James Lee had his whole career ahead of him as the bassist for a popular Korean pop-rock band when a freak accident left him with a severed hand, making him unable to play the instrument he had dedicated his life to for over a decade.
Four years later, the Korean-American musician is back with a new sound and a new look, ready to hit the road on his Californian tour.
James has made the transition as a pop-rock musician in the rigid Korean music industry to a solo artist exploring slightly softer, electronic sounds in Los Angeles. While his melodies are often upbeat, his lyrics show a darker side — revealing a sense of raw vulnerability his fans have been able to relate to on a deeper level.
“My music is inspired by my experiences,” James tells NextShark. “I feel like my life is split into two different parts. Before my accident and after. I used to write because I thought it was fun, but now I do it because it’s the best way I know to express myself.”
Just a few years ago, before the accident, the artist’s life was dramatically different.
In 2009, James uprooted his life in America to move to South Korea and join the Royal Pirates as their bassist after the band’s previous bassist passed away. He soon rose to fame and gained a strong fan base across Asia. Then, just one day after his 27th birthday, his life was turned upside down.
James was walking into a restaurant in Seoul and as he opened the door looking for a friend he had planned to meet with, the steel frame and glass wall came crashing down on him, slicing open his left wrist and crushing his shoulder.
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Im so pissed man. This is only part of what i went through. Rotting flesh before my eyes. Before my mom’s eyes. Hiding from my friends and fans because i dont want to bring anyone down. I quit my band. I left my company. I left the seeds i had sown. And every day i am trying to be positive. To start over. But i am so pissed. Crushed bones and hundreds of hours of rehab and now every day i have to fight. I hate you so much. I have to fight every single fucking day. My hand was chopped off and i try to find alternatives. now im a fucking shell of myself. Everyday i hear a new fucking crack or pop and feel a new twist or sprain or tear and your restaurant is fine and dandy. I passed you guys this trip to korea even though i didnt want to step anywhere near you but i still see you often in my nightmares. You guys were packed with customers. Do they know your ethics or what they would have to go through if they were crushed in your place? I rewatched the cctv yesterday. I dont even remember who i used to be. All i can say is how dare you. How dare you ruin my life and come at me with this garbage about facts and figures. How dare you. If it was your son. Your family. What would you do?
When he regained consciousness following the traumatic incident, he recalls seeing his hand disconnected from his arm, barely holding on by a piece of skin. Doctors were fortunately able to reconnect his wrist, but the artist was forced to endure months of intense pain and post-traumatic stress throughout five surgeries.
Upon being told that he would have to undergo a sixth operation, James was also told by doctors that a blot clot had been discovered in his brain. His deteriorating health conditions meant that the former bassist had to make the tough decision to officially leave the Royal Pirates.
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James then moved back to Los Angeles, leaving behind the haunting experiences, where he embarked on a new career path with full support from his fan base in Asia. Despite suffering emotionally and physically, the musician bounced back from his misfortunes.
“For me the biggest change happened when my friend Brad told me I needed to focus because I had been so down for so long,” he says. “I have so much pent-up emotion that I did not want to go to waste any longer.”
From his musical journey in Korea, James was able to take back valuable lessons that challenged him to become an even better artist.
“I feel like my experience in Korea has given me a different perspective and discipline in performance and writing,” he explained. “Witnessing The industry standards and having the opportunity to practice music full-time has shaped who I am as an artist.”
However, as a Korean-American, there were certain cons to working abroad.
“My biggest problem in Korea was always language and communication,” he admits. “When writing songs in English I really feel like I can be free.”
And since the start of his new venture in the States, he has been able to focus on creating new music with no restrictions and no communication barriers — complete creative freedom. And yet, he remains humble, remembering his roots and his early career.
“I wouldn’t have the same fans I have today without my career in Korea,” he says.
While James is no longer able to play the bass due to nerve damage, traces of his deep appreciation for the instrument persists in his new music. In his song “Automatic”, featuring Travis Atreo, the song opens with a catchy, funky bassline, carrying on throughout the rest of the tune.
The versatility of his musical ability has allowed him to gain attention from new crowds, opening doors to exciting collaborations; James has already worked with Angelababy and Amber Liu, as well as many other notable artists.
“When Amber and I shot the music video for ‘Perfect,’ I was so sick that I had chills and cold sweats the second half of the shoot,” the musician recalled.
“And yet, watching Amber film her parts and co-direct with Brad Wong made me so happy I would do it all over again. That’s probably the music video I am most proud to have been a part of and I’m so grateful for my team, especially Amber.”
And although his life has changed drastically, his newfound popularity stateside has allowed James to become a very needed figure within the Asian American music industry.
“I feel lucky to be who I am writing music at a time like this,” he says.
Asian representation in the music industry is still scarce, however, the recent exposure of Asian talents in the cinematic industry has still had an effect on the artists’ career.
“Growing up I remember feeling pretty out of place. There were a few Asian Americans that were iconic, like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, but they seemed so out-of-reach. With more Asian Americans active throughout the industry, it definitely suggests a more hopeful landscape,” he tells us.
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Despite the rollercoasters life has put him through, James remains positive and looks forward to where his career will take him next.
“I will be hitting the road in California with my buddies in [the band] Fyke and Kevin Woo in August! And actually I have collaboration projects coming out soon with both of them as well so I cannot wait!” he says.
“It’ll be a year since the light EP released so I cannot wait to share my new material and meet the fans face-to-face. I have a ton of new songs and I am excited to perform them for everyone!”