Yaeji’s tour of the food and fuel that forged With A Hammer

Energy drinks, owl blogs, and magical girl anime: we spent a Dazed Day Out with the artist in her favourite spots around XL Recordings, discussing how her debut album came to life

TextVanessa HsiehPhotographyAlice WadePhotographyCaitlin Ricaud

Do you remember what you were doing on this day five years ago? Yaeji does. With four different diaries – one that even keeps hourly records of each day – the artist also known as Kathy Lee is, by her own admission, “obsessed with documenting.” “I’ve always had this habit,” she says, attributing its origin to her formative years, though as an adult, she is self-aware that the practice (especially the hourly one) is a “little insane.” She assures me that she only fills this in retroactively as a way to keep track of what she’s done in a day – like hanging out and showing me her favourite spots around the studio where her debut album With A Hammer was forged – and explains it as helpful “datakeeping” to learn more about herself and her habits. Not only that, it placates deep-rooted existential anxieties: “I fear that, if I don’t write it down, I will forget. If I don‘t remember, then did that experience happen?” 

Together with the “collector’s blood” inherited from her 90-year-old grandpa that practically raised her (he owns an owl blog with hundreds of entries to date), Yaeji’s preoccupation with documentation finds physical form in written notes and accumulated trinkets. It’s fitting, then, that this conversation is taking place in a room at her label’s HQ that is bursting with music memorabilia. A rich tapestry of photos, merch, walls plastered with record covers and even the blanket we’re sitting on designed by Yaeji herself, tells the story of every artist that has been through XL Recordings’ decorated doors. In the corner, the hammer that she wields in the album art and in the “For Granted” music video is the latest addition to this lore – alongside a comic made with illustrator friend Sseongryul. Born from collaborative sessions together, this artefact – representing almost 30 years of repressed anger and complex emotions – is a distillation of her focused album-making mission, after years of producing in a relatively “spontaneous and messy” way. “I need[ed] to write a story, and build this world, so that when I start[ed] writing the music, I [would] go to that place,” she describes the thinking behind this way of keeping her grounded. 

Drawing on magical girl anime like Sailor Moon, Wedding Peach, and Saint Tail – a source of comfort during the pandemic – Yaeji’s Hammer Origin Story makes a manga out of the way she sees her art. “Music [is] alchemy,” she writes, adding that it has “the power to transmute feelings, experiences, and relationships.” It can even be a form of time travel: with hair extensions, and embracing pink for once, Yaeji cosplays as a version of herself on With A Hammer that is able to directly address her past iterations (“Passed Me By”), confront past traumas, but, crucially, still have fun “Done (Let’s Get It)”. While the overall work grapples with intricate layers of internal and external conflict pertaining to her Korean American identity, family dynamics, and learning to “break the cycles” and “mend the cycles” of “how we learn to / Pass down what we didn’t want to do,” she is still as sonically playful on this album as she is on the more straightforward club bangers that she broke through with in 2017. The “raingurl” with “mother Russia in [her] cup” is present as ever, just constantly evolving through this endless process of archiving, interrogating and excavating the past to learn and apply these lessons to the future. 

Joined now by a cast including The Hammer and Wizard Dog – a parallel of her IRL puppy Jiji who features heavily in her soothing “onion vlogs” – Yaeji sheds some of the instinctual introversion that resonated so much on her previous, presciently timed mixtape What We Drew 우리가 그려왔 that dropped a mere month into global pandemic lockdowns. Obviously written without the knowledge of what was to come, the project nevertheless serves as an apt prelude to the same themes that With A Hammer is preoccupied with breaking free from. 

‘When you meet someone through music, it’s a deeper connection because it’s language without words’ – Yaeji

These avatars, like the way she explores how sound can fill the gaps of what cannot be expressed through words, are a way of navigating the many layers of bridging gaps in communication in her relationships with others. Brought up in a part of America where the question “What’s Korea?” was not uncommon, these relationships were always complicated. Music, by contrast, was a way of bypassing this. “I feel like when you meet someone through music, it’s a deeper connection because it’s a language without words,” she says of the community she’s found this way, from the dance music scene of her early twenties in New York and beyond, “there’s a trust.” On “I’ll Remember For Me, I’ll Remember For You,” she directly addresses this: “It’s a feeling without words, it’s a word without feeling, if you write it down, the thoughts dissipate and it’s freeing. Even though we don’t share the same mother tongue, I’ll write it down for you, I’ll remember for you.” Reciting these lyrics, she clarifies, “It’s about how, even though we don’t share the same mother tongue, we can carry this space for each other, we can remember things for each other and create a reality together.” 

Coming from a similar culture, the weight of misdirected language and words unspoken is familiar to me, as is the way of coping with it through the sharing of food. On our way to gather a haul of snacks and brightly packaged cartoon energy drinks at the Asian supermarket by XL Recordings, we swap anecdotes about how this instinct to heal with communal eating heightened over the years we collectively spent locked inside. While I was on the verge of giving my housemates gout through overfeeding, her buffet-style meals with friends sounded a touch fresher, with kimchi salads that spoke to the potent pairing of pickled cabbage and cheese. Today, our basket is pretty reserved, perhaps limited by the caffeine we consumed on the way, but the trip is more demonstrative of the way places like this provide a touchstone of connection to something grounding, even when we seem far away from what we know. Like Michelle Zauner felt in H Mart, there’s a powerful nostalgia in these aisles of cucumber-flavoured Lay’s, White Rabbit candy and cans of Bongbong. “I’m reminded of the kind of warmth of the community when I walk into an Asian supermarket,” says Yaeji. 

It’s over this comforting snack pile that we come full circle to the place our day started, discussing how she approached the album. “I didn’t know I had to do this, but in the process, I found that it saved me,” she says. Earlier in the day, we had planned to do some shots with the actually-quite-substantial-in-weight hammer prop, but as “bad as hell” as it feels to wield it (I still had a go, of course), the album is, like Yaeji herself, averse to too literal an interpretation. When floating ideas for our Dazed Day Out, I had originally suggested a rage room, but besides a surprising lack of ones in London, she was already lined up to do one Stateside. Having met her after the activity, she said it proved “anticlimactic” from her point of view, though she did find the layered idea of rage being so controlled, contained and surveilled (by security cameras making sure you don’t go too far), pretty interesting. Hers is a rage that does not find catharsis in simple, superficial expressions of it only; there’s always more to be written down, analysed and interpreted later. Yaeji may forgive, but she does not forget – that’s her way of having fun and moving forward. 

Watch Yaeji’s Dazed Day Out above. With A Hammer is out now.