We Talked To Korean-American Singer James Lee About His New EP And Why He Loves Malaysia

"With the EP, it was centred around the song called 'The Light', which was originally kind of like a suicide note."

Cover image via Royal Pirates (Facebook)

K-pop fans will be familiar with the Korean-American rock band Royal Pirates and their former bassist, James Lee

James (far left, sitting on the floor) with his former Royal Pirates bandmates Moon (far right) and Sooyoon (middle).

Image via K-popped

Once a world-touring bassist of the popular band, everything changed for James in 2015 when he was forced to go on hiatus after a tragic freak accident that left him fighting for his life and with an almost completely severed hand.

Five surgeries later, his left hand was successfully re-attached but function remained minimal, which heartbreakingly meant the end of James' career as a bassist, despite his best efforts to learn how to play the bass backwards and even attempting to switch to playing the keyboard instead.

To the disappointment but understanding of his fans and bandmates, James chose to leave Royal Pirates and moved back to his hometown in LA to focus on his rehabilitation, both physically and mentally.

Earlier this year, James marked his return to the music scene with the release of 'THE LIGHT', his first solo EP

With self-written, composed, and produced songs, 'THE LIGHT EP' revolves around James' post-accident journey from darkness to light. This EP is made all the more special and meaningful by the fact that it was completely funded by his fans, through overwhelming support for his Kickstarter project.

'THE LIGHT EP' has been wonderfully received by both James' fans and the general public. One of the tracks, 'Let's Get Away', which is an acoustic single featuring Sooyoung of iconic K-pop group Girl's Generation, was featured on the Spotify Viral 50 chart in Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Hong Kong, and Thailand.

As a longtime fan, I jumped at the chance to do a phone interview with James, courtesy of Universal Music Malaysia. We chatted about everything from the process of making his EP to his previous visits to Malaysia:

Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SAYS: Hi James! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today. So first of all, tell us a bit about your Kickstarter project - did you expect it to go so well?

James: No I did not! That's why I set the target so low! *laughs* I forget how long it took to reach the goal, but within like a few days, we were already at two times the target. So yeah, I did not expect it to go so well but I'm very glad that it did. I got way more support than I thought I was going to.

SAYS: Let's talk about your EP. Tell us about the process of making it. How was it different from your previous experiences in making music?

James: With the EP, it was centred around the song called 'The Light', which was originally kind of like a suicide note. It was very... it wasn't so positive until I met Enik (frontman of the LA rock band FYKE who also briefly worked with Royal Pirates) who said "dude this is way too depressing".

And I was like "I don't care about other people... I feel like everything is muted", I felt so empty and I just wanted to escape and he said, "man you can't... you need to know that your words have a lot of power". So I had to make it more uplifting and he helped me change the song a little bit, a lot actually. It went from being this really depressing ballad to a more upbeat pop, happier song.

James: After the success of the EP, I had a bunch of other songs already written so basically it was me just picking out which ones matched the journey of my rehab and kind of working on getting the right arrangements and the right feeling for the EP.

It took about a year or so to really get those down. The EP is really all about me being being real and authentic, not so much about just being catchy like what I feel a lot of K-pop is based around.

SAYS: Did you face any struggles or difficulties during the process of making the EP?

James: Recording the EP there was no trouble but with the music video there was some trouble because of the weather. It was really foggy so we were only able to get a few hours worth of footage, but with amazing editing and different additional footage taken in LA we were able to get the best product for the album.

But yeah, the main difficulty was that every part was like a learning process. When you have a label that supports you, you have 5-6 different people with different roles. I was wearing all those hats.

And seeing the money leave my bank account was very depressing *laughs* I guess I was paying for my education. I feel like I know what it takes to run a label now - and I definitely need help - but it was a great learning experience.

SAYS: So what are you most proud of with this EP?

James: I'm just proud that it's out you know? I'm just happy for this opportunity to share my music. And even people who didn't know about me beforehand are all saying that it's quite good, that this music is a different standard, that it feels like it has a soul.

This project is really me moving beyond the accident, not letting the accident define me. even though I have another surgery coming up. It's about being able to move past the depression and the dark times.

SAYS: What's your favourite song from the EP and why?

James: They’re all special to me. These are my babies. And I wouldn’t have released them unless I was proud of them and I felt they did justice to what I was trying to say.

I would say with 'Perfect' I’m happy that I arranged the whole thing by myself. I’ve never had like a hip-hop track or an R&B track, so I feel very happy that I was able to do that. But all the songs represent a different part of who I am.

I’m giving you a long answer *laughs* sorry! In terms of arrangement I like 'Perfect' the best and in terms of songwriting, especially melody, I would say 'Up'.

SAYS: I know you've been to Malaysia a couple times before. Do you have any memorable moments from your visits?

Royal Pirates during their time as judges on Astro Star Quest.

Image via Royal Pirates (Facebook)

James: I was on the TV show Astro Star Quest as a judge and meeting Eric Kwok through that was one of the best things 'cause I still talk to him quite often, maybe every other week or so. He's a producer based in Hong Kong. But we always talk about it, like the New Year's show in Malaysia.

I remember when we (Royal Pirates) were performing, we were doing this song called 'Dangerous' that's like a rock song, and people were like "who are these guys  they're not very pop at all!" and I was having so much fun! *laughing*

James during Royal Pirates' 'Love Toxic' showcase in Malaysia.

Image via K-popped

James: Also, when Royal Pirates went to Malaysia as part of our tour. That was a little bit before my accident in 2015, that was one of the most fun tours I've done overseas, and I've done a lot. Every fan that we met was so... not just passionate, but I felt like I could have a sincere conversation with them.

That was one of the last times I was able to perform. It will always be a clear cut memory. Like everything else is kind of fuzzy – all the other tours I did. But the Malaysian tour was so much fun and it impacted me so much.

SAYS: I’m so glad that you enjoyed your time in Malaysia! We're running out of time so here's one last question: any plans to come back here in the future?

James all smiles as he answers questions at a press conference during one of his previous visits to Malaysia.

Image via Hellokpop

James: Not just yet but I definitely will go. It just depends on the timing. Right now, the scheduling is a little bit weird. Trying to figure out going to Malaysia within this year hopefully. I just hope I never have to eat a durian!

The last time we were here, I was eating it and Moon (lead singer and guitarist of Royal Pirates) was describing it, he said "rotten onion", and I threw up after that pretty explosively *laughs* I guess I'm just sensitive to it.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us James :) We wish you good health, all the best with your future endeavors, and hope that we get to see you in Malaysia soon!

Click here to check out 'THE LIGHT EP'.

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