Make it Messy, But Keep It Sexy: An Interview with Su Lee
It started with the Summer 2020 release of her single “I’ll Just Dance” – a simple video of a younger Su Lee breaking out into an interpretive song and dance. Over a layered staccato of her pop-inspired instrumentals, her unfettered lyrics on dancing through overwhelming uncertainty hallmark her style of whimsical melancholy. “This is basically what my mental breakdown sounds like,” the tagline said, pretty apt for a song she wrote “when [she] was having a lil crisis.” But from her efforts sprung the voice for people not only trapped in their homes, but going through their own lil crises in very much the same way. While her synth pop tunes on the self-arranged Box Room Dreams EP in 2021 evoked a vulnerability that resonated with a viral following, Su Lee’s latest venture displays the depths of her musical range and introspective songwriting while holding onto her personal connection with listeners.
In 2022, she made the decision to move from her “box room” in Seoul to Los Angeles to further her music career, culminating in the release of her debut album, Messy Sexy. This chapter in Su Lee’s career saw her continuously building her unique identity with a wider set of tools and a team of collaborators – all while keeping a sincere voice that is undeniably her own. Su Lee continues to balance her radical ambition and drive with a grounded approach to her music.
Messy Sexy begins with a stark stream of consciousness of a particularly dark scene, with a lo-fi track rising in the background (“That Margot Robbie Scene (Intro)”). From there, the album becomes the full realization of self-reflection that we’ve come to know and love in Su Lee’s lyrics. The soundscape of melodic dreamscapes in “All The Time” and “Knock Knock” are juxtaposed by more upbeat tunes in “Messy Sexy” and “Brains Out.” She’s expanded from the comfort of the bedroom pop scene and taken up every genre and instrument that catches her eye.
After months of working in the studio, she kicked off the premiere of Messy Sexy with her first headline show at El Cid in LA. There was an excited hum in the courtyard before the show. For fans of Su Lee who only streamed her music online during lockdown, getting the chance to see her show was a surprising experience. Here was a viral hit out of Seoul, now showing off the fruits of her labor here in LA. She played through her viral hits like “I’ll Just Dance” and “Socially Alive,” which had the room upbeat and ready for more Su Lee. She leaned into the energy, and delivered a spectacular inaugural performance of her first full album.
By the end of her set, you could see her catharsis of finally releasing Messy Sexy – but this was only the start of her album’s journey. I was able to catch up with Su Lee soon after her debut show. This interview has been edited for clarity.
I went to your live show, and everyone in the audience was super happy to see you. It was super fun. It was your first show that was like: This Is Su Lee’s Show.
This is like, “Give me love! Make me feel like a superstar!” Like, give me that. I’m here for it. Yeah, the energy was just magical. I’m not gonna lie. I got a little bit of an ego boost from just having all these people singing along. It’s like, damn, I don’t need much to feel like I’m doing okay with this music thing. This is all I need: just people resonating and people singing along. People just vibing to my music. I think that’s when I get the most happy.
It was nice to see you enjoying yourself and the band. And also MIKI FIKI, who opened for you – I didn’t expect [him to join you on stage] – because obviously we didn’t know what the album was yet. So I was just like, “Oh, cool! He’s a feature!”
That was before the album release, I made a duet song with Miki Fiki. It’s one of my favorite songs off the album.
What are some bits and pieces that, after finishing that line or that bit of music, you’re just like, “Damn, that’s fucking fire.” – A piece you’re particularly proud of in ‘Mayfly’?
I would say it’s that pre chorus lyric: “Another day, can we take it? / All good if we never make it.” I think that captures the state of mind that I aspire to be – because the whole song is about how much I hate goodbyes, and yet goodbyes are just an inevitable part of being a human being. That line from that song just really reminds me: “No need to worry about it – just enjoy right now, despite whatever’s gonna come in the future, because that’s all you got: Right now.”
I also really like “Sonder!” That was you on the cello, right?
Yes, that’s me! My finger busting skills – I was literally bleeding on the fingerboards. But it was worth it. My fingers were in much pain, but very happy! Fun fact: All the strings you hear in the track are just from me playing one cello and we pitched some up so that it sounds like the violin – kinda like if they pitched my voice up, it would kind of sound like Britney Spears but, like, not as nice.
Your previous Box Room Dreams EP was released in the middle of the pandemic, and since then I feel your sound has changed and matured in different ways. What are some lessons from releasing that first EP that you carried on into the release of Messy Sexy?
The lesson that I learned is: I can’t be good at everything. And, yes, it’s good to gain that basic knowledge of how certain stages of making music works. But also at the end of the day, like, what’s the point of making music if you’re just trying to do everything, all alone, and you’re always alone? And I think the part that I realized that I’m not good at was engineering. Like, I can’t master songs. It’s just, I always used to say the mixing stage, the engineering part is the part when I start hating my song. And now, I love my songs, because I let a professional engineer do that stage. And like, this sounds amazing, and it’s also saved me multiple nights of nightmare just staying up all night and not getting anywhere. So yeah, just scrubbing through, and then it gets worse. You know? And then you get to like the 16_FINAL.MP3. And you’re like, “Yeah, this is not final.”
The editing process is never ending, like your first collaboration with Sweater Beats on Messy Sexy. Was that when you realized the benefits of not being alone, in terms of the creative process?
Yeah, definitely! Sweater Beats I think was the first time… the first person that I ever did a collaborative songwriting session with. So I went into his studio not really knowing what to expect. And he was just like, “Yeah, let’s just start chatting.” And then he [goes], “Oh, here you go, there’s a little keyboard in front of you – you can start playing around with it. Whatever you feel like.” It was very natural. And it was very nice to just have somebody else outside of you bringing out stories within you that you wouldn’t have thought was a story otherwise, you know. It’s like, “Oh, that’s interesting how you think messiness can be sexy.” It was like, “Oh, I think I might write a song about that. If you think it’s interesting, you know?”
Yeah, well, it works, especially being the title of your first album. I’m curious about the cover art, in terms of what was the decision behind that — it’s hauntingly beautiful.
Thank you. I’m glad that you found it beautiful because I was sweating my ass off when I was taking those photos. Honestly. You know what, I wish that I could just say, “Oh, oh, it symbolizes the contrast between the pain of life and here.” I could go all philosophical about it. But honestly, I just wanted to wear some really cool, stupid suit, and walk around in the neighborhood and do some silly photo shoot. Honestly, that’s all there is to it. But you know, people can make whatever interpretations they want out of it. It’s up to them. But I just had a blast.
Yeah, hey, you know, sometimes that’s all you need. Just like, “I want to have fun today.” And then you just have fun, have a photoshoot, someone has a camera and suddenly – ART. It’s interpretive.
Oh, yeah, it’s art, also it’s messy sexy, because it’s like, “Oh, the contrast.” You know, it’s all about post-rationalizing everything.
Yeah, I’ve been giving it a listen – my friends and us over at From The Intercom. It really is like a kind of culmination, so far of like, you know, how your work has been – especially the start: “That Margot Robbie Scene.” I’m curious why you decided to make that your opening track.
I mean, it’s kind of like an inside joke kind of thing. The audio on that track is me. That’s me breaking down during a livestream. It was an intense one hour live stream on Twitch where I just like, cried for an hour straight. And I just like, blew my nose into the camera. There was snot everywhere. It was ugly. I’m telling you, it wasn’t even pretty. It was ugly. And then it was hysteria – the livestream was hysteria because I was laughing. But also I was crying and I didn’t know what to do with myself.
At the time of the recording, I was like, “I can’t think of anything. I feel so burnt out. I don’t know what’s going on.” I was just burnt out from like, the whole album thing, right? And then I looked back to it a few days after I was a little bit calmed down. I was like, “Certain parts of the audio, during this live stream, really seems to capture the essence of this whole album that I’m working on, in stressing myself on trying to finish.” There’s something really chaotic, but kind of funny, but kind of warming about it, in terms of how freakin’ unhinged I was. So I just clipped a few audio bits that stood out to me and finished that track last minute and was like, “I’m gonna add this as an intro track to this album and just submitted it a week before the release.” It was like super last minute. I was like, I’m just gonna put it on there.
This album jumps between different genres – to say that you’re just one kind of genre feels limiting. What other genres are you pulling from, or hope to pull from in future works?
I like anime music. My musician/producer friend and I were talking about this the other day. I don’t know anything about music theory, but apparently there’s something about anime music that distinguishes it from normal pop music out there. Anime songs tend to be longer in terms of a one chunk of melody compared to pop music, and that’s why a lot of anime songs sound like a story, with an escalation and a climax and then a conclusion. I really like that about anime. I mean, this could turn into a whole last podcast if I went on, but I like anime music.
I’m holding you to it: you’re gonna make an anime album.
Oh my god that would be amazing! But I like anime music also because they use a lot of strings and I have a soft spot for strings and classical music – just because I have a classical background. I think I’ve always had a soft spot for these mellow, orchestral, grandiose sounds. Inspiration-wise, genres are pick and mix, like an all you can eat buffet: you can just pick and mix little elements from 90s music and borrow some synths, or borrow from 70s music and then merge it together and see how it sounds.
Yeah, genres are just lines that someone else gave you, you know?
Yeah, and then you can play around with the lines or the boxes – doesn’t mean that you have to stay inside the boxes. That’s how I like to view it: It’s just a little tool to help you pick and mix different styles.
I can’t wait to see the buffet plate that you have brewing up.
Oh, well, you’re seeing it. I mean, that’s what Messy Sexy is about and hopefully all the music that I’ll be releasing moving forward to.
What are your plans for the release of Messy Sexy? Like possibly a tour – I know your merch is up.
We’re gonna try to sell out your website.
We’re just out! But now that the album is out, it’s all about, “What else can I do to give body to these songs, right?” Because they’re just words and some melodies right now – and that may be enough to some people, but I also have other backstories behind these songs on the album… sub-contexts, narratives, different ways of telling the story in depth. I’m thinking about what’s the best way to do that? And yes, playing live shows and talking about these songs or maybe even putting up a little theatrical thing – but also means the standard: “What does this story look like in a music video form, or photo form, words?”
How are you liking LA?
It’s kind of exciting and scary, and still a mystery. I’ve just realized the other day: I’ve been here for almost half a year now. So that’s a little crazy, and what’s even crazier is, despite having spent months here, I still feel like I don’t know LA enough. But yeah, it’s kind of a weird place that I probably would have to start driving to get to know better, to be honest. And I’m in the process of working that out. And so far, I would say, I love it just because of the people who are in it; all the artists are here, and collaboration has never been easier than now. Even if it’s a 20 minute drive, it’s so so so, so, so, so, so much better than, obviously, a 16 hour flight all the way from South Korea. So just the fact that creative collaboration is so accessible here alone is enough of a reason for me to just love this city, as it is. It’s a little junction, where it’s the central platform of the world’s music, people, and professional music people.
Who are some artists this year that you’ve been listening to on repeat, or you think deserve some more notice?
It was a song, or like a vibe of a song in particular, that really was quite a fascinating story for me and one that really kind of hit home for me was recently, Glass Animals. It was either “Toes” or “Gooey” from their album Zaba and I came across a backstory of how Dave Bayley, who’s the lead singer/songwriter of Glass Animals, came about writing the song. Dave Bayley intentionally wrote the lyrics to this song, not necessarily to tell a specific narrative of a story, but rather to make listeners feel in a certain way. So if you look at the lyrics closely, not a lot of it makes sense. But together, it just kind of creates this like weird, gooey, jungly-sticky vibes that does make me feel a certain way. And I realized it’s a possibility that artists and musicians can just write songs, not to tell a specific story, but to make people feel a certain way, even if it’s just a random bunch of words. It just kind of opened up a whole new possibility for me, and I kind of want to take that approach to some of the songs moving forward maybe.
Like, ‘why be narrative when you can just be?’
Just like go, go free – just blurt out some words.
What is something that you love right now?
Oh, Midnight Gospel. I just finished watching the last episode, and it crushed me. It absolutely crushed me and 100% I can see why people are getting tattoos of Clancy. It’s like one of those shows that kind of almost feels like a Bible – not necessarily in a religious way, but in terms of every single episode has such a food for thought in living. It answers or addresses all the existential questions that I’ve always had, and it was almost like a little book of… it really does feel like a gospel, honestly, it just like – that’s what it feels like, and everything is perfect. Like, there are some things that I don’t necessarily agree with personally, but just the whole show as a project, as one singular project is just beautiful. And I cried so hard at the end, like in a good way, you know? I don’t know if you’ve watched it.
In a cathartic way. It just puts these feelings out and draws it out of you.
It’s a heavy one. It’s a hard hitter. But it’s very poignant, I think, and I really like it and that’s my favorite thing right now.
Yeah. Definitely. In terms of these emotions and your own personal struggles with mental health that people who’ve listened to your music have resonated with – what is something you would tell fans, or even yourself three years ago before you got here?
I would like to tell myself in the past, which was just like really extra struggling, and people who are struggling right now, to know that there’s a lot of liberation that comes from letting go of that sense of self. Because I think we’re just so conditioned to always define ourselves, you know, like self-identity. Establishing self-identity is so emphasized for some reason, and it’s deemed as being something that’s really admirable. But also if you just let go, like, if you stop defining yourself as a person who’s suffering from depression, you let that go, that’s just a part of a hat that just came with your existence, right with your environment, just let that go. It’s just like, realize that it’s just a hat that you sometimes like, forcefully wear, but it’s not you. You’re not your depression, you’re not your loneliness. You’re just human who feels different things.
And I think when you have that perspective, like that detached, detached perspective about your sense of self, I think that kind of creates a sense of liberation. It’s been helping me a lot. I mean, that’s what the whole, like Buddhist teaching is about it. I’m not a Buddhist, but I find a lot of comfort from teachings of Buddhism, where it constantly reminds you to let go of that sense of self and attachment to some kind of identity because there is no identity. And that false sense of identity is what gives us a hard time that makes us suffer. So yeah, just have to detach yourself. Like, just detach yourself and let yourself feel.
Who are some supportive people in your life right now?
My manager Colin Ramsay – he’s amazing. My mom and my sister, who always remind me that I’m nothing but just a girl who needs to fucking figure out how to eat properly and exercise properly. And also the doggies that I live with right now Dilly and Zoe, who just give me just silly goofy laughter for no reason, and they’re angels. Also, my whole team, everybody!
This interview was conducted by Ryan Bunma, virtually in November 2022 via Zoom.