When we left off with our conversation with As If, he was talking about his inspirations. Now we move on to his aspirations and the jagged path he had to take to reach them.
Music As Life
Speaking of branching out and collaborating with different visual artists, I know every musician has that dream link-up they’ve always coveted. Someone as entrenched in music as Joe, I’m sure there’s someone that, given the opportunity he’d give almost anything to work with. And of course without even a moment’s hesitation, he responds: “Kim Gun-mo.”
His is certainly a name I hear a lot among artists in South Korea. His legendary status is one that’s inspired and awed audiences for decades. So while it’s always surprising when someone mentions a legendary artist as their dream collaborator, it comes as no real shock that their name is mentioned by anyone with a love of music.
“He’s an old-school Korean singer, a legendary singer. The vibe, his vocal tone…. No one can copy him. No one can mess with his sound. He has his own distinguished style, and no on can fuck with him. When I was growing up in Korea, I listened to him a lot. I probably listened to his eighth album the most.” Again, I’m warmed by Joe’s ardor. I can tell he’s getting lost in a memory, and it’s brilliant to experience. Though emphatic, there’s a wistfulness in his tone, a sound reserved for those completely enraptured by their own thoughts.
“The stuff that he talks about is so real. About his life, about his mom especially, about his base in Seoul. There’s a song where he’s literally talking about cruising around Seoul, people watching, what they’re doing, how they’re feeling. Who talks about that nowadays? Nobody talks about that. People talk about sex, drugs, money, bitches, breakups and all those typical topics. I want to collaborate with him. He has that special sound that no one can fuck with.”
Obviously this is a man who cares very much for lyricism. He’s a firm believer of writing what you know, make it honest, make it true. So I wonder if there’s a lyric or song of his own that truly tells his story, describes him to his very depths.
“That’s in the process right now,” he reveals. “There’s a song that I’m working on that’s called ‘Home.’ It’s about what I was going through after and while I was having that suicidal thought. You know before you go to sleep, you think about a lot of different things. You think about you’ve gotta go to school the next day, gotta work the next day, think about your life, your family. Before I go to sleep I think about a lot of things, and I’m trying to put that into music, into a track. It’s who I am as a person. It’s in the process. Actually an EP with one of the artists we’re working with right now is going to show that track.
Part of the beauty of being able to talk to someone is finding out where life’s journey has taken them. what’s even more pertinent is when that journey has taken them to not so nice places, moments of darkness that force them to fight for what they need and want to survive. While Joe is certainly in a positive place musically and supposedly in his life, his has been a journey of indescribable pain. In his road to musical self-discovery, I wonder what was the moment that impacted him the most, made him question and reconsider everything and point his life in a different direction.
I’m already prepared for something unexpected when he begins an answer with “Can I just be blunt with you?” What he tells me next touches much closer to home than I would’ve expected:
“I took acid for the first time at Coachella this year,” he reveals. We share a laugh because what else can you do? But the mood rights itself, and he reveals more of himself than I think he ever thought he would to someone he’s never even met before. “I was in Korea to get treated for my health, my mental health. Literally the day I landed, the next day I went to Coachella. I was still in the mindset of I lost a label, I don’t have anyone, I just lost my identity. But after taking acid it gave me a different perspective on living life.
“There were two artists that got me thinking: Honne and Oh Wonder. When I was watching Honne, not the singer. I was looking at the producer next to him. I was just watching. He didn’t even care about the craft. He was just feeling his keyboard, feeling his guitar, feeling his jazz base. That’s when I realized, wow I wanna be like that dude. I don’t care about the singer. I don’t care about the guy who’s wearing those pants right now. I care about the producer. I care about that dude. He’s literally having sex with his guitar, with his keyboard…. Oh! I wanna be like him.” The absolute awe in his voice, the emotion. I was so incredibly moved. “I took note. I still love music. I feel like I was trying to avoid my feelings and do something else with my life, but deep down I know I have passion for music. I wanna be like that dude and even better.
“After that we went to the stage to see Oh Wonder. I didn’t know who Oh Wonder was, but my friend Joanne introduced me to them. Their lyrics got me thinking a lot about my life. About my love life actually. How… sometimes love is a temporary thing. It’ll be there for you, but sometimes it’ll not be there for you. It’s just temporary. Their lyrics got me thinking about my love life.” Again he takes a moment to consider if he really should open up, but the moment’s hesitancy is fleeting. “The reason I had suicidal thoughts was because of my ex. We had a very toxic relationship, really abusive physically and emotionally. I was abused by her every day to the point….” He pauses to, and in that moment I feel my heart break.
“I’ll make it short,” he begins. “Every time I had sessions, team meetings, a sponsor meeting, or team events, she would not let me go. She would get mad at me: ‘Is it music or me?’ And I was like, ‘Don’t put me in this kind of awkward situation.’ That kind of took a lot out of me. She just kept giving me unnecessary stress. It was a long-distance [relationship]. Every time I’d go to a session it’d be 8 o’ clock here, and it’d be 11 over there. She lived in Boston. Every time we’d Face Time, she’d be like, ‘I wanna Face Time. Don’t go.’ So I would go to meetings late, two, three hours late, even go to sessions late. I missed out on a lot of sponsor meetings. So my boss got really mad at me.
“Before I got kicked out, the last talk I had, my boss said, ‘Is it music or your girl?’ I was like, ‘Yo, Kirk, hyung, it’s music no matter what.’ And he was like, “No, look at your fucking time, Joe. It’s all about your girlfriend. You really think you’re doing music?’ ‘Of course hyung, it’s just like a small’…. Damn….
At this point the emotions of the moment, remembering the hard talk, the hard look at where his life was, catches up to him and he takes a moment to collect himself. In this moment, even more so than when we were both caught up in the excitement of having kindred spirits for music, I feel a close connection to Joe. The kind of connection between people who’ve had to suffer through and survive life-altering pain.
He continues, “The last sentence was, ‘No it’s your girlfriend, not music. Get the fuck outta my label.’ So that took a whole lot outta me. So I was kinda relating to what Oh Wonder was talking about. It just kinda changed my life, really flipped my life around. After I came back from Coachella, that’s when I really though I really need to really start something.”
Into the Light
From that moment of darkness was borne a hunger to be something, start something new. It’s a goal he’s had from the moment he stepped away from the haze and madness of Coachella and really took a hard look at what he wanted and how to get there. So I challenge him, ask him to describe himself to me as if he were pitching an idea. Who is Joe? What is he about. At this moment I know I’ve hit on something interesting, something that admittedly he’d never had to confront himself. It took him a while to get there, but he finally did.
“I never thought about this before,” he says after long moments of contemplative silence. He continues, “I would say I’m a visionary person.” Again, he takes a moment. “I guess I’m an icebreaker, meaning I’m always the one to start something new, to break something, to break that barrier. I would say if you fuck with me, then let’s work together. Because I’m not just a follower. I am leader.”
As a leader, I wonder if there’s an artist or artists out there that he looks to for inspiration, an artist that he can point to and say, “This is what I’m about.”
“Brockhampton,” he says after some thought. “They’re a group of 12 people aged 21-24. They’re from Dallas, now in LA. They met through Kanye’s fan website. They’re like A$AP Mob but younger. They’re bringing a new genre to people.”
He suggests I listen to Saturation 2 (which, by the way, is absolutely stunning). He then continues, “Kevin Abstract is the leader of that team. He’s been in the industry a long time, and he finally solidified his team. Brockhampton is the sound that people need to know that I fuck with.”
What Dreams May Come
With an eye toward the future, I can’t help but wonder what’s next for Joe and his cohorts in Odd Folks.
“We’ve got our group album!” And the excitement in his voice is contagious. The man is so in love with his collective, with the possibilities, one can’t help but allow that natural ebullience to invade their space. “It’s gonna be fire!” he exclaims. “I know I’m hyping this up,” he says, a small bit of modesty in the midst of his excitement. “We’re gonna create 25 tracks. We already finished 11 tracks, and within that 25 tracks we’re gonna pick the best eight. We’re gonna create eight music videos. We’re doing something very different in the Korean market. After we release our group album, we’re gonna follow them up with our individual singles. Mumen has two singles. I have two singles. Slez has two singles. Then we’re gonna follow up that momentum with our mixtape. That’s our plan right now. We want to release our album beginning of December. I think people are gonna love our sound. That’s what we’re hoping for.”
Of course, with that much excitement and the hunger to get his music as far and wide as possible, it’s no surprise he’s shopped the Odd Folks sound to like-minded artists with broad reach, people like David Choi and clube$kimo’s queen, Miso. “They all said, ‘Wow, you guys have massive potential. This is straight talent. This is something I haven’t really heard before.’ So we’re definitely getting busy with all those artists and producers.
His energy is overflowing, so much so it spills over, resulting in him revealing a few secrets her and there. When he begins a sentence with “I’m gonna be straight with you,” I know he’s about to hit me with something that may very well take my breath away. This next revelation is no exception. “This album’s gonna go to Primary!” Isn’t that quite the bomb to drop? “From there we’ll see what happens.”
So green in the industry, and already his reach is further than most new artists could only dream of, some veterans are still looking for the right person to connect with that will give their music the exposure they crave. His comes in the form of the owner of an independent illustrating company. “He’s a listener too,” he says. “He listens to a lot of music. One thing he said when I was in New York was, ‘You guys are creating something new,’ which is right. We are trying to create something new. He definitely fucks with our music. Not to sound cocky or anything.”
It’s interesting to note the duality of his personality. On the one hand, he’s got a mind five, 10, 15 years in the future. But parts of his personality remain entrenched in tradition. His modesty rears its head every once in a while during our conversation, but I’m having none of it. It’s not being cocky if it’s the truth.
“Yeah, it’s the truth,” he concedes. “He helped with our music. He used to listen to what I was making before, but he always told me, ‘Joe, it sounds like you’re mimicking someone. It doesn’t really sound like you. I like the effort, but try to find your own color.’ It took me a while, took me about three years, and he was like, ‘Yo, what’s the hold up? What’s the deal with this album?’ I was like, ‘Let me show you. Let me introduce it to you.’ I showed him all the music we’ve been making, and he was like, ‘Dude, this was dope. I could sit there and bob my head. I mess with the vibe.’
I can’t help but share his excitement for the prospects.
“It’s great news for us. The fact that he sees the potential in us. That’s why once our album comes out he’s gonna send it to Primary. It’s a big step for us.”
As an artist the creative process can be frustrating. On the one hand you want to create at a clip fast enough to keep interest in what you’re dong. But your heart forces you to only want to create what’s true to you, no matter how long it takes. Joe is no exception to the pitfalls of artistry versus consumerism. “You know how I post a lot of video sessions on my Instagram? A lot of people ask me, ‘Oh, you upload a lot of studio sessions, but where’s the music?’ And I’m like, ‘Look, Frank Ocean took five years to release his album. Hold up!'”
We share a moment, because honestly where is the lie? “We’re not just trying to make temporary music where like a 13-year-old will listen to it for a few days, then just drop it,” he continues with feeling. “We’re trying to create art. I think about where my art’s going to be at. For instance, when I take pictures, I don’t want someone to just buy it for $3000 or like $10,000…. I know that’s a lot of money, but I don’t want someone random to buy my art and just put it up in a cafe. I want my art to be somewhere, somewhere someone can treat my music like it should be treated. I want to create art.”
If there ever was a message to send to people, that would be it. As our conversation comes to a close, I ask him to share his final thoughts, what he wants people to take away from this lengthy, extremely personal look into his life and his craft.
“I know I’m hyping a lot of stuff on my social media accounts, but I just want you all to be on the lookout. Stay tuned. You can follow our momentum in a lot of ways. We won’t let you down with this album we’re making and the music videos. We’ll definitely shock everyone. Our music will definitely shake the world. Be sure to just check us out. Be patient with us. We’re not trying to create temporary art. We’re trying to create long-term art.”
“Oh!” he exclaims. “Here’s some news. I’ve got an internship with Transparent Agency!” Just under an hour, and he already has a penchant for throwing me for a loop. The same agency that works with likes of Dumbfoundead and Year of the Ox. This full-time student, worker, and artist certainly has his plate full. But a large part of me believes he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Joe Lee is… an enigma. On the one hand is this artist with so much vigor and an unwavering effervescence of life. But talking to him you find out it’s an exuberance borne from a great deal of pain. I challenge you to not feel something at this man’s candor. When he takes himself back to those moments of darkness, those moments of uncertainty, there’s not an ounce of pretense. This is a man who has confronted his demons, has fought and slain dragons to protect his vision, to hold firm to the artform that he loves so much.
The respect I have for Joe is immeasurable. He asserts his love of the craft, keeping a firm eye on the past that molded him to the artist he is now. It’s certainly a blessing to be in the presence of somebody so eager to create, so hungry. How can you hear this man’s passion and not want to go out there and grab something for yourself? This was without a doubt the most revealing and inspiring interview I’ve ever had the pleasure of conducting. I’ll take his energy, exuberance, and journey through life with me always. Thank you, Joe, for taking the time to truly open my mind up to the possibilities that can be if you just reach out and grab them. Our readers thank you too.
Check out the first part of my interview with As If. And also please keep up with everything Odd Folks is up to: