, so there are particular characteristics. Sometimes I can’t play a particular song. The most hard work about my gayageum is key changes because I have a lot of strings, and each string has [its] own key. So if I change to some other key, I have to change bridges. So many bridges,” she says with a bit of aggravation in her eyes, no doubt remembering a track she’s struggled with in the past, the work she had to put in to apply the bridges only for it to ultimately not work out the way she’d hoped. “It’ll take a very long time,” she says. “Also as you know my left hand technique is very different, bending. The bending makes the bridges while moving, so every time I play, every single time I play they’re moving. So I need to make a change all the time while i play. And they make me a very sensitive person. That’s the reason I guess. So if the song changes the key during the song it’s the hardest song for me.”
She’s as meticulous describing the inner workings of her instrument as she is when she lays her fingers on the strings to work out the nuances of a rock song. But even despite some of the more intricate songs that have managed to vex her, it’s always interesting to find out what songs in her repertoire give her the most pleasure when she performs.
“There’s only a few songs maybe,” she begins. “So I was gonna what musicians I like. I’m crazy about Nirvana, and also Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and oh yeah!” she exclaims, interrupting her list of classic rock artists to interject, “Some of my favorite bands are Red Hot Chili Peppers. I love them! Their music is so sweet and very rocking! At the same time it’s amazing.” Her smile returns, brightening up the sequestered back room of Starbucks. “And Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers, and ZZ Top,” she adds. “I love bands who play rock music. It’s my favorite genre.”
Prior to the release of this interview, Gregg Allman passed away (May 27). The unfortunate passing of so many artist this year and last year have rocked the music world. Legends leaving us all too soon, or at least sooner than we would’ve wanted. Luna is no stranger to having to channel emotions into her music, especially at the passing of an artist she loves. Without a doubt one of the most influential artists of our time was Prince, and Luna has said that “Purple Rain,” arguably the Purple One’s most emotional track, is one of her favorite songs, certainly her favorite Prince song. “What about that song touched you so much?”
Luna takes a moment to collect her thoughts, to put into words how the song affected her. “I remember that last year he died, and when he died I was in another city to perform. I got to know that he died, so I was very sad. I got some requests to do a Prince song. People left me a comment or emailed me about it, [asking], ‘Please cover a Prince song.’ So I wanted to cover one of his songs at the time, but I couldn’t because I was out of town. It was about one week later, I made the cover song ‘Purple Rain.’ I felt like it was a good-bye, and take care in Heaven. I was very sad, but I hope he can hear my cover version. I hope he is happy with that.”
“I think he would appreciate what you do,” Rebecca adds.
Jenna is from Minneapolis, and she explains how it affected the entire city. “We had a huge gathering, and everyone went downtown and sang ‘Purple Rain’ together. All the bridges turned purple.”
“It was such a sad day,” Luna adds.
“But it brought everybody together,” Jenna says. “It was one of those moments where you know he would’ve loved this because he brought everyone together in one moment.”
“Oh my god.” Luna’s voice had taken on the color of someone both in awe and wrestling with nascent bits of sorrow. The mood has turned somber for a moment, each of us dealing with the loss of an artist that impacted all of our lives in some monumental way.
Though we’re all still reeling from the loss, ultimately this interview is about Luna and the passion and power she puts behind her own music. But befitting the mood, I’m curious if there’s a song she found too painful, too heavy laden with emotion to get through or even play. Perhaps surprisingly, she embraces the emotion, preferring music that’s thick with feeling.
“I love every music which is touching my feeling. It’s the most important thing for me. For example, Nirvana. I covered four or five of his songs on YouTube, and I got to know his songs are very simple, and chord is very simple, and the simple chords are repeated. Verses are repeated, also chorus is repeated three times, and the verse and chorus is also three times repeated. Every song of his, every song is so simple and pretty easy to play. But his feeling is very different because it’s his own feeling. Capturing his feeling is very important and also very hard. I love those songs. Simple but the feeling is very colorful and very…. His own feeling, he has his own feeling.
“Unique,” Rebecca supplies.
“Yeah unique. I love those kind of songs.”
“So when you make your own music, is that sort of what you’re going for? Really simple but really full of emotions?”
“Yes,” she says without hesitation. “So I hope I can make that style of music.”
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview. In the meantime, visit the websites below to find out more about Luna Lee: