Auckland-based electro-synth duo Yery Cho and Carl Ruwhiu (aka Imugi 이무기) made a big splash when they hit Laneway in 2019, off the back their debut EP ‘Vacasian’ (2017) and their gorgeous haze-filled video ‘Greensmoke’. And now, after two year’s quiet, they are back with a new street-smart, funky release – ‘Dragonfruit’ – and a national tour in early December. Tim Gruar talked to singer-songwriter Yery Cho about growing up as a 2nd generation Korean, finding her identity and her inner Imugi, and working with luminary producer like Josh Fountain.
The band is named after a character from Korean folk mythology. Imugis are ‘proto-dragons’, gigantic serpents that must survive 1000 years before evolving into fully-fledged dragons. They often live in caves or dark water, quiet and benevolent, building their power. In a way this sums up the band, too, who began as bedroom engineers and are now evolving themselves, crafting their music for the small speakers and headphones.
Although Yery and Carl met in maths class at Rangitoto High School, you can’t accuse them of being your average number nerds. Quite the opposite. Yery tells me that the two hit it off pretty much immediately because they were ‘outsiders’. “Carl (stood out to me) because he would always come in late. He’d argue with the teacher. I was quiet, couldn’t express myself. When we started working together, I found a way to sing. I (briefly) was in this all girl indie rock band. I played guitar. I was really shy, didn’t want to front the band. I wrote songs for the lead singer.”
Music was always important to Yery. She says she had “the classic Korean mum” introducing her to piano lessons at a very early age, with all the intensity, daily practice, the expectations to succeed. She wanted to sing but couldn’t find her voice. Her journey to become a singer/songwriter was not easy. She says prior to Imugi she’d never really written much and was held back by fear and trepidation of performing. In her late teens she started to gravitate towards heroes like Grimes, Abra, Mitski, and FKA Twigs, who she refers to as ‘fiercely independent women doing it themselves. There’s something in that.” “It was a confidence thing, to be honest in your lyrics.” She took a lot of inspiration from artists who were women of colour -producers, singers, and rappers.
Part of finding her confidence was understanding who she was, where she fitted in, Yery says. “It’s quite interesting. I am second generation Korean family. I grew up in a very traditional environment. Half of ‘you’ is adhering to the conservative, traditional ways, and nature, I guess, and the other half is free to do what you want.”
I’d recently had a conversation with a third-generation Greek, who was telling me that she’d grown up in a diaspora that harked back to an idealised view of the home country. One that had moved on from when her family had left several decades ago. Yet my friend was expected, in some ways, to still conform to a set of principles, beliefs and roles from that old world.
Yery agrees, “You’ve hit the nail on the head,” she says. “I was born in Korea. I came here when I was two and I’ve never been back. I’ve been brought up with this ‘role model’ in my head about how a Korean girl should be. I haven’t been back since and I’m a little bit scared to go back because I’m unsure of what is considered to be ‘OK’ there now. What is the standard woman in Korea – all those expectations. But, at the same time, it’s so important to go back to your ancestral lands and reconnect – to solidify my identity. Yet the only life I have is what I’ve got here. It feels very complex sometimes.”
Yery was always conscious of living between two words and the pressures of expectations from her family and her peers. Growing up in Auckland and going Rangitoto College, a large school with so many cultures, it must have awakened her own need to find identity, I ask. “Going to school on the North Shore was a very alienating experience. The school wasn’t really a hub for Maori culture or language, or anything. Even other cultures. I didn’t start to discover any of that until I left High School. When you are there you are in a very Colonial institution. You have to adhere to the rules, be they social or school rules, to fit in and get by. I was hard for kids of colour growing up in a place with dominantly white faces. We stood out. You feel alienated and you have to shrink yourself in order to exist on that plane. I’m so thankful to come out of that. Identity politics is a big mess of a journey but, you know, it does give me some material, to use in my music. I can express myself in my own way now.”
I asked Yery why she doesn’t write or sing in Korean. Her answer was defiant and passionate. She said that she wasn’t comfortable with the current K-Pop model and didn’t want to be associated with it. “K-Pop is very derogatory and manipulative to young women in Korea. They have to dress and behave is a very certain way. They are expected to sing about certain topics. I can speak Korean fairly well but I fear how I’d be judged. I definitely don’t like the way young women in Korean are shaped into those very restrictive models, those shapes are so restricting and false.” She cites artists like Sulli and Kim Jong-hyun, and others who took their lives after speaking out about their experiences in the industry.
The duo remained making music in their bedroom studio for about two years. Their early single ‘Dizzy’ did well and encouraged more effort. But as high school ended, they stopped, as tertiary education took over: Yery went to University of Auckland to study English literature and Carl went on to study audio engineering at MAINZ. It was a period of hiatus, as they found it increasingly difficult to find time for new projects.
Yery now looks at that break, philosophically, as really important. She says she needed to get some real-life experience under her belt and now feels more reflective and self-aware. “when you 18 or 19 there’s some teen angst to deal with. You don’t look really look beyond that time. As you get older, it opens up, as a writer.”
Lyrically, the band’s new EP, ‘Dragonfruit’ takes the listener on a trip through Yery’s diasporic-Asian-girl-psyche, unearthing the complex issues that all coloured migrant women face. It’s a bit of a balancing act between healing through self-consciousness, living in the imported culture of the old country and fitting into the new. “Our own essence and experiences shouldn’t be covered by self-consciousness but expressed in awareness and allowance. The art you make is therapeutic, validating, empowering and highly communicative in speaking your truth”.
I ask her how the release of ‘Vacasian’ and then performing at gigs like Laneway had potentially ‘validated’ her as a fully bone fide musician. “I feel like my first ep it was cool that we are allowed to make music, that we can do this. Because with my traditional upbringing, pursuing a creative career is almost ‘not ok’. It’s not tangible to my family. It was not encouraged. So, doing ‘Vacasian’ was my first real ‘real proof’ that I could be ‘a musician’ and communicate these things I was feeling that were so hard to articulate, normally. But is so easy to put into a song. Writing music is that way. You can’t help but have some identity politics driving you. The way you navigate the world, how you see yourself, everything that goes into our music was there.”
“And moving on to ‘Dragonfruit’, taking that same kind of energy, develop our music further… having the opportunity to work in his Golden Age Studios with recent co-Winner of the 2020 APRA Silver Scroll Josh Fountain (Benee) and Ben Lawson, who are amazing audio engineers, helping us to learn more about music, how to craft and polish it more.”
She says that ‘Vacasian’ feels so raw in comparison to the new material, that it’s been a journey of discovery, to become the artists they are now. The production on ‘Dragonfruit’ is smooth and mature, and that is definitely down to Fountain, but Yery also credits the way she and Carl worked more collaboratively with the team.
‘Dragonfruit’ is not so much a step up, more a heightening of their powers (Imugi awakening) , with a deliciously immersive, meditative experience, bookended by the chilled and funky opener ‘Portals’ and closed out with the intense ‘Reflections’. The standout still remains their hazy, ultra-dreamy single ‘Greensmoke’, which has found a release home on this collection. There’s also a crunchy synth-pop gem called ‘Be Here Soon’, the ‘Somebody Else’ and a punchy collaboration with rising Hip-Hop crew Church & AP on ‘Y U Always Acting Like A Fool?’
One of the best numbers is ‘Wandering Recluse’, which, I suggest. Has a bit of a travelling warrior monk narrative vibe. “I like that idea,” Yery says, “That’s what we were going for. We wanted an airy, celestial sort of (soundscape). So, we layered up all these dreamy, mesmerizing drum grooves (Carl writes a new beat every day, and he often goes down these little rabbit holes – this one paid off).” The result has some very sweet synths and floating, soothing melodies, polished up by Mr Fountain, for sure. “The track’s also a bit of a banger, too. I think it’s the angriest track, because of the low-level vibrations we get into it. That was a throwback to our earlier work.”
She says working with Fountain and co. was a very positive education. He would help us with vocal harmonies, beats and sounds, sonic ideas, adding new layers and ideas, refining what we had. There are moments at the start of ‘Greensmoke’ and ‘Y U Always Acting Like A Fool’ that start with crunchy chord progressions and synth flourishes, then head off in a different, unrelated direction. Almost like a change in thinking. That’s where Fountain would help splice together different ideas to mould into stunning intros that add uniqueness.
I suggest this is where the music stands out from its genre peers. “Thank you for appreciating that,” Yery says, “We really wanted to play around with expectations. Song writing follows a structure and conventions. We wanted to blow those apart.” “We would bring in the raw tracks, lyrics, beats and build and build and build, layer after layer. But we were very aware of our limited studio time, too. Time is money, so we’d get everything ready before we’d go into the studio. Prepare as best we could, so we don’t waste their time. So, there was also focus, we were ready to go. “(Like the earlier works), making music is a cathartic process, where you can communicate those things that too heavy in everyday life, too hard to approach. You can do this in music. Making this was a really dope process, and it really shows the scope of what we can do now.” The Imugi is alive and forming.
Now ‘Dragonfruit’ is out they duo are going out on the road, with a three-date national tour:
IMUGI DRAGONFRUIT EP RELEASE SHOW DATES:
- Wellington 9 December Meow
- Auckland 10 December The Tuning Fork
Tickets at www.livenation.co.nz