“It’s been a ride,” sighs Yaeji of the soul-searching process that informed her long-awaited debut album ‘With A Hammer’. You can say that again. Fusing influences stretching from Korean indie rock and electronica to leftfield bass and techno, the New York-via-Seoul creative’s intricate 13-track record arrives seven years after breakthrough single ‘Raingurl’ elevated her to underground cult status, and shares a similar ethos with 2020 mixtape ‘WHAT WE DREW 우리가 그려왔던’, which NME described as a “dazzling, genre-blurring tribute to communal spirit”.
But while many factors inspired, or more accurately, incensed Yaeji during its creation, she realised a through-line: the pandemic’s wide-ranging impact on her. “Apart from how scary and difficult everything was, lockdown was a time of sitting with myself without any distractions,” she tells NME on Zoom from her New York base. Pre-pandemic, Yaeji would brush past incidents that happened in her life and “not think about things she needed to process, unlock or understand about myself”.
Being isolated for so long resulted in complex realisations. Born in Queens, New York City in 1993 as a single child in a Korean family, Kathy Yaeji Lee moved from New York to Atlanta aged five, and then to Seoul, South Korea in the third grade. She later moved back to America to study, but remembers feeling like an anomaly during her earlier school years. In Atlanta, she was in a mostly white neighbourhood (“they didn’t know what being Korean [entailed], so there was weirdness and difficulty”) while in Seoul, she was “too American and they were confused about that in the ‘90s”. Reflecting on these times, coupled with the Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate protests that were happening mid-pandemic, resulted in Yaeji’s emotions reaching boiling point. “I couldn’t avoid it anymore,” she tells NME.
At the root of everything: rage. Nostalgically revisiting childhood loves – like anime TV series Sailor Moon – made her feel anger for her younger self, “because I felt like I was wronged”. Rather than trying to manifest her frustration sonically, Yaeji “just let it do its thing, because otherwise that almost defeats the point of letting my anger live and seeing what it does”. Instead of conforming to her learned expectations of the emotion, and its portrayal in the media as violence, she instead observed it playfully.
Similarly, when Yaeji was writing the songs, she realised that her anger is subdued and, at times, manifests itself as calm and positive: “for an angry album, it turned out pretty chill”, she laughs. Take the poignant ‘I’ll Remember For Me, I’ll Remember For You’, which becomes a place for Yaeji to vent, lyrically explaining how turning her emotions into songs helps her. Over a melancholy instrumental, she sweetly sings: “It’s a feeling without words, it’s a melody with feelings/when you write it down the thoughts dissipate and it’s freeing”.
Having challenged herself to be more direct, ‘With A Hammer’ proves her most daring work yet. The most sonically aggressive song on the album, the techno-driven ‘Michin’, demonstrates her newfound confidence: “I’ll show you in one step, you just smash down with a hammer”. Despite describing her music style as “still shy, whispery and abstract”, she took more of a louder approach to singing and developed an even bigger palette for vocal processing techniques during the album process.
Weaving between English and Korean in her voice, Yaeji also realised “there are some things I cannot convey emotionally through two languages”. Where it was not enough, like on ‘Passed Me By’ she was even blunter. “That track’s chorus isn’t even real words, it’s just phonetics,” she says, having placed them atop drums and synths. “It captured this in-between feeling I was feeling,” she says.
She also found her form of expression would change when singing in Korean: “It’s less direct, so when I’m writing lyrics it sometimes feels like it’s two people talking to each other, to fill in for each other because there’s certain things that can’t be said in one language. It’s as if they’re working together to convey a bigger idea”.
There’s hope, too. On the opening song ‘Submerge FM’, she sings of what can be done to “save the future generation”, and has found that bridges between generations are being built, slowly but steadily. That doomy mentality, she says, can be broken down with a degree of lightness and optimism. “If you recognise the trauma and vicious cycles you’re passing down, isn’t it your mission to break and mend the cycles? It’s about planting seeds in people’s minds because we have to breathe and find energy to move on and bring about change”.
The album’s meditative title track conveys a desire for freedom, but she’s keen to highlight that it doesn’t always have to be explicitly fought for, as the sleepy ‘Be Alone In This’ subtly conveys. Through its peaceful synth soundscape, Yaeji allows herself to recharge as her trembling voice fades in and out. “I realised that something as simple and seemingly so mundane as daydreaming, resting and giving yourself enough sleep is such a powerful tool and form of resistance – it can actually be power”.
Similarly, having previously found it easier to love her friends and family more than herself, Yaeji has learned that self-love is essential. ‘You fall in love with yourself and the ones around you’ goes her new mantra on ‘Happy’ – although having only reached that place herself near the end of the album process. “I went through such emotional turmoil when anger first surfaced, because it was so foreign to me and it felt wrong,” she says.
Following a period of internal questioning and losing a sense of what really mattered to her, Yaeji found herself again – but only after writing music and resting. Diary-like lead single ‘For Granted’ reflects this changed mindset: after contemplatively singing “when I think about it, I don’t even know”, the track explodes into a 30-second breakbeat frenzy. The audio equivalent of a mind in overdrive, this unexpected release abruptly stops as Yaeji concludes “let it go and I’ll feel”. Finally, a moment of calm.
Previously, Yaeji would disassociate from her releases “because the music I put out is too real for me”. However, after a lengthy journey of personal discovery and understanding how her anger had transmuted into something else (“I realised that I had maybe gotten through it, and what it had turned into was something really sweet and gentle”), she feels differently. “Maybe it’s because there’s a made up story about me and this hammer, so there’s a layer of separation – even though it’s me, it’s also a different me.”
Yaeji’s ‘With A Hammer’ is released April 7 via XL Recordings