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  • Ella Wu

An #importedAsians POV: Mai Young Øvlisen

The Universal Asian got to know Mai Young Øvlisen, lead singer of Meejah. The Danish-Korean band recently released their debut album Queen of Spring (2021) which is available to stream on Spotify. Follow them on Instagram here!


Tell us about yourself.

All right. My name is Mai Young Øvlisen, and I live in Copenhagen, Denmark. I grew up in Aarhus in Jutland. It’s the second biggest city in Denmark. And I’m adopted from South Korea. So I was born in Seoul, and then I came to Denmark when I was two months old.


How did you get into music? When did you start playing?

I started playing when I was about 7 years old. I started playing classical piano, but before that, I started dancing classical ballet as well. My father is very passionate about music, so we were listening to a lot of classical music and also a lot of American singer-songwriters, like Neil Young and some other bands and acts like Janis Joplin—people with big voices or big emotions. I was playing the piano for several years, but at some point I felt the need to express some of my inner emotions more, and I started singing and playing with bands. When I was about, I don’t know, 16–17 years old, I started writing music on my own.


How would you describe your sound or genre?

It’s definitely alternative. It comes out of alternative rock music. I like acts like Radiohead, Nick Cave—some have large soundscapes and some have a sort of melancholy through them. Then, I also like bands that think of their album as a whole piece of art, a concept album. Our sound and my band, Meejah, is a combination of singer-songwriting and big soundscapes, but also various inspirations from electronic music, from edgy, gritty hip hop, post-metal (new genres that have evolved from artistic metal in the last decades), experimental music, and then I also combine Tibetan singing bowls. I’ve also taken inspiration in Korean Pansori singing. Like the concept of the album, it’s a mixture of the North and the East. We also try to do it with the sounds.


Is there any significance to the name of your band?

Yeah, it’s called Meejah, and it’s a paraphrase of the romantic period that thinks of the artist as a medium for divine inspiration. I also learned that it’s similar to a Korean female name. That was by mistake, but it makes a fine story: that I carry some of my unconscious Korean heritage with me. 

Photo: Frej Rosenstjerne

Do you have a songwriting process?

I can tell you about what happened when the album started taking form. I was in a very heavy sorrow process at the time. There were a lot of feelings of loss and also feelings of—I think you can call it [urgency]. It felt like it was bigger than my body could contain. And then, it happened in this sort of overspill state. In just over a weekend, 2–3 days, I created four songs. It was a crazy weekend. It was almost like I couldn’t be inside myself, but I could create music. They just came one by one. And they were quite significant. It felt like that “medium” thought, like they called me in or something like that, like “It’s time!” Then it became very clear that there was sort of a concept to them. They were created over the four elements in the Korean flag: fire, heaven, water, earth. After that weekend, I felt quite relieved. I think that’s how I write songs in general. I think it’s when I’m in a process and things are just about to land or transform themselves, it’s then that I use the music to take them further. I also just think of all these emotional states as states of energy. It’s a way of molding the energy, changing it, building something with it, instead of it being a heavy weight.


Can you tell me more about Queen of Spring (2021)?

It’s the philosophy of the elements of the Korean flag. Also, I have been lucky to go on some trips back to Korea with other Korean adoptees—not just from Denmark, but from Scandinavia, Australia, Europe, and the U.S. Sometimes, the adoptee story is very much a fairytale story. Somebody goes into the woods to find something or to slay the dragon and returns and lives happily ever after. But, I don’t think that’s how an adoptee feels in real life. It’s an ongoing inner discussion or dialogue you have with yourself, and that can bring really beautiful things if you want to interact with that part of yourself. So, I think I collected experiences and questions that I wanted to translate into sound, into songs, and into a collaboration with my bandmates, Daniel and Andreas, because they weren’t as involved in the inner conversations. They just hear the sounds and the songs and the structures, and use their ability to understand and to translate stories into music. So maybe it’s not a direct inspiration, but it is an artistic rite for me to collaborate with others and to be in that space where you create something new.


Image: Andreas Korsgaard

Is there a significance to the order of the tracks?

Yes. After I created the first four tracks on a composition, I found out that there were other tracks that wanted to be written. They felt a little bit like bridges between the four big elements. I looked into Korean philosophy and found out that there are not just four trigrams, but eight trigrams. The others are thunder, wind, lake, and mountain. So, the album is built over these eight trigrams, and the philosophy is the unity of all opposites. And also, the only principle is the principle of change—which is also from Chinese Taoism. The album is called Queen of Spring because, as I understand it with my Western mindset, you have to go through a full circle of these heavy elements—and some of them are challenging and some of them are beautiful—and then you purify, and the next time you play the circle, it will have changed and you will have elevated your understanding and your level of enlightenment. I just like the way the album, and the way we have planned the eight tracks, sort of transforms your inner emotional state.


What do you want listeners to take away or experience from your music?

I want them to feel the change. I want them to feel the elevation. It is an exploration of how you can tell stories in sound. And, I think the Asian-European narrative is not that known. I also think we have other stories or other nuances to tell than the Asian-American community, and I think that we can interact with each other and inspire each other. I’m from the North, from Denmark and Scandinavia, and I’ve also spent a lot of time on the Faroe Islands, which is a very small group of islands north of Scotland, just before Iceland. The Faroese culture tells me very much about old historical roots. It tells a story just in how they are, how the culture is about how it was before in other Scandinavian countries. So, I hope that the listener will try to connect to all these historical movements that we have tied together in a new sort of story. I also hope they will get inspired to think about their own heritage—it’s not just about ethnicity or different continents coming together, it can be just the meeting of any two cultures. It can also just be your mother’s line and your father’s line and how they’re different and how they influence who you are.


What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?

First of all, I think that they should believe in their own expression, and insist on their own expression. Find playmates, soulmates that they really enjoy spending time with. I think communication outside the music is very important as well. Because, you can have different opinions on genre, and you can have different musical inspirations, but if you can understand each other on that existential level, then it can really be a benefit. So, the communication also means to me that you are able to translate your ideas and thoughts, and understand them, of course. I have tried to be very mindful about what I wanted to tell, and I wanted to build something new. I wanted to build a new line of stories, and I think it’s also very cool if you just want to spread good vibes or party or be the coolest person in the room. I just think you have to be honest. It is some kind of change you want to create, because when people press play on your music, it immediately affects the body and the brain. So yeah, just some kind of honesty. Be honest with yourself.


How do you feel when you perform your music? Do you still get nervous from time to time?

I try to stay open to that particular evening and that particular audience. Also, our own states. Because then every concert feels different when you perform it. I also try to have a rooted connection to what each song wants to express, and it’s a lifelong rehearsal to do that, to be that medium, to step aside and be an instrument for that story to tell itself. I try to be as good as I possibly can on my instruments. I think a lot about what I want to say between songs, and how I can compose the concert as a whole. If I stay focused, I don’t get nervous. I just get excited. It’s a good thing, because then the energy rises and you have something to send out.

 

A big congratulations to Mai, who was nominated for the Danish Music Critic’s Award “Steppeulven 2022″ as the first Asian Female leadperson/frontperson in a band ever in the category "Hope of the Year."

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