August 11, 2015
It’s difficult to begin a conversation in print with a discussion about pronunciation, but that’s just how things started when I spoke to Canadian renaissance woman Sook-Yin Lee about her new musical endeavour JOOJ. The project—created with long-time collaborator Adam Litovitz—is 10 tracks of emotional, and at times, difficult music. After some deliberation on the official way to pronounce JOOJ, Lee says that “there’s no particular way to pronounce it. You can say it however you want to say it.”
And so we’re left to discover for ourselves.
JOOJ actually comes from an “utterance” passed between Litovitz and Lee, one that evokes some weirdness, some warmth, and a whole lot of mystery.
Much like the name, the music on their self-titled debut is elusive. It may not be for everyone, but the more you live with it, the more it begins to reveal itself.
You may be familiar with Lee, the former MuchMusic VJ and current host of the CBC program Definitely Not the Opera. As a host of these popular productions, she has established herself as an inquisitive and thoughtful personality.
The other side of Lee is quite different, however. Through a variety of collaborations and solo efforts, she has been creating emotionally charged, personal art in tandem with her more mainstream projects for decades.
“Art to me is not wallpaper, it’s engagement, conversation, and invitation,” says Lee. In the case of JOOJ, the invitation is to a deeply personal world not easily made into background music.
“Shoulders and Whispers,” the first single released from JOOJ’s debut album
As far as first impressions go, this album leaves a lasting one. Kind of like that person who tells you way too much about themselves immediately after you shake their hand. But that person might also turn out to become one of your best friends, someone who wears their heart on their sleeve and is equally as comfortable revealing deep secrets about themselves as they are hearing about yours.
Lee doesn’t shy away from these sorts of connections. She thrives on the idea of art as a tool of highly charged interactions, something that’s there to “contemplate the more volatile and heavier aspects of life, but also the beautiful ones,” as she puts it.
Which is why JOOJ is so perplexing the first time around. It doesn’t leave out the hard stuff. As a listener, that means we have to try a little harder, too.
“It’s so interesting to hear from people who say that this album really demands your attention,” says Lee. And it’s a characteristic she says wasn’t necessarily their intention. In Lee’s mind, she and Litovitz were making an “extremely comforting, guttural album.”
“Jessica,” featuring one of Lee’s frequent collaborators, dancer Mairi Grieg alongside child dancer Charlie McGettigan.
They arrived at this place in their music through a syphoning of their personalities and influences, leading to a noticeable cohesiveness, rather than just a collection of tunes connected solely by the time that they were conceived.
Both Lee and Litovitz have dedicated a huge amount of time learning about and creating art (check out their Movie Date blog on Hazlitt). Their influences range from French filmmaker Robert Bresson, American visual artist James Turrell and Italian composer Luciano Berio to more familiar fare, like Radiohead, Elliott Smith and Nina Simone.
Robert Bresson discussing his filmmaking methods on French Television.
This might be the point where some of us roll our eyes at such a diverse list of influences, wondering how they could seriously be condensed into a single project. But Lee and Litovitz come by these things honestly and with conviction.
Lee and Litovitz have both been heavily involved in multidisciplinary projects throughout their careers, and it’s something that plays a role in everything they create. In fact, JOOJ was conceived as an offshoot of Lee’s 2013 video and photography exhibition “We Are Light Rays.”
In channelling these diverse influences through JOOJ, Lee and Litovitz are highlighting their inspirations and condensing them into something that’s singularly expressive.
In doing so, Lee explains that what she and Litovitz really had to wrestle with was their separate approaches to creation. “The language of minimalism was really important to me,” she explains, “Adam [Litovitz] tends to be a maximalist and he’s got a million ideas…we really had to cull down to the bare ingredients.”
Three Movements, an earlier collaboration between Lee and Litovitz.
Each of these ingredients brought a different flavour to the project. With filmmaker Bresson, Lee describes his ability to create works of “restrained delivery yet highly emotional subject matter.” In the case of visual artist Turrell, it was the “very simple, strong, and beautiful” nature of his light sculptures that affected them.
Italian composer Luciano Berio is an especially interesting case. Considered one of the most important composers of the 20th Century, his music can be especially baffling and difficult. But as with Bresson and Terrell, Lee has a genuine connection with Berio’s creations.
She learned about his music as teenager when she had been cast in an experimental opera based on the German legend of Faust. According to Lee—who was cast in the role of Mephistopheles—the composer who wrote the music for the opera was himself influenced by Berio, and introduced her to his music. As she says, “it knocked my socks off.”
One of Luciano Berio’s most famous works, Sequenza III for solo female voice.
With all this discussion of expression, emotion, French film, and Italian modernist composers, the question of what JOOJ has actually created is still left up in the air. Do you need to know about all of this stuff to really appreciate what they’ve done? Are you going to miss a verse and a chorus with a recognizable hook?
We all know that’s up to you to decide, but JOOJ know what they’re doing. Lee has spent her career bridging the divide between down home and far out. She cares about what she’s creating and who she’s creating it for. As she puts it: “It’s a challenging album, but it invites you in. I don’t think it’s ever going to be totally mainstream, but hopefully for those people who take the time to engage with it, it can be meaningful.”
As with so much in life, JOOJ is a mix of simple and complicated, light and dark, beautiful and ugly, easy and hard. If you’re willing to listen, you might just feel something along the way.
— Nathaniel Schmidt