Singer-songwriter Jihae may not be a household name yet, but she’s already lead the lives, and careers, of a dozen people. The daughter of a military man, the Korean-born singer lived in Nigeria, Sweden and her home country before settling into a strict Catholic boarding school in South Carolina. “I wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music or watch TV,” she recalls over beers at a downtown New York bar. “My musical knowledge was really minimal. I didn’t even listen to cool stuff to know what to look for.”
After moving to New York in 1996, Jihae began writing songs and performing around the city, eventually catching the ear of former Fine Young Cannibals and English Beat member David Steele. Thus began a long, arduous process of executive meetings, image discussions, near-completed deals and frustrations that would eventually cause the singer to self-release her enthralling new album My Heart is an Elephant (Septem Records).
Elephant, boasting production work by Brent Arnold (Modest Mouse) and Patrick McCarthy (REM), and guest appearances by Michel Gondry and Lenny Kravitz, shows a confident singer who is equally ethereal and down-to-earth. Baeble sat down with this “new” talent to pick her brain on the industry and elephants.
What did you learn from going through the whole major label experience?
It was quite an introduction at such an early stage in my development as a songwriter. Major record labels are evil. Just pure evil. They take 88% from an artist. They own their copyright. There was no guarantee of a release. They mold you and doll you up into a product that has proven to sell.
Were the conversations you had with executives more about image or music?
It was all about image! I sat down with [Sire Records founder] Seymour Stein and he said, “So what do you think about pop?” (Incredulous stare.) “What about it?,” I asked. It was clear they wanted to make me into this “Asian Britney Spears.”
Did you ever think about going that route?
Surprisingly, I hadn’t. I could imagine it could have because I didn’t really develop as a songwriter until after all the rejections, so I’m surprised I didn’t go that route. The major record companies spend a lot of money to put out an act out and they don’t want to take any risks. The whole corporations are designed to really put out manufactured acts. Things that are proven to sell. It’s tricky when something really great happens like Nirvana or Radiohead, they go out and find 20 acts that sound exactly the same.
What are the biggest disadvantages to running your own label?
The obvious one is the financial one. No budgets. Something that could be an advantage and disadvantage at the same time is deadlines. Records took forever and it’s all my fault. I had to make myself deadlines and stick to them.
Michel Gondry turns up on “In Love With a Tornado.” How’d that happen and what did he do?
Michel played percussion. I brought him over and gave him a snare, two drumsticks, kitchenware, a bowl, kazoo, any kind of percussive elements I could find in the apartment. I poorly engineered the whole thing to sh!tty microphones and recorded him in my apartment for one hour. I met him through a mutual friend and we always got invited to his events. One night, he was deejaying on Avenue B and I brought him a CD of the song. I knew he was as drummer. Obviously if her was a great drummer, he would be a drummer and not a director, but I wasn’t bringing him in to keep time. I wanted him to be a mad scientist.
Your album is called “My Heart is an Elephant”. Huh?
Initially, the album title was Expiration Date [Also one of her song titles], then I thought, “What a copout.” I was having a conversation with my friend outside and there was a guy in the next building on the stoop. He was in his 40s, his eyes were all glazed and he kept asking people walking by, “Is it raining out there?” It was really fair weather so people were completely ignoring him. He looks at us and goes, “Is it raining there?” and I said, “No. Is it raining there?” He started laughing and telling us about elephants completely randomly. He showed us a birthmark on his chest in the shape of an elephant. Then he showed us his paintings and there were 30 to 40 kinds of paintings that were all elephants. Then there was one painting of a woman that stood out because everything else was an elephant. He yelled, “That’s not for so sale. That’s the love of my life. That’s my wife. She died of cancer.” It was one of those magical New York moments where you meet somebody you would never expect to meet. He was clearly broke. I think he was homeless. Just the way he talked about here; I could feel the sadness. I went back repeatedly to look for him because I was going to use one of his paintings for the album but couldn’t find him.
On the interludes in your album, there are snippets of a young girl talking about random things such as her dog that died, war, and her favorite colors. Who was that and what was the significant of that?
That’s a 9-year old girl who I brought in. I was told through a friend of mine that she’s a poet who writes amazing poetry. So I had this piece of music that I wanted her to recite one of her poems over. I brought her into my apartment and she started reciting her poems and I just started talking to her and asking her questions. Those were the results of it. Everyone thinks it’s scripted.
What are your thoughts looking back on moving around so much growing up?
I have to say that it wasn’t fun having to move so much and having to make new friends all the time. I think the instability would have made me want stability, but in a way, I think I’ve chosen things that are unstable. I think when you’re troubled and upset about things at such a young age, it has a greater impact on you than when you’re older and every time a situation makes you uncomfortable or makes you have to or readjust yourself, you spend more time within your mind. I think that’s helpful.
Visit Jihae on MySpace HERE
- Jason Newman