I grew up with Sook-Yin Lee. Well, not officially: I grew up watching her on MuchMusic, a Canadian music station where Lee was a VJ for six years. I was always in awe of her no-nonsense—albeit warm and welcoming—persona that’s since lent itself to a storied career in film, radio, and music. So it’s no surprise that her latest foray into music reflects that balance.
JOOJ, her band with friend and longtime collaborator Adam Litovitz, released its full-length, self-titled debut album last week, and today we have the official video premiere of “Jessica,” a song about young adulthood inspired by the loss of Sook-Yin’s sister Dede, and her friend, Jessica.
I talked to Sook-Yin about loss, friendship, and MuchMusic (I had to), but yes: also about perms.
ANNE T. DONAHUE: So let’s start off with you telling me about this song. Where did the subject matter come from?
SOOK-YIN LEE: From the confusion of young personhood, the uncertainty of a girl trying to figure out where she fits in. It was inspired by my little sister Dede who was braver than me. We were the middle kids who ran away from home when our family broke up. Whenever we went back to spy on our house, I’d be smoking a cigarette and hiding behind a bush, but Dede would brazenly smoke hers out in the open, and when Mom appeared, she’d exhale in her face!
Dede lived an intense life that ended when she was 19, in a car crash at a railroad crossing in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. The other inspiration for the song is my friend Jessica, a teenager whose life also ended too soon. She was a beautiful person—quiet, observant, and sensitive. Dede and Jessica remind me of a particular flower, the night-blooming cereus that blooms and dies in the course of one night. My dad and stepmom’s cereus has grown so big it’s taken over their living room. In its leaves, they make offerings of Chinese red bags and money to encourage the flowers to bloom. My folks stay up all night wrapped in blankets, hoping to catch a glimpse of fleeting beauty. There are lives that burn brightly for a short time.
That’s true. And so sad. I’m so sorry for your loss. Did you and your family discover the flower after the loss of Dede and Jessica?
My pops and stepmom have always known of this flower; they introduced it to me. In Chinese [culture] it’s considered a miraculous wonder. In the morning when the sun rises and the bud closes forever, my stepmom makes soup out of the petals. It’s sweet like milk.
How did you cope with your grief? Do you have any advice for friends or those on the outside of a death who want to help with somebody who’s grieving?
Well, it took a very long time for me to accept Dede’s death. I still wrestle with it, though the unbearable grief and guilt has mostly passed. There’s no one way of dealing with it. You go through it, moment to moment. I was really vulnerable. I couldn’t watch violent movies or movies with car crashes. I went on a long, meandering journey down the west coast. I lost my nut for a bit. I found it most helpful when my close friends offered their loving presence. We didn’t talk, we just sat together quietly.
Your friends Charlie and Mairi star in the video. Have you always hoped to work with them?
Charlie and Mairi are two of the leads in a dance theatre work I’m developing. I cast three dancers of various ages to incarnate one woman at different times of her life. Recently when the third dancer, Jenn, fell sick and was unable to make it to rehearsal, I took the opportunity to shoot this video with Mairi and Charlie. Charlie is a feral and self-possessed child, unbound and free—a Romanian Newfoundlander! Mairi is a brilliant mover who always pushes the capabilities of her body. I’m compelled by her androgynous looks—the masculine-feminine. Mairi stars in all three JOOJ music videos.
Do you usually tend to work and collaborate with friends?
I seek out excellent artists to work with who are also fine people, and invariably we become good friends. An enjoyable working process is key for me, as well as making good work.
What’s something you try and look out for when working with people you know personally versus those you know professionally?
Most of my creative relationships are personal and professional. I find gifted collaborators—expressive and idiosyncratic actors and dancers, creative designers—whose work I love and who I get along with. Music begins socially, finding musicians by seeing them play live or hearing their music, then hanging out with them and being inspired. I like to foster mutual respect, cooperation, and camaraderie. In my broadcast work at the CBC, I work with a team of radio producers on a personal storytelling show called DNTO (Definitely Not The Opera). I do not have a hand in selecting co-workers, but somehow through all the staff changes over the years, the show attracts good people who care about making a compelling and intimate radio show. We’ve been lucky that way.
So what’s your advice when it comes to working with pals?
My mentor, John Cameron Mitchell—who I’ve made two movies with, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus—taught me the importance of a good working process which involves caring about and listening to your co-creators. If you find the right collaborators and focus on what needs to be done, not only will the process be fun, you stand to make some good art if you communicate well.
When I direct, I’m aware that each person has different needs. There are those who require a lot of feedback, and others who don’t want me to say much at all, in fact, the more I talk, the worse they get! So it’s my job to gauge the needs of others and develop a language that we can communicate in. The aim is to get the best out of everyone you work with.