Every great musician starts as a beginner. This month, we wanted to tell the story of a newcomer to the music scene, and interviewed ESAE, a young singer-songwriter and producer, who is building a career in music.
With ESAE, we encountered an interviewee who is a deep thinker, a realist, and an eloquent communicator full of youthful exuberance. ESAE’s motivation for releasing music is also commendable: to create art to be shared with the world as an act of selfless giving, akin to unconditional love.
ESAE’s passion for music and learning is evident; she has a background as a classical violinist and entered two competitions in 2017 (SM Open Station and Yoo Jae Ha), finishing as a runner-up in both. She even made a big decision in not attending medical school. Working hard to stand out when you are in the minority, navigating a lack of funds, and learning by trial and error were all touched upon in this interview. We saw potential in ESAE, and it seems that others like what she is creating too –tens of thousands have hit the play button on her Soundcloud page, a considerable achievement when there has been no marketing involved. We think that her love of latin and jazz styles will lead to some very interesting output in the years to come.
Thanks to ESAE for giving us so much of her time and insight into her back-story. Please support her! You can find the majority of her music on Soundcloud. Recently, she officially released her first single ‘A Car Going Nowhere’ which is available to stream on Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, and Deezer or purchase through major platforms including Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes. It is also the first of her songs to have its own music video.
We hope that you enjoy this in-depth interview and learning more about ESAE. Scroll to the bottom of this article for links to the artist’s social media.
As usual, we will recommend one of the artist’s songs to listen to while you read this article. ‘Groove’ was the track that stood out the most to us (listen below), but Song of a Violin came a close second. Give that a try if you are looking for more.
Can you introduce yourself and your background?
Hello, I am ESAE, a Korean-American singer-songwriter and producer. I pretty much make the music that I like to make and I’ve been doing this for about 3 years. Before that I had zero songwriting and production experience, though I have been a classical violinist my entire life. I was one of those prodigy Asian kids that was super intense; the plan was to go to Julliard, become a classical violinist and be so famous. But then I got burnt out in high school, and my parents thought, “this girl should become a doctor.” So I went to college, thinking that I was going to go to medical school or pharmacy school.
Suddenly I said “do you know what? I want to do music for the rest of my life”, so life took a dramatic turn and since then it’s been quite interesting, to say the least.
How did you arrive at your stage name and why did you feel like you needed one?
I was always uncomfortable using my real name. It is so generic! Using your real name stops you leaving work at the door. You are carrying it around with you. As much as the artist ESAE is really me -there is no front – I still feel like I need to draw a line for my mental sanity. When I am ESAE, there is a consent that I give myself to do certain things that I wouldn’t do in my normal life. As ESAE, I can be vulnerable or talk about being dark. If I used my own persona, it would unnerve people around me if I talked like that. Maybe because they can distinguish better that what I am doing is art.
I wanted a name that is me. After months, I realised that if you take my Korean name and take out the last syllable you get the words for ‘second generation’ (이세) which is exactly what I am. Nothing flashy, it was just me in a different form, like liquid water or solid ice. It was comfortable to transition into that and it also represented this tight rope walking that I’ve always had about being both Korean and American. I don’t feel like I’m trying to be someone else.
You have experienced life in both Korea and USA. What differences did you encounter in both places, and how have aspects of both cultures shaped your outlook on music?
I was born in Garden Grove but my dad relocated to Korea to work with Samsung. I went to an international school there. At that time, it was attended by children of celebrities or doctors, rich kids of chaebols from Korean dramas, and huge corporation heirs. Samsung was paying for my education there. I wasn’t crazy stupid rich, but because I looked like everyone else, I was treated like a princess, in my opinion. Nobody ever bullied me, everybody was my friend, everything was so lovely.
I always wondered what I would have been like if I hadn’t moved to America.
In America I got the biggest shock of my life. I went to school and saw no Asians, which is surprising because it is California and you’d think that wouldn’t be the case, but there was nobody. It expanded my way of thinking in a way. If I stayed in Korea, I would have remained in a limited box. The culture is very conformist, so I think I would have pursued music for different reasons… because I want to be famous, because I want to be pretty, to become an idol. It could have been that mindset.
If I lived in Korea, it would have been a much more different route to get to what ‘societal success’ means.
Did your decision to pursue a less conventional path scare you or excite you?
For a number of years I had literally been able to see my entire future; buy a lovely house, get married and have kids, the whole white picket fence. Everything was planned out; following a series of steps like Lego blocks being fitted together.
My parents were surprised about my decision to do music. They knew it was an integral part of me but they didn’t expect me to have the guts to do it, because I hate uncertainty. It goes completely against the Asian-American dream of knowing where you are going. Initially it was terrifying because suddenly my life became a white canvas. When you grow up you soon find out you have no idea what you are doing for the most part.
Right now, it is 70% terrifying, 30% exciting!
How do you feel music has helped you in a personal sense?
In general, human beings experience a wide range of emotions. At the end of the day, it is like sitting in a house while it is burning down. It is not okay. I think that was how I was. Nothing made sense. During a lot of my life (post-ESAE development), one plus one did not equal two, no matter how hard I tried to make it so. My life was a series of paradoxes. Music was my redemption yet also my greatest source of pain. It made me so happy, and yet it made me miserable. When I listened to a piece of music, suddenly things un-tilted themselves; that was a wonderful gift to me. That one piece of music jolted me into understanding, or at least being able to acknowledge my situation.
You’ve mentioned having to go through a process of re-invention and loneliness in trying to find your own identity. Was that instrumental in becoming who you are now, and did those feelings ever leave you?
I used to define myself in numbers; height, weight. It was very cut and dry. That’s why developing ESAE as an artist was difficult. No-one cares about your score for your SATs!
From age 19 until recently, I was trying to do this with no support. At the beginning my parents were asking, “why are you doing this?”
Trying to develop my art, going through it all myself and trying to figure who I am as a person. That period of 3 years was the most painful and most innovative part of my life. At aged 19, I changed more in a month than I had done prior to that. In Korea, there is a saying that if you change so much you will die soon! It was like being in a washing machine being churned round for hundreds of revolutions per second. But it allowed me to learn so many life lessons that I wouldn’t have if I had been to medical school.
Even if your life sucks, nobody cares about you. People can drop in and out of your life, but at the end of the day you are completely by yourself. People will always let you down, no matter if maliciously or unintentionally. It was integral for me as an artist to go through that. As a female and Asian in a predominantly white male industry, I do not take anything for granted.
I start to weigh people’s intentions now. It was a necessary 3 years for me.
What are your thoughts on being an Asian American female in the music industry?
Knowing that I am in the minority of the minority, I have to bring my 200% game, otherwise nobody is going to take me seriously. After I won a competition with SM (Entertainment) I was on top of the world. Then, I went to a networking conference, and they didn’t see me as a producer about to sign with SM; they saw an Asian girl. They asked me if I sung for church and I was so enraged by their condescending approach. When I told them I did music, they would ask me who my producer was and ask for HIS details.
My contract with SM didn’t go through, maybe because they were reducing signings, but I kept in touch with someone from the artists and repertoire (A&R) division. He warned me that I needed to become sharp and it wasn’t going to be easy. When I won the competition, I couldn’t go to Korea even though I was a finalist, so I sent a bunch of videos of profiles. From that, it looked like a person who had absolutely no idea what they were doing, and they liked that – that I loved something so purely, just for no reason, like an unadulterated love. Not because I wanted to be famous or to be on a TV show. It was enough for me to surpass those people who have connections, who had money.
I move forward with the mindset, ‘if I’m going to fail at this, I better fail well.’
Our favourite ESAE songs are ‘Groove’ and ‘Song of a Violin’. Can you describe the process of how these tracks were created?
I think ‘Song of a Violin’ was the first song that I wrote and then recorded. I did not produce it. A friend of mine who was living in the same dorm helped me. I wrote a melody to the guitar and he recorded my violin playing and added a little more production on top of it. I remember listening to it and thinking badly of the song (what I tell myself everytime I make something!). It was a very simple process but it is so rough. I listen to the lyrics now and say “what were you thinking? This is so bad!” I’m happy to have a piece that has violin on it though, to have something that showcases my playing skills.
For ‘Groove’, I took a music production class at USC and had to play the demo version in front of everyone. I made it at 4am in the morning, and it consisted of thoughts that were in my brain at the time. I didn’t know if it was good or bad so I was terrified. Everyone else got lots of applause for their music whereas I got the most lukewarm response. Even the professor didn’t compliment me like he complimented others. I went home devastated and never thought I would release it anywhere. Later I saw an advert for a competition called SM Open Station that SM Entertainment host. I linked up with another USC student who found me on Soundcloud and Facebook to help me. I sent him a bunch of things but unexpectedly he told me I had to use Groove. He did the mixing, we added synths and I wrote the top line. I submitted it and I placed as runner-up! This was the song that no-one clapped for in class so that was strange.
How do you make music now compared to when you first started?
At school, they teach you how to follow an organised workflow. But for me, I have no logic in the way that I work, I just layer things like making a seven-layer bean dip and somehow figure things out. If people ask me to write a chorus, I will write whatever I want. It’s that simple. They might give me directions, then I’ll do it, and they will release it. I have yet to write a song with someone else, because… I hate people and I’m stubborn. I will have to reconcile my stubbornness [sic] and learn to work with others. But usually it’s a lot of doing our separate parts and putting it together.
Having no method is my method. I am doing whatever I want, with no rhyme or reason.
Do you ever feel frustrated if it has been a while between songs and you haven’t had inspiration to write? Or do breaks help you in the long run?
Usually, I get all my best ideas from books because I love reading. That is why my eyesight is so bad, because I read so much. Well, that and also genetics. If my mom wanted to punish me as a kid, she would hide whatever I was reading and it would drive me insane.
I have a creative piggy bank. If I really love a phrase or see something inspirational, like a sunset or flower, I will write it down. For example, I was reading the Kite Runner and there was a line ‘learning how to be good again’ and that was already a seed. I can write by finding bits that fit like puzzle pieces. If I am feeling especially creative, I will lay down a melody. When a competition comes along, I’ll go back to the bank of ideas I’ve stored up – like when explorers go to the North Pole and leave little packs of food in case they get stranded; I am always trying to learn more. I feel like more insight into the human condition will help me write better as well.
If I stay on the same piece for a long time, I tend to fall into a spiral of self-hatred and depression. Because I can be working on a song for ages and nothing happens, nothing is right.
I find finishing the song to be my greatest problem. A good start is okay, but you need to end a track strongly. However, in general I am terrible at finishing things. I don’t even finish notebooks! When I step back, I start something new and then I find I am left with a lot of unfinished projects.
There was a time when I thought ‘music sucks’ and stepping back was helpful. It would have been like squeezing moisture out of a dry towel and detrimental to my relationship with music. It’s terrible for a creative to stop, but it’s like an injured limb which needs rest. Taking planned breaks is very important if you want to be in this long-term.
Defining your value as a person on external factors that you can’t control is the most dangerous part of living. I mean basing value on numbers of followers and others’ opinions. Knowing how hard it was to get to this point, my conscience tells me that I have to do things the right way. So here I am.“ – ESAE
How do you finance your music and do you feel that creativity increases when it is most limited as a resource?
I always thought we were poor as a family because we never went on vacation or rarely ate out. We were so frugal. If we did eat out it was always at a healthy salad buffet restaurant (8 dollars per person), and even then we went with coupons! So it instilled this reluctance in me to spend any money.
When I went to college, my parents didn’t want me to have any part-time jobs. But the moment I decided to do music instead of a medical degree, I had to fund my own tuition.
I literally did anything I could get my hands on to pay off my loans and become debt-free. I’m proud in that I’ve never once used my parents’ money to fund my musical career. Anything that I’ve had has come from money that I’ve made; all of my equipment is used and well-loved. However, it is limiting. My setup is my closet. I don’t even have a mic stand, I use books to prop it up.
My mic cables are borrowed from a friend at USC (I forgot to return them). I’m working with tinker toys! But the Beatles had limited equipment, used tape and still made amazing music. Having to produce with such limits, that is what makes you grow, and makes you realise that music is at its purest in its most simple form.
It’s been a humbling experience for me, but also sad watching the kids at USC with money buying expensive equipment, or who [sic] can pay for studio time. But at the end of the day, if you can’t make music with a limited medium, then what can you do when you have so much?
You lean more towards solace and truth rather than sugar-coated optimism. Where does that come from?
From the three years that I spent in Hell. I had a bunch of people tell me that I was talented and I was going to make it. Objectively, it should have made me feel better. But deep inside every person, there is a little voice that always tells the truth. For me, that voice got louder and louder and said “you cannot rely on peoples’ words, they don’t feed you, put food on the table, pay your bills or fix your problems.” No matter how many times people say “I believe in you,” in reality, it means nothing. Logically, I would rather face the truth head on, acknowledge my shortcomings and plan where to go next. For me, saying that everything is okay and deluding yourself (sugar-coated optimism) just prolongs the pain.
In this industry, there are so many disingenuous people. Those that make promises that they never keep. That is dangerous.
How did your projects and collaborations come together? Did you work with people that you knew personally?
I network in the weirdest ways! For a while, I used Tinder to network. I wrote in my bio that I was interested in working with photographers, rappers, and it turned out that I had some of my most successful collaborations there. For some reason, it works for me. I also use Instagram, it’s where my collaboration with Elyon came about, and we even became friends.
If you had free rein for your next project, and unlimited resources, what would you choose to do?
First of all, I’d get a full-piece orchestra. I love cinematic orchestral music, so I think I would make a mellow chill beat utilising a full orchestra. I would mix that in with guitar, drums and maybe even a choir too. Bring it all into one room and play around with it, that would be the dream. But orchestras are expensive in reality! I would love to record in a studio rather than my closet, too.
What is your opinion on mainstream and indie Korean music?
I feel that mainstream K-pop is controlled by a specific direction and vision which is focused on revenue. K-pop has become a cookie-cutter process. I feel like in that kind of world, it is someone else, rather than the artist doing that, and the aim is not for artistic creativity. Music is an emotional connection, it makes you feel more human. K-pop is great, but it won’t do that for you.
I’ve always loved Korean indie music. I used to listen to Casker, and I loved the jazz influences. It made me happy. No-one tried to copy anyone else at that time. 8-10 years ago, it would have been difficult for a Korean indie artist to make a living. I’m glad that indie is more recognised but Korean indie has now become acoustic ballads, and a genre, rather than being about an independent artist not being controlled by a company. You were you.
It is a shame. Music nowadays has become so contrived. It’s very conformist and there is very little room to leave the box. Everything is starting to sound the same. There’s no innovation.
Why do you think some artists have managed to capture more attention than others?
Honestly, life in Korea is hard. It’s hard to get a job, it’s hard to live, to meet the beauty standards. It’s a difficult place to be happy and succeed in. I think that somewhere along the line, Koreans started to look for something with more substance and that could be comforting.
Standing Egg and Yozoh (indie musicians) had been doing music similar to Bolbbalgan but it was the latter that became so famous. Maybe because their music was packaged slightly differently. A little bit of variation to what the Korean public were used to. You also need good publicity and marketing and to get the music to the right fanbase to gain traction on your platforms.
But then it started the trend of everyone trying to be like them or a wave of companies trying to find the next Bolbbalgan.
For me, music is my unconditional gift back to the world. The ultimate goal for putting a piece of music out is that listening to a song made you feel like someone understands you, that the world is less of a horrible place. If I achieve that, then I’ve done my job” – ESAE
Would you be tempted to take a particular direction? To tap into the popularity of the Hallyu wave? Or would that conflict with your motivations for doing music?
Being Korean has suddenly become cool. People used to make fun of my lunch, my kimbap. Now they are eating it to be trendy. It’s bizarre. I’ve gotten incredibly lucky; 13k hits with 100s of likes on my songs with no marketing whatsoever.
I never started music to become famous or to make loads of money. I always bring myself back to my main purpose, to create works of art. Part of me leans towards taking the easy route, but the other part of me questions my motives. Is it because I want to give music away as an unconditional gift or is it for selfish means and gains?
Defining your value as a person on external factors that you can’t control is the most dangerous part of living. I mean basing value on numbers of followers and others’ opinions. Knowing how hard it was to get to this point, my conscience tells me that I have to do things the right way. So here I am.
It’s so nice to see people appreciate my music, but I always have to check myself and remind myself that’s not why I did this.
Why do you like using Soundcloud to showcase your music and how do you make use of different music and social media platforms?
First of all, Soundcloud is free. The music I put on there is very low quality, made with no knowledge of mixing. I have stayed away from other music platforms because I felt the burden of having to release music of viable quality. I was uncomfortable with the idea that people would consume or download something that wasn’t quite right.
I use Instagram to showcase photos. I want each of the platforms I use to have different content. I feel like social media consists of people curating things to make other people feel worse about themselves, so the goal on my Instagram is to upload photos that are inspiring so that someone else gets something positive out of it.
I am super stubborn and think so much. Everything has to make sense; not that it has to be perfect but it has to fit together. Whilst I know that social media is important, I want to do it my way.
You enjoy the creative part of doing music, but would you say that it is also cathartic to express your emotions through music?
It’s not about personal catharsis for me. Though it is cathartic for me to get something out of my head onto paper. Coming from my Christian roots, there is something about unconditional love that is perplexing but also very comforting to me as a person. Honestly, I had lived my life thinking that everything was conditional. You get good grades, you will succeed. If you become a doctor, your parents will love you.
For me, music is my unconditional gift back to the world.
The ultimate goal for putting a piece of music out is that listening to a song made you feel like someone understands you, that the world is less of a horrible place. If I achieve that, then I’ve done my job.
Do you listen to music differently as you’ve deepened your knowledge of the musical process?
Before I produced music, I used to listen holistically. I liked the way things sounded. But now I have a completely different way of evaluating music. I might pick up on the same chords being used over again, or listen more closely to lyrics. Lyrics are where I am the most stubborn. If the lyrics are terrible, it will spoil the song for me. I’ll evaluate things from the viewpoint of a music producer. It’s irritating when you listen to good songs and they make me mad because I didn’t write or produce it! So now I have to listen to music that is in a different language or songs that hype me up.
I dance urban street, and you listen to music in a different way again. You are picking up on the texture of the music. You can listen to the same song, but experience it in a completely different way.
You have such a wide range of hobbies, from dancing to surfing. How did you pick them up?
I just love learning. It would be such a shame to leave this world without being able to understand just a little bit of it. I have always loved dancing; I think music and dancing go together. If you move to music then that’s dance! I found a ballroom dance studio in Irvine and decided to do everything. I really got into bachata, salsa, swing, and partner dancing. It wasn’t too difficult to pick up because you can follow the male lead. It’s also something you can talk about at parties!
Surfing I did because I fancied myself as a California surfer girl with highlights in my hair. I like putting myself in places where you don’t see Asian girls. I want to be different, I want to do something that people that look like me aren’t doing. Then I realised why… because mid-sized Asian girls like me get beat up by the ocean and it’s really hard!
It is very humbling for me, a metaphor for my life. I’m a mediocre jack of trades, collecting hobbies like Pokémon. I like learning languages, too. I love the humanities, I love art, I love learning about how people communicate. There are so many things that I want to do, but honestly, anything that is not music-related is always secondary. But in saying that, I feel that I need parallel obsessions to balance out my music obsession. Ask me next week and I’ll probably have found something else to be obsessed with.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?
The most important lesson I’ve learned is that in the grand scheme of things, I am nothing. I am a speck. No matter how good I get, there will always be people that are better than me, but at the same time it is okay to be a speck. If you can be a speck that can make specks around you feel okay, then you are doing something. And doing something is always better than doing nothing.
It’s like acknowledging the fact that no matter how much I have, I am still a human being with flaws and vulnerabilities, still a speck in the universe. You need to check yourself because human pride and arrogance, greed and ambition, will always threaten to overtake you. Always check yourself, always acknowledge that you are nothing, and always keep trying because it is better than doing nothing.
What is next for you?
I met a famous Vietnamese guitarist and now we are gigging together. I’m also now attending IO Music Academy (a boutique music academy in Hollywood) on a full scholarship learning music production/Ableton, finally for the first time.
This is the beginning of my career. This is where I see things happening.
(Responses have been partially edited for clarity)
With that, you’ve reached the end of one of our best interviews to-date! A big thank you to ESAE once again. If you’d like to follow her activities, check out her social media links below.
In-article images and featured image source: © ESAE. 23.09.18. Photography and artwork credit: Jason Ramirez (@ramires_j). All images were provided by the artist for the purposes of this article. All rights reserved. No image reproduction is permitted.
© Interview with ESAE. 11.12.2018. Inspire Me Korea.
ESAEgrooveInterviewK-indieK-PopK-spotlightK-spotlight specialKOREAN MUSICmusic artist introductionmusic competitionProducersinger-songwriterSM EntertainmentSM Open Stationsocial mediaSong of a Violinsongwritingtrack recommendationsYoo Jae Ha