A Conversation with Violinist-Looper
by Editor Brett Rawson
When I think of musicians, I don’t usually think of classrooms. But when I think of Joe Kye, the violinist-looper behind Joseph in the Well, I see a touring teacher and teaching musician.
I first knew Joe Kye as an educator: We worked at a private independent school together back in 2010. Joe was in the classroom while I was in administration, but his influence spanned beyond the classroom — he coached ultimate frisbee, oversaw the yearbook and newspaper clubs, and reinstated the male a capella group, the Y-Chromotones. His presence was magnetic — wherever he went, students followed. They looked up to him, but also like him. Once, a dozen students came to school in a Joe Kye outfit: ball cap (optional), a collared shirt underneath a cardigan, a beige shade of khakis, and undirtied sneakers.
So it’s not surprising to see him taking the musical scene by harmonic storm: Joseph in the Well sold out their EP release show this past winter, he was on the cover of SubMerge Magazine, and he won “Outstanding New Artist” and “Artist of the Year” at the Sacramento Area Music Awards. As a musician, Joe is equally everywhere, performing on stages and in yoga studios, blogging on his Tumblr (How to be an Immigrant Musician), and asking middle schoolers to tell him what sound Neptune makes while booking shows across the country. While his first EP, Plastic Heart, is a solo show and exploration, his second EP, Joseph in the Well, speaks directly to the underlying principle behind his musical expression: “an empowering sound aimed at self-reflection, (re)discovery, and budding compassion. It is about love, loss, and a universal community.”
For this side conversation, we zoom in and out of his upbringing, his life as a musician and teacher, and specific lyrics from both LPs, meandering into philosophical inquiries from time to time. And for those of you who are in living in New York City, you’ll have the chance to hear Joseph in the Well for yourself: Next week, on Thursday, Jan. 14, he’ll be playing at HI New York City. We hope to see you there.
THE SEVENTH WAVE: First, it sounds like you’ve had a pretty magical year. Joseph in the Well sold out the EP release show, you were on the cover of SubMerge Magazine, and you won “Outstanding New Artist” and “Artist of the Year” at the Sacramento Area Music Awards. From where you are right now, what were some of the most memorable moments over the past year?
JOE KYE: First, I returned to the land of my roots — Seattle — on my summer tour. And while I doubted the show going in, worrying I had not promoted it enough, I was met with an outpouring of support from so many people from my past — high school friends, family members, strangers. I had people there that were in my middle school orchestra, my high school Vocal Jazz ensemble, and former colleagues from my time as an educator. To be supported with such warmth and familiarity, the stage felt like a nest. I took risks I had never been for, and felt liberated from the routine — I paid obeisance to the past, while demonstrating the full extent of my evolution from those early years.
Second, I recently played a show in San Francisco at the Red Poppy Art Gallery in October. Titled “Migrants,” the show revolved around personal stories about my immigrant upbringing, accompanied by my original music as performed by the trio. At its center was the title piece, a 20-minute collaborative work created in conjunction with two amazing dancers. The piece, inspired by my relationship with my parents (who live in Korea, halfway across the world), explored the curious overlap between yearning and resentment, intimacy and distance. To perform this piece in such an iconic and storied art space for an appreciative and involved audience … pure catharsis.
And third, for the EP Release Show in May, we sold out Harlow’s, the premier club in Sacramento — they stopped counting around 450, then had to turn people away at the door. More importantly, I presented my pride and joy, a six-track album that represents my creative voice, to everyone in Sacramento who have flung Joseph in the Well into consciousness in this local area. We had a children’s choir, a string quartet, and appearances by Las Vegas rapper Rasar. Leading up to the event, I invested all my energy and time into promoting the show, devoting countless hours to making sure the place would be packed — radio interviews, newspaper articles, and a Kickstarter campaign that raised $7500. It’s been the launching pad for all of the success I’ve enjoyed the past six months.
TSW: I still remember with precise awareness my surroundings the first time I heard “Plastic Heart.” That first stanza sets a width and depth to what we come to experience over the course of this album. Tell me, what went into these first three lines?
JK: First of all, I want to emphasize the intentional ambiguity — I don’t really know fully what I’m writing about, and I like when lyrics shift meaning through time and space. With that said, “Plastic Heart” was written my junior year at Yale — a time when there was a lot of pressure to identify my career track, make money, and find a way to stay in the U.S. on account of my immigrant legal status. So many people around me seemed to lack feeling and empathy, and pragmatism was threatening my inner sense of idealism and hope.
TSW: The second song, “Farewell to I,” seems to represent an intersection of panic, where the listener is passerby to the parade. There is the constant plucking, softened at the outset, but which intensifies with the words below. What exactly are you, or we, fighting here? The hands of time and things we can’t control? And, is this farewell a leaving or a longing?
JK: Damn good questions, Brett! I feel like I’m in therapy! Certainly the incessant march of time, which, at the time of the song’s writing, signified the expiration of my student visa. I was also searching for someone to share my fears and anxieties. You meet so many people in life, particularly during college, and so many of the interactions could be summed up with “hello” and “goodbye.” I was also listening to the Beatles a lot during this time. …This was also a time of identity evolution. Two years removed from my culturally Korean childhood home, then thrown into the heart of privileged America, I had no idea who I was. But I knew I was more than Joe age 18. Thus, farewell to myself.
TSW: This third song is distinct from the other five. Entitled “Sakura,” it is a nod to the Japanese song, “Sakura Sakura.” How does this song fit in to the album as a whole and what part of the present or past does it come from?
JK: It most certainly is a nod to the folk song. I remember when I started the violin at school in 4th grade; we had the “Sakura” song in our music book. My classmates assumed I already knew the song … but I’m Korean American, not Japanese American. Crisis ensued. About 12 years later, I decided to re-appropriate the melody and lyrics and set it to a jazzier chord progression. Thus “Sakura” was born. The lyrics are: “Sakura Sakura / noyama mo sato mo,” but I do sing it with a thick American accent, emblematic of the vocal jazz I was listening to quite a bit at the time — perhaps another nod to the tension between assimilation versus celebration of my first culture.
TSW: What does time look like for you these days?
JK: On an every day basis, I do email correspondences and promotion. The morning is all about preparing for and engaging with friends of Joseph in the Well — show announcements, Instagram posts, blog entries, videos, and the like. I am constantly in touch with clients, booking agents, my business team, and other musicians, and communicating with them on a daily basis is a must for a successful business.
I also do a lot of rehearsals, whether it’s solo work at home or group sessions with other band members. This also includes practice and composition for all my other projects, whether it’s producing an album with LA rapper Jason Chu or practicing for an upcoming wedding.
Finally, there are performances and gigs. I have two regular gigs every week; as a member of the music team at the The Table UMC, a welcoming and progressive spiritual center, and as a music teacher at William Land Elementary School. On top of that, I have shows with Joseph in the Well, studio sessions, and collaborations with different artists. For example, I’m working with Yogini Karen Wilkinson of Solfire Yoga to create a special yoga session, a meditation and Vinyasa flow routine accompanied by live violin looping.
TSW: Let’s talk Joseph in the Well. This first song reminds me of the one in Plastic Heart. Did you have this in mind when you composed this intro? Also, it is a great contrast to the opening of Plastic Heart. What does this opening tell us about Joseph in the Well and its departure from your previous LP, three years prior?
JK: First is the difference in production value. While Plastic Heart was an unmitigated joy to create, budget and time constraints prevented me from investing fully in the process. Unlike Plastic Heart, a solo endeavor, Joseph in the Well is recorded in a professional studio with a host of musicians. I also spent about five months on JitW, writing, arranging, and editing while recording, while Plastic Heart was completed in the span of a week.
From a creative standpoint, I think my sonic worldview has evolved substantially since Plastic Heart. PH was a fledgling attempt to deliver a package of self-contained songs, often adhering to more traditional folk aesthetic. In Joseph in the Well, I’m trying to present a curated sonic experience; the intro, for example, starts with a fairly common sound in my day-to-day — the crunch of gravel under my feet as I go for a walk. Next, recordings of native birdsongs (collected by local US Geological Survey Scientist Cory Overton) fade into the track, followed thereafter by some sparse violin pizzicato. Music surrounds us constantly — the punctuated shikah-shikah of a toothbrush, the rumbling bass of a passing semi, the wail of a petulant child — and I wanted to welcome listeners into my daily soundscape, real and imagined.
TSW: Another departure with this EP: you collaborated with several artists. In “Happy Song,” it is with Rasar. Tell us about how that relationship formed. And in “Happy Song,” your lines seem to be on the surface of appearance — the illusion of happiness — while Rasar seems to expose the underlying complexities to “happiness” and what we should be “happy for.”
JK: I briefly ran into Rasar when we were both guest musicians on soul/bossa nova artist Jahari Sai’s show. About a week later, we both happened to be supporting some local artists at a pub. As it happens, I ran into him at the water cooler, and we naturally launched into a conversation about race, the current injustices that plague our culture and country, and the role of music in creating a world that is fueled by a thirst for truth.
When I needed a rap to go along with “Happy Song,” I naturally dialed up Rasar. I think the song highlights a lot of our common ideas: Happiness is equated with monetary wealth in our capitalist consciousness, an unsustainable exercise in disappointment and self-hatred. Rather, we should work on our mindset and behaviors, discovering happiness in gratitude for what we already have, and acting to give forward to generations that will come after us.
TSW: In Joseph Rests His Head, you are in your well, which for the man wearing white, seems to be a place of no longer living, but your words tell us it is from this place that you are able to understand what you are now. Can you tell us more about this sitting in the dark, or this well, and how well we’re able to feel in this dark, or not in the dark?
JK: For me, this stanza represents my constant struggle with identity. When I wrote it, I was going through the arduous, convoluted process of obtaining my green card — permanent residency in the US. The stanza expresses my confusion as a long-time Korean citizen — I still am one today although I’ve been living here since the age of six. I couldn’t sleep at night, imagining myself as a native of either land — could I really claim to be American if my passport stated otherwise? Could I shed my cultural roots for the country in which I had built a home, yet often felt like a stranger?
Since I wrote it, the stanza has held different meanings for me, as I hope it does for listeners. We all struggle with identity in various forms, grappling with assigned labels while yearning for the liberty of self-definition. If my song can offer empathy while offering a glimmer of hope, I feel it has served its purpose.
TSW: When I think of touring musicians, I don’t think of classrooms. But when I think of you, I see a touring teacher and touring musician. I first knew you as a teacher, so there’s a reason for this association, but these two art forms seem fundamental to who you are as both an artist and educator. Can you talk about the intersection and evolution of these art forms and why you have chosen these two, or how they chose you?
JK: Personally, I find art is at its best when it moves society towards peace, harmony, and mutual understanding. My music is driven by a love for justice — it’s a place where I can envision and create the kind of world that I’d like to see. It’s a place where people actively work to recognize commonalities, where enemies respect the humanity in the other and work to build compromise, where every child is afforded the opportunity to become a productive and happy member of society.
My songs are often inspired by observations about some of the obstacles we face in creating such a world — our intolerance, in our increasingly profit-motivated culture, for mistakes, even from our young; our fear, in our increasing self-centeredness, of anything or anyone we don’t recognize as similar to us; and of course, our apathy, which keeps us sinking slowly into a pit of convenient, short-sighted, self-serving behaviors.
It’s education that can change our behavior and help us evolve. It’s by focusing on the young, who are naturally capable of learning from our faults, that we will grow and develop as a race (and begin tackling some of the major challenges we leave them, from climate change to the declining reserves of fossil fuels, not to mention not fighting against each other). For me, music is the way to deliver these messages in a way that is unifying and empowering. If I can spread those messages to audiences all over the world, I can do my part in engendering positive communal behaviors.
TSW: We had the chance to talk on the phone, and I loved some of the things we discussed. I want to ask you about three things you brought up for you to expand upon. You said that during your time at Yale, the concepts of masculinity you had at the time were backwards and that now, in your music and teaching, you hope to challenge gender roles. What were those moments of clarity, and how do you challenge gender roles through your teaching and music?
JK: I think reconnecting with my sister after college was a particularly evolutionary time for me. As the eldest son of Asian American immigrants, I had a lot of privileges my sister did not. Our parents assigned us expectations based on their native cultural framework, which traditionally pushes men towards professional careers and women into homemaking (babies) and the arts. After four years of teaching high school English, I stood at a crossroads. Should I go back to graduate school and try to be a professor (strongly advocated for by my mother)? Do I continue to pursue secondary school teaching? Dare I contemplate the pursuit of music, a life-choice which bewildered and frightened my parents, migrants depending on the future success of their progeny for stability and security?
Clearly, I took the risk. I’ve never worked this joyfully.
TSW: When we talked on the phone, you mentioned that you didn’t want to “fulfill the wishes of dead white men.” Can you talk a little bit more about this and what steered your musical energy?
JK: Sure. Them’s fighting words, but allow me to explain. I was classically trained throughout childhood. Growing up, I got lost in Tchaikovsky’s melodies. I fell in love with Beethoven’s dramatic mood swings. I traveled with Sibelius through the fjords of Scandinavia. And while I listened to everything from Britney Spears to underground hiphop, I was raised to believe the only kind of worthy, respectable musician I could be was one that went to Julliard and toured the world as a concert violinist. Chalk that one up to the conservatism of both Korean and Classical Music culture, which often value elitism, hierarchy, and respecting the wishes of those who have gone before you. I didn’t have an interest in practicing other people’s music for 10 hours a day — I certainly had more to say as a Korean American migrant than could be prescribed by dead Anglo-saxon males, most of whom were not around for the discovery of penicillin. I wanted to express and evolve my own sound. So I do.
TSW: What is the forecast for 2016? You have a show coming up in New York City — where will you be playing?
JK: I’m playing a showcase for the Association of Performing Arts Performers annual conference in NYC on Jan. 14, Thursday at 6 pm. The show is open to the public and figures to be an amazing experience, with gifted artists from all over the world. I’m representing Korea and the U.S.
I’ll be back in NYC in early March as part of my Migrants Tour. I’m working on a special piece with Brooklyn-based playwright Jerry Lieblich, whose work recently received a NY Times Critics’ Pick. It’s inspired by Agua Viva, a short book written by mid-20th century Brazilian author Clarice Lispector.
All my show info can be found at my website, www.joekye.com.