The musician discusses his solo project, eaJ, and reveals how a panic attack led him to tackle his own mental health issues and launch a social initiative
He may have played his father’s guitar in the living room as a kid, but a career in music always felt like a pipe dream for Jae Park. Raised in Cerritos, California, Jae was pursuing higher education when he got the chance to audition for a Korean American Idol-esque survival show. Through this experience, he was able to carve a space for himself in the Korean music scene by ultimately joining Korean rock group Day6 in 2015.
Making their debut almost six years ago, Day6 created a space for a different type of idol group, a band. The five-member group has each member on an instrument: a drummer, two guitarists, a bassist, and a keyboard player. The members are heavily involved with the lyric writing and production of their songs. A trip to one of their live performances will surprise you with a member shredding a solo on the electric guitar instead of an intricate dance break. Their first EP, The Day, peaked at number two on Billboard’s World Album Chart, and since then, each succeeding release has found a home in the top 10.
Outside of the day job, Jae’s been busy with various projects: he’s a part-time streamer on Twitch, a co-host on the How Did I Get Here (HDIGH) podcast and, most recently, a solo artist, posting a string of self-penned songs under the alias eaJ to his YouTube channel from early last year. These side projects give us an insight into his personality. HDIGH explores a playful side to Jae; he and his co-host begin with a topic, start by sharing their opinions and beliefs, and slowly, they spiral into a deep dive on Google, diverging into a completely new topic by the end of the episode. It leaves them asking “How did I get here?”
Feeling lost and uninspired, Jae began writing the tracks as a way to reconnect with his love of music. These solo tracks sound different to his work with Day6. While Day6’s high energy work is reminiscent of early 2000s pop punk bands like All Time Low, the aeJ project tracks are tranquil, almost dreamlike, revealing a softer side of Jae’s musicality.
But amid this new venture, Jae faced mental health challenges that he feels changed his life, beginning with a panic attack in the back of a taxi. In recent times, more K-pop idols have become outspoken about their struggles, but there’s still a stigma attached to the topic in Eastern society. Compared to artists in the West, K-pop idols are more reserved about their relationship with mental health. Jae believes that continuing this cycle of “toxic positivity” and perfection can be destructive to today’s youth, fueling the global prevalence of adolescent mental health disorders.
These confrontations with what he calls “feelings of death, doom, and finality” encouraged him to become a mental health advocate and, through that, From Friends was born – a clothing line created in collaboration with REPRESENT, which helped the star raise £100,000 for mental health charities.
We caught up with Jae to talk about his projects, mental health, and why From Friends was such a valuable experience to the 28-year-old artist.
You began the eaJ solo project last year. Could you talk a bit more about that?
Jae Park: I came to the conclusion that I’d forgotten what kind of music I liked. (I wanted) to find my identity, so I started spinning out track after track; it came almost like word vomit. I was throwing up all this emotional baggage I had (built) up over the years. I just ended up releasing it. I took everyone for the ride, because (I thought), ‘If I’m gonna make it, I might as well take you with me’.
Can you talk us through some of the issues you were dealing with at the time?
Jae Park: I ended up breaking down in a taxi ride on the way home from a video shoot for the eaJ project, on a song called “Truman”. At first, I felt my body go numb. And then my heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. So I said, ‘Oh, panic attack… nice. I’m gonna die’. And this impending feeling of doom and death and finality was just drawing so close. And I started hyperventilating, I was freaking out. I told the taxi (driver), ‘I’m going to need to go to the hospital’. I was almost out of my mind when I reached the hospital; I’d been hyperventilating the whole time. They took me into ER, did all these tests, and told me there was nothing wrong with me. I was like, ‘You’re lying, there’s no way. There’s something physically wrong, I feel like I’m going to die. I can’t breathe’. Turns out I had some pretty severe panic attacks.
“(I wanted) to find my identity, so I started spinning out track after track; it came almost like word vomit. I was throwing up all this emotional baggage I had (built) up over the years” – Jae Park
Oh wow, that’s quite a journey. Especially when you’ve never felt that way before. Your brain is telling you, ‘Oh my God, you’re gonna die’. Sometimes the wires in your brain just get crossed a bit. And there’s not necessarily anything that causes it.
Jae Park: Sometimes there’s no trigger.
A part of your job is to almost seem like you’re perfect, right? Because people idolise you. And when you have these little cracks in the armour, it’s seen as a weakness. Could you talk about how you turned this thing that could be perceived as a weakness into something good, with From Friends?
Jae Park: This actually segues perfectly into what I wanted to talk about. That’s why it’s called ‘From Friends’. The mission statement is (about) extending a helping hand to whomever, wherever there’s a need. It’s very personal and it’s from a friend. Friends are people who tell you, ‘Hey, you don’t look like you’re doing well’, or, ‘Hey, you seem a little bit off’.
I thought this was something that was going to positively affect people. When the car incident happened, I thought, ‘Damn, if only someone had told me that a panic attack can make you feel like you’re about to die, that it usually comes with impending feelings of death and doom, and you start breathing really fast’. If I’d known those things, which I’m sure that 90 per cent of celebrities have gone through, I wouldn’t have freaked out as hard as I did. And I feel like that day carved a couple of scars in me that aren’t going to be healed in the near future.
What kind of reactions did you receive after the launch?
Jae Park: I definitely received a lot of positive reactions. And it’s incredibly rewarding to be a part of this. To be completely honest, in a big corporation (the idol group Jae belongs to, Day6, is part of South Korean multinational conglomerate JYP Entertainment, which has represented some of the biggest acts in the industry), it’s not the easiest to be able to start projects like this. It’s one hand to the next hand, and the next. Then it gets rejected, all the way back down and you do it again. It wasn’t easy, but it felt good. Especially when I used to read my DMs, a lot of people were like, ‘Thank you so much, I thought it was just me’. And it’s not just you. Those are the people I want to reach. Those are the people we wanted to educate, and let them know it’s OK not to feel perfect. Your idols try to look perfect because their company told them to look perfect! But I (guarantee) you, they don’t feel perfect.
What are your personal goals for 2021?
Jae Park: So I’ve been doing these unofficial releases on YouTube, and people liked them so I thought I might as well make a video. It was purely for entertainment, just to see how people would react. And I think I had a really positive reaction and I feel like I’ve garnered some of the respect that I wanted when starting the project. I’m planning an official release sometime soon.
I think my next venture is (for) my number one (job), Day6. We’re always working on an album. I’m, like, 99 per cent sure we have a solid album for you this year.
We’ve talked about mental health, your solo projects, and Day6. Is there anything else about yourself you think the world doesn’t know, that this ‘idol’ world doesn’t capture authentically?
Jae Park: I feel like I’m pretty damn transparent, especially these days, after the ‘incident’. I’ve probably shared every opinion that I have online somewhere; they’re always a little bit controversial. I’m known as a bit of a problem child these days in the K-pop realm. Something the world doesn’t know about me? I’m not sure if there’s anything. Everyone knows I’m a dumbass and I make mistakes; I am a hypocrite (who contradicts) what I’ve said the week before, because I feel different a week later. I’m just me, I’m just a human being, and that’s just how it is.
Check out Jae Park’s From Friends line here