This week, I had the honor of interviewing MJ Lee., singer songwriter and freelance wedding violinist. In this interview, MJ Lee. talks about her journey of overcoming doubt to creating her own pathway as a musician. She also shares the inspiration behind her first album and music video.
What made you passionate about wanting to get into music?
Music comes naturally to me. I feel very much that I was born to do music. There’s really no more authentic way that I can think of to exist in this world and to share my gifts with other people than through music.
I’ve been taking violin lessons since I was young. I also started composing and writing songs early on in my life without any sort of prompting. I quickly realized that it was something that I felt very passionate about and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
More recently, I’ve turned that into what is now still a part-time business. Well, it depends on how you define part-time. It feels very full-time. I put a lot of hours and time and energy into it. Anyway, it’s been lovely to connect the dots in the last few years and to be able to offer music as a service through performance, songwriting and selling products. All three of those ways of providing music as a service feel very valuable to me. We don’t often think of music as products and services we need, but we absolutely do need musical services and products as part of our lives.
How did you start offering music as a freelancer?
I was busking with a guitarist friend, and then eventually I switched over to busking on my own. It was just a fun thing to do with my time. And, it felt adventurous. I realized that I enjoyed performing publicly in that way. It made me a much more confident musician. I did well as a busker and I was able to entertain people really effectively, really well. I would play Beatles songs and pop covers and I knew I was on to something. It made me aware of a marketable skill that I didn’t fully realize I had before I started doing it.
It was great marketing in a way to be offering a sample of my services in a very public manner. Most often, people would ask me if I offered violin lessons. I probably could have built a whole teaching studio out of that, but I chose not to pursue that.
People also began asking me to do wedding gigs. I started taking little bits of work here and there as a violinist. Then, I jumped into the music community in the San Francisco Bay Area and started to perform that way. It’s really been the past three years that I’ve been serious about putting music first in my life as what I truly want to do and to offer to the world.
When was that turning point? About three years ago?
I had just heard about a platform called Patreon, which is one way that a lot of artists and content creators are making money online. I realized it was a new platform. Not everyone understood how it worked. And many people didn’t understand this idea of being a patron of the arts or supporting content creators in that way. But I got out there anyway. I saw that a few artists that I knew were using the platform. I thought, “What the heck! Why don’t I try connecting the dots between the music that I want to make and offer the world and being compensated for it?”
I did a 31-day challenge. In 2014, every day during the month of May, I pushed some kind of video online. I challenged myself to put some kind of musical performance video online.
They ranged from me performing my originals to doing violin covers to being out in the world and jamming with people by Lake Merritt or on the streets of Oakland. So, there was a real variety there of different musical skills that I was showcasing. The only requirement for me was that I did something every single day. And, I had people sponsor me as my patrons on Patreon.
It was a fun little exercise. But, it was extremely time consuming. I still had close to full-time work at the same time. So, I was waking up early in the mornings and staying up late at night to make this happen.
And when I completed that challenged, so many things happened.
First, I learned a ton of new skills. Also, I had a couple videos of violin covers that racked up close to 20,000 views a piece on YouTube, which is pretty considerable.
People were sharing these videos with their friends and commenting. I found a couple of things that worked. Most of all, I just proved to myself that this was something that I had in me to do.
I had a lot of doubts to tackle and overcome. And to actually finish that month was my first big step. This is something that I can do. I don’t know that everyone grapples with this question of “Can I really do this thing that I’m passionate about and make a living out of it?” Or, even just asking if I’m allowed to do it. Is being a musician a way that I’m allowed to make a living? For me that was a huge hurdle just to be able to say that I’m allowed to do this. I can do this. There’s nothing wrong with me doing this. And to counteract a lot of the messages I got about it not being a legitimate way of existing in the world.
Not too long after that I scaled back my day job and started increasing the ratio of music to non-music as a way to make a living.
Can you talk more about this doubt you had about being allowed to be a musician or about music as legitimate way to make a living? Where was it coming from? And, how did you get past it?
Well, I think a lot of it came from my family. Not just from family, but also from my environment growing up. I mostly grew up in Northern Virginia, the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and I don’t think that I knew any professional musicians aside from my violin teacher or my music teachers at school.
I really didn’t have this understanding of music being available to me as a professional path. I just didn’t see it around me.
And when I expressed interest in doing it, which I did, I didn’t find much support or understanding for it. I don’t think that was malicious or intentional. It was more out of love that people, especially members of my family, wanted to see me do something that they knew I could make a living at doing. And, being a musician wasn’t part of the culture. It wasn’t understood that was something you could do.
It was mostly through listening to songs on the radio and finding artists that I liked and wanted to follow that I came to any awareness that somebody out there was doing this for a living. By the time I was in high school, I was able to articulate that I wanted to be a performer and a songwriter.
I wanted to be an independent solo artist although I never had the words for that back then.
I just knew that I saw people doing it, and it was something that I started to do on my own a little bit. Going to talent shows and performing my original songs. Writing and creating on my own. I was doing it without having any kind of framework that it was something I was allowed to do. And, I said I wanted to rock the stage. That was what I wanted to do. I heard that’s nice, but we don’t understand how to support you. It didn’t exist as a path.
So, I kind of gave it up. I went to college. I tried to find ways of professionalizing. I did the thing you were supposed to do. I did well in school. I had good grades. I went off to college. At that point, I ended up falling into a music major at a school that didn’t have any performance program. But it had music courses to offer in a music department. I think it’s kind funny because I went into college with no intention of doing music – I was supposed to be a science major. But of course music caught me, it called to me. I thought I should be a music professor because that’s a thing I could do.
It wasn’t until I was in my adulthood that crazy idea I had when I was a teenager about being performer even saw the light of day again. I was fully an adult before I even entertained the idea that I could do it. Sometimes I think I wish I hadn’t lost so much time. But at the same time, I also think my story is important.
There are people who perhaps have other callings and passions that they were not allowed to follow and that my story can speak to them and be a counterexample to whatever they’re being told. It can be an alternative story.
And, this idea of offering an alternative story or alternative vision ties into a lot of other things that are important to me as an artist. Being an Asian-American pop musician. That’s not a story we have in our society, in our culture. But, that’s an alternative story I want to offer through living it. I’m a musician and I wasn’t told I could be one. I’m living the alternative story. I’m showing that another way is possible.
And then you released your first album in Fall 2016. Tell us about the first album. What inspired you? What do you see in that first album?
My first album is called The Lights Ahead. That image of the lights ahead speaks to having an idea about something you think is really worth it, something that’s really good. Having a glimmer of a promise on the horizon that you can see the lights ahead. You might still be in the dark right now. You can see the lights. And, you’re choosing to go after them. That promise that somehow sustains you.
For me The Lights Ahead is my debut as an artist. It’s a journey that I’m sharing with people of going from someone who was just inspired and wondered if it’s possible, if those lights actually lead somewhere, to choosing to go after them. And for me, the album is a roadmap of that journey, including dealing with writer’s block early on, trying to pep talk myself into doing the daily work challenges. There’s another song about whether I am really ready now, and if I’m not ready now, then when. There is a little a bit of a meditation on this deeper sense of who we are meant to be in the world.
It can be a painful thing to think about or to even admit to yourself that following this path isn’t going to be easy.
Or it might mean that I’m not the person that I thought I was. The final song on the album is called “It’s Time,” and it’s about finally stepping up to the plate and saying yes. It’s time for me to step into the light of my calling.
This first album was very much a concept album. It’s a roadmap of that journey. And, one that I hope inspires and resonates with others who are setting out on whatever their journeys may be of following those lights ahead of them. I think that’s probably really personal for each of us – what promise we’re holding out for, what thing it is that’s keeping the passion alive inside of you.
What was the process like to get that first album out there?
I’ve been realizing over the past few years how much I have in common with people who are doing tech startups – people I would not have thought I had anything in common with. But in music, just like in the tech startup world, you have a concept or business idea that you’re jazzed about and you really think you’ve got something. And you don’t have anything to show for yourself just yet.
When you’re just starting, you don’t have anything to show for yourself yet. But you start to build some assets and some proof of concept. And that is what that first album was really about for me. To show that I had something that I’m working with. Something of value. This is the business way of talking about it.
There’s of course an artistic side of it, too. And, they’re not disconnected either. I had something important that I wanted to say and to express, that I believe had value to people, and that I believed would connect with people in a meaningful way.
So, making that first album was really important to me. It was the first thing I ever really made. I mean, I had made videos before but it was really my first product. I went in not even knowing for myself if it was going to turn out the way I wanted it to. But I jumped in, started recording, and managed to find some great collaborators in the San Francisco Bay Area. It wasn’t just the musical product, but the physical process of making an album down to the fonts and the paper. I realized this is an experience I want to give people. I need to have all of those parts from the musical side to the artwork to publicizing it through Kickstarter.
And Kickstarter was really my primary means of getting it out there. I ran a bunch of Facebook ads on the Kickstarter video. That ended up being my first big marketing push of anything I’ve ever done.
It was my first thing that I did and said publicly to my community that this is what I do. Here you go. Let me show you what this is about, why I’m doing it, why it’s important, and why you should support it.
And, then I came out with a great product, one that I’m very proud of. And it exceeded my expectations of what I wanted for my first album. I felt so excited to be able to share that with the world. To share that value. I had people coming back to me almost immediately, people who had known me personally but didn’t necessarily know who I was as a musician, who would listen to the album and tell me what it meant to them. They would tell me what it did for them.
I think that’s what we who go into the music business live for – those moments where we realize we’ve provided something that really matters. That we provided real value. As artists we’re often told, either explicitly or through being asked to work for free, that what we create doesn’t add value. But for me to be told very explicitly by people who had listened to the album that it was deeply valuable to them, that was proof of concept. This is something that works. This is something that needs to be out there. That has a place in society and in my community.
This summer you went on to produce a music video, Shine. Tell us about the message behind Shine and what inspired you.
Shine is about following your heart’s thrill. It’s a message of possibility for a time when you might be low on hope. The concept for the music video came to me when I first saw JaVonne Hatfield, the dancer who is the star of the video. JaVonne is the man with the heart, dancing over the Highway 101 overpass in San Francisco. That’s something that he does several times a week. He entertains commuters who are often coming from school or work. And, then they catch a glimpse of this person who’s just doing this jubilant, joyous thing with this heart on his hand. It’s something that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. It’s almost too good to be true. But, it is true. Someone’s just doing and offering something out of love for people. The moment I saw him, I felt so inspired. My heart lifted. There are moments when someone inspires you. And you realize that whatever hum drum reality or your own sense of limitations or your own sense of there’s not much to life gets challenged in this really beautiful way.
I felt like it was the perfect analogy for following my own calling and my own creative path. For me that’s a musical journey that almost feels too good to be true. I often have doubts that it can happen in the way I want it to and that it’s going to work. But, I chase it anyway. Because it’s too compelling not to. On one level that’s what it’s about.
But, it’s also about the community, the San Francisco Bay Area. It was so important to me to show that sometimes when you go after this possibility, you’ll find that you’re not alone. You’ll find that there are others who are like-minded and not exactly the same as you. I think that the diversity of the Bay Area is so gorgeous. It was so wonderful to me to see these people, mostly friends of mine, show up on this rainy day in San Francisco just to express their own authenticity, their own sense of love for each other and for this community. It was definitely a love letter to them. And, I think that together in community, we transform this world into the world we want it to be, or that we hope that it can be.
Finally, what words of advice do you have someone who is going out on their own?
Find the right people to surround yourself with. Find community. But, find the right community.
That’s something that I didn’t get right the first time. It’s a work in progress for all of us I’m sure.
My second piece of advice, which I have a hard time following myself, is to trust your instincts and your vision. If it’s something you are passionate about, you may have more expertise than you realize. And of course, it’s great to have feedback from people. That’s where the right community comes into play. But, always trust your instincts.
You can watch MJ Lee.’s music video Shine, download her songs and find out where she’s performing on her website. If you would like to hire MJ Lee. for a wedding or other private event, please visit Ivy Hill Entertainment. And, you can also follow MJ Lee. on Facebook.