I always looked up to Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, how certain syllables came so naturally to them, and they made them part of their vocabulary. As a student, I tried to copy them, but I eventually found my own scat style through tapping into the rhythmical sounds I would hear when my mother was speaking Korean with her friends. It felt very natural.
You studied at Berklee College of Music and the Aaron Copland School of Music. Tell me about the styles you explored and how they led you to Janya.
I was classically trained. My first voice teacher was Angie Perez, an opera singer. At Berklee, I explored jazz and fell in love with improvisation. But I really felt like something was missing emotionally, so I got into free jazz. It allowed me to let go completely. Some have said it sounded like Yoko Ono, but I really don't think so. No offense to Yoko; I don't think she swings. There’s a lot more going on within the music than just a bunch of screaming and making noises. There’s this deep listening aspect and an interaction between instrumentalists that you just don't get in traditional singing, where you sing a melody and someone accompanies you. In free jazz, I felt like I was on equal footing with the instrumentalists. I wanted to feel deep emotion — so much emotion that it might frighten people or embarrass myself, because it was so personal. I was floored by the effect it had on my phrasing when I did go back to singing a melody over accompaniment. It completely opened me up. I used to wonder how Sarah Vaughan sang those swingin', fast eighth notes and made it sound like there was so much space in between each eighth note. After exploring free improvisation, I now understand.
Janya recently did a showcase at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. One of the songs you performed is “No Escape,” in which you sing about "pain-joy, love-hate." Is there a lyrical theme to the group’s songs?
Well, studying and writing poetry became a passion for me. I started to write out stanzas, not always being sure what each one was about. I’ll sometimes write lyrics, and 10 years later, I understand what it’s about! In “No Escape,” I’m saying that love and hate are one thing. You love someone, but you hate them, too. They’re almost the same thing. You have to experience one to appreciate the other. We’re all connected in "No Escape," because we breathe the same ether that penetrates our body and nature.