“I’m looking to create a sound and a vision for what might be,” exclaims Korean-born, Seattle-raised Joe Kye, a violinist, composer, and vocalist who blew open his diverse musical world when he discovered the magic of the loop pedal in college. That vision has fractures and fragments, wounds and gaps, but it resonates with a bittersweet optimism, a measured hope for change and coming together on Migrants, his debut full-length album and third release.
Kye’s crisp playing, layered in swirls of pizzicato arpeggios and percussive elements, forms the foundation for clever and reflexive lyrics and a tender, urgent voice. He bounces his own distinctive sound around in collaboration with everyone from friend and LA-based MC Jason Chu and Vegas-based MC Rasar (“Fall In”), to NYC composer/percussionist William Catanzaro (“Migrants”), to a full string section (“Joseph Rests His Head”), a lush contrast to Kye’s taut loops.
Music has been a lifelong refuge for Kye. “Music is essential and therapeutic for me, and has been since childhood,” Kye recalls. “I remember in Korea, borrowing my dad’s walkman and putting on the headphones, how powerful and adult that felt. That personal and transportative experience has stayed with me.”
Kye’s family moved from Korea to the US when he was six, struggling with the economic and cultural challenges immigrants often face. Thanks to the strong music education program in the Seattle public schools, Kye picked up the violin. Practicing became an escape, a space he could control, as well as a way of expressing his feelings. He experimented over time with songwriting on the guitar and with singing, inspired by everyone from Mel Torme to Stevie Wonder.
Kye gained impressive technique on the violin via classical training, but he often found himself quietly trying other approaches, pushing the instrument and seeking new sounds. “I would sit during section rehearsals for the orchestra and goof around, just to see what I could get my instrument to do,” he laughs. Those plunks, pops, and purrs form a foundation for the loops Kye later perfected after he discovered the approach as a student at Yale.
“So many of the objects and sounds around us can be a musical instrument if we let our ears lead the way. The violin can sometimes feel limited in terms of its range and in its classical playing customs,” reflects Kye. “If you’re a looping artist and one-person band, you have to find the snare without using a sample or having to hire a drummer. I love inventing and the pedal allowed me to dive into that,” bridging Kye’s indie rock, a cappella, pop, jazz, and classical fascinations.
Exploratory technique serves a distinct purpose for Kye as an artist: “For me, over the past few years leading up to Migrants, the mission has been to leave some positive energy before I go. One of my central life experiences is my migrant life. Granted, it led to issues that I could discuss in therapy, but it’s given me perspective on how to understand the equality of humanity.”
Kye grapples with migration and its psychic impacts very personally, teasing out details that become emotional touchstones. On the song “Migrants,” Kye points to one key wardrobe item that defined his experience. “I lived in Boston for the first two years of my life in the US. I took to covering up my otherness by wearing a baseball cap,” he recalls. “Baseball was something that I recognized, as there’s a lot of it in Korea. It was the avenue I could connect with to ease the transition.”
To further unpack this transition, Kye explores the resonances of the “first migrant story,” the biblical tale of Joseph. (“Joseph Rests His Head”) It’s a tale he’s touched on in previous work, but for Migrants, Kye chooses the moment when Joseph has just been sold into slavery far from home, before he rises to prominence in Egypt, an in-between place fraught with feeling.
“He’s not in his homeland or his place of eventual triumph. He’s neither here nor there, and emotionally I often feel that way,” Kye notes. “I don’t feel Korean, nor do I feel wholly American. More and more I’m reclaiming what it means to be American, by digging into that tension, which includes how, for Korean Protestants, religion can be a complicated avenue for assimilation.” Strings swell around Kye’s delicate vocals in a chamber ballad that swoops and pulses.
Kye highlights the emotional complexities of living in and in between cultures on “Bambam’s Lullaby,” a song from the perspective of Kye’s 100-pound Akita. “I imagine how she feels when I leave the house, wondering where I’ve gone and why,” explains Kye. “But Bambam is also an avatar for myself. My parents moved back to Korea in 2008, and while I understand why they left, it’s a difficult emotional, linguistic, and geographic obstacle in our relationship. The song is a cry to them that stretches over the Pacific Ocean.”
The struggle with identity, its global loops between disparate homelands, came to the fore for Kye late last year, as many Americans reeled in shock. “‘Ready’ was written in the wake of the election. I was filled with fear and anger and confusion and creative paralysis,” Kye remembers. “It was written to combat that paralysis, to take the feelings of fear and not belonging, and make something of them. I decided to embrace a romping blues chord progression and not over-intellectualize. I want to take people from this boiling emotion and inspire them to go and do something.”
Kye’s awareness of his own journey and tensions intersects with this impetus, in imagined dialog on tracks like “Stick On Me,” when reverb-drenched lines create ear-candy timbres. “We all have our personal struggles. In spite of that, we need to rise to the challenge and give of ourselves even in our feelings of weakness. You have to let it come from within, an internal fire that blazes. Once we do that, we can then grow together and rekindle.”
Kye, with open ear, heart, and a commitment to connection, avoids sentimental oversimplification. His grounded perspective, like the earthy hints in his voice and the edge to his playing, keeps Pollyanna-ish pronouncements at bay. “It’s easy to fall into the trope that everyone is wonderful! No, we’re all human, with our selfishness, insecurities, and issues,” muses Kye. “I’m striving, like a lot of artists, to bridge isolated spheres, to provide avenues of expression so we can understand them and belong to a greater whole.”