I found out about j.knife through Sounds of the Korean Underground. When I have a chance, I’ll go through the music that Shawn plays and see what he’s found. It was through an episode that I heard of j.knife. Going to her Bandcamp, I found out that she was a really young musician composing impressive music. In the beginning she only had some singles, but quickly released a full length and subsequent EP.
Knowing that she still has a lot of time ahead as an artist, I thought it would be a great time to capture this particular moment in her career before she jumps forward and releases something even more impressive.
Can you introduce yourself?
Hello! my name is Jennifer Kim AKA j.knife on the internet. I’m 16 years old and I make music on my own.
How did you get into music?
I had piano and flute lessons when I was young, but never enjoyed it. My family is not so musical, no one works in the field of arts. So I guess for a long time I’d never even thought of liking music. When I moved to China four years ago, I struggled with the culture and the language, and music videos on YouTube helped me get into the Western pop culture. There I also got to listen to 1989 by Taylor Swift and I just couldn’t listen to anything else for the next two months.
I fell in love with Jack Antonoff‘s production and Taylor’s songwriting. I think that was the first time I really got into listening to full albums and learning about the production behind them. After that, I learned to play guitar and performed at a benefit concert at my school for the first time in my life. I think since then I gained more confidence and started pursuing music.
Where did the name j.knife originate from?
My English teacher back in 8th grade used to give everyone in the class a nickname. He came up with mine on the spot, no one knows why it was j.knife, but everyone close to me started calling me j.knife and I liked it. When I started recording songs and putting them up on Bandcamp, I didn’t want to use my real name so I just called myself j.knife.
Who influences your music? Is it more Western artists or are there any Korean musicians who inspire you?
Although there are Korean musicians that inspire me, like Lee Sora, Sam Kim, and Se So Neon, I’m definitely more influenced by Western artists. familiar sounds was kind of a mixture of everything, and especially Cavetown‘s way of producing music really influenced me a lot. I also can’t help but mention Julien Baker for this question because, her music and beliefs mean so much to me, almost to an unhealthy degree.
The way she explores faith and hopelessness in her music had such a huge impact on my songwriting and my life. I’m also a huge fan of Joni Mitchell, her records always inspire me to try something different. These days I’m loving the simplicity of For Emma, Forever Ago, and Justin Vernon‘s earlier records. I have so many more musical influences, like Lorde, Phoebe Bridgers, St. Vincent, Elliot Smith, Paramore, and Talking Heads.
Are there any bands or musicians that you want to perform with?
I really want to play with Se So Neon. I love their energy on stage. I also think they’re wholesome people offstage too. And of course, I just really really want to see Julien Baker live and perform with her in the future.
How do you compose your music?
It’s always different, sometimes I start with a chord progression or a melody. Sometimes I write lyrics first and then the melody. I always try to write down an interesting word or phrase on my phone when I’m on the bus or something, so I can look back at them and write about them at home.
What tools do you use to compose your music?
I use GarageBand on my laptop and a USB microphone to record all of my acoustic instruments (mostly guitar and piano), vocals, and body percussion. I definitely need to learn how to use the software and upgrade my tools, but you know, Steve Lacy produced his entire demo album on his iPhone. I believe that you can record with the built-in mic on your laptop and still write a bop if the song is good.
When you compose songs, is there a thought process that you go through? Is it first a melody that sticks out or do you write lyrics first?
Again, it’s always different. When I find an interesting chord progression, I just create melodies on top of it and take lyrics from my iPhone notes. I think the more I get used to songwriting, the more I force myself to try different styles. I also think about the impact it will have on my audience, although I try not to. I think I have the responsibility as an artist to be careful in the way I channel my stories so that I’m not victimizing myself.
There’s a simplicity, but complexity in your instrumentals. Is that on purpose or do you hone in on a specific melody?
To be frank, I think I tend to use less instruments because I just can’t afford a wide range of instrumentals at the moment. I do everything by myself, I’m terrible at mixing, and I don’t know how to use my microphone properly. So if I try to use a drum kit or a loud synth, it just sounds bad. So I just focus on what I can do with my guitar or piano. Especially these days, I put more effort on the song itself. Songwriters like John Prine and Sufjan Stevens really help me believe in the beauty of simplicity.
Even as a newer artist, you already released singles, a full length, and EP. Is there a backlog of tracks that you are working through?
There are like 20 voice memos on my phone that I have to work on. I am currently on summer break, but I can’t do any music stuff right now because I’m studying for high school. I think it will take some time for new music.
Is there a message in your music that you want people to understand?
My songs mostly discuss uncomfortable topics because I’d rather talk about those things than write some superficial lyrics. No matter how I want to exclude them from my life and pretend they don’t matter, they’re always going to be there. Obviously I don’t want to be labeled as a musician who only writes sad songs, but I think we should share this kind of discomfort, despair, or anger we feel, because they are crucial part of human emotion.
I share my questions, doubts and fears because it’s a very effective way for me to be okay with them. Listening to albums like After Laughter by Paramore and Turn Out the Lights by Julien Baker made me feel understood. I want to have the same effect on my listeners. I want them to feel safe and less alone by listening to me being honest in music.
When people started listening to your music, were you scared of what the response would be?
I put out my first collection of songs on Bandcamp (which is not available anymore because I made it private) thinking no one would find out about it. Shawn Despres of Sounds from the Korean Underground was one of the first people ever to listen to it and he was the first person to make comments about it.
Because he was so supportive, I wasn’t really scared of people’s response on the internet. And I thought that I could just delete my Bandcamp page and pretend j.knife never happened if people started attacking me. When I first started showing my music to people in real life, I think I was more hesitant because, whether I liked it or not, I only had slow, sad songs. I was scared of people assuming I’m this sad emo teenager that hates everyone and everything.
Do you have any specific goals as j.knife in the next couple years?
I want to make a living doing music when I grow up and I want to pursue it as soon as possible. However, I will start living in Korea in less than a year and go to high school there. And it’s going to be tough. I may not be able to do any music stuff for more than 3 years.
So I aim to finish an experimental album with a narrative and a full-length before I graduate secondary school. I also hope I can make a video for one of my songs with my friends. Those may or may not be my last work for the j.knife project.
Anything to say to readers?
Hey Korean Indie readers, thanks for taking time to read this interview! If you’re interested, you can listen to my singles, EP and albums on Bandcamp and all of my demos and covers on Soundcloud. Thanks to my listeners for sticking around, hope to see you soon with better, more polished music!