Janice Jo Lee is a dynamic artist. She is a second generation Korean-Canadian settler based in Tkaronto (Toronto), Ontario. She is a folk-soul-jazz singer songwriter, composer-sound designer, spoken word poet, theatre maker, and arts and anti-oppression facilitator.
Lee’s artwork has always been one with her activism. Her songs, poems and plays are immersed in issues of gender empowerment, community, climate change, the environment and antiracism. On stage she performs spoken word pieces and songs built on layers of cascading harmonies. With her guitar, looping pedal, trumpet, Korean janggu drum, disarmingly funny candour and poetically-rich lyrics, Lee commands the stage. She conjures warm energy, asks questions about our times, and leaves audiences rejuvenated and aglow.
Born in Toronto to a Korean immigrant family, she grew up riding bikes, singing in choir, and preferred soccer to her piano lessons. By the time she graduated from Wilfrid Laurier University with a major in English Literature and minor in Political Science, she was a songwriter performing locally with The Radical Choir. It was in this collective that Lee began her early practice as a folk musician - leading sing-alongs, composing songs inspired by local issues, and performing in community.
In the first ten years of her career in Kitchener-Waterloo she steered the emergence of its next generation of spoken word poets as the director of the KW Poetry Slam. As a folk music producer, she cultivated the local scene as a series curator and programmer. As an outspoken activist and organizer she brought forward uncomfortable conversations around racism and white supremacy in the local social justice culture and queer community.
In the next few years Lee toured the country and screened a full-length documentary called The Legend of Sing Hey (Dir. Becca Redden) at Rainbow Reels Waterloo and Toronto Queer Film Festival. She wrote and performed a critically-acclaimed one-woman musical titled Will You Be My Friend, (Dir. Matt White) a searing satire on cultural assimilation and whiteness in Canada. And she composed original music for three plays: Shaded by Nada Abousaleh, I Don’t Know and the Dora-nominated Suitcase, both by Syrian-Canadian playwright-actor Ahmad Meree. During the lockdown Lee expanded her practice facilitating anti-oppression conversations for universities and organizations such as Folk Alliance International, U of T School of Social Work, and Vancouver Poetry House.
This year she releases her long anticipated song cycle album titled Ancestor Song. Drawing inspiration from her island-dwelling family roots in South Korea, Lee says that “these melodies access a musical spirit deep in my blood memory. Melodies I feel have been passed down to me by my ancestors, who gave me the voice in my chest and my body as instrument.” The songs are folk in tradition, concerned with contemporary issues of the people and land. The melodies are rousingly thematic and supported by expansive jazz harmonies. Many songs depict water as a force of healing, power, drowning and destruction.
In the studio, Lee says for the first time she felt safe and supported by her producer, avant-folk-rock artist from Kitchener-Waterloo, JoJo Worthington. “Not only is JoJo an incredible sound engineer and musician with an ear for sonics that’s beyond my frequency, she is a kind person who cares about me and knows my moods. With JoJo in the control room, we were able to actualize my musical dreams without compromise and I couldn’t be more proud of this record. We captured the Janice Jo Lee sound and I’ve been telling everyone it’s the best thing I’ve ever made.”
The first single “Here I Am” is out now and stay tuned for the album Ancestor Song coming out in 2023.
I am a folk artist. An artist of the people! A storyteller. It is my responsibility as a folk artist to affirm our contemporary stories, emotions and ideas through art and carry these stories onward. Art is my tool to build just and joyful communities that are as free as possible from systemic oppression. My art comforts the struggling and challenges political complacency. As a writer and performing artist, I combine my literature, music and theatre background with my political activism to create art that engages through its truth, comedy, lyricism and power. Genres and artistic disciplines do not limit me when creating songs, poems, scenes and stories. On stage, it is important for me to demonstrate power in embodied performances, unrelenting honesty, rhythm and humility. I aim to create an energy with an audience that is electric and connected, leaving us aglow.
Artistic excellence to me is rich poetics, rooted presence, irresistible rhythm that engages our bodies, and melodies and stories that move a person through its truth and feeling.
I am constantly learning and thinking critically about my position and cultural context within systems of oppression. I aim to decolonize myself and my art practice from oppressive ideas and practices. My art is subject to criticism and conversation. I do my best, allow room for error, and try to be kind to myself. As an artist and role model, I listen to and strive to be accountable to my community.
I seek communities and audiences where my best self, vitality, spirit and art are life-affirming. I want what I offer as a person to act as a spark or opening to emotional truth, social truth, untapped or forgotten joy, and self power. I seek to create an open space which reminds us that human connection is full of beauty, wonder, and a life worth living