It takes a certain kind of woman to pull off just one name, but New Yorker, by way of South Korea, Nigeria, Sweden, and the UK, Jihae (pronounced “jee-heh”) more than makes it work.
While the likes of Madonna and Cher are completely overexposed, Jihae’s use of her first name surrounds the beautiful and talented songwriter like a shroud of mystery. She’s also a real deal songwriter-cum-musician, rather than a mere entertainer.
Read on as I talk with one of the most creative songwriters and beautiful voices in the industry today.
Jessica, PopWreckoning: Hi is this Jihae?
PW: Hi, Jihae. This is Jessica from PopWreckoning. How are you doing?
J: Good. How are you, Jessica?
PW: I want to first thank you for taking the time to chat with me for a bit.
J: Thanks for having me.
PW: You’re a native of South Korea — how long did you actually live there for?
J: Till I was 9.
PW: And then you moved all around the world before settling in New York [City].
PW: How has living in so many geographically and culturally different places shaped you and how you view and write music?
J: I can’t say that it’s shaped how I write and view music, but it’s probably shaped how I view the world. How I think, probably.
I think there’s something very unique… It’s a mind opening thing to be experiencing completely different cultures from Africa to Europe, or any culture anywhere; for you to be in a different society with a different mindset. Experiencing all those differences probably has a lot to do with your make up and your mindset. I think it’s a mind opening thing. Traveling alone is a great thing for everyone. Experiencing other cultures is a good thing.
I can’t say that there’s a direct connection of how I write music and songs, but I can say that it definitely shaped my values and my outlook on life.
PW: Speaking of the difference between writing songs and playing music, I’ve read that you consider yourself a songwriter first and foremost. When did you begin writing songs and what prompted you into taking on the role of the musician?
J: When did I start writing songs? What is it, 2008? About 8 to 9 years ago I started writing poetry. Just writing thoughts down, really; I wouldn’t call them poetry. [laughs] Then once I figured out that it’s something you can pursue…I never even tried to pursue it on a professional level in the beginning at all. I just though, ‘Oh, this is something I can do, try out.’
I got a guitar as a gift from one of my first producers who is Duncan Sheik, he produced my first demo. So I had it and I had to play around with it, otherwise it would go to waste. That’s kind of how it started; it wasn’t planned. I never thought I could pick anything. And still, it’s really like a tool for writing. I don’t consider myself an instrumentalist in any way or sort.
PW: What was it like creating the debut LP My Heart Is An Elephant not really considering yourself a musician?
J: Well, um, it was great! There was about 15 different people on the record…
PW: Yeah, a lot of big names, too.
J: Yeah, it was like a couple of viola players, a couple of violin players. There was some cello in there. I actually grew out of any kind of hesitation or inhibitions because of my lack of technical knowledge. I totally have no problems telling professional musicians how to play their music ’cause they’re playing my music.
I’ll tell them for “Faint,” especially at the end of it, I had the string quartet, I asked them if they could play in such a key that when you see an orchestra play like they’re tuning. It seems like they’re out of tune but they’re about to tune; that kind of haunting, eerie sound. And they would do something and, “Yeah! That’s it!” That’s the way I did it.
The overdubs and layers that came out, I wrote that in my head and put it on the keys. I told the cellist to do it. I was working with one producer who was engineering and recording the whole thing at his apartment in Bushwick in his bedroom and we brought in different people. I spent two weeks in L.A. with Pat McCarthy, who is an amazing producer, and that was something, that was kind of like a grand experience, you know, because he was using the same gear that he had used a couple years previous when he had recorded the last R.E.M. record. Not the current one, the one before.
That was really exciting and it was a little bit different. The most of the time I spent on the record was really a pirate project. I’d get off at 2 in the morning or 3 in the morning and I’m like, ‘Do I take a cab, a gypsy cab or do I get on the train?’ It was kind of a risk, you know?
It was actually really exciting and really fun to finally save enough money to make my own record and it was a great experience. A great learning experience, as well.
PW: Yeah, and it turned out beautifully. Every time I listen to it, it’s so moving and gorgeous.
J: Oh, thank you! Thank you so much.
PW: You’re welcome. I know just last month you released the Afterthought EP which is remixes of 4 songs from the album. How did the idea for that come about and, obviously it was different than producing the actual album, what was the process for that?
J: Well Jeanluc Sinclair is the producer on this EP, who I remixed the whole thing with. He found me on MySpace [laughs], actually. I heard his stuff and we both mutually had respect for each other’s work. We spoke about maybe doing a project together and thought, ‘Why not?’
I was going to get a bunch of different DJs and people to do the remix EP and he started on it. I just loved the direction we were going so I decided to stick to just him instead of trying to get other people involved.
PW: It makes it that much more a cohesive EP. Growing up, you attended a religious boarding in which you weren’t allowed to listen to “secular” music, so you came into a lot of stuff after its time. Who would consider influences that you either try to incorporate into your music or that just got you into playing from songwriting?
J: Well I can’t say that I try to incorporate anyone. I think [with] music, everything’s been done. There are only so many notes and keys and chords and riffs.
I would say that one of my biggest songwriting heroes is Leonard Cohen. And Bob Dylan. Nina Simone. I love the experimental aspects of Brian Eno. I love Meredith Monk. It’s quite vast. And then there’s Talking Heads and the [Rolling] Stones and [John] Lennon.
It’s kind of all over the place. I don’t intentionally, and if I get influenced because of having listened to a Leonard Cohen record at times versus a Tom Waits record — I love Tom Waits — many times, or you know Nick Cave is also one of my favorite songwriters. If it has influenced, me I can’t deny that it has. Directly. Indirectly. To what extent? Who knows.
I guess people can judge if they want to, but I don’t intentionally try to sound like anyone. I think that goes against songwriting, really. The whole point is expressing what you’re feeling and doing it in your own way with all the given notes that you can have. [pauses]
When you write a book, it’s the same thing, you know? Well not the same, obviously. [laughs] It’s very rigorous in the writing process.
PW: I don’t know why I thought of it, but when you mentioned Tom Waits — for any reason, have you heard the Scarlett Johansson cover album of his songs?
J: No. I told her that I would listen to it, but I have not.
PW: Just curious what you thought of it. But that’s neither here nor there. There’s a video art installation that features your music which you also make an appearance in, correct?
J: It doesn’t feature my music, it features me acting out a role of this woman named Angelique Galliano who actually did exist. Somehow the director asked me to do a warm-up vocal exercise. So I’m not doing it, I guess I’m kind of playing a role when I’m doing that and then I’m acting in it.
PW: And you’ve also been in a couple other films; Interview and there’s Transbeman?
J: That was Interview. The installation. Transbeman is an independent film. They approached me to act in it and I really just ended up doing a little walk-in as a singer. I ended up playing myself and they asked me to be a lead in it. It’s something that, I guess, is being edited at the moment. It’s gonna shown in festivals.
PW: Do you have the quote-unquote acting bug? Are you actively pursuing that or it just something you do if it happens to come up?
J: Oh not at all. Only if it really happens to come up. It kind of fell on me years and years ago when they were casting for Memoirs of a Geisha. They had like, 100,000 open calls worldwide and they brought me in and I actually had a contract to play the role of Hatumomo when [Steven] Spielberg was supposed to direct it. But once he pulled out and they changed directors, they changed everything.
So that didn’t work out, but that was kind of the introduction to it. I could’ve really pursued it when that was happening, and I had to choose, really. That was just when I started doing my first demo.
PW: Kind of along the acting lines — the music video for “Black Pearl” is a finalist for the Independent Music Awards. Who came up with the concept for the video and how was it filming? It’s fairly risqué and pretty dark.
J: [laughs] Yeah!
[we laugh together]
J: Well, Kevin Thomas is the director, who’s a good friend of mine, who came up with the concept and we collaborated throughout. He had this concept that really worked with the song and it was like a short film project for him. He kind of piggybacked it on this job that he did where all the crew worked for free.
It was really a tough one; I don’t know if you realize that I’m also playing the male character.
PW: Yeah, I saw that. I was really impressed.
J: We had to green screen everything and do six scenes and change makeup. I had to do six scenes twice. It was very tricky the first time. It was a 3 day, 14 hour 3-day shoot. The first time we tried it, it was, “OK, you have to move your head here and your hand can be here.”
To perform it and have the emotion to be mathematically placed was really difficult. It’s amazing what they did with this.
PW: It almost seems seamless. I was watching it and was just like, “Wow.”
J: I did fight with the director about it. I initially agreed sensuality is OK but sexuality I don’t want. I don’t want my first video to have it be about that. So I did fight with him. It’s actually toned down from what he…
PW: Really?! [laughs]
J: Yeah! [laughs] I also fought for my own edit, which I didn’t get.
PW: It was a finalist for the Awards and even though you didn’t get your final edit, it’s very well done. And I think there will be a lot of buzz about it since it is so borderline risqué.
PW: Which is good, I mean, it’ll get your name out there even more. It’s good and bad, I guess.
J: Yeah, but you know what? Regardless of what I feel about it because I’m in it, on a level of marketability versus my personal opinion of how it projects me and all that, all that put aside, I think it’s a great piece of art.
PW: You’ve played a lot of shows in New York City, which is where you live, but have you traveled at all or gone on tour? Or do you plan to tour?
J: I do plan to do it. I don’t know if you know, I have my own label. I release everything through my own label in conjunction with an online distribution company. It’s a full time job and I would love to tour the record right away, but at the moment I’m in the studio recording the next album.
PW: Oh, wow, OK.
J: Yeah, and for a tour you need sponsorship. Since I am my one woman label, there is no sponsorship I can give myself for the tour. I’m actually working with someone to propose sponsorship for a tour, hopefully, in the fall. Nothing definite as of yet.
I haven’t chosen not to travel and tour because I didn’t want to. It’s because of budget issues.
PW: Yeah, makes sense. That’s a lot of it. If and when you get to go on this tour, who would you want to tour with you? If you could choose any act, who would you want to support?
J: I would love to open up for Tom Waits. I would love to open up for Sigur Rós.
PW: Oh, they’re great.
J: I think they are so fantastic. I just saw them at Bonnaroo.
PW: Oh, nice. They played a lot of stuff from the new album I guess?
J: Yes! I think it was mostly that. And I’d love to open up for Björk. Thom Yorke… [laughs] anyone whose first name is a “Tom” or ends with an “ork.”
Who else? There’s tons of bands I like. Arcade Fire, I think they’re great.
PW: Yeah, they’re wonderful, too.
J: They’re a great live band. The Raconteurs are great.
PW: I’ve never seen them live, but I’ve heard good things. Along the same lines — what music are you currently listening to? If you have anything to recommend, what you’re listening to at the moment.
J: Yeah! I was just given this CD by Sneak Attack…what’s his name, Arthur?
PW: Joseph Arthur?
J: Joseph Arthur! I think he’s great. I’d never heard of him before. I just got the CD and I just listened to it yesterday.
PW: Is it the Vagabond Skies EP, I think is the latest?
J: Hmm, I don’t know. Let me have a look.
PW: Just curious. We recently got it in, too, and I love it.
J: Oh, where is it? It’s Crazy Rain. I think it’s great.
PW: Yeah, totally. You’ve got a show coming up in New York — who plays with you live?
J: Ogie Bortnik, guitar player. The two producers that are working on the new record, including Jeanluc Sinclair with the laptop and then the producer Yvonne Evangelista is on bass. Then I have a new drummer Randy. And Matt is the rhythm guitarist.
PW: Excellent, good luck with the show! I don’t want to take up anymore of your time, so thank you again and I look forward to hearing the new material!
J: Thanks, Jessica. We’ll leak it to ya!
PW: [laughs] Excellent. Have a good night!
J: You, too. Take care.
Listen to “Simple Man”