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The Trials of Sook-Yin Lee, Canadian Musician, Filmmaker, Actress, and Media Personality8 min read

22 September, 2009 0 comment

By Adrian Mack

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She’s given us an unusually rich field to pick from, but personally, my favourite Sook-Yin Lee moment came sometime back in the 1990s when she casually informed MuchMusic viewers that she was constipated.

Strathcona in the 1980s—or “Freezone” as Lee characterizes it—is where the Chinese Canadian misfit decamped in her mid-teens to escape a suffocating home life in North Van.“ I was a kid in the candy store,” she remembers, “with all this pent up teen fury, and suddenly I was inside a very exciting community of musicians, poets, writers, dancers, all informing, partying and creating with one another. There were just so many people in Vancouver that were incredibly talented. People like poet Judy Radul, who would get onstage, covered from head to toe in bangles, piercings and tattoos, saying the most fiery verbiage that was in rhythm and syncopation. She was just a force. It was spectacular. Or somebody like Tippy Agogo, a street musician, he was fantastic. He reminds me of Beck. Mecca Normal—Jean Smith was so inspiring. She just played here with David Lester. Years later they still have as much urgency to communicate and express themselves.”

Lee has never recoiled from describing the childhood that, at the tender age of 15, drove her out of the family home and into the Promethean subculture of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. But then, it’s primary to understanding the work she does to this day. “My dad is a very modest guy, but on a dime he can tell the greatest story. I feel slayed and I feel humbled,” she says. Her orphaned father suffered under the Japanese occupation in Hong Kong during World War II with an implacable sense of humour and a native talent for storytelling. “His humanity survived,” Lee notes.

Mom was a different proposition. “She was a handful,” Lee says, softly. “A hugely emotional person, quite destructive, and quite angry and melodramatic. I certainly think that I’ve adopted a sense of drama from her. I remember years ago when I played Mephistopheles in Faust, I was frightening. I channeled a lot of rage, and a lot of stuff that actually was very much inspired by my mom.” But without being brought up in that really specific situation, I don’t think I would have become an artist.”

Which brings us very neatly to the multidisciplinary bonanza we all know as Lee, who started in music, fronting late, lamented art-brats Bob’s Your Uncle back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She made such a sufficient impression as a solo artist to wheel a tribute from no less than Neko Case, who covered Lee’s off-kilter ballad “Knock Loud” for her Canadian Amp EP in 2001.

Looking back, she describes her modest lifestyle in Vancouver as “acoustic.” Not much has changed since then. “Yeah, it’s still ‘acoustic,’” she laughs. “I’m pretty much like an old lady who lives in a shoe-type house: not too fancy or modern, but I love it. It’s 11-feet wide.”

In 1995, Lee was plucked by Moses Znaimer from indie-rock quasi-celebrity and dropped feet-first into the “Nation’s Music Station” in Toronto. Looking back, she describes her modest lifestyle in Vancouver as “acoustic.” Not much has changed since then. “Yeah, it’s still ‘acoustic,’” she laughs. “I’m pretty much like an old lady who lives in a shoe-type house: not too fancy or modern, but I love it. It’s 11-feet wide.”

Eleven-feet wide? Lee’s home life is evidently in contrast to the staggering breadth of her work: from her ongoing musical pursuits both as a solo artist (and with 2003’s yeh-yeh / trip hop hybrid Slan), to her auspicious filmmaking, working with CBC, and appearing in the provocative and brilliant Shortbus. With such a tornado for a life, Lee puts the emphasis on having her own simple, private space.

Lee’s MySpace page (www.myspace.com/sookyinlee) hosts a collection of splendidly whimsical “Video Portals”—made for her current gig with the CBC on Definitely Not the Opera—which include a shot or two of what she calls her “beach house.” Located in one of Toronto’s funkiest, beachless inner-city neighbourhoods, Lee’s place is a window into the kind of boho-thrift store world one would absolutely expect her to inhabit. In her home, there are vivid red and purple walls, wainscoting, a toytown bathroom, a hefty-looking vintage loveseat in the living room draped with a heavy floral print and musical instruments scattered all over the place.

“I have a tendency to find people’s garbage and then become attached to it. I try to curb that.”

“To keep my sanity I have this other pole, which is to live very basically,” she agrees. “I still ride my bike, I don’t know how to drive, I like the creaky wooden floorboards in my house and I walk. There really isn’t a lot of high-tech stuff in my life. It’s manageable for that reason. Living in a place like this, I have to use more discretion about what I bring into the house and what I end up recycling and giving away.” What Lee “brings into the house” should probably go on the record. “Something will catch my eye,” she says, “but it’ll be like, ‘Oh, wow, somebody just tossed out that very large bus shelter photograph, with the strange child and the Mickey Mouse ears—I have to take that home!’ I have a tendency to find people’s garbage and then become attached to it. I try to curb that.”

You can see the characteristic quality that world-renowned comic book artist Chester Brown—Lee’s best friend—defines as her “impishness.” One can also hear the mauve and slightly macabre tendencies that underline so much of Lee’s work as a musician.

For the most part, however, it’s the impish side that wins out. Take for example Lee’s first ever work as a filmmaker, an autobiographical five-minute short from 1990 called Escapades of One Particular Mr. Noodle. “I always say that my family was yellow trash,” she says. “We grew up in North Vancouver, there wasn’t a single book in the house, my mother had a beehive….” And while Lee feels that she’s moved on from the identity issues that underpinned Mr. Noodle, the tone of the film—which she describes as “John Waters meets John Hughes in this weird kind of existential Sesame Street”—persists to this day. Lee recently wrapped up work on her feature-length debut as director, a locally shot film she also wrote called Year of the Carnivore. Lee was amazed to find how much it reminded her of that embryonic first pass from almost two decades ago.

“It’s in the playfulness of it,” she suggests. “Often times I’ll look at the first film of somebody like Gus Van Sant or David Cronenberg, and there’s always a sort of ‘kick-up-your-heels’ quality. It’s not necessarily super-slick, but there’s an essential spirit that’s being conducted that is so key to that creator’s voice. When I see Carnivore, I think ‘Ah, that so reminds me of my first film…’ maybe because I scored both Mr. Noodle and Carnivore, and my music is very idiosyncratic.”

“‘Trouble’ by Cat Stevens, ‘Candy Says’ by Velvet Underground and ‘Love’ by John Lennon,” says Lee. “The mood of those three songs together was exactly the tone that guided me through the movie.

Lee scored Carnivore with her friends Buck 65 and Adam Litovitz, working at home on her Mac and using nothing fancier than GarageBand. “And I will have musicians laugh in my face when I tell them that I recorded everything in GarageBand,” she half-snorts, “but to my ear, you can’t tell the difference. It was perfect for that situation.” In reality, Lee merely picked up where her previous project left off. She was working on a new solo album when the funding for Carnivore was secured. But music was also essential to the process of writing the film, she reveals. “Film very much borrows the same part of my imagination and brain that music does,” she says, “so there’s this certain sense of timing, tempo and mood, and this certain quality in just a melody that’s almost like poetry in that it’s not completely rational, but it’s emotive through non-verbal means.” To that end, Lee found herself listening obsessively to three particular songs, again and again and again, as she tapped out the screenplay to her first full-length movie.

“‘Trouble’ by Cat Stevens, ‘Candy Says’ by Velvet Underground and ‘Love’ by John Lennon,” says Lee. “The mood of those three songs together was exactly the tone that guided me through the movie. I don’t know if there’s a word for that mood. There’s a sort of melancholy but also uplift, and playfulness, and whimsy and embracement. It’s a feeling. If you listen to those three songs back to back, you’ll essentially feel the same mood that I wish people to have when they walk out of the theatre after watching my movie.”

Carnivore doesn’t open for another seven months or so. Until then, Lee says she’ll be getting back to the songwriting process she had to sideline while she became a fully-fledged movie director. As for the future, who knows? Lee’s affinity for being in the right place at the right time appears to be as uncalculated as her radio and television persona. Asked if she intends to stay in Toronto, she sighs, “I really don’t know. I’m not very good at planning things. Life just happens to me.”

Whatever comes to pass, and wherever it takes her, we can at least assume that Sook-Yin Lee will always bring a little bit of Strathcona’s soulful, low-budget energy along with her.

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