In a listening conversation at the ICA, the artist talks about how her album is the synthesis of an introspective journey of awareness and self-determination. With a Hammer expresses the search for balance and the change of perspective that comes from the process of listening inwardly to different emotional states.
Yaeji sums it up herself perfectly. Upon arriving at the listening party for her new album “With a Hammer” everyone is given a newspaper with her own “Wizard Dog” comic strip. Manifesto as follows:
“Music is like alchemy
And us who interact
With music are alchemists.
We have the power to transmute
I want to begin this album
With an intent.
I want to take all that I’ve
Suppressed and let it breath and
Live through this process of creation.
I want my music to be free.
So I started writing a song
About me and my hammer
A hammer created from my anger.”
The audience is then immersed in the album. No talking. “Submerge FM” begins with a rising flute section with Yaeji chanting breathily in Korean and then English which segues into “For Granted” with a 90s video game synth which then escalates into frantic Jungle. Amidst this Yaeji’s voice reflects what she describes as the “calm observer”. “Fever” features this when the drums intensify and get heavier, her voice the calm centre. It eases off with “Passed me By” and then “With a Hammer” with a detached vocal combined with a steady, syncopating electronica that feels indebted to Depeche Mode. “I Remember” then slows further with some trumpet. The energetic beat of “Get it Done feels like the focal point of the album. The concept of journey is overused in music, but here it does feel like we are privy to Yaejis’s. All these titles feel like they represent the cataloguing and diarising of various emotional states. The Aphex like energy of “Ready or not” more celebratory: “Laying in one place I feel suffocated”. This references the fact that at her most inspired there is a balance between living in the US and South Korea and the valuable shift of perspective it offers.
The album is a journey of rising emotion that bubbles into a cathartic anger that then finds a sense of equilibrium on the other side. On “Happy” she sings “You fall in love with yourself”. Which she describes as the first step in being able to give enough love to others. This availability for others is clarified during the gentle coda of “Be Alone in this”: “One by one I stacked the stones, stack of reasons why I don’t want to be alone in this”. In the Q&A that follows, Yaeji talks about how the Hammer allows for the negative emotion in objects to be smashed. This references an idea in Korean Shamanism that all objects contain their own souls. In “Get it Done” she sought this because she saw herself repeating things her Grandad did (the co-star beside her in the video with the matching bunny outfit) and sought to break the cycle. She recalls a past moment from their relationship in the video by smashing a plate, which she did as a child when he made her eat too fast. She mentions Korean society and how they use “Rage Rooms” as an outlet for their emotions and how this process does not really work.
Yaeji then explores her process. Before any music was created, the world that the comic (beautifully illustrated by Sseongryul) inhabits was written. Moulding her own world and characters first. This sounds necessary because she describes her process as messy and hard to plan”. It sounds like she has something though because she admits to using 4 diaries at the same time. An hourly diary, a “4 L” diary, a 5 year diary and a “throw up” diary. This awareness and journey towards knowing and self determination is then put back into the music. Language plays a big role in the identity of the album too. She says that when she sings in half Korean and English and she feels like a different person when each is used, which reinforces the character driven nature of the album. Her approach to anger also seems healthy in that she detaches from it and describes herself as a “Calm observer”. Language is ultimately just a series of agreements she points out serenely.
This is an artist who philosophises. There are no half-considered thoughts. I asked her about this and she talked about how Covid shaped this album, with her not being able to consider new music etc, moving deeper into what was there already underneath. In that sense the album is a reconciliation of all past selves with present self. Afterwards, she kindly offers to “doodle” on the newspapers of the fans. Eager inhabitants of
the beautiful new world she has conjured: Its population growing.