Ko Lee is still new to writing and recording her original songs as K.O., but the Angeleno has been making art of the visual kind for several years, usually using herself as the subject. While she’s grown a massive online fanbase, Lee is quick to point out that she doesn’t see herself as an influencer or a model.
“People assume that it’s modeling, but it’s actually my art that I create,” she said in a recent call from her apartment, which she’s left only three times since the shelter-in-place began. “A lot of work does go into it, because I do all the styling, hair and makeup, and everything. Sometimes I’ll work with a photographer to shoot it, or I could shoot it myself. I’m pretty good at that.”
As K.O., Lee released her first single, “Sadderday,” in early May. It has a wistful, synth-laden melody that’s contrasted by lackadaisical Roland TR-808 percussion. Like the visual work, as well as her DJing—she has been DJing underground parties since moving to L.A. and last fall spun records at an LGBT pride show hosted by Charli XCX and Troye Sivon—her music is an art to express more of herself. But it’s meant to stand on its own.
“Making my own music is the most important thing to me right now,” she said. “I still love doing all those other things, and they kind of connect. But I feel like music was the organic next step for me.”
Originally born in Florida, Ko Lee moved around a lot with her scientist parents. Eventually she ended up in New York, where she took to fashion and interned for stylists and assisting at photo shoots.
“I always have been really into makeup. I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup when I was younger,” she said.
She learned like many do these days—by watching YouTube videos. Eventually she took a photography class, but self-portraits are a style all their own. She describes her aesthetic as futuristic, combing elements of anime and fantasy along the way. But she’s also not afraid to switch it up completely.
“The second I do something, I’m like, ‘I’m done with that,’” she said.
While sheltering in place, she’s picked up several new hobbies, like building face filters for apps, 3D computer modeling and video editing.
“If I only did one thing, I’d be super bored,” she said.
Listeners should expect the same from her music. While “Sadderday” has a down-tempo alt-pop melody, she said the numerous other songs she’s completed are irreverent rap.
“They’re pretty stupid, I would have to say,” she said, laughing. “[My music] doesn’t take itself seriously. I feel like I don’t really take myself too seriously. Even on social media. I post a lot of dumb things.”
RIFF: How long have you lived in L.A.?
Ko Lee: I’ve been here for a little over two years, now. I was born in Florida, but I lived in so many different places because of my parents. They would change jobs every year and just move from place to place. So I never really had like a place that I’m from. A lot of artists rep a place. I’m like, “Damn, that’s cool. I wish I could do that.” But I guess it’s cool to have moved around a lot. I moved here from New York, and I don’t really know why I moved here. I just decided one day; I guess I’m kind of like weird like that. I decide stuff and just do it.
What did or do your parents do?
They’re scientists. My dad’s a chemist and my mom, I don’t really know what it’s called but she tries to find cures for different diseases and things like that.
Doesn’t mean that your parents are busy right now trying to find—
The cure for the coronavirus? I wish! That would be cool. They’re actually at home. They have to be quarantined as well; not working. The way that my mom normally has worked is that she gets a certain assignment like kidney cancer or AIDS … and then she works on that for some time.
When did you get into DJing?
Pretty much when I first moved to L.A. … The things I DJ are pretty underground. I first started DJing techno raves, and a bunch of rap shows; stuff like that. … But before all of that, on the low, I would make music, practice recording covers of things. I always kind of did that on my own, but I didn’t take it seriously until I started DJing.
I feel like DJing introduced me to so many different types of music, as well, that I didn’t even know about. You kind of have to keep searching and find new things that you’re into. There’s just so many different scenes and types of priorities and things like that.
Was it the DJing that led you to get to a point where you were ready to make your own songs?
Yeah, definitely. It also helped me to have a direction of what I wanted to do. Now, my music is like a blend of everything that I like. With DJing, it’s hard for me to express myself completely because you’re playing other people’s music. … To me it wasn’t completely fulfilling on expressing myself, although I have fun doing it.
Is your new song, “Sadderday,” about a former relationship?
I wrote it with one of my friends. It’s about a bunch of different things. It’s about a relationship, friendships. Living in L.A., I feel like it’s hard to make friends. Or sometimes you feel like you’re somebody’s best friend— you talk every day—and then the next day, it’s like you didn’t know them. It’s very strange.
What’s coming up next?
I have a ton of songs in the vault that I want to release. I have another song that I’m releasing pretty soon [on June 9] called “Mean Gurl,” then just keep dropping singles after that. … It’s called “Mean Gurl,” but I’m not actually very mean. It’s more about girls that are mean and that energy of being a mean girl. I do wish that I could be meaner. Maybe that’s why I made the song; because I feel like often, I’m too nice and it ends up biting me in the ass. …
This first song is really chill and mellow, and kind of sad. The other songs are like completely different. They’re more rap songs than, like, singy songs. I do the rapping.
Where do you see your music progressing from here? What do you want to accomplish?
I would just like people to have fun with it, have fun listening to it and [have it] put them in a good mood or feel better. Even this first song; it’s pretty sad, but hopefully it makes people feel better.
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How have fans of your visual work been reacting to your music side?
They’ve actually been super positive about it, which is cool. I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t know if people were gonna be like, “Never make music again,” or be supportive.
I would say more than 90, 95 percent of people have been like super supportive about it and nice. There’ll be somebody being, like, “I don’t understand the lyrics,” or, “I hate AutoTune.”
How have you been passing your time while sheltering at home?
It’s been hard. Honestly, it goes in waves. Sometimes I’m like, “Yes! I’m accomplishing everything. I’m making lists and getting things done. I’m even doing workouts. And then some days [are] like, “I should just die because, like, there’s no hope.”
What’s your home situation right now?
I started to quarantine days before we were officially supposed to start. So I’ve been quarantined extra-long. I think I was just scared. I don’t really know why I did that. I was just like, “I’m staying home until this whole thing passes,” and then it’s just got worse and worse. I ended up being stuck at home in L.A., in my apartment with roommates. … I’ve only gone outside like three times, because I don’t drive and I’m scared to take an Uber. Everybody’s like, “Can you just go outside for a walk?” So I’ve done that, like, once.
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Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.