Music, Masculinity, and Turning Classrooms into Choirs

By The Seventh Wave

An Interview with Educator and Musician Joe Kye
Novemnber 18, 2019

Interviewed by Bretty Rawson, TSW Director of Programs 

When I think of musicians, I don’t usually think of classrooms. But when I think of Joe Kye, the violinist-looper behind Joseph in the Well, I see a touring teacher and teaching musician. Born in Korea and raised in Seattle, violinist-looper and vocalist Joe Kye is known for “discharging worlds of emotion” and delivering “divine messages” with his string loops and eclectic style. Drawing upon his migrant upbringing, Kye blends indie-rock, jazz, classical, and pop to create a sound that is entirely his own. Kye weaves texture with melody with poetry. The result? A mesmerizing symphony, some have said.

Kye is a singer/songwriter in all sense of the words. A powerful storyteller with an inclusive sense of humor, Joe’s performances weave his immigrant narrative through his show, inspiring audiences to compassion and empathy in these divisive times. After studying music and culture at Yale University, Kye pursued a career in high school, turning each classroom into a choir of curiosity. He has since left education to pursue music full-time, and has toured the United States with performances opening for world-renown cellist Yo-Yo Ma, comedian Hari Kondabalu, rapper Warren G, and Senator Bernie Sanders, along with nationally broadcast performances on NPR and BBC. His music has also been featured on the NPR Politics Podcast. Kye recorded his first TedX talk in November of 2018, and has been invited to speak on immigration, creativity, and cultural activism at schools, community organizations, and spiritual centers.

Here, we sit down with Kye and talk about his attitude and approach to music, singing, and songwriting, all the while weaving in and out of his upbringing, life as a touring teacher, and selected lyrics from both LPs, occasionally meandering into philosophical inquiries.

Bretty Rawson: When I think of touring musicians, I don’t think of classrooms. But when I think of you, I see a touring teacher and touring musician. I first knew you as a teacher, so there’s a reason for this association, but these two art forms seem fundamental to who you are as both an artist and educator. Can you talk about the intersection and evolution of these art forms and why you have chosen these two, or how they chose you?

Joe Kye: Personally, I find art is at its best when it moves society towards peace, harmony, and mutual understanding. My music is driven by a love for justice — it’s a place where I can envision and create the kind of world that I’d like to see. It’s a place where people actively work to recognize commonalities, where enemies respect the humanity in the other and work to build compromise, where every child is afforded the opportunity to become a productive and happy member of society.

My songs are often inspired by observations about some of the obstacles we face in creating such a world — our intolerance, in our increasingly profit-motivated culture, for mistakes, even from our young; our fear, in our increasing self-centeredness, of anything or anyone we don’t recognize as similar to us; and of course, our apathy, which keeps us sinking slowly into a pit of convenient, short-sighted, self-serving behaviors.

It’s education that can change our behavior and help us evolve. It’s by focusing on the young, who are naturally capable of learning from our faults, that we will grow and develop as a race (and begin tackling some of the major challenges we leave them, from climate change to the declining reserves of fossil fuels, not to mention not fighting against each other). For me, music is the way to deliver these messages in a way that is unifying and empowering. If I can spread those messages to audiences all over the world, I can do my part in engendering positive communal behaviors.

Bretty: You mentioned once that during your time at Yale, the concepts of masculinity you had at the time were backwards and that now, in your music and teaching, you hope to challenge gender roles. What were those moments, and how do you challenge gender roles through your teaching and music?

Joe: I think reconnecting with my sister after college was a particularly evolutionary time for me. As the eldest son of Asian American immigrants, I had a lot of privileges my sister did not. Our parents assigned us expectations based on their native cultural framework, which traditionally pushes men towards professional careers and women into homemaking (babies) and the arts.

After four years of teaching high school English, I stood at a crossroads. Should I go back to graduate school and try to be a professor (strongly advocated for by my mother)? Do I continue to pursue secondary school teaching? Dare I contemplate the pursuit of music, a life-choice which bewildered and frightened my parents, migrants depending on the future success of their progeny for stability and security? Clearly, I took the risk. I’ve never worked this joyfully.

Bretty: You also mentioned once that you didn’t want to “fulfill the wishes of dead white men.” Can you talk a little bit more about this and what steered your musical energy?

Joe: Them’s fighting words, but I was classically trained throughout childhood. Growing up, I got lost in Tchaikovsky’s melodies. I fell in love with Beethoven’s dramatic mood swings. I traveled with Sibelius through the fjords of Scandinavia. And while I listened to everything from Britney Spears to underground hip hop, I was raised to believe the only kind of worthy, respectable musician I could be was one that went to Julliard and toured the world as a concert violinist. Chalk that one up to the conservatism of both Korean and Classical Music culture, which often value elitism, hierarchy, and respecting the wishes of those who have gone before you.

I didn’t have an interest in practicing other people’s music for 10 hours a day — I certainly had more to say as a Korean American migrant than could be prescribed by dead Anglo-saxon males, most of whom were not around for the discovery of penicillin. I wanted to express and evolve my own sound. So I do.

Bretty: Let’s talk lyrics. I still remember with precise awareness my surroundings the first time I heard “Plastic Heart.” That first stanza sets a width and depth to what we come to experience over the course of this album. Tell me, what went into these first three lines?

Joe: First of all, I want to emphasize the intentional ambiguity — I don’t really know fully what I’m writing about, and I like when lyrics shift meaning through time and space. With that said, “Plastic Heart” was written my junior year at Yale — a time when there was a lot of pressure to identify my career track, make money, and find a way to stay in the U.S. on account of my immigrant legal status. So many people around me seemed to lack feeling and empathy, and pragmatism was threatening my inner sense of idealism and hope.

Bretty: The second song, “Farewell to I,” seems to represent an intersection of panic, where the listener is passerby to the parade. There is the constant plucking, softened at the outset, but which intensifies with the words below. What exactly are you, or we, fighting here? The hands of time and things we can’t control? And, is this farewell a leaving or a longing?

Joe: I feel like I’m in therapy. Certainly the incessant march of time, which, at the time of the song’s writing, signified the expiration of my student visa. I was also searching for someone to share my fears and anxieties. You meet so many people in life, particularly during college, and so many of the interactions could be summed up with “hello” and “goodbye.” I was also listening to the Beatles a lot during this time.

This was also a time of identity evolution. Two years removed from my culturally Korean childhood home, then thrown into the heart of privileged America, I had no idea who I was. But I knew I was more than Joe age 18. Thus, farewell to myself.

Bretty: The third song is distinct from the other five. Entitled “Sakura,” it is a nod to the Japanese song, “Sakura Sakura.” How does this song fit in to the album as a whole and what part of the present or past does it come from?

Joe: It most certainly is a nod to the folk song. I remember when I started the violin at school in 4th grade; we had the “Sakura” song in our music book. My classmates assumed I already knew the song … but I’m Korean American, not Japanese American. Crisis ensued. About 12 years later, I decided to re-appropriate the melody and lyrics and set it to a jazzier chord progression. Thus “Sakura” was born. The lyrics are: “Sakura Sakura / noyama mo sato mo,” but I do sing it with a thick American accent, emblematic of the vocal jazz I was listening to quite a bit at the time — perhaps another nod to the tension between assimilation versus celebration of my first culture.

Bretty: Let’s talk Joseph in the Well. This first song reminds me of the one in Plastic Heart. Did you have this in mind when you composed this intro? Also, it is a great contrast to the opening of Plastic Heart. What does this opening tell us about Joseph in the Well and its departure from your previous LP, three years prior?

Joe: First is the difference in production value. While Plastic Heart was an unmitigated joy to create, budget and time constraints prevented me from investing fully in the process. Unlike Plastic Heart, a solo endeavor, Joseph in the Well is recorded in a professional studio with a host of musicians. I also spent about five months on JitW, writing, arranging, and editing while recording, while Plastic Heart was completed in the span of a week.

From a creative standpoint, I think my sonic worldview has evolved substantially since Plastic Heart. PH was a fledgling attempt to deliver a package of self-contained songs, often adhering to more traditional folk aesthetic. In Joseph in the Well, I’m trying to present a curated sonic experience; the intro, for example, starts with a fairly common sound in my day-to-day — the crunch of gravel under my feet as I go for a walk. Next, recordings of native birdsongs (collected by local US Geological Survey Scientist Cory Overton) fade into the track, followed thereafter by some sparse violin pizzicato. Music surrounds us constantly — the punctuated shikah-shikah of a toothbrush, the rumbling bass of a passing semi, the wail of a petulant child — and I wanted to welcome listeners into my daily soundscape, real and imagined.

Bretty: Another departure with this EP: you collaborated with several artists. In “Happy Song,” it is with Rasar. Tell us about how that relationship formed. And in “Happy Song,” your lines seem to be on the surface of appearance — the illusion of happiness — while Rasar seems to expose the underlying complexities to “happiness” and what we should be “happy for.”

Joe: I briefly ran into Rasar when we were both guest musicians on soul/bossa nova artist Jahari Sai’s show. About a week later, we both happened to be supporting some local artists at a pub. As it happens, I ran into him at the water cooler, and we naturally launched into a conversation about race, the current injustices that plague our culture and country, and the role of music in creating a world that is fueled by a thirst for truth.

When I needed a rap to go along with “Happy Song,” I naturally dialed up Rasar. I think the song highlights a lot of our common ideas: Happiness is equated with monetary wealth in our capitalist consciousness, an unsustainable exercise in disappointment and self-hatred. Rather, we should work on our mindset and behaviors, discovering happiness in gratitude for what we already have, and acting to give forward to generations that will come after us.

Bretty: In Joseph Rests His Head, you are in your well, which for the man wearing white, seems to be a place of no longer living, but your words tell us it is from this place that you are able to understand what you are now. Can you tell us more about this sitting in the dark, or this well, and how well we’re able to feel in this dark, or not in the dark?

Joe: For me, this stanza represents my constant struggle with identity. When I wrote it, I was going through the arduous, convoluted process of obtaining my green card — permanent residency in the US. The stanza expresses my confusion as a long-time Korean citizen — I still am one today although I’ve been living here since the age of six. I couldn’t sleep at night, imagining myself as a native of either land — could I really claim to be American if my passport stated otherwise? Could I shed my cultural roots for the country in which I had built a home, yet often felt like a stranger?

Since I wrote it, the stanza has held different meanings for me, as I hope it does for listeners. We all struggle with identity in various forms, grappling with assigned labels while yearning for the liberty of self-definition. If my song can offer empathy while offering a glimmer of hope, I feel it has served its purpose.

Headshot of Joe Kye

Portland-based violinist-looper, vocalist, and community organizer Joe Kye discharges worlds of emotion with his lush string loops and eclectic style. From viral TikTok jingles skewering microaggressions to delivering keynote speeches about creativity, community, and identity, Joe’s work taps into an inner core, inspiring audiences to compassion and empathy. Drawing upon his immigrant upbringing, Kye weaves together electronic and acoustic textures, catchy melodies, and vocals to uplift and empower listeners. His band, Joe Kye & the Givers, features some of Portland’s most acclaimed musicians, supercharging Joe’s music with intensity and power. Joe’s children’s music project Hi Joe Kye! introduces families to his story of hope and joy with an electro-pop sound, embracing the creative power of looping with songs inspired by the audience.

In 2022, Kye launched Tiger Tiger PDX, a festival featuring Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander artists, performers, and chefs. Kye has opened for Yo-Yo Ma, recorded a Tedx Talk, and been featured on NPR. He is an Oregon Arts Commission 2023 Fellow.

Join the conversation!

Once or twice a month — we only send newsletters when we have things to communicate — we send announcements, opportunities, and inspirations.

Thanks for signing up! Oops! Something went wrong, please try again.