It’s been more than two years since ‘Drink I’m Sippin’ and ‘Raingurl’ took Yaeji from underground club fixture to multimillion-play internet darling. The born New Yorker, raised between Atlanta, Long Island, and South Korea, was more than happy taking her time with What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던, her first full-length release. The mixtape began with a personal pact to record every single day, rain or shine. Working from her New York apartment and later, her first private studio, Yaeji built the record out with a network of friends-turned-collaborators she’s thanked warmly throughout the mixtape’s rollout. Together, Yaeji and her circle crafted 12 songs, delivered in English and Korean, that are reflective and danceable in turns.
We opened up Zoom and dialled in with Yaeji in the early days of Australia’s lockdown. The socially-distant press run for her mixtape What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던 has turned Yaeji into a master of the video conferencing art; she’s warm, well-spoken, and eager to share despite the distance. We talk about releasing an album during a global pandemic, the album’s stellar visuals, and her new thoughtful new merch emporium, Yaeji-Mart.
Yaeji. How are you? Are you New York right now?
I’m good. I’m in Brooklyn right now.
Okay. Are you on lockdown?
Yeah, we’re all on lockdown. They haven’t enforced it as much as they should, honestly. Where I’m at in Brooklyn, I still see people blasting music outside sometimes. It’s kind of a blessing too, knowing people are still trying to enjoy the nice weather six feet apart.
It must be a strange time to be rolling out new music.
We definitely had to shift gears in a lot of ways, the biggest change being that touring isn’t happening. I had prepared a completely new set where I’m dancing with two other dancers. There was choreography, custom lights that my team has been designing, I was really excited about sharing how this music would play out in a live performance. It’s such a direct way of connecting with the people that listen to my music, you know? Now I can’t physically be with any of those people I’m re-imagining how I can create a sense of “I’m right there with you while you guys first listen to this.” That’s maybe been the biggest question in my head these past few weeks. That’s why I’ve been chatting with people live, which really brought me back to childhood when I was just online all the time [laughs]. I’m still trying to figure out how to stream, Twitch, and things like that, in a way that feels very me and very comfortable.
I just watched the video for ‘WHAT WE DREW’, it’s so cute. It felt really wholesome to see your friends and your grandfather there. Talk to me about the video a little bit.
I was translating this beautifully written piece that my friend Dasom wrote—she’s in the music video, the one who’s singing one more in the beginning, in the documentary part. It was really cool working with my Korean friends on that video, they have a really cool collective of various creative femmes over there. Dawn directs and makes documentaries, Dasom is a creative director and an amazing photographer. Jih, who’s in the video, is a fashion designer; Monica is my stylist; Nicole is a DJ. They’re all incredibly creative and successful femmes that are so in touch with their emotions. Filming it a few months back, it was a really emotional time for me in the best way possible. It definitely felt like whatever ‘connecting with your roots’ means. It really, really embodied that in the truest way I’ve ever felt.
The mixtape takes its name from that song. What kind of ideas were you exploring with this project? Was the process similarly collaborative?
I’ve been describing it as a very process-oriented project, which is why I called it a mixtape instead of an album. I started writing music for this project when I was still working out of my apartment and I implemented a promise to myself: I’m going to try to write something every day, whether it’s good or bad, whether I’m inspired or not, and just see where that takes me. That process almost became like writing a diary entry at the end of the day, that’s kind of how ‘WAKING UP DOWN’ happened. I was having a really good day, felt good about myself, and I wanted to share that joyful energy with everyone. Versus the track ‘These Days’, which is kind of like—do you know about the ‘Slice of Life’ genre in anime? Where nothing too much is going on but it’s painting the mood, the feeling of day-to-day life. It’s a more mellow track, it’s just an honest day-to-day reflection. In that way there’s no general theme, it didn’t start with a singular intention. It’s bits and pieces, short stories from the past two years that came together to represent something in the end.
Can you tell me about some of the artists that are featured on the new project? I really like the ‘MONEY CAN’T BUY’ verse from Nappy Nina but I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the artists on there. I’d love to know more.
There’s two features on the track ‘SPELL’; one by Yon Yon, a middle school friend of mine, and another by G.L.A.M., my room mate’s best friend. Yon Yon and I met in Japan—I went to school there for one year—and I always knew she wanted to do music, but I didn’t know I wanted to do music back then [laughs]. We kept in touch and realised years later that we were both DJing and making music. I’ve always felt like we definitely have to make something together, and when I reached out to her and she sent back amazing vocals that really helped take the track somewhere further. G.L.A.M. and I were on the same bill at the first shows I played in New York. She is an absolute genius with her words and a really good producer, She’s another fellow Leo and has a really good energy.
Then there’s ‘THE TH1NG’ with Victoria Sin and Shy One, I met them in London. Vic and I met through Serpentine Galleries and we’ve been big fans of one another since then. Shy One has been working with Vic a lot too, so I just sent them some stems and said, “You can do whatever you want with this.” I really credit this track to them, which is an incredible banger for the dance floor but also like really deep [laughs]. ‘FREE INTERLUDE’ is just three of my close friends that don’t actually make music for themselves professionally or anything, but we were just hanging out in the studio one night and they started freestyling. It was perfect.
Talk to me about the video for ‘Waking Up Down’? Did you create the characters in the video?
Yeah, I created a good number of them. Some of them were collaborations between me and the director Annie, my roommate. Annie’s already a professional animator and all of my close friends are such nerds, such big fans of anime and animation. That’s how the idea came to me that I want to do an animated music video. I’ve always fantasised about representing myself as an animated character, I’d already sketched some designs for my character so that Annie had a good starting point. Then with Woofer, my sidekick dog, that’s a character I’ve had almost like an imaginary friend for a year. He loves bass music and loves hanging out by the sub. His original name was Subwoofer and then we changed it. Eggman comes from me wanting to perfect cooking eggs in the past few years. I was like, “He has to have an egg shaped head and he’s going to be really good at cooking eggs.”
Not easily done.
Not easily done, yeah, but he knows how to do it well! Bird and Worm were completely Annie’s idea, and Lotta Checks—one of my managers, Jordan, came up with the name for her. He’s helped me meet drag queens in some bigger cities we’ve toured in to have them perform ‘Raingurl’ with me. Lotta Checks is inspired by all of the queens I’ve met on the road. She’s a killer CEO.
I love that. Are there any particular cartoons or animes that inspired you?
There are so many! The moodboard we made included a lot of crazy high production anime, like Mob Psycho 100 and One Punch Man. Really good reference for the crazy action scenes where I turn buff [laughs]. There’s this show I’ve really enjoyed called Tonkatsu DJ Agetarou, it’s a short mini-series about a teenage boy who becomes a DJ. It’s like really relevant to any underground DJ scene. It’s very relatable [laughs].
I saw you in 2018 and the crowd was so engaged, more than I’m used to seeing during someone’s first tour. What did that period feel like for you? Have things normalised since then?
A lot, a lot happened in those two years to the point where I could leave my full-time job as graphic designer for music. I had to quickly learn how to talk about myself, talk about my music and do all these interviews. There were so many new listeners everyday, which was incredible, but also I was a bit awkward knowing how to actually connect with these people or express gratitude. I describe that time as a blessing but also a period of intense growing pains. Obviously, there are people who try to take advantage, or just see fame and money, or whatever they think they’re seeing. I was really lucky that I found the right people to surround myself with, I had the right friends that became a member of my team. Team Yaeji now consists of friends I met in real life. On the dance floor, usually. [Laughs].
I took my time from there, that’s why this mixtape has taken two years. In that time, I finally caught up with myself. I learned about myself, I healed a lot of pain. I’m more comfortable reaching out to fans and more comfortable knowing what to say and how to share. I can talk about myself more confidently. All of those changes came in the last two years.
Can you tell me a little bit about Yaeji-mart? I think you must be one of the only artists with their own signature pants for sale.
[Laughs] I’m so glad you’re asking about that! No one’s been asking about it, actually. It was so fun designing my own merch from scratch. My friend who’s my stylist has been helping with merch. She’s Korean-American so she was able to communicate with these Korean factories to make these very specific types of clothing with specific fabric, directly inspired by older ladies in Korea who are working or farming or you know, selling food. The focus is on comfort and durability and breathability. I drew out all the illustrations that were embroidered in it. There’s an emblem of ‘Yaeji Guild’ which was a funny idea. I thought “Oh, what if me and my fans are just a part of Yaeji Guild?” I don’t know, that felt really cute and nerdy. I want to keep expanding in that area, for sure.
What would you say to your fans who are going to be bumping What We Drew at home this weekend?
I know it’s a weird time for everyone, but I hope that this music can create a little place in your heart where you can let go of things you want to let go of. If you have to cry, I hope you can cry to it. If you have to laugh, I hope that brings you joy and I hope it sounds funny and goofy because it is. If you want to dance, you should dance alone in your bedroom, just sweating. I just hope that it becomes a safe place in everyone’s heart that they can access during this time.
Check out Yaeji’s mixtape What We Drew 우리가 그려왔던 below and follow her here for more.