Korean-American producer Yaeji brings whispers to the dancefloor

Yaeji, né Kathy Yaeji Lee, is a GODMODE-signed producer, DJ, rapper, and singer (her Twitter bio accurately reads, “I’m into it all”) who levitated onto the house music scene over the past few years with drum-heavy tracks and dreamy vocals that rarely rise above a whisper. It’s been one week since she quit her graphic design job to work on music full-time. Yet without her visual background, her dance music career might never have existed in the first place.

“I think a lot of my influences came from things that are not music,” she explained, when we met up for an interview last week. She credits her unique sonic palette to “anything visual that I saw growing up.” The 24-year-old covered a lot of ground during her childhood—she was born in New York, and then moved to Atlanta. Her family later moved back to South Korea, where she studied at an American school. She briefly attended school in Japan, and then moved back to Korea again. Eventually she returned to the States to study conceptual art, East Asian Studies, and graphic design at Carnegie Mellon. By moving around so much, she says, “I learned a lot that probably influenced my music in terms of how open-minded I am, and how down I am to try weird stuff.”

Her latest five song release, titled EP2, touches on the feelings of displacement she experienced while growing up in between Atlanta and Korea. “I didn’t look like anyone I was surrounded by in Atlanta. They didn’t know where Korea was,” she recalls. “When I lived in Korea, I was way more fluent in English, and couldn’t articulate myself in Korean, even though everyone else looked like me, so I was misunderstood. I just feel like anywhere I go, because of my background, that was always a given, even to this day.”

Yaeji pays tribute to her upbringing by rapping and singing in both Korean and English. “Sometimes when lyrics are so obvious, it almost loses meaning for me, or it’s too literal, or maybe it’s too cringy,” she explains. “Certain content that I want to be more secretive or private I will deliver in Korean. Then certain parts where I’m totally okay with people understanding, I’ll sing it in English.”

As American fans and critics begin to decode Yaeji’s Korean lyrics, one has to wonder: does she want people to translate? “No, I don’t!” she laughs. “I realized that some things I just don’t have control over. It’s actually quite fascinating for me to see what comes out of people decoding it. Sometimes they come up with more than I could ever have imagined. Now I’m learning to embrace it.”

Yaeji credits much of her musical development to her involvement with Carnegie Mellon’s ultra-exclusive college radio station. “I remember just always thinking that this was such a mystical place and had no idea what’s going on in there,” she recalls. When she broke up with her college boyfriend, Yaeji decided to step out of her comfort zone and take the radio’s membership test. “I found my closest group of friends that I still see here, who are into really alternative music,” she says. “That is just another way of communicating to each other. I got to find these people that really spoke my language who I haven’t found my whole life, because I was always moving around [between] different cultures.”

For Yaeji, establishing community through shared vulnerability is at the core of her work. “I hope I meet more people that share these same experiences and thoughts and insecurities as I do,” she tells me. “My favorite thing, and what I’ve been getting the most joy out of, is when me and my friends grow together and are recognized together.”