This year, KCON LA had quite a few panels that had fans excited to see their faves face to face. One of the most prominent being James Lee. The former member of Royal Pirates is now a soloist, and he held one of the most endearing and beautifully candid panels at the con this year.
James spoke unabashedly about his life beyond stardom and into his new reality of strength, survival, and self care. He held nothing back, often providing gritty details to a room full of fans, and gave them the opportunity to ask the questions the media has shied away from. The takeaway was that James Lee is a fighter. He’s an immensely talented man whose life has been changed by a rare, near cataclysmic incident, but he’s definitely not one to give up.
After his panel, Asian Junkie was lucky enough to get the opportunity to speak to him for an interview. Well, it’s technically an interview, but it felt more like a casual conversation with an old friend. Please understand that this may read strangely as it was spontaneous, informal, without structure, and to me, much more real than any interview I’ve done before.
Asian Junkie: I am sitting here with James Lee.
James Lee: Hello.
AJ: You just released ‘The Light’ single correct?
James: ‘The Light’ single and the “Let’s Get Away” acoustic version featuring Sooyoung. I released the video for that as well.
AJ: Fantastic. So, your Kickstarter did really well. Congratulations!
James: I … I didn’t do anything. It was the fans that really did that.
AJ: Were you surprised?
James: Shocked. Yeah it was … we hit the first target in the first 10–12 hours and then we tripled it. So I was a little overwhelmed with things to do and I still am. … These past two weeks I haven’t slept too much, but overall it’s good.
AJ: How does it feel to be back in the field getting into the nitty-gritty with music again?
James: I’m doing everything on my own so it’s very comfortable, but because I’m doing it all on my own things are definitely a lot harder in terms of organizing everything, because it’s my first time. Also because I’m doing it on my own I can do what I want musically.
AJ: How many tracks are on the new EP?
James: Four tracks plus one acoustic.
AJ: And you’re actually doing an event at the Belasco Theater, right? Can you tell us more about that?
James: So the event is an EP release show. It’s to celebrate the Kickstarter’s success and to celebrate the release of the music and the release of the video which was the main target. It’s in the basement. To enter you have to go through an alley [He chuckles]. It’s kind of a weird entrance system but it’s beautiful. I’ll be performing all the songs on the EP and yeah … I will have a DJ spinning and special guests. It’s gonna be more of a party atmosphere so I want a lot of people to come and enjoy it with us.
AJ: Sounds fun. Let’s talk about what you’re planning to do after this … are you just kinda flying by the seat of your pants right now or what?
James: [He laughs.] That’s exactly where I’m at right now. Now I’m just enjoying it. Like sharing the music. I write a lot of music and it’s just sitting on my hard drive. Recently my hard drive crashed. I lost a lot of data so that was kinda heart breaking, but I’m able to release some stuff before it’s too late. That was my main target and I’ve succeeded. Next I want to write more music, but the target is to write good music for myself. If it does well, like the song with Sooyoung hit #1 in the Philippines, and that is the first time that I’ve done something like that. Obviously not just because of me because “The Light” did not hit #1…
AJ: No, but still…
James: Right. it’s a huge deal to me and I appreciate Sooyoung so much for that. So yeah.
AJ: Well, your fans are very supportive, especially if a song has an emotional connection. If it hits ya in the gut, it’s gonna spread and do well.
James: Yeah, I get that feeling too. Like when I listen to music that I enjoy listening to as well.
AJ: Right, sometimes you like poppy bubbly stuff that doesn’t affect you.
James: It gives you energy.
AJ: Right, and sometimes you just wanna sit on you knees in the corner and cry.
AJ: So fans watched you this morning on Instagram Live with Kim Moon Chul (former singer of Royal Pirates). How’s the communication going with the other members of Royal Pirates?
James: That’s the first time I’ve talked to him in a long time. I don’t talk to the drummer that much (Kim Soo Yoon) because he’s in the army right now. I miss those guys. Moon is a sweetheart as always. He’s one of the most likable guys you’ll ever meet. He has an attractive quality about him. He’s very fun. He’s got charisma but it’s just this laid back energy and he’s super talented. One of the most talented guys I know.
AJ: You were talking about his music as well and it was nice to see the support between you two.
James: Thank you. It’s just … what else am I gonna do? I like it so I’m supporting it. If I didn’t like it, I’d be like don’t watch it, but I like it so I support it.
AJ: Let’s transition from music to your health, is that okay?
James: My health sucks right now. Which is why I’m doing this now. Cuz it’s gonna get worse, and before it gets worse there’s gonna come a time when I’m not able to have this energy and the same types of songs are not gonna come out. I wanna release it now and enjoy my life now because I know later on I’m gonna have to … [James pauses and chuckles sardonically.] I have battles coming up. I still … they haven’t all gone, ya know? My hand … I need to get one more surgery. It’s called a fusion because all of the bones … [He pauses again and sighs.] I have extreme arthritis right now. And so to stop the pain. It’s like my hand’s like a 100-year-old man’s right now. So that’s where I’m at.
AJ: Yeah. I actually understand you. one of reasons why I continued to support you after Royal Pirates and what happened to you was because I had a major nerve damage situation in my hand and it took me years to rebuild in order to get any kind of movement back in my hand. [I honestly don’t know what made me tell him. I don’t like talking about it. But I felt like I needed to tell him this deeply personal side of my life. The conversation shifted and suddenly it was like we’d switched roles. His compassion shook me.]
James: Right right right.
AJ: And they did my surgery and said we can’t do anything else.
James: Is it still numb?
AJ: [I got quiet, looked down at my left hand and knocked it against the table lightly.] Um … these two are (my pinky and ring finger) so it turned out to be the ulnar nerve and everything back here just went dead. It happened the same period of time. So I ended up … my career just crashed and burned at the same time. So yeah I totally got it when I saw everything that you went through and you kinda were just like … eff it, I’m gonna do it. It really was an inspirational thing to a lot of people who were somewhere in that same boat.
James: I appreciate that. It was never meant to be. I did not know I was going to inspire people but I am very grateful that it did inspire people and I hope people … just … just hold on. Don’t give up.
AJ: Just as a final question because the fans always want to know … what are you listening to right now?
James: I listen to Post Malone. I’m a huge Post Malone fan. I like YG too.
AJ: You’re big into hip-hop?
James: Yeah, I really like hip-hop! It sucks because I’m bad at dancing. I’m a terrible dancer.
AJ: We’re gonna see you dance at the Belasco, you know that, right?
James: That’s fine. [He laughs.] Are you coming?!
AJ: Oh yeah! I already bought my ticket!
James: Really?! Sweet! Yeah, but basically a lot of Post Malone, a lot of playlists on Spotify and Apple, but the last song I played was Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids”.
AJ: Oh, right in the feels!
James: [He chuckles.] Yeah, I like hip-hop and I like Childish Gambino because he’s killin’ it. I feel like he’s doing everything that Kanye West wants to do and I really respect Childish Gambino. I mean, I respect both of them but Childish Gambino, he’s an artist in every sense of the word. I like watching ‘Atlanta’; like the way he formats the show is just so entertaining. I’m also into that and Jidenna. Do you know Jidenna? Yeah I like him … his song “Trampoline”, I like it. I’m not a big K-pop guy. I’m a fish out of water here even though I look like I fit right in. Well, I love K-pop, just so you know I do like K-pop. I’m a fan of a lot of the artists. I do really like all of the girl groups so … [He laughs.] and I’m a huge Sooyoung fan. Yeah. Sooyoung and Amber.
We ended the interview here. This should have been a formal interview on camera with formal questions, but what it turned out to be was a genuine moment. No cameras, no stress. Sometimes it’s more important to treat stars just like any other person. I was overwhelmed by his genuine compassion, kindness, and down to earth sense of humor. We laugh quite a bit, both of us, with our dark humor and realness.
At the end, before we left, he asked me how my hand was now. I told him I was okay. Lots of physical therapy every day, but I’m fighting just like him. We walked out of the green room, and I just kinda stood there … changed. What an epic way to top my KCON LA experience.
Thank you to James Lee for sitting down and chatting with us!
Additionally, be sure to check out his music on all major streaming services, as well as his merch, a portion of the profit goes to The American Foundation For Suicide Prevention.
Finally, if you’re in Los Angeles this weekend, come and hang out at the Belasco Basement to celebrate at James’ ‘The Light’ EP Release Party!