When Su Lee decided to take the piss out of the time she hit rock bottom, she needed just four focused hours to turn it into a song: ‘I’ll Just Dance’. When Lee was done, she was ambivalent: “I wasn’t sure if it was socially acceptable for me to use humour in that way,” she tells NME now.
She needn’t have worried. The cleverly written bop, along with a DIY music video that featured Lee’s no-fucks-given dancing went viral on Reddit last May, contributing to at least 5million combined streams on YouTube and Spotify. Not a shabby feat for the South Korean musician who ditched her career tracks in international relations and graphic design to try making music full-time.
”I think initially there was a lot of fear about being honest about my mental health, about feelings and emotions that not a lot of people talk about,” Lee says of her early reservations about ‘I’ll Just Dance’, whose video was subtitled ‘what my mental breakdown sounds like’. “But once I got into the drag of it, it became second nature and a cathartic experience for me to just pour everything out into a song.”
Lee is speaking to NME from her Seoul bedroom, the same small space in the title of her new EP ‘Box Room Dreams’ and where the artist has written two years’ worth of songs. She’d briefly left Korea a few days ago, flying to the US for a creative field trip and intimate live shows in Los Angeles and New York. “It was my first time ever playing a live anything so I was initially very nervous,” she confesses. “But it was a very cosy show on a rooftop with pizza, beers and nice people, so it was a lovely experience overall.”
Not all viral songs translate into the opportunity to fly abroad and perform live, which Lee is acutely conscious of. “I’ve seen so many people go viral once, and then it kind of just dissipates. So initially I thought it’s great that it’s all happening, but also I was really anxious. I thought this is it – when this is over, it’s over,” she says. “But fortunately in my case, people stuck around. And I’m very grateful for the folks who continue to share and enjoy and listen to my work.”
You’ll hear an outpouring of Lee’s gratitude to her listeners in last year’s ‘Thank You Song’, where she repeatedly chants “thank you” – not just in English but also in Korean, Japanese, French and Italian. It’s a fitting hat tip to her global fanbase, a cross section of which can be seen on Discord, where she has a community that’s nearly 2,400 members strong, and on Reddit, the platform that started it all, where Lee has a dedicated Subreddit of 1,100 members.
But you don’t need numbers to figure out what makes Lee’s music appealing: she tastefully, cushions otherwise heavy themes with her wry sense of humour and up-tempo songwriting. “Maybe I’m a bit dumb / Got a lot of questions that I don’t know the answers to / I don’t know who to ask / Even Mr. Google’s like ‘Bruh, you need to figure this out on your own’,” she sings in staccato over funky synths in ‘I’ll Just Dance’.
Another sad-happy tune on the new EP is ‘OUCH’, where she recounts meeting a doctor who breaks the diagnosis of her depression. But Lee quickly waxes hopeful, promising that she’ll get better, “even though all my heart is saying is ouch / is ouchy ouchy ouch,” she sings in the doo-wop-esque chorus.
But the songwriter also nixes the levity in tracks like ‘All The Noise’, a paean to her relationship with social media: “I’m tired of the fake cools / I’m tired of the endless scrolls / I need to get out more / But I’m stuck in this feed…all the noise / it takes away the joy of being here.” And in ‘Coward’, Lee cries over shimmering keys, “I feel like a coward to speak out / to say that I’m lonely / and I need your help now / but I’m scared that you’ll push me away”.
These earnest tunes show Lee setting aside the humour that got her the internet’s attention in the first place. “It’s really important for me to not forget about humour when I’m writing music or in anything [I do]. But I think my goal as a musician is to make songs that convey as many different human emotions as possible, humour being one of them,” she says.
“I’ve seen so many people go viral, and then it kind of just dissipates… Fortunately in my case, people stuck around”
Production-wise, ‘Box Room Dreams’ is more ambitious than her previous releases, even if it remains a one-woman show from writing and recording to mixing and mastering. Lee – who grew up playing the cello, but plays mostly keys on the record – wanted to expand the dimensions of her sound. She added depth by tinkering with new instruments (“Lots of bells, I really like bells”) and new ways of using her voice (“Some improvised sounds, some harmonies, a little bit of reverb, a little bit of echo – they all sound lovely to me”).
That’s on top of conceptualising and directing music videos that complete “a world that people can really get immersed [in],” Lee says. It’s not surprising to hear she’s already playing out ideas for live gigs in her head: “I’d like to try out a pyjama-themed show where I can show up in my pyjamas and people can come up with pillows and such.”
Born and raised in South Korea, Lee lived in the US and UK throughout elementary school, middle school, and college. Her sensibility is starkly different from South Korea’s glitzy K-pop mainstream, and thanks to Reddit, she’s accrued a fanbase of listeners mostly outside South Korea. Lee admits that she feels more “creatively at home” in the US than she is in Seoul, but she chalks it up to people she’s “met and haven’t met” on either side of the hemisphere. “I’m happy to do my own thing in my room, but here in South Korea, there’s not a lot of collaboration opportunities for me. So if I meet the right people, maybe I’d feel as creative as I do in the States.”
“By the way,” she adds, “I grew up listening to K-pop. I think it’s a lovely part of Korean culture. But when I decided to make music, I was adamant that I was going to make music that sounds and feels good to me. I made choices that were purely intuitive and it ended up sounding like it does today.” Wherever she may be on the map, Su Lee’s starting to carve out her own space – one that welcomes honesty, humour, and every kind of dancing.
Su Lee’s ‘Box Room Dreams’ is out now