Exclusive: James Lee Talks About His Incredible Journey From K-Pop Star To Solo Artist, His New Single, Collaborating With Amber, + More
While gearing up for the release of his new single “Erase”—due out on May 22 local time—James Lee took some time to reflect on his past and future as an artist!
Although 2020 has been a difficult year for all of us in many ways, James Lee has managed to find a silver lining to these bleak times: cooped up at home, the singer-songwriter and former Royal Pirates member has become more productive than ever, churning out an impressive six releases in just the first five months of this year.
The former bassist—who left the K-pop band Royal Pirates after a devastating freak accident in 2015 severed his hand, leaving him permanently unable to play the bass—most recently collaborated with f(x)’s Amber on the comforting track “Alright.”
Less than a month later, he is already prepared to drop his next song, “Erase,” which will take him farther away from his rock roots than ever before. He is also planning to release his first physical EP in two years next month, and in a thoughtful gesture of gratitude to his fans, he will be printing all of his Patreon members’ names on the physical album.
Amidst his busy schedule writing and producing all of this new music, James Lee took the time to answer some questions for Soompi:
Your story is incredible (and well-known), but for any of our readers who aren’t familiar with it, please tell us a little bit about your journey.
I used to be in a Korean rock band called Royal Pirates. We made a name for ourselves doing covers on YouTube and eventually promoted on shows like “M Countdown,” “Inkigayo,” and “Music Bank,” like most K-pop idols do. We were making progress, but a freak accident in 2015 ended my career. I was walking into a restaurant when a huge glass panel suddenly collapsed and severed my left hand, sprained my shoulder, and left glass stuck in my head. This was during the MERS outbreak, and I remember the emergency room was filled with sick people. It was a traumatic time, especially because the doctor said he might have to amputate right before surgery.
Five surgeries later, I left Korea and started my own solo project with a successful crowdfunding campaign. The album, called “The Light EP,” hit No. 1 in Southeast Asia and top 10 in several countries. Witnessing the potential of making music independently during this new era in the music industry, I decided to release a brand new song every month in 2020. I’ve written more than enough songs already [during the COVID-19 lockdown], so I’ve decided to release an EP with the names of members of my Patreon printed on the physical album as a thank you to those who have supported me.
How did you initially end up making the huge decision to move to Korea to join Royal Pirates?
I was the last one in the band who decided to commit. Growing up, I did not have many Korean friends and thought it was a great opportunity to learn more about my heritage. Doing music as a career seemed so far-fetched, and it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I took a gamble and decided to try it out. I also saw so much potential in my band members, as well as the company we decided to go with at the time.
Was there anything you were particularly surprised by or found difficult about being in K-pop while you were in Korea? Do you think it affected or changed you in any way?
There was a massive cultural difference in the way I approached music before and after I went to Korea. Even though our company tried to maintain our artistic values, the idea of being groomed into a brandable band was so new to me. Also, because the market is so competitive, the standards are very high, but skewed. We had spent years trying to figure out how to perform one song on TV, but our core identity was a rock band, not TV show personalities.
Beyond that, the idea of perfection and outworking your competitor was daunting, but that same competitive nature of the industry also improved my work ethic. I would not write music to the same standard if I had never gone.
Do you have a favorite moment (or moments) from your career with Royal Pirates?
There are two. The first was going on the show “Law of the Jungle.” I had such a blast, and I had never seen anything so beautiful up until that point. The second was when we were on a TV show and Moon (our lead singer) pretended to play the guitar with his teeth. It was so hilarious to me, and I still look at the video clip whenever I need a laugh.
Other groups were always practicing their dance moves in the dressing rooms and focusing on ironing out every imperfection. I think I had a beard and was pretending to play DJ turntables that were facing the wrong way during our performance on stage. It was just a testament to who we really were. Our passion was playing live shows and writing music.
Tell us a little bit about your upcoming EP.
The new EP is a collection of songs self-written and produced, made possible by my fans. I spent so much time over the past two years producing for other artists in Asia, I feel like my production is finally at a point where I can write songs how I intend, from start to finish. I was really able to have fun with the songwriting and sound design, and I think people who enjoy ear candy will appreciate this one. I grew up listening to emo and metalcore bands, so you can definitely feel that influence in the arrangement and production. The lyrics are also less dramatic than “The Light EP,” where I had written the tracks [for what I thought at the time might] possibly be my last project ever. However, I feel these lyrics set the scene and illustrate a setting people will be able to connect with.
It’s been nearly two years since you released “The Light EP.” How do you think you’ve changed as an artist during that time? Are there any important differences between “The Light EP” and your new music?
During production for “The Light EP,” every moment was fleeting. The excitement of the crowdfunding success was overshadowed by my commitment to carving out an opus that represented my struggle. After my accident and my stroke, I have felt a consistent hum of fear reminding me that it could all be taken away at any moment. Now that that’s been released, I am in the phase of acceptance, where I’ve accepted that I have no control over anything but my output. The new project is less desperate and more about enjoying the moment.
Also, on “The Light EP,” the only track I completely self-produced was “Perfect”. On the new one, I did everything top to bottom, so listeners can know I meant every single note, sound, and lyric.
You recently collaborated with Amber Liu on your new single “Alright,” which, in many ways, is exactly the kind of song that people need to hear right now.
Amber is an angel. She sometimes spends more time helping other people than herself, so I appreciate the fact that she was able to make some time to record “Alright.” When she featured on my song “Perfect” [from “The Light EP”], I wanted to use the texture of her voice as an instrument and a layer, but when she hopped on “Alright,” she really took it to another level. I wrote the original track in about 30 minutes. The lyrics were what I wished someone would say to me when I was having a terrible day, but with Amber on the track, there’s a sense of comfort that makes it hit in all the right places.
Amber actually featured on a song of mine called “Honestly” back in the day, but it never saw the light of day. She’s just such a good friend with a great voice, so the collaboration was meant to happen. The collaboration happened so naturally. We were on the phone one day, and she said we needed to collab again, and I sent her “Alright.” She said yes right away, and it was a wrap!
Your music video for “Alright” was something straight out of a sci-fi movie, which was an interesting choice for a song with such a soothing and mellow vibe.
We shot the music video the last day before the lockdown went into effect. Amber directed it with a friend, Director Homie. We didn’t know that the lockdown would last this long, but we knew that the scenic view would be something people could appreciate while being stuck at home.
What are you working on right now?
I’m waiting for the master recordings to come back for the new EP, and I’ve just started promoting the campaign to have the names of my fans printed on the physical EP. I feel lucky that I’m able to involve the fans this way, without jumping through hoops like I would’ve had to in the past. Besides that, I’m already working on the next EP as well, and the music is coming out really well.
Tell us about your latest single “Erase,” which is due out on May 22.
“Erase” is a step in the new direction I’m taking. It’s a departure from my comfort zone, out of necessity, that has forced me to grow. I’ve combined elements of electronic music, emotional lyrics, and the percussive ear candy that metalcore songs often have. I really used to be so comfortable with the guitar, but I’m finally finding my own sound with electronic music.
What would you say your goals as an artist are right now? Have they changed over time?
Before I went to Korea, I wanted to be an artist. When I was in Korea, I think I wanted to be famous. Now, I just want to write songs that are authentic and people can connect with.
What inspires you most as a musician? Where do you get your ideas when writing new songs?
Love inspires me the most. I feel like all of the trials and hardships we face can somehow be cured by love. I used to think that pain gave me the best songs, but I’ve found the root of it all has always been love.
You’re in the lineup of performing artists for the upcoming livestream concert “Live From Home.” Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve prepared for the show?
There’s an acoustic version of three of the songs I’ve released, because I feel it will suit the format a little better. There are some oldies, and I’ll also sing “Erase” for the first time ever.
You also went on a stateside tour with former U-KISS member Kevin Woo last year. What was that experience like?
My first tour was actually in a metal band when I was 16, but for my first solo tour, it was just way too short. Being able to perform on stage with him is something I’ll never forget. We are so different as artists, but I’m happy to call him one of my best friends.
Do you still follow K-pop at all? If so, are there any specific artists you’ve been listening to/have your eye on?
I was really shocked by ITZY. I’ve only seen a few videos here and there on Instagram, but I’m really impressed with how fast they can move their shoulders. I don’t think I could move that fast if my life depended on it.
Aside from ITZY, it’s impossible not to see BTS everywhere. I remember when we used to share dressing rooms with them, and I had no idea they would be as big as they are now. I don’t think anybody did, but it’s incredible to witness. I’m most excited to see what BLACKPINK comes back with.
What do you miss most—and least—about being a K-pop star?
I miss my friends, eating good Korean food, and feeling the fraternal bond that only Koreans seem to have with one another. I don’t miss the anxiety and pressure that you need to be better than everyone else, especially with music. I feel you should always be the most genuine version of you, whether it’s marketable or not.
Are there any artists you’d want to collaborate with?
This always changes for me, but because Soompi is a K-pop focused site, I’ll focus on the Korean artists I’d like to work with. I think IU has a timeless voice, and also, I’ve always liked G-Dragon’s voice, so maybe someday!
Finally, is there anything you want to share with your fans, K-pop fans, or Soompi readers in general?
Soompi has always been good to me. I’ve got nothing but love for you guys; thank you so much for always covering my work. To the fans and readers, thank you for taking the time to read this. Get ready for some new music!
James Lee’s new single “Erase” will be available on all major streaming platforms, including Apple Music and Spotify, on May 22 at 12 a.m. PDT. Check out the song here!