Singer Lee Sang-eun Seeks Fusion of Music, Visual Arts

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Singer Lee Sang-eun Seeks Fusion of Music, Visual Arts

Lee Sang-eun, a vocalist and songwriter, says she began to accept both "my enemies and friends" when she turned 30. From the time she debuted with the teen hit "Damdadi" at the age of 19, to the release of her solo album "Asian Prescription" two years ago, Lee lived a hard-boiled life as a disillusioned musician who wasn't happy with her musical career nor her public image. And as she says, during that time she had both enemies who sarcastically called her new style of music and her comeback album "an indigestion prescription," and friends who constantly encouraged her decisions and ideas.

Lee talked with the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition hard on the heels of a three-day concert at the Polymedia Theater in Daehak-ro the previous week.

She had a throat-soothing spray on hand as she apologized for the husky voice her onstage vocal exertions had brought on.

"Music is strange," she said. "It has this strong power to bring people together and make them feel that they've been together from the very beginning. If I start singing on the stage with a group of Japanese musicians, it feels like the history of hostility between Japan and Korea immediately disappears. There is a collective sense of unity and a certain pleasure that gets passed to everyone in that space as the musicians start to sing and play."

Lee is interested in the relationship between music and visual arts. After the release of her seventh solo album in 1997, Lee avoided the mainstream media, contenting herself with working in the underground music industry, which centers around small clubs.

She also shuttled back and forth between Seoul and New York, where she studied painting. During this time, she took part in a unique exhibition with alternative rock bands like "Eoeobu Project," performance artists and avant-garde composers from Japan and Korea.

"Art is corporeal, and that's exactly why I think it makes such an interesting parallel with music, which is abstract and non-corporeal," she continues. After completing a bachelors degree at the Pratt Institute in New York, Lee enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at the Chelsea School of Arts in London, where she continues to study. Perhaps the frequent insertion of oriental subjectivity in her recent albums, such as the notions of monism and self-reflection, were triggered by her questioning of her cultural identity while living in these cosmopolitan cities.

"Living in New York and London, it's hard to escape from facing such issues. But I love many kinds of music. For example, I like British rock. But for some reason, my work has been somewhat different from the kind of music I listened to at home," she says, emphasizing that it's not necessarily one of her aims to produce oriental tunes.

Notions of identity, however, have been a recurring subject in her music, either directly or indirectly. Earlier this year, Lee confessed in an interview that she felt like "a little kid dancing in front of the relatives" while working in the music industry at the beginning of her career.

In her latest album, titled "Endless Lay" and produced by EMI, she has re-named herself as "Lee-tzsche," a combination of her father's name and mother's maiden name. By doing so, she denied the public image embedded in her original name, and challenged the problematic conditions that had followed that labeling.

"It's a pity that the life of a female musician in the industry is so short. I can't believe that I have survived here for the last 10 years," she says.

But the attitude towards female musicians and the mainstream music industry in general is slowly changing in Korea, she said. And she seems confident about both her identity and music now. That's probably why she has stopped distancing herself from the media and slowly started making appearances on television again.

Attempting to explain the change, Lee said she finally came out of a tunnel that was so bright it blinded her and made everything appear dark. That is her explanation about her life in the 20s.

At 30, she understands that too much ambition can sometimes be distracting to musicians. Older and wiser now, she seems to have reconciled her youthful ambitiousness and learns to accept her limitations.

by Park Soo-mee

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