Portland musician Joe Kye got his start in Sacramento as a violinist singer-songwriter who was so popular locally he sold out Harlow’s in 2015.
He left town in the summer of 2016. That’s when writer’s block set in. The election of President Donald Trump made it worse, Kye said.
“I was so depressed with the state of our country,” said Kye. “It was really hard to deal with the divisiveness of the election.”
Depression turned into performance anxiety, he said, as he worried intensely about trying to make the perfect statement accompanied by and the best possible music.
“I felt a lot of pressure to create a song that would solve everything,” Kye said. “I just decided to hell with it. Any time wasted worrying about making the right exact move is time wasted. I decided to listen to myself – my frustration, confusion and passion to fuel the record.”
The resulting record, “Migrants,” is his first official full length. It was released on Jan. 8. He is to celebrate its release March 10 at The Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts in Sacramento.
Kye, who’s family immigrated to the U.S. when he was 6, has spent a lot of time exploring his identity as an immigrant. Before “Migrants,” he released “Joseph in the Well” (May 2015) and “Seed to Sprout Live” (June 2016). They in a lot of ways are very internal records. They are meticulously crafted, layered indie chamber-pop recordings.
The topic of immigration has entered the national conversation in more toxic way, and Kye said he needed to change the way he explored being American and an immigrant.
“When I first started out, I was trying to convince myself that it was okay to be an immigrant,” Kye said. “Now a few years under my belt with the very intense challenge of reconciling that Trump is the president of this country, I’m now at the point where I am convinced that encouraging immigration is essential to innovation and creating a vibrant community that is more equipped to deal with the division that we’re experiencing today.”
The song, “Ready,” was the first song he was able to write after his writer’s block subsided, and it’s a call to action for him: “I’m tired of feeling like I never belong/I’m tired of feeling like we can’t get along.” Not only lyrically does it address his feelings, but it was the song that broke him out of the spell that whatever he wrote, it had to be the embodiment of perfection.
“I was really in a place of , ‘Oh, everything has to be amazing: the complexity of the lyrics, the harmonies, the freshness of the song structures,’” Kye said. “Instead I was just like, ‘I’m going to embrace the blues because that’s how I feel right now.’”
Even seemingly lighthearted songs, like “Bambam’s Lullaby,” which explores how his dog feels when he’s away, has a deeper meaning. His parents moved back to Korea in 2008, leaving him and his sister in the U.S.
“Bambam serves as my spirit animal, and helps me muse on my own feelings of yearning and longing for them,” Kye said.
The music on the record went through some changes as well, or at least the approach that Kye took. His early development as a violinist was very intensive. When he dove into the world of writing chamber-pop music in his 20s, first as a strictly looping artist, and then later incorporating collaborations with other musicians, he approached it with a level of precision few indie musicians ever reach. That kind of detail went into his EPs. He would fine-tune every part he recorded. For this record, he gave himself a few takes and that’s it.
“Sometimes having that energy, just moving in the right direction is far more important than agonizing over every single detail,” said Kye.
While Kye was making the record, it wasn’t clear to him what he was exploring exactly. Making the decision to be more loose and raw with his songwriting and execution helped him not only explore a wide range of emotion, but go into new territories as an artist.
What really came out was an album that got him outside of exploring his past, and to examine the times we live in, the world we live in, and how we can all make it a better place.
“I’m recognizing that the definition of Americanness itself needs expansion and questioning,” Kye said. “It is not the diverse influences that make me different; it’s the collage of cultures within myself that makes me truly American.”