* conducted and transcribed by Pil Ho Kim


Early days – family and growing up

[weiv] I’d like to kick off the interview with a question about your family history. You know, about your parents, when your family emigrated from Korea and so on.

JC My mom is a piano teacher. She got her piano performance master’s degree here in Chicago. My dad came because his brother opened a business. And they wanted more opportunities for money. So basically the whole family moved together here. Then my mom wanted to marry him, that’s why she moved.

[weiv] In a past interview, you once said you grew up watching Solid Gold and listening to 1980’s pop music acts like Chicago, Laura Brannigan, etc. I’m just wondering what kind of musical influences you have had, and which contemporary music you’re interested in.

JC Gosh, I don’t even know. It changes all the time. I like jazz, cause it’s very interesting. But I also listen to a lot of indie rock. I like rock music. Now, there’s so many indie rock bands that are so good, that aren’t as popular maybe as other bands. I like the Dismemberment Plan, There’s a band that used to be together called Sarge, and now they’re called the Reputation. That’s really good. As far as popular bands, I like Jimmy Eat World. They used to not be popular, but they’re really popular now. And I like Bjork a lot. And… yeah, something like that, and old jazz stuff.

[weiv] OK, let’s jump on to your college days. You were a music major, right?

JC No, I wasn’t. I started as a music major, then I changed.

[weiv] What was your major, then?

JC My major is English teaching. So that’s what I do now. I teach high school English.

[weiv] So you’re a part-time musician, not full-time?

JC No…(laughs). I don’t wanna be poor. I’m so poor cause I’m a public school teacher, but I don’t wanna be starving.

[weiv] I see. OK, I’m just wondering how many instruments you can play. I know you play piano and cello…

JC I play guitar, too. I used to play guitar a lot when I did solo performances. But I’m lazy, I don’t wanna bring extra equipments…but yeah, I play those instruments, really.

[weiv] Then you’ve got the formal musical training, from your mom?

JC Yeah, from my mom.

[weiv] When did you start playing in public? In college, or before?

JC 15.

[weiv] When you were 15?

JC Yeah. Around here, like cafés and things like that. And my high school had shows and productions. And… like cafés in Evanston, and Barns & Noble… yeah, like that

[weiv] So you started a singer-songwriter routine when you were only a teenager.

JC Yeah.

[weiv] I don’t see Mike (Smith) around here, but you’ve been working with him for quite some time now.

JC Yeah, but he’s not with the band anymore.

[weiv] Oh really? That’s a surprise.

JC Since March, we have a new guitarist, Gary Tu. He’s a Chinese. Yeah, it’s just… Mike is a high school teacher, too. Once he became a teacher, he just didn’t have time. He wasn’t crazy like me, you know, I’m a little bit crazy. It was just too much (for him).

[weiv] I found the name Liz Choi in your debut album. Is that your sister?

JC Yeah, she’s my sister. She’s a violinist. She’s a violin major at DePaul.

[weiv] What is she doing right now, playing at an orchestra?

JC She’s just trying to finish the school at DePaul, and she wants to be in an orchestra, and teaches violin lessons.

Bittersweet – as a female singer songwriter in the late 1990’s

[weiv] I listened to your first album. And my take is that its overall tone is more or less confessional, if not religious or spiritual…

JC You mean [Bittersweet]? Yeah… it was more of a little bit personal, I guess, than the second album, because a lot of those songs I wrote since I was in high school. The first album really stands from when I was actually freshman year in high school to college. So it was 4 years, whereas the second album only covers 2 years. I think when you’re in high school, you’re like (mocking cry), you know. So the songs are more like that.

[weiv] But [Bittersweet] actually came out when you were a junior in college.

JC Yeah, I didn’t have any money or anything until college.

[weiv] You’re often compared to Tori Amos. I know that many musicians generally don’t like being compared to other musicians. What do you think about the comparison?

JC I don’t know, um… I think it’s inevitable. And it’s good. If you’re in a band and someones says, “What do you sound like?” and you say, “Like nothing. We’re original,” then what’s the point? People wanna know what you sound like. The only way they know, kind of, how you sound like is if you make comparisions, sometimes. In the beginning, I was like, (faking an angry voice) “I don’t like Tory Amos at all!” Now it’s like, “Oh well, OK. If you want piano music, piano rock, then let’s make the comparison.”

[weiv] So, do you like Tori Amos’ music, or not?

JC I listened to her a lot in high school, not so much anymore. But I think she’s better now than she was. Yeah, I like Tori. I like singer songwriters, too. But I don’t listen to them as much as I do rock bands. She’s weird.

[weiv] You grew out of it, then.

JC Yeah, yeah.

[weiv] This is sort of related to female singer songwriters like Tori. In the late 1990’s when you were in college, there was Lilith Fair going on. Have you ever been there? What was your relationship with them at that time?

JC I went to the first Lilith Fair as just a concert-goer. I think that during that time when I was in Champaign, and then came out the first album, it was kind of crazy. I was in the trend of female singer songwriters. It’s funny because I thought my sound was terrible back then, yet it attracted major label attention. And you know, now the Lilith Fair craze is over, it’s something else. I feel like my sound is getting better, but it’s not as much hype as it was in the first album. Yeah, I remember that. And that’s my relationship to that.

[weiv] I recall another interview you did during your college days, where you mentioned Ani DiFranco’s influence. Well, musically, I don’t know, but about the way to do music business maybe?

JC Definitely. But I think she’s too hard on herself. Now there’s a backlash for Ani Difranco, because she was very, um, like almost military in her extreme political views. And it made her very hard on herself when she made certain decisions that her fans thought that she was being hypocritical about. But as far as her life and everything, yeah, that’s something that I’d love to model after.

Feminism, and remembrance of the things past

[weiv] Do you consider yourself a feminist?

JC Yeah, I mean, I think that by now the word ‘feminist’ is…if it connotes any sort of very extreme man-hating thing, it’s just irrelevant. As far as feminists’ concerns, yes, I agree that men and women should have equal rights. And ,I think, if that makes me a feminist, then so be it. I think that’s the definition (of feminist), really. I always considered myself that. I know that there’s some females who would say “Oh, no. not that.” But if you want things to be equal, then you’re a feminist, you know. And now it’s not as relevant because things and time’s changing more and more.

[weiv] The name of the record label you established, Ona, is Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character meaning ‘woman.’ Did you know that it also means ‘she’ in Russian?

JC Oh, really? I didn’t know that. That’s cool! I’ll use that, too.

[weiv] Just so you know. OK, you know, I’m on your email list and you said you were going to get a “monster tattoo” in your recent newsletter.

JC Oh, no…(laughs). Yeah, I’m still trying to decide, I don’t know…

[weiv] I’m not really talking about the tattoo itself. You also said that it’s for commemorating the Korean comfort women in World War II…

JC Yeah, the Korean comfort women in WW II. Really, it’s for my grandmother. It’s just something that not enough people know about. There were a few documentaries that kind of got some notoriety in terms of Korean comfort women. But obviously it would never break into the mainstream. And the more time passes, the more people forget about what’s happened to them. It’s just something for me, or for the people around me, that would see it and say, “what is that?” It’s a reminder.

[weiv] How did you get to know about them?

JC I was researching different things about Korean cultural history, and when I was younger, my grandmother… I remember, one time, I think it was commemorating something about the Japanese and the Korean, and she was showing me a newspaper of all these Korean people’s heads cut off on the grounds. She was explaining to me a little bit about that, and how the Japanese treated Korean women in a bad way. But she didn’t really explain that, and I guessed it was something that I just research on my own when I grow older.

[weiv] You must have been shocked.

JC Yeah, I was. The image that I saw on the Korean newspaper was kind of shocking. So was something that I saw later, I just really thought it was important for me to continue to remember those.

[weiv] Have you considered writing a song about those things?

JC Yeah, I mean, the song ‘Coarse’ is for my mom, my grandmother, and my female ancestors. In my family, Korean women are very strong and they never complain. They don’t say anything. The men are very strong, and they are always yelling, breaking things and stuff like that. I would like to (write more songs about it), but right now, ‘Coarse’ is kind of that song for me. (Quoting a line from ‘Coarse’) “and these fragrant lilies sway only in your history.” Kind of like that.

KAN-WIN concert, Asian American indie rock in Chicago, and Korean pop culture

[weiv] Let’s talk a little bit about the KAN-WIN concert in 1998. First of all, how did you get involved?

JC I Was Born With Two Tongues recommended me. At that time in ’98, there were not very many Korean American artists, even Asian American songwriters or bands. It was Seam, me, and then KIM. And Chika at that time. There just wasn’t enough there. I was living in Champaign then. So I was in when Two Tongues called me.

[weiv] Since that concert, has there been a kind of long-term relationship among you guys?

JC Oh, yeah. That was the beginning of my relationship with the Chicago Asian American community. Even now I still maintain friendship with them.

[weiv] I heard you share the practice space with KIM, is that right?

JC Yeah, it’s almost about a year now.

[weiv] How do you guys get along each other?

JC We get along great. We’re so similar, you know. We make jokes in Korean, and we make fun of our parents, something like that.

[weiv] So, Chika was in the lineup of the KAN-WIN concert. Do you know what happened to them afterwards?

JC I don’t know. She (Chika Sekiguchi) gave me a CD, and she said, “Oh, we broke up.” And she hasn’t played out for a long time.

[weiv] Do you still play at some dives these days?

JC Oh, god, yeah. On this Wednesday we’re going to. We’ll get paid, but I don’t like the place. It’s a lot better now. This time last year, we played at a taco restaurant. It was like, oh so bad. There was two people there. There was a big flashlight in my eye the whole time. It was horrible. But yeah, we’re always gonna play in a dive, because we’re not famous.

[weiv] Sooyoung (from Seam) once told me that in Chicago it is relatively easy to make ends meet as a musician. Based on your experiences here, do you agree with him?

JC I think so. I played in New York, and just even being in New York City is just so crazy. Even just walking on the streets, you can tell there’s so many more people. The stress level is higher. And housing is so much more affordable here. My friends who went to New York City, they’re living in like, homeless people’s houses. But here it’s a lot more affordable. It’s not that much more expensive. And if you wanna be a musician, being a musician is expensive. Equipment is expensive. If you wanna do advertisements, advertisements for your shows and for your bands are expensive. It’s like running a business. So Chicago is definitely much more affordable than L.A. or New York. And there aren’t as many options as far as…good scene or whatnot.

[weiv] I think the comparison of scenes you just made needs some more explanation. Also in the same context, how about the quality and the demand of music here?

JC I think that the music here is really good. I think as far as our culture, it’s hard, because pop (music) has become so commercialized and superficial. Even in Korea, when I see KATV (Korean American TV), the pop culture in Korea is so commercialized. Even though I know there’s an indie rock scene, which is really great there, that’s awesome in Seoul, you don’t really see that. It’s just like here in the United States, you see Britney Spears and all that makeup and no one’s really wearing any clothes or whatever. As far as Chicago, like I said, there’s so many great bands. There’s a DJ-electronica scene, where people don’t care about live music so much anymore. But people don’t dance here as much. As far as the bands, the bands here are really cool. It’s fantastic.

[weiv] So you’re familiar with Korean music?

JC Yeah, I teach a Sunday school at my church. I teach 9 and 10 years olds. And this is amazing. They’re Americanized kids, you know, but what’s popular with them now is Korean soap operas or Korean boy bands, with hair like this (gesturing forehead and face covered with long hair). They’re bringing in CDs, and some of the Korean girls in my church, they don’t even speak Korean, but they have the CD’s and stuff. It’s crazy. And they watch Korean videos and sitcoms, stuff like that. So that’s how I know. And then Ben Kim, he’s friends with Sooyoung and Seam. He gave me a CD when Seam was in Korea, of indie rock musicians and so. I was like “Oh, my gosh,” so surprised. Because, as far as I knew, on TV or whatever, pop culture, Korea was always dance music to me. Then I got the CD, and I was like “Wow, this is incredible.”Even girl singers are going (mimicking female shouting), so that was cool.

[weiv] Would you like to go to Korea and play there if there’s a chance?

JC I’ve always wanted to. I’ve never been to Korea before. Because my mom had a family there. I’ve never even met them. She had seven brothers and sisters, and her parents. It’s just money. Every time my parents went to Korea, they only had money enough to go there themselves. And we own a hardware store business in Koreatown. We can’t close (for that long), so whenever they went to Korea, I stayed.

[weiv] But you’re on your own now.

JC Yeah, now. But I’m still teaching, and when we (Jenny and Philip) get married, we’re not even gonna go on a honeymoon. I’m so busy. I’m gonna be on tour, yeah, it’s kinda crazy.

[weiv] Well, I was quite surprised that now there are so many Asian American bands in Chicago. You just said that there was almost none several years ago except for you and those guys we talked about. So I did some research and found out the Asian population here in Chicago area is not quite as big as such places as New York and California. Yet there are quite a few cultural events for Asian Americans, the Asian American Showcase film festival for instance. Do you think it’s safe to say that the Asian American community here is relatively well represented in cultural terms?

JC Yeah, that’s really cool. Marlene and Anita from Two Tongues just started the Chicago Asian American Arts Collective. And we had a huge show at the Hot House (a performing arts center in Chicago) where they brought a lot of different Asian American performers. I was so astounded. I’ve only really lived here in Chicago for a year and a half since graduating from Champaign, and I’ve already met five Asian American bands, um, at least bands with Asian Americans in bands. It’s kind of incredible, because in just two years it’s been changed so much. Lots of Korean, and not necessarily Korean but Asian American rap bands, there’s a lot of rap bands here, and then rock bands like KIM, and there’s one called Mill Mulliganos, the lead singer of the band was a Korean guy. Crazy voice. He sings like (making a grinding, harsh vocal sound). But they just broke up.

Writing music, experimenting styles, and recording cheaply

[weiv] Alright, let’s talk about your second album, [Grand and Ashland]. Both Grand and Ashland are street names in Chicago. What’s there at Grand and Ashland?

JC The album is so all over the place. That was my first album with the real bands, so the songwriting-wise my focus was on all over the place. Grand and Ashland is an intersection in Chicago that’s kind of like, nothing. Here’s downtown, Grand and Ashland, and then a block apart Bucktown It’s not really in a neighborhood. So I wanted it as the name of the album. The Grand and Ashland intersection is kind of like no man’s land, and that’s how my songwriting for that album was like. “Uh, what is this?” you know, jazz, punk, rock, pop… so that’s why I chose that intersection.

[weiv] It’s interesting you mentioned that. When I heard [Grand and Ashland], I could immediately sense lots of changes in your songwriting compared to your first album, precisely because of the variety of music. And I wonder how did the change come about. Is that sort of ‘evolution of songwriting’ on your part?

JC Definitely. Like I said, my songwriting influence has always changed. And at that time, all of us (in the band) came from a punk background, all of us came from a jazz, R&B background. And I just wanted to experiment and find the band’s voice, cause we’re a brand new band, really. That’s why it is kind of all over the place, cause I was just experimenting. This forthcoming album, the third one that I want to record this summer, it’s a lot more focused and it’s a lot more unique to us, whereas with the second album I was just experimenting with different styles to see, “OK, how can I make this style work for our band?” cause we really enjoyed listening to those kinds of music. So now for the third album it’s gonna be more focused.

[weiv] Actually that’s what I was getting at. So you think you found the sound of your band now.

JC I think it’s a lot better, now that we have a new guitarist. Our new guitarist, he’s classically trained in jazz guitar. So it’s a really weird mix of jazz-pop-rock. Now it’s not jazz-punk. It’s more like jazz infused piano rock.

[weiv] Can you compare it to some other band’s sound that I know of?

JC Yeah, I thought of it already (laughs). Like Bend Folds, except a little bit jazzier.

[weiv] That gives me an idea. OK. Now, I’ve got some more questions about music business part. Do you mind if I ask you how many copies of your albums have been sold so far?

JC No, not at all. [Bittersweet], I sold out. I only did a thousand. [Grand and Ashland], I printed a thousand, and I don’t have too many left. I’ve been able to sell out my thousand copies each.

[weiv] Is there anything like a ‘break-even point’ in making and selling the records?

JC Usually it cost about $3,000 to put out an album, and that’s me being very budget-minded. I’m very budget-minded. I know people that spend, indie musicians that spend like $10,000 for an album. I really cut corners. I try to find an affordable recording place, I always had to find the cheapest way to master these thousand CDs. So I think the bare minimum at least you need $3,000 unless you have your own studio. If you have your own studio, that saves a lot of money because a recording studio around here could charge anywhere between $45 to $150 an hour. In Champaign, things are more affordable, and I find places charging $30 an hour.

[weiv] That’s why you often go to Champaign to record.

JC Yeah, plus it’s a lot smaller. And I’ve been there for 4 years, so people know me. I can say, “Oh, you know my music” Here I’m getting to know people more, but I call someone up and they have no idea what I’m sounded like, and they don’t care. Whereas in Champaign, they’re like, “Oh hi, Jenny. OK, sure, come in.” And then they’ll do good jobs.

[weiv] So if you sell out a thousand copies, then it will get you $3,000 back and probably more?

JC See, that’s funny. That’s a good question. I’ve been able to break even within a couple of months for both CDs. In two months, I’ll break even. I’ll get $3,000, sell 300 CDs. But we give away, like 500. You know what I mean, for promotion purposes, for reviews, for anything. We give CDs so much. So it’s hard make money but it’s easy to break even.

[weiv] $3,000 per album. That’s far less than I thought. And for that amount of money, your records sound amazing.

JC Yeah, $3,000 is not that bad. I’ve seen people like Emm Gryner, she is a Philipino-German-Canadian. She does all of her recording on a digital 8-track recorder just by herself. So for her to make a CD might even cost only like $1,000, because she would only have to pay for the packaging and duplication. And CDs, everyone has a CD burner, it’s so much cheaper now. It’s amazing, the evolution of technology.

[weiv] Are you thinking about having a home studio at some point?

JC Yeah, I want to. I have to teach myself. I’ve always wanted to do that by myself because I’m a very intense recorder-producer. That’s what I do. I’m obsessive about that. You can tell it at both the albums, like the string parts, vocals and handclaps, anything, I’m very intense about orchestrating them. Usually at the studio, it’s just time. The clock ticks, and more money has been spent. So before recording, I would just spend a month by myself, playing my songs over and over again, writing notes and notes and notes. So when I go into the studio I can do it really fast. So my ideal situation is at my own studio, take my time, experiment more, because that’s my true passion.

On the road, east and west

[weiv] Now about your upcoming tour, is that your first nation-wide tour?

JC For the east coast, this will be my fifth time, west coast is the first time. But all my relatives live there. I’m not too nervous because I think for all my shows I’ll have at least three cousins, and all my Korean relatives are like “Come to California, come to California.” They’re all over California.

[weiv] So you don’t have to worry about high motel rates and stuff.

JC Yeah, I know, I know. I’m gonna sleep in my aunt’s and uncle’s house.

[weiv] The west coast tour is dubbed as ‘Asian American Songwriters Showcase,’ and you share the stage with Emm Gryner and Annie Lin. Since you’ve already talked about Emm, could you introduce Annie Lin to us?

JC Annie Lin, she just heard my music on the internet I think, and emailed me. And she told me she did stuff and I checked out her music and I liked her music, which is really rare because there’s so many bands out there and so many of them are bad (laughs). She’s very intense. She just graduated college, but she’s gonna go to a law school, then she’s doing this whole tour by herself. She’s a singer songwriter who was going to school at Rice University in Texas, but she’s from California. After she graduated from Rice, she moved to California. And that’s why she wants to do a west coast tour because she’s gonna be there. Just after the email, she did a show or two with me. Last summer, we did one show together, and she wanted to do it again over winter break, and I did it again. And then she wants to do a west coast tour, so I do that with her. And somehow, Emm Gryner got thrown in the mix. I think maybe Annie met Emm through the internet.

[weiv] You’re recording a new album. Have you already finished all the songs for that?

JC Hopefully in August. Yeah, we have all the songs and everything. We’ve had them for a while. This has been the most prolific year in terms of songwriting. Usually I write 2 or 3 songs a season, like my fall songs, my spring songs and my summer songs. But this time I’ve had 15 songs in one year since [Grand and Ashland]. That never happened to me (before). I actually threw out some songs I thought was not good. So we have 11 solid songs that we want for this album.

[weiv] According to your email newsletter, you just finished a demo recording. What is that for?

JC When we’re going on east coast and west coast tour, I’m not gonna have the new album. And a lot of the east coast fans already have everything. So I wanna offer something. And it’s cause I need money for the tour. Again, touring is like recording. You have to pay money. I have to buy a van. You pay money for food, gas, etc. and you try to recoup. So I need some merchandise to sell.

[weiv] That’s gonna be a tour EP, then. Can I get one?

JC Exactly. You know what? I’ll send you one, just give me an address because I only have masters right now.

[weiv] Great! I’ve got something to give you in return after the interview. Anyway, I think that’s pretty much about it for our interview. Thanks very much for your time. I really enjoyed talking with you.

JC Awesome! It was one of my better interviews. Thanks.