Yaeji Is Home
Born in Queens, where she lived until she was five, Yaeji and her family bounced around a lot, eventually spending a stint in her parents’ native South Korea. She returned to the States to study visual art at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh before settling in New York.
“I came [to New York] not knowing anyone,” she says, picking at some avocado toast. “It was very lonely for a long time. I think what kept me going was my true passion for music. I would go to so many shows, like four or five a week, just because I was into the sound, and that led me to friendships.”
Like the self-titled EP on which “Feel It Out” appeared, her latest EP, EP2, showcases the duality that makes Yaeji special. Take “raingurl,” a throbbing highlight whose lyrics juxtapose carefree clubbing with spiraling introspection, an effect heightened by Yaeji’s bilingual rapping. The joyfully hedonistic chorus (“When the sweaty walls are banging / I don’t fuck with family planning / Make it rain, girl, make it rain”) is balanced by soft, lyrical musings in Korean (“All the suffocated memories…In a room with no windows.”)
This contrast extends to, and is manifested by, Yaeji’s identity as a Korean-American. “My whole life up until college I would say I was lonely,” she tells me. “I don’t have siblings, and my parents were always working very hard, and they still are. So I spent a lot of time alone and didn’t have friends. When I was in America (as a child), I just couldn’t relate; I wouldn’t get along with people. But it wasn’t that I was super Korean. I knew it was really because of how I looked.”
In Korea, the sense of isolation was different but no less present—she looked like everyone else, but had spent nine years immersed in American language and culture. “In that way,” she says, “my upbringing definitely made it difficult for me to feel comfortable.”
Things couldn’t be more different now. A year after moving to New York, Yaeji finds herself at the center of a supportive, diverse, and creative community of close friends. Pals from her college radio station—“all nerdy and really into music”—make up some of her crew, but she’s also picked up people along the way. The group uses her Bushwick visual art studio as a clubhouse of sorts.
“I have a studio because I wanted to have a completely separate practice from my music, and just have ideas flow that way,” she says, tapping her fingers on the table. “It helps me with my music. And then I realized that it was such a good hub for people to come and hang out. [The studio] definitely sparks so many conversations—late night conversations, which is really special for me because I had that in college. That’s my favorite way of getting to know someone.”
New York can be lonely, especially after graduating. But listening to Yaeji tell me about her makeshift family (which I’m desperate to be included in), I found some solace in having felt that sense of isolation myself, not only as lunch mates, but as two members of the same overly-connected generation. Though Yaeji’s work openly deals with feelings of isolation, she rarely writes about the most romanticized type of loneliness—heartbreak.
“There are some sad love songs I’ve written,” she says slyly. “But recently I’ve been feeling really great and really loved.” She agrees to tell me about the guy she’s dating, as long as I don’t use any names. “We were friends for a while, since I moved here, and he’s really a supportive partner—and I am to him, too. Maybe I’ll make more songs about that soon,” she says, pushing her glasses up her nose and smiling. “Maybe I’ll stop being so moody.”
Yaeji shies away from compliments, which is incredibly endearing. She instead tends to play off her growing success—write-ups in the New Yorker, rave reviews from Pitchfork, video plays in the millions—as simply another notch on the belt of her collective of friends as a whole. For someone who spent a lot of time by herself growing up, Yaeji’s appreciation for and cultivation of community is not only logical, but vital to her being. “I was really scared of getting bigger because I was raised in a culture that’s very private and very, very polite,” she says to me, sighing. “So for me, when something exciting happens, I’m very shy about sharing it.” She smiles like a proud mom talking about her kids. “I feel like we’re growing together.”
Yaeji's EP 2 is out now via Godmode.