In Conversation: JAY B

In Conversation: JAY B

"I want to continue to live my life trying to define myself as an artist..."

If decades of articles and advertising are to be believed, then personalities can be decoded by the jewellery one wears. Gold is for those who are loud, extroverted, and enjoy attention. Silver is for the low-key, the thoughtful and possibly introverted. Gold struts down the street whereas silver glides through life. Lim Jae-beom, better known as JB (leader of idol group GOT7) and under the solo monikers JAY B, as well as Def. (or Defsoul), wears both - a chunky gold watch on his right wrist and an equally hefty silver link bracelet on his left.

It’s not exactly unsurprising. As an idol he projected an infallible confidence when performing, only to be the polar opposite off stage - observant, almost stoic, and remarkably fond of routine - a duality found throughout his personal work. As Def. he records with the R&B/hip hop collective OFFSHORE and quietly uploads solo material on Soundcloud. As JAY B, he’s signed to the independent label H1GHR MUSIC (run by R&B vocalist and rapper Jay Park), whose roster are, for the most part, outgoing and outspoken. The difference between Jae-bom’s two creative personas lies in Def. being “where [the music is] showing what I like in a comfortable setting. For JAY B, I want to do things that fans like,” he explains. The latter is his current priority but, he muses, “because I see that Def. and JAY B are both part of who I am, I think I’ll continue with both for now. In the future, I don’t know, it could possibly change.”

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Like with so many things related to the definition and understanding of the self, the twenty-seven year old is keenly scratching away at his layers, a major step on that journey being the release of JAY B’s debut record. Named SOMO:FUME, it’s title with multiple meanings; SOMO stands for ‘Style Of My Own’ but “it’s also a play on words,” says JAY B. “The Korean word to consume (소모품/somopoom) and ‘fume’, as in perfume. I wanted to call it that because I want people to consume and enjoy it, but also want this album to be like perfume, where it’s lightly absorbed into you.”

At six tracks (a seventh, “Paranoia”, is CD-only), it’s an often delicate but well-curated dive into JAY B’s continuing exploration of pop-R&B. The songs either bask in love or are pricked by the pain of wanting, the ambience shifting between drizzly afternoons and sultry evenings. “In To You (feat. g1nger)” is, for JAY B, the definitive track. It’s a little jazzy, with the sounds of a trumpet and Moog-like synth behind its easy-going beat, and JAY B singles out the lyrics, where love is portrayed as “sort of like the process of wine fermenting. When writing this I thought about two people having a drink of wine together, I could see it so clearly, that’s why I really like it.”

JAY B is a visual guy, sight being the sense he says most fuels his music. “I read a lot, I like movies and I love to people-watch and imagine what they’re lives are like. For example, a taxi driver and someone are arguing… I like to think about why they are arguing, what they’re fighting about, what brought the situation on.” He snaps his fingers. “There’s a very specific event I remember. I was at the Han River and I saw a guy carrying a flower and immediately thought about how nervous the guy was feeling and how much enjoyment that flower would bring, and wrote a song based on this. Not as the third party but as if I was the guy taking flowers to that person. I really enjoy imagining these things.”

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His love of the written word finds its way into his output in even small ways; within the YouTube description of “Switch It Up” (his first single on H1GHR MUSIC), there is an Ernest Hemingway quote

“The shortest answer is doing the thing”. JAY B doesn’t claim himself to be a big fan but “I do enjoy him,” he says. “I watched a movie where there was a character based on Hemingway and as I watched I felt this person was quite courageous and manly, and because of that I went and looked up Hemingway and his books.” He has a penchant for modern classics (Albert Camus, F.Scott Fitzgerald and Haruki Murakami are on his reading lists), and rediscovered a love for camping and fishing.

“My parents are in the farming industry so this [outdoor life] is what I grew up around. In the past I wasn’t really into all of that nature stuff, but as I got older I found myself looking for the feeling I had when I was younger. Now when I experience the outdoors I feel a lot more at peace.” His laptop is never far from reach but when he’s out there the aim is “to completely empty my head, it’s a time of healing, so I don’t think about creating music or anything. When I come back, that’s when I get back into that mindset.”

When he can’t fit a few days away into his schedule, he finds an equal sense of freedom by getting out on the road on his motorbike. “They have a very specific feeling. When you’re riding a motorbike you can really feel the wind in your face and the speed you’re going at.” He wants you to know he’s not reckless, he stays within the speed limit, but it’s “the feeling of being alive” when riding motorbikes that draws him to them.

Having previously owned a different model of Harley Sportster, for the past two years he’s ridden a beautiful, chopper-inspired Harley Davidson Seventy-Two. He named it 칠 둘 (chil dul/seven two) and laughs sheepishly as he says this, rubbing his chin. It paints quite a machismo-soaked, Kerouacian picture - the well-thumbed books, the rugged outdoors, the motorcycles - but JAY B brushes that aside. “It’s not that. I realise that the characters and the way these authors write, they have this wild, adventurous feel but I’m not that type so I enjoy it when I read about them. I really can’t become wild because that’s not who I am.” In reality, he is intensely practical, grounded and, as a soloist, points out that he frequently feels “lacking, and that I need to be so much more careful about my future.”

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All these separate, sometimes opposing, fragments fuse back together like shards of a broken mirror in his music. The most unflinching reflection of JAY B is on “Paranoia”. Whereas SOMO:FUME’s other tracks are focused on love, he shares here his past experiences with anxiety and depression. The lyrics are based on “a situation that comes up quite often; before I go to sleep, I lie in bed and start worrying about one certain thing, and that leads to worrying about lots of other things. I find myself sweating and fearing for the future and it makes me unable to sleep.”

When this fear became unmanageable, JAY B sought help and now routinely takes medication. He still has flare-ups but he’s come to terms with this part of himself. “My personality is the type to worry a lot. My family is like that, [especially] me and my grandmother.”

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Overall, SOMO:FUME, heralds its press release, is “another step towards crystallising who JAY B is as an artist”. He runs his fingers through his hair, something he does repeatedly when thinking at length. “In the past I’ve said that I’m going to release an album that will really define me as an artist but these days everybody is the same - a person is a person - and I’m not really that different. But I want to continue to live my life trying to define myself as an artist.” Defining oneself, in general, is tricky when considering we’re always in flux and JAY B recognises that it may be a path with no end. “I don’t know if anyone can define themselves as an artist 100%, I don’t know yet what the defining factor is. The best thing is when they’re just happy with what they’re releasing or their work.”

Let’s be clear, JAY B is undeniably happy with SOMO:FUME. Ask him what he thinks of the completed record and he breaks into slow applause, with a half-smile; JAY B’s wry humour comes through at unexpected moments, sometimes so subtly that you’re unsure if he’s joking or not. “This album is a very special piece of work for me, I’m not saying that just to say it! I’m being honest - I’m really satisfied with this,” he says, nodding.

But here comes that number again, that 100%, which hangs above him like the juiciest piece of fruit just out of reach. “After I finished, I was proud of it, of myself. But I felt, ‘next time, let’s do better’. There’s no such thing as being 100% satisfied, but you can’t fix it over and over again. So it was more about finishing it and seeing what I can do better. For example, next time maybe my vocals could be better or we could try more different things. But it’s a learning experience and, at the end of the day, I just want it to do well.”

Going forward, what JAY B wants to improve upon and instill is a greater sense of strength and inner confidence, but in a balanced manner. “I don’t want to become too overconfident,” he says, the overhead lights catching fleetingly on the precious metals adorning his wrists. “I don’t feel the need to show that confidence off. That’s only for the stage.”

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'SOMO: FUME' is out now.

Words: Taylor Glasby

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