SIGHT & SOUND
Written by Mike Sunda for BUDXBEATS
To watch Yeohee Kim perform live as machìna is to grapple with qualities that seem both immediately familiar and yet also utterly alien when brought together in their composite nature. Kim has the poise and stage presence of a veritable pop star, the technical precision of a classically trained musician, and yet the immediate sonic experience is one that is innately tethered to ‘club music’ sensibilities - raw and physical - designed for dark rooms and dancing. Kim’s music is deeply personal and rooted in selfhood, and yet best experienced amidst the collective effervescence of a nightclub dance floor.
The dichotomy is just one of the many seemingly contradictory elements that are resolved the more you listen, the more you learn about her.
There are two connotations that come to the fore when you first hear the name machìna in the context of Kim’s music. The first is, quite simply, the machines that she utilizes: an ever-expanding miscellany of modular synthesizers, drum machines and other analogue equipment that comprises her stage set-up. Still a relatively small niche within electronic music, especially in Tokyo, where Kim is based, the prominent use of modular technology might recall the early explorations of pioneering veterans such as Isao Tomita and YMO-affiliated Hideki Matsutake, or alternatively the sort of uncompromising techno popularized in recent years by the likes of Blawan and The Black Dog. Stylistically, Kim’s music does not sit within either camp, but she makes as strong an argument for the benefits of modular equipment as any of her contemporaries, drawing on its unique characteristics and elevating it through her compositions.
With modular technology, each sound is a result of variables spanning the technological, human, and atmospheric, where even the most serendipitous creations emerge alongside an acknowledgement that those myriad factors may never be replicated in-kind. There is a romance in this fragility, even when it is used to produce marauding techno beats and acerbic acid synth lines. When Kim plays live, her lithe silhouette, stood behind her set-up of sprawling wires and interconnected racks of machinery, only makes this fragility more pronounced. As does the ethereal quality of her vocals, which oscillate between being delicate one moment, and commandingly powerful the next, in much the same way as her orchestra of machines traverses the full range of that dynamic spectrum.
As technological developments ushered in the age of CDs, first, and then digital audio, legendary British radio DJ, John Peel, famously extolled the enduring virtue of vinyl as a medium by saying, “Listen, mate, life has surface noise”. The same is true for modular technology. In an age of increasingly user-friendly DAWs and intuitive software, it represents all of life’s seemingly random anomalies that can’t be anticipated, let alone tamed. Life has surface noise, but it also throws you curveballs. Deus ex machina. The second concept that “machìna” connotes, and the origin of her artist name. Abrupt, unexpected happenings. No one knows this better than Kim, whose own career as a musician has been punctuated by such moments. Just like when she performs live, it is her ability to adjust to these sudden ruptures that has defined her identity as a musician.
Kim was born in a small town in Korea, not far from Gwangju, which sits in the southwest of the country. Her love for music was cemented at an early age, but her aspirations could not easily be reconciled with the sort of expectations that came from her parents and wider society, which still prioritized the stability of a full-time job over creative pursuits. Ultimately, this did little to deter Kim, who enrolled in music school and set about trying to become a professional musician. Her musical passion was centered in jazz, but the weight and momentum of the rising K-Pop industry pushed her towards the mainstream. It was during this period of her life that Kim experienced multiple moments that would abruptly alter the course of her career:
First, becoming a viral sensation on YouTube with a cover of a Lady Gaga track, which ushered in multiple millions of views and exposed her to a huge global audience; second, moving to Japan at the recommendation of her record label at the time, and then being ‘stranded’ in the country because of a complex contractual situation. Alone in a country where she knew few people and could speak few words of the language, Kim instead embraced this turn of events and reinvented herself as machìna, dramatically altering her style in the process.
Now, years later, she remains in Tokyo and has forged a coherent musical identity that is uniquely her own. Machìna is not simply a machine, she is a cyborg, a hybrid of parts. Her compositional style is both thoughtful and playful, hinting at her love of jazz, which is also evidenced in her confident modular improvisations when she performs live. Her vocals are pronounced and note-perfect, forged in the regimented training she underwent during her time as a K-Pop artist. And her tracks transcend cultures and genres, much as she has done throughout her life. Every experience seems to be channeled into Kim’s music, and it is a sure sign that her creative repertoire will continue to grow with every subsequent chapter of her career, much as her collection of machines will surely change and evolve alongside her.