In 2015, a Seoul restaurant door frame crushed and nearly severed James Lee’s left hand and permanently grounded the bassist’s career with K-pop/rock band Royal Pirates. The shocking accident, followed by five surgeries and three months immobilized in a hospital (during which he suffered a stroke), couldn’t stop his determination or silence his sweet falsetto. The Korean American singer-songwriter learned one-handed piano and honed his production skills. His keen ear for a good hook found an audience in China, where he landed several No. 1 singles for stars like Jason Zhang and Angelababy. He released a dark, reactive solo EP in 2018 (The Light), but now he’s in a more positive place. Castles channels pain and regret (and a hint of positivity) on emotive EDM-informed R&B tracks like “Liar,” “Erase,” and “Over Us.” “Since I had a couple of near-death experiences, I wanted to leave something I was proud of,” Lee tells Apple Music. He guides us through Castles track by track.
Bad Day “My previous computer crashed. I was devastated because it had all my files and I didn’t back anything up. I thought I lost everything; eventually, I salvaged some of it. The song captures the feeling of that moment, but it’s also a love song. The hook is ‘Can I love you for a lifetime?’ It’s more about finding the one thing that keeps me afloat when everything else is falling apart. Even though there’s a bad day, I still have hope in this one person who I’m asking to love me forever because it seems like nothing else is worth it.”
Over Us “I wrote that when I was into artists like Grey, Zedd, Flume, and Future Bass. I wanted to write something fun. Performing the songs from The Light EP brings me down, it’s so depressing. The track’s name is ‘Over Us,’ but the first line is ‘I can’t get over it.’ I also wanted to write something straightforward, because in the past my songs were hard to decode. There are super-fine details that are very specific to me. I wanted something that felt good and was highly relatable.”
Erase “It highlights my obsession with EDM. I like chill EDM with fun drum fills. This also showcases how I was in a metal band, using arrangements to create moments of dynamic tension and release. It’s very concise lyrically; I’m a fan of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It kind of relates to that, how I want to erase everything. The hook says ‘Erase it all and go’ like they do in Eternal Sunshine. I wanted a song with that emotion, but focused on the instrumental side as well.”
Liar “This is a throwback to what I think I‘m best at, which is an emotional singer-songwriter. Ever since my accident, it prevented me from playing guitar. I struggled to find the means to express that emotion. I always have these songs in my head that I’m unable to express. But once I started working as a producer, I learned how to communicate what I wanted in my head to the session musician. Writing on piano and guitar is very different. The melodies come more naturally when you play piano than when you play guitar. They’re totally different. The piano is a more percussive instrument as well as a stringed instrument, so it feels like you’re riding with a different gear. The lyrical content is very emo. It’s a cry for love that’s already left the relationship. I finished this track in about an hour, but the production took a while. I hired a cellist [Yoed Nir], and I wanted him to add some dynamics at the end. I love how he did the cello line over the hip-hop beat, and I think that’s something that comes from the production skills I’ve learned. If this was the past, it would have been acoustic guitar all the way through, but since I became a producer for different artists, I was able to blend what I’ve learned along the way.”
Castles “I spent the most time on the production and lyrics. It has a hint of dark pop. I wrote it once quarantine went into effect. There was a dark cloud hanging over everything. There’s a lot of imagery in the song. I talk about burning down a house of cards. It’s similar to a sandcastle; it’s not going to last. No matter how beautiful things seem to be, it’s all going to wash away. It seems desperate and sad, but I like to have layers in my songs. Once you step away from it, you recognize there’s another story about the song, that it’s going to be OK. I’ve become more of a positive emo artist rather than a sad emo artist, even if the songs all sound sad.”
Adrenaline “It’s more pop and electronic. I wrote this about the moment when you realize that someone or something is worth sacrificing everything for. It’s emotional but also high-energy. I heard a quote: ‘Your mind will give up a thousand times before your body will give up.’ When I hear these kind of quotes, I feel the opposite. I wanted to write about how even when your body gives up, your mind can be so resilient and nothing can break down that drive that you feel. After my accident happened and I started to make music, the physical pain in my hand, elbow, back, shoulder, and arm could have prevented me from creating, but something in my mind kept pushing me forward. The concept is very strong: not giving up no matter the circumstances.”
Over Us (Stripped Version) “That’s a thank-you for my fans. I performed it on a livestream performance. The fans loved it and they asked me on my Patreon to put it out. I worked with another session guitarist, a friend in Beijing, who is one of the best jazz guitarists I know [Alexi Deng]. He hopped on that track. I loved the way he played it, so I put it together quickly for the fans.”