When I'm a Raisin - Joyce Kwon
Joyce Kwon - singer, composer & gayageum player making folk music for folks of the diaspora
Joyce Kwon, voicekwon, gayageum, Asian American, Korean American, New American Folk
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When I’m a Raisin

I’m publishing a blog post every Friday on a track from my album Dream of Home. My first post on the title track is a good place to start to get properly introduced to the series.

Raisin, granola, trail mix, jujube

One of the sadder and disturbing things I brushed up against while living in Seoul was its obsession with and desperation for youth and beauty. It seemed as if some cared more about staging a life that looked good in photos than the quality of life they were actually living day to day. I’m certainly not immune to vanity but Seoul exposed this Bay Area granola girl to a new level, a place where few seemed to allow themselves to age gracefully and naturally. 

I wrote “When I’m a Raisin” in response and before I knew I was making an album, I considered making a shorter trail mix EP. I had an almond song already so I just needed one more item/song before I could make packets of trail mix to match the music. I didn’t do that after all, which is just as well because I don’t like raisins in my trail mix. 

I do like Craisins and last week when I took out my wallet, I was a bit embarrassed to find myself flinging a dried cranberry onto the counter. When I found a shriveled 대추 jujube in the car the other day though, I was amused, imagining what else would fall out if I shook out my car and my life. And I felt very Korean in a pleasant way instead of the often scolding way in which I say to myself, “You’re so Korean.” 

So Korean

What do I mean by being “so Korean”? It’s about reading between the lines. For example, if you hear an elder Korean pitch a guy as a marriageable prospect by saying he “majored in history in college and is nice,” you have just learned several things. Beyond his major and the usually meaningless adjective “nice,” you’ve now gathered that he didn’t go to a noteworthy school (because this would have been the hook), is not tall (something Koreans would never fail to mention), and is not particularly successful (no way this piece of information would have been left out, especially if he’s wealthy). He’s also probably not fat because in contemporary Korean culture, we caution others about overweight people before seeing them and greet each other by saying how much weight you’ve lost (or gained, by omission of such a comment). Being “so Korean” is about the things left unsaid, about having 눈치 nunchi.

My above example makes this nunchi culture sound awful, which it can be, feeding a societal plague of being obsessed with looking a certain way, but it can be good too, like in being able to intuit what a friend needs but won’t ask for. Wouldn’t it just be easier if everyone just said what they needed and meant? Possibly. Listen to “When I’m a Raisin” for that. My lyrics are unambiguous and clear.

When I’m a Raisin

If anything, my lyrics to this song were too clear, so I had to take out a portion and replace it with a wordless horn section. Producer Moss Ross was not only instrumental in the music but also in giving feedback to the lyrics and questioned an unequivocal metaphor I used about fruits at room temperature. I ran the words by my sisters and it made them laugh out loud, which was not the immediate reaction I wanted during the song. You can hear that deleted section in the Garageband mockup below. My tendency is to go off the deep end, keeping on a single idea until I fall off the edge or someone reels me in, so it was to my benefit to collaborate with a producer and to get second opinions.

I had Sade on my mind when I was working on this song, and so it was great that when Brandon came to track guitar, he was like “Sade?” and on the same page. There are countless talented musicians in LA so it’s about finding people who are on the same wavelength with strong and compatible musical personalities—people who I would trust to make the music outstanding, even if it’s not precisely what I had in mind. Nick DePinna is such a person and the horn parts Ross and I wrote couldn’t have been in finer hands. He’s the best of the best in arranging horns (and other instruments too) and finessed the parts we sent him to make it sound as slick as it did with him and Hitomi recording the horn section.

What is soulful?

I also envisioned a somewhat bluesier (for my subtle voice anyway) approach to singing so I intentionally slid up on the last syllable of the phrase “I won’t let myself spoil with delusions of self-preservation.” Ross took note and asked if I was sure I wanted to do that, because when we were tracking “Dream of Home,” he suggested I scoop into a word and I tried it out but it just didn’t sit right with me. Ross said I’d have to tell him one of these days what’s soulful in Korean music (meaning the music we were making with Korean influences). What made it feel good to scoop into the note on the raisin song but not on the title track? I don’t know—it’s just a feeling and possibly specific to my approach as a singer weaned on bossa nova, with no broader implications.

And while the soulful quality may be more readily associated with genres like gospel and the blues with its bends and runs, it’s not limited to the musical devices. For me, it’s not specific to a singing style or genre but about what’s underlying the song that causes one to sing it whether slipping and sliding or straight and vibrato-less. I’m thinking through this here but soulful or not soulful is not something that I think about when I’m singing. I’m committed to telling a story and cutting out extraneous material—that’s the core of it.

The key phrase painting for “When I’m a Raisin” was not made of words but rather, encapsulated by an illustration of a California Raisin, a symbol of groove. The repeating bass riff came about as I was noodling around on the gayageum. If you find yourself sitting at a tuned gayageum and put your hands down somewhere in the middle, you could pluck the line out easily as it’s all open strings played in a comfortable hand position. You can listen to what the original solo voice/gayageum version more or less sounded like here (sans the funny verse).

Joyce for Thriving

Finally, the album slogan JOYCE FOR THRIVING 2020 came about because every time the line “I’m for thriving” in the raisin song came up, Ross would turn to me and go “Joyce for Thriving” or “Joyce for Thriving 2020” (did you catch the cameo in the lyric video?) and we’d do a fist bump.



Read my post on “Song of Platitude” next.

Find Dream of Home on YouTube Music, Bandcamp, Apple Music, Amazon, and Spotify.

Featured image and backdrop of lyric video by Gianina Ferreyra

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