There is something about good music that makes you pause. Music can trigger a magnitude of different emotions, from joy to sorrow. It can lift you up or send you down memory lane. Sometimes it is the tune that carries us away. Other times it is the emotion in the voice of the singer or a part of the lyrics that linger long after the song is over.
Each of Jae Jin´s songs tells the listener a different story. The lyrics he is writing are as personal as they are universal, and when you listen closely you hear the authenticity in his voice and in the music that goes hand in hand with the words. Jae Jin is not hiding, and he is not afraid to be open and vulnerable by sharing parts of his life story with the listeners.
Jae Jin´s musical journey began when he decided to leave the path of pursuing a career in medicine and business and devoted his time to music. He is working independently without a label that can push his career. In the past few years, he has released two full-length albums and toured the world from America to Europe and Asia. His music was featured in Korean Dramas, and he even got a role as a musician in the Netflix show “House of Cards.” Last year, he won the John Lennon Songwriting Award.
This alone is outstanding, but when you listen to Jae Jin talking about what drives him, there is no doubt in why he is one of Lacuna´s Real Life Heroes.
As a two-time cancer survivor, Jae Jin has experienced how fragile life can be, and how precious every breath is. It is why he traded his secure career in business and medicine for the life of an artist to share his gift and life with the world.
Lacuna: I know from my own experience that there´s generally huge pressure from Korean parents when it comes to the education of their children.
Jae Jin: Korean culture places such high value on education and aligns job security with opportunities that improve with higher levels of education reached. Korean parents especially have such a high expectation for the future success of their children. However, we are currently living in a time that is very special; especially with culture. From music, with the rise of K-Pop and BTS to even film, with the recent success of the Korean film “Parasite” winning the Oscar in four major categories. History is being made.
I´m also encouraged because I see that there has been a slow but sure transition in how people, especially from Asian culture, are embracing the arts, music, culture, and movies. We have this really great opportunity to see really talented people, especially the youth, disrupting and creating culture.
For a lot of my peers who loved music or film, it was never really an option to pursue it as a career. Pursuing a career in the arts meant taking a huge risk. I think that is all changing and for the better.
Lacuna: K-Pop has been around so much longer, for at least 20 years, but it´s only now getting recognition. You sound proud.
Jae Jin: I am very proud. I agree with you, Korean music has been around for a long time. It was always excellent. It´s something that made people feel things; made people move and dance. There is a whole different level of excellence that some of these youth are bringing to the stage. I’m very impressed by BTS because of the fact that all the members are so dedicated to their craft in terms of dancing, being able to sing and perform, and making sure that every performance is spot-on. That takes a lot of dedication. I´m really excited and feel this is just the beginning. It wouldn´t surprise me to see another even more diverse group in the near future.
Lacuna: When you were growing up, did you have a role model? Did someone or something inspire you to become the person you became?
Jae Jin: Absolutely. I think a lot of people have heroes while growing up. I had the fortune to have a hero who was also my parent. I always looked up to my mother since I was young. Not just because she worked so hard, but she always had this very fiery passion for everything she did. I think a lot of times we hold our parents on a pedestal and expect them to be perfect, but my mother was always real with me and always did her best. As I’ve gotten older, I also have come to understand just how hard she tried to hide what we didn´t have. I grew up not so well-off. She worked many jobs to raise me by herself. That was one of those things that stuck with me, and I haven’t forgotten my roots and where I came from.
From an artistic side, my heroes came in the form of cassette tapes, CDs, and radio. There was this unique opportunity to get lost in the music with those individuals making an imprint on my creativity and who I was as a human being. I could understand my life a little bit more by deeply connecting with what was being said. I could relate to the words and music on so many different levels, and could even escape challenges and hardships through them.
Lacuna: Can you give an example?
Jae Jin: I always loved all types of music. I grew up listening to everything from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin to BoyzIIMen and Prince. There were also amazing songwriters, like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Stevie Wonder. A lot of songwriting back in the day was trying to speak up for injustice. That was something that always made me think. To have artists that boldly highlighted injustices, suffering, and the human condition. I feel fortunate to have grown up with access to a lot of different types of music out there.
Lacuna: Even if you don’t understand a certain kind of struggle, pain is universal. It is this fundamentally human thing that we all have in common. You also faced a very personal struggle by surviving cancer. Facing a life-threatening illness changes us. How did it make you grow?
Jae Jin: It comes down to perspective and who you are surrounded by. I experienced the illness not just once but twice and also dealt with numerous complications thereafter. I feel very fortunate because my family never allowed me to think negatively. They did not let me stop fighting. That in itself is so important. The people you are surrounded by can give you such a valuable perspective and that can influence your mind, which in turn influences even your physical body.
As you said, suffering is such a universal element. It is a shared characteristic of humanity. But unfortunately, not all who suffer overcome. Often times our human spirit is so delicate and so nuanced that the simplest of things can completely destroy our soul. But at the same time, we are given community and other people in our lives to support us. We are able to bring ourselves out of places of darkness because of the light in the people who surround us. Faith is also really important and it has always been something that has united me and my loved ones and given me the opportunity to see far beyond the current circumstances.
Lacuna: The strength and support that were given to you when you were sick, are now given back by you through your music.
Jae Jin: Oh absolutely. I don´t think artists necessarily need to state their purpose, but I like to think that it is our responsibility as human beings to bring healing through our lives and our art. We don´t need to be a doctor in order to heal. I hope that my music can bring healing to people. My music addresses a lot of different topics. Everything from illness to depression to suicide to love and love lost. You as an artist feel that if you have something to say, then you treat it as a deep privilege and do everything you can to put out the best work and say it. You do it and say it with excellence. You write the words with excellence. You prepare, compose, and produce with excellence. You put it all together and push it out with excellence. That is all you can really do. Oftentimes, when we are the most authentic and vulnerable, those are the times the listeners feel most connected to your music.
One thing that has helped me to continue my journey and keep fighting has been the individuals that my music has touched. Getting messages from people, saying that a song impacted them in a particular way. You don´t really plan that. I don´t necessarily write a song thinking I will save a life. But when it can provide healing, I am humbled and grateful.
Lacuna: Building deep connections with others requires one to give away a lot of your inner self. How much of your worries and questions about life and love make it into your music and how much do you keep close to yourself?
Jae Jin: There are not a lot of topics I wouldn´t dive into. You have to be selective and balanced. My last album “Letters and Drinks” had two songs that were quite heavy. Track six, “Six Feet Above,” was written about my experience of losing somebody that I loved very dearly to suicide. That took me to some pretty dark places and it took me a long time to get out of that. The song itself took me nearly six months to write. Then the last track, “One Last Light,” touches on my own struggles with depression and suicide over the past twenty years.
When I was preparing the last full-length album, I probably brought about 50 songs to the table. I’d say about six of those songs were pretty heavy, and even though it would have been great to have all six of them on the album, I also felt that it would be too much to put all of them on the album. I took two and positioned them strategically around my other songs with different content, one in the middle and one at the end.
Moving forward, I hope I can continue to capture even more universal emotions. There are going to be songs that are really happy, but there is also a time and place to share topics that are heavy that others are not openly talking about. It is important to open up this dialogue. This can be healing, and if you can heal one person then it makes it all worthwhile.
Lacuna: What I like about your music is that you have some things where I simply want to sing along and others to which I´m drawn because of the lyrics because they touch me so deeply.
Jae Jin: It´s always special when you have individuals who take the time to listen to the lyrics. One of my hopes is to launch a podcast later this year where we dive a little bit deeper into what these songs are about. Often times when people hear the story behind the song, especially during live shows, people can connect deeper to the song and maybe go back and discover it in a different way.
I put out this last album a little over a year ago, but every day there are people who are discovering one of the songs on the album. One song that was not even a major single was “Book in the Clouds”. That is a song that almost didn´t make it onto the album. It was one of the songs which I have never fully explained what it means to me. I felt that what people get from it is so different, and that is the thing that I love about music. It can impact people in so many different ways. That excited me so much that I didn’t want to put out a complete, specific answer to the meaning.
As an artist, you have to be very intentional to have humility. If you only make it about yourself, you almost take away the magic of what music can do, which is to simply be a vessel by which God speaks to people, or even their own subconscious speaks to them. I love that element of music.
Lacuna: I was wondering, when you write do you feel God?
Jae Jin: I don’t feel God by writing. I write because I feel God in all the aspects of what and why my life is. Every individual’s faith is very personal, whether they are spiritual or religious or not. I would say every day that I get up, it´s a constant struggle of wrestling with God. I always feel joy and there are always moments when I can feel God. It could be as simple as a sunset on the Pacific Ocean. There can also be moments of honesty when you ask, „God where are you?“ To me, that is the real ebb and flow of a relationship and this is something that we also apply to the people and community we are surrounded by. We have all these people and we´re trying really hard to get through this difficult life that has so many challenges, but in some weird way, you realize that these people are there to help you get through that.
Lacuna: When do you have the deepest sense of belonging? The question came to me when I was listening to your latest release, “So wrong”.
Jae Jin: When I´m in community. When I´m around people. And I don´t mean the same type of people every day. When I´m around individuals that come from different walks of life, you realize that there really is something more.
There are other places where I feel like I belong, which is whenever I am around nature. I love the water. I love the beach. I love being in front of a lake. Any kind of body of water, whenever I´m in front of them I feel like how can there not be a God? I feel wrapped up in something far greater than myself. Also, when I´m performing music. I can´t say that I enjoy going up on a stage and being seen, but I think when you can share a song and have other people feel things, and you can see them responding to the music, that is another time when I feel that there is no other place that I would like to be. There´s a reason why I´m doing what I´m doing. There is a reason why I´m in this world. That´s the time when I feel the most like I belong.
Lacuna: That´s your purpose.
Jae Jin: Yes, exactly.
Lacuna: In one of your interviews, you´re talking about having a shorter lifespan because of the cancer you had. I was wondering how you feel about time. Do you give each moment more meaning because of that, or do you have the feeling that time is too short for everything you want to do?
Jae Jin: I think it´s a little bit of both. You come to a lot of personal conclusions about time. One is that time is the same constant for everybody. We can´t buy more time. That being said, how you live life and process time is going to directly collaborate with what you will accomplish in your life and in the world.
For instance, this is a timely example. Kobe Bryant passed away at the age of 41, but he left such a powerful legacy. I say it is more than all the NBA titles he achieved. It is the impact he made on the individuals around him, whether it´s family, the fans, or people who are in basketball and even other sports. That to me is an example of somebody who just lived as well as he could. This is the thing too that we never realize. Kobe thought he´d be like all the other NBA legends that live into their 80s. He probably didn´t wake up that morning thinking this was going to be the last day of his life.
I think in that same regard, I had this struggle with the idea of time in a very unique way because of my illnesses. Medical science may say one thing about my mortality and life expectancy, and initially, I used to be very fearful. I used to think, I don´t want to die younger or live less life than other people. But then I decided that God knows when I came into this world and God knows when I will leave. I´m not God, and I don´t know when I´m done here, so I can only just do the best that I can with each day I am given. I´m going to fail. I´m going to mess up a lot. I´m imperfect. But I take each morning as a new opportunity and do the best. Create with excellence. Love with excellence.
We need to do the best that we can and take it a day at a time and know we´re not alone. We are loved. We are loved deeply. There are times when we don´t realize that or accept that because of our own obstacles or because of the social concept and of the world and what it has done in its brokenness. But beyond that, we have to take each day and treat it like a gift and live the crap out of it.
Lacuna: How do you want to be remembered?
Jae Jin: That’s a hard question. This is the best way to answer it. “Dance With Me” is the first song of the last album I released. The main chorus line is, “I’ll leave you better than I found.” When I wrote the song, I wrote it in the perspective of God writing a song to me. I want to live by following the example and try to love others as best as I can, but also leave them in a better place than I found them. If you look at the success of life, for me, the hope is that when I meet an individual and part ways, I hopefully have made an impact in some way. If it inspires and encourages, that’s great, but maybe it´s just to challenge another individual. I don´t worry about the numbers. I don´t focus on the numbers…Whether I impact a hundred people or a million people. I want to impact the people that I´m meant to impact. That´s it. I focus on the present and on the people sent into my path. Even with you. I don´t know everything about you and your life, but the hope is through this opportunity of just speaking, maybe you will be challenged in some way, and if that leaves you in a better place… then my job is done. Same goes for your readers!