With A Hammer

With A Hammer

Like a lot of music made in the early 2020s, the electronic pop producer and dance music experimenter Kathy Yaeji Lee’s colourful, searching first official album was born in part out of the forced reckonings of the pandemic. “The prompt—which is what started the story—was my anger,” Yaeji tells Apple Music. “I’m stuck in my room. I have no distractions. Thoughts, memories, things I haven’t processed because I would distract myself usually—they started to come up. And for the first time, from all of that—from remembering childhood, from what was happening around us politically, socially—I felt deep anger, and I had no idea what to do with it. So I said, 'I have to make something. I have to write.'” But part of what makes the album interesting is Lee’s ability to frame that anger with sounds that feel inviting, even celebratory—a contrast that has the meditative effect of diffusing emotions even as she expresses them; or, put another way, to demonstrate curiosity about them instead of just venting them, whether it’s the panic of cyclic thinking (“For Granted”, “Done [Let’s Get It]”) or the discomfort of self-alienation (“Passed Me By”). “When I write, it’s to understand what happened better, to understand myself better,” she says. “And for that reason, in the moment, I’m not clocking what’s happening or exactly what it is I’m writing about. But then, after I’m done writing it, after I play it for a friend, after it comes out into the world—sometimes that’s when I realise or fully process the thing I was trying to figure out.” The feelings of With a Hammer are hot, but the music—spacious, patient, round, guided by Lee’s naturally diminutive voice—is cool. The project also offered Lee opportunities to discover new creative approaches. The flute that opens “Submerge FM”, for example, was one of many samples Lee collected from sessions with friends before she’d even started writing the album in earnest but whose role didn’t become clear until much later. “I just sat with this loop on forever and then I started improvising on my synth, and it became almost like this conversation or call-and-response. And that’s what started the first track on the album—me just having a conversation with Gabby [Gabrielle Garo].” (Similar conversations appear with a trumpet on “I’ll Remember for Me, I’ll Remember for You” and fractured percussion on “With a Hammer”.) She also managed to further explore not just her identity as a speaker of Korean and English, but the way both languages can dovetail with the abstractions of musical expression. “When I was writing ‘Passed Me By’, the main chorus of it isn’t even made up of lyrics, it’s just sound,” she says. “And the combination of the bass and the [’90s-style] synth…made me feel like I’m expressing a feeling I haven’t been able to say in words before.”

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