David Lee and Willie Mitchell working in the studio | photo by Antoine Sanfuentes
by Martina Danelaite
David Lee, who started his musical career by strumming a simple version of “Amazing Grace,” will be graduating with the highest honors on April 30th, 2013. That’s when his debut album Without Any Guard, filled with melodious music and the ever-present spirit of the late Willie Mitchell, will become available. Lee’s animated tunes and his ability to balance passion and restraint make him a very entrancing new artist to watch. UR Chicago interviewed David Lee and discussed his upcoming debut album, challenges in the music industry, and even K-Pop. Read on.
Debut single "We're All Meant for Something Good" is available now on iTunes!
UR Chicago: Your first album, Without Any Guard, is coming out in April. What sort of headlines are you hoping for from the reviews?
David Lee: I hope people say that they don’t get tired of listening to it. I’ve lived with these songs for five years, and they still feel fresh to me. I hope that longevity carries over to the listeners. I’d also like to get some nods on the production job Willie did. It’s so tasteful and classy.
UR: How much of this album is Willie Mitchell, and how much is you? Would it be fair to say that without him this album wouldn’t have happened?
DL: Prior to meeting Willie, I was a bit delusional about the recording process and underestimated the sheer amount of trial and error involved. Willie brought 80 years of experience to the table, and there’s just no substitute for that. I focused on parts individually, but Willie always saw the bigger picture and made things come out more musical. His horn and string arrangements were just the icing on the cake. The sound on this album is as much Willie’s as it is mine. Safe to say I couldn’t have done this on my own.
UR: When did you take on guitar and what was the first tune you strummed?
DL: I picked up guitar at age 17 before my senior year of high school. The first song I played was “Amazing Grace” — a simplified version.
UR: South Korea is a country that excels in business, engineering, technology. Was your family supportive of your choice to become a musician?
DL: My family was very supportive. They saw me putting in the work and also trusted the mentorship I had from Willie. South Korea excels in music as well, and they have been excited about this project since day 1. They probably always knew I wouldn’t choose a traditional career path.
UR: In the song “I’ll Always Come Back Home,” where is that home? Do you ever think of going back to perform in Korea?
DL: I wrote that song in Memphis after coming back to an empty hotel room every night after recording sessions. So "home" represented Washington, DC at the time. It’s actually one of my favorite songs and the last one I wrote for the album. It sits in the perfect range for my vocals, and I can’t wait to play it live! Performing in Korea is one of my biggest dreams. Their music scene is so vibrant, and I am a Korean boy after all.
UR: Do you have the "Gangnam Style" or any other K-pop on your iPod?
DL: I always associate K-pop with great music videos. You almost can’t separate the song from the video. It’s ultra-modern, and there’s a reason it’s having such an impact worldwide. I don’t have an iPod but I am a fan of “Gangnam Style” and have even learned the dance.
UR: There are many Afro-Americans and occasionally white soul musicians. How did a South Korean come to like and even play soul?
DL: Soul is some of the most enduring music in the world and every musician draws from it. Willie was a pioneer of soul music, and I felt connected to it through him. That being said, soul is an influence but not how I’d categorize my music.
UR: What niche in the industry does your music fill?
DL: I think there’s a demand for organic pop music. Most pop tunes today wouldn’t be considered organic and lack the feeling you get from live instruments. This album has that human element, which is endearing but largely missing from pop music today.
UR: Under what circumstances do you imagine people listening to your music?
DL: I listen to music mostly in my car. For some reason I find it most enjoyable there. When you’re on your computer there’s so much visual stimuli that you never focus on just the audio. But when you’re on the road it’s easy to focus on the music. I hope listeners take the CD out to their cars.
UR: To what lengths does an up-and-coming musician have to go to support himself these days?
DL: Artists have it tough but that’s also what makes it worthwhile. Your dreams are bigger so you have to work that much harder to support yourself while also supporting your dream. Starting out you really have to be willing to invest everything with no safety net.
UR: Are there any social media channels of particular importance to you when it comes to showcasing and promoting your music? Where can people find the latest updates?
DL: I stay most active on Facebook and post regular updates there. You can also check out music, pictures, and videos: http://facebook.com/davidleetunes.
UR: If there was ever a movie made about your life, whom would you like to play your role?
DL: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He’s also a musician himself and a great actor to boot.
UR: What do you hope to accomplish as a musician?
DL: I want to keep putting out albums and continue growing as an artist. In a way it’s selfish and in a way it’s not, but I want to be 50 and look back at an inspiring body of work.
UR: What are the biggest challenges in the industry at the moment? Any future collaborations?
DL: My biggest challenge now is promotion. Being a debut artist, how can I have an impact amidst so much other content? Perhaps collaborations is a way to do that. I don’t have anything planned at the moment, but I’d love to play with Eric Clapton.
UR: When and where did you last perform? Is it easy to get booked for gigs?
DL: My last performance was on Dec 30, 2012 at the WRNR radio station in Annapolis, MD. Getting gigs isn’t necessarily hard, but it takes a lot of initiative.
UR: What interests do you have, apart from music?
DL: There’s a board game called “Go” that I play regularly. It’s a good distraction when I need it. I’m also into basketball, photography, and desserts.