At Her Two Sydney Shows, Yaeji Created A Better Kind Of Dance Floor
It makes sense that Yaeji's first Australian festival is Meredith: she might be the best accidental enforcer of their 'no dickheads' policy they've ever had.
This past weekend, Yaeji made it rain in Sydney. Twice.
Well, not literally — the weekend was actually marked by a dry heat (one which arrived cruelly, after a few days after the city received a month’s worth of rain in a day).
But it ‘rained’ because Kathy Yaeji Lee — Korean-American producer, singer, DJ, and, until recently, a graphic designer in Brooklyn — ended her Saturday and Sunday shows with her breakout hit ‘raingurl’, which matches a pulsating beat with memorable, quirk-driven lyrics, sung-rapped in both Korean and English.
While its refrain (‘Make it rain/Make it rain’) screams for a boisterous sing-along, ‘raingurl’ is about introspection on the dance floor, where your mind wanders even when your body’s committed to the beat, thinking in non-sequiturs like “When the sweaty walls are banging/I don’t fuck with Family Planning”.
But that experience didn’t match the audiences’: they were too busy for stray thoughts, singing along (even if that meant butchering the Korean lines) while watching Yaeji throw herself around stage with dorky, singing-into-hairbrush abandon.
Last year, Pitchfork deemed Yaeji House Music’s Most Exciting New Voice for the way she oscillates between bass-heavy and more breathable moments, overlaid with her anxieties about her Korean-American identity, therapy, and skincare routines, taken from notes jotted down on the subway.
But the Yaeji point-of-difference is clearest on-stage, where the 25-year-old has a swagger reminiscent of the big-names of EDM. You could almost imagine her bopping and finger-pointing in front of confetti cannons, though showmanship isn’t really the name of the game here.
Where many DJs who actively ‘perform’ are doing so under the pressure to create The Best Night Ever, Yaeji seems to mostly want to have fun. In response, any particularly amped audience members recalibrate their sights, become less violently enthusiastic in wake. It is a more intimate, empathetic dance floor — rain and all.
‘Shit Is Crazy, Shit Is Yaeji’
Saturday’s show marks Yaeji’s Australian debut — she’s playing a few east coast shows around Meredith Music Festival. It’s part of the Sydney Opera House’s December Studio series, which turns one of the downstairs theatres with removable seating into the nicest 600 person club space you’ve ever seen, while theatre-goers one wall over watch Patrick White’s seminal Australian play A Cheery Soul.
People are cheery in the studio, too: The Opera House show sold out remarkably quickly, prompting a hastily added second show at Oxford Art Factory.
Where many DJs who actively ‘perform’ are doing so under the pressure to create The Best Night Ever, Yaeji seems to mostly want to have fun.
There’s a lot of excitement around Yaeji. After a few singles in 2016, last year she released two tight EPs that mixed house and rap with warm introspection, side-stepping both genres’ more aggressive tendencies largely though her distinct, whispery vocals, inspired by Korean phonetics.
Before Yaeji comes on, two Sydney DJs amp the audience: Kali keeps early arrivers energised, while duo DIN — comprised of best friends Rainbow Chan and Alex Ward of Moon Holiday — limber up the crowd with a sharp and shrill industrial mix.
But Yaeji’s ambient intro before she arrives on stage immediately shifts the atmosphere from frenzy to cold anticipation. When she arrives to open with ‘Feel It Out’ — a song whose ‘Shit is crazy/Shit is Yaeji’ chorus doubles as a mantra — the crowd erupts.
It’s an steady indication for the night’s flow — Yaeji builds then retreats, jumping out in front of the crowd to rap and dance before returning behind the decks. She regularly lets songs fade completely before beginning the next, or following crowd-favourites like ‘Guap’ by grabbing a mic-stand to perform ballad ‘feelings change’.
It creates a much-needed breathing space for both herself and crowd before we all jump around again, finger-pointing and making hearts back-and-forth with the crowd.
It’s later — as she ramps up the audience towards ‘raingurl’ — that Yaeji begins to mix songs together, providing the DJ set most might have expected.
After the closer, she stands in front of the crowd and gives a speech. Softly spoken, her comments (“I love seeing you guys dance, because dance music is where I’m from”) feel genuinely grateful — she promises to come back soon, and then she does immediately with one of her few unplayed tracks, a bubbling remix of Charli XCX’s ‘Focus’.
It’s a nice way to end, as the night reminds me of Charli’s recent spate of Sydney shows. Both acts are united by the same sense of unbridled fun, of treating the audience like their partners in partying.
Sunday night is a hard sell in Sydney, but not for Yaeji.
The Oxford Arts Factory is a smaller room (500 capacity vs 600), so everyone feels a little more crammed in. A little rowdier and sweatier, too, thanks to triple j’s Mix Up DJ Andy Garvey, who is fast becoming a staple on festival line-ups across Australia.
As for Yaeji, it’s pretty much the exact same show — save for the audience. Chants start with more frequency: it’s a little easier to get a group going in a smaller space. More ear-piercing whistles come from the crowd, and as Yaeji (literally) lets her hair out and twirls on-stage during ‘raingurl’, a girl in a raincoat jumps on her friends’ shoulders and mimics her. It’s a small moment, but one she calls out in her speech at the end, saying she’s amazing. “You kind of even look like me, too”, she says.
Back in Brooklyn, Yaeji partners with a Korean restaurant to serve curry at her regular gigs, trying to imbue some sense of community nourishment into the space. Neither Sydney show had curry, of course, but there was still that sense of intimacy there.
It makes sense that Yaeji’s first Australian festival is Meredith Music Festival: she might be the best accidental enforcer of their ‘no dickheads‘ policy they’ve ever had.
Yaeji’s east coast tour continues this week with sold-out shows in Melbourne and Brisbane, as well as a set at Meredith Music Festival.
Photo Credit: Lydo Le/Supplied
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.