Watching Korea Town Acid (KTA) DJ is mesmerizing. Once she finds that groove, the rising electronic artist—and first-time JUNO nominee—never lets up. Audiences and clubbers go along for the ride.
KTA, the stage persona of Korea-born Jessica Cho who now calls Toronto home, creates spontaneous trap beats and hypnotic rhythms both intricate and unique. The artist’s secret is to get into the right headspace and then follow the feeling. Her beats and synth creations make you listen deep and defy categorization. Cho approaches all of her songs this way, lingering or moving as the mood leads her. Take “Freedom” from her most recent release (Cosmos; October 22, 2021). The song starts with strings. A bouncy beat arrives next. The pulse entrances listeners for the rest of the track. Whispered conversations are sampled and edited into the mix and flutes flutter in the background.
“I often think about other artists that perform the same set in concert every night,” Cho says. “For me, that would be really boring as I get tired of my stuff.”
Cho and I connect via Zoom on a mid-April morning. The DJ is at home in her West End Toronto apartment practicing for a trio of upcoming shows. A lone pigeon parades on the balcony. The tools of Cho’s trade—a modular rack of synthesizers and the latest hardware—are stacked nearby, easy to access when inspiration strikes. The beatmaker sports a tie-dyed Grateful Dead T-shirt. No, she is not a closet Deadhead. She just likes the acid-washed aesthetic of this piece of clothing discovered recently at a curated vintage shop. That said, her musical muses are diverse and she bristles when reporters ask about her biggest influence.
“It always evolves,” comments Cho on her experimental soundscapes, in between sips of a Korean banana milk drink. “Sometimes, when I’m working on an album, I try not to listen to other music too much.”
Tuning out other sounds is hard, especially since the artist hosts a monthly show on New York’s online radio The Lot.
“It’s a fine boundary between getting inspired and doing your own thing,” she adds.
Doing your own thing is a hard road.
“The life of a freelance artist, living in a capitalist society, is not an easy option,” she says.
For Cho, though, there is no other option; the creative process is both cathartic and necessary for her mental health. The artist does not seek perfection. Rather, she finds joy in the unexpected turns the life of a full-time creative brings.
“What I love is that when I’m fully focused, a lot of happy mistakes come,” she explains. “I’m always looking for that beautiful mistake.”
While her job is not 9 to 5, it’s important to treat her approach that way—having a regular routine and making sure she is ready when the muse strikes. It helps that the tools Cho uses to create are accessible and in her apartment to get those beautiful mistakes recorded before they disappear.
A classically trained pianist, the musician fell in love with underground DJ culture 14 years ago during a visit to her homeland. Late one night, while playing keyboards in an improv band at a club in Seoul, Korea, something about the scene and the vibe resonated. The atmosphere spoke to her.
“I got that stage high,” she says.
This experience started her on the musical path she has since followed. Over the next decade, Cho honed her craft doing frequent live improvised electronic performances and DJ sets in Toronto’s downtown clubs and making a name for herself in the dance community. The buzz began and it has never stopped. After contributing tracks to other albums, KTA released the EP Mahogani Forest in 2018 on the label Cosmic Resonance. The six-song debut was recorded over eight January days in the label’s basement. Since then, she has DJ’d and performed live with hardware synths around the world, from Seoul to New York and Athens to Helsinki.
During the prolonged pandemic, Cho was confined to her apartment for extended stretches. With no gigs, the prolific beatmaker took advantage of this time to create a pair of full-length records: Metamorphosis, which arrived in March 2021, followed by Cosmos in the fall. Exclaim! included Metamorphosis as part of a feature that highlighted 25 Great Canadian Albums you might have missed in 2021. Besides making her own beats, the artist also loves collaborating and lending her production talents and soundscapes to others. An example includes producing “Play No Games” for rapper Cadence Weapon—a song on his Polaris Prize winning 2021 album Parallel World.
STUDIO BELL: A MAGICAL PLAYGROUND
KTA first visited Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, in Calgary in 2019 as part of the Alberta Electronic Music Conference. While there she, along with Homesick, Joanne Pollock, and YlangYlang, was invited to take part in a mentorship program and masterclass led by synth legend Suzanne Ciani. KTA has also participated in the Red Bull Music Academy at Studio Bell. Cho says these were some of the best experiences of her life to date as an artist.
“Accessing that incredible gear and getting to learn from mentors like Suzanne, and collaborating and creating together using vintage, rare, and prestigious gear like TONTO was one of my best memories from the last few years. Studio Bell is the ultimate amusement park for musicians; Every room is magical.”
Underground Dance Single of the Year is one of several new categories the JUNOS recently added as the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences strives to better reflect the breadth of music being made today. KTA is nominated for “Sobriety,” a track from Cosmos she made while trying to stay sober.
“It just became the most hype track I’ve ever made,” Cho says. “I feel a lot of stuff I make is toned down and moody. With this track I realized I could make a happy dance banger with great energy.”
Cho is chuffed about the industry recognition, but knows this accolade is no reason to pause. Instead, it motivates her to work harder.
“It’s flattering and really gratifying,” she says. “You are working all the time and sometimes you don’t really remember what you did. I’m always thinking about the next project and chasing the next song. This JUNO nomination was a nice reminder of what I’ve done, but I need to keep working.”
As our conversation ends, the dynamic DJ reveals she is in the final stages of readying a new record that she has been working on for the past six months, on and off, titled Elephant in the Room. A pair of song titles she shares with me include: “Break the Spell” and “Cast Pearls Before Swine.” The first single arrives in June, with an expected August release for the rest of the album via URBNET.
The self-admitted workaholic, who has experienced burnout in the past, tires easily. This is why the artist has no plans to hit the road with an endless schedule of live DJ sets and performances now that things are opening up. Rather, to cope and thrive, self-care and taking breaks is her first priority. She achieves this balance by discipline and simple, daily routines like drinking coffee, watering her plants, meeting a friend, or going to the gym.
“If there is not a me there is not a Korea Town Acid,” Cho concludes.
KTA is set to participate in the 2022 CBC Music JUNOfest. She performs on Saturday, May 14 at CODA as part of the weekend-long live music celebrations taking place throughout downtown Toronto.
Name: Korea Town Acid (Jessica Cho)
Born: Seoul, South Korea
Location: Toronto, Ontario
Albums: Mahogani Forest (EP, 2018); Metamorphosis (2021); Cosmos (2021)