Sook-Yin Lee interview

Can-alt queen Sook-Yin Lee is back on the road with her music project jooj

The musician, filmmaker and broadcaster is stopping in Montreal this week on a tour supporting an album marked by tragedy.

For the past quarter century and counting, Sook-Yin Lee has evolved into one of the country’s most iconic voices in alternative culture. Readers may recognize her from her days as a MuchMusic VJ from 1995 to 2001, where she established herself as host of The Wedge, the station’s flagship alternative music program. 

She’d take her career to even greater heights after leaving: not only would she continue her broadcasting career at CBC Radio as well as trying her hand in film, both as an actress and director. To date, her filmography includes 2006’s Shortbus, 2009’s Year of the Carnivore, and a role on the 2013 CBC TV movie Jack, as Jack Layton’s widow Olivia Chow.

Locally, the Vancouver native has performed in Montreal since her high school years as frontwoman of Bob’s Your Uncle, as well as screening several of her films, including debut Escapades of the One Particular Mr. Noodle and most recent film Octavio Is Dead!, the latter of which was shown at the 2018 Image+nation festival.

As much as she’s worn an abundance of hats over the years, music has always remained a part of Lee’s career. She and her late former musical and romantic partner, Adam Litovitz, recorded and released two albums together as jooj before Litovitz’s death in June 2019. Lee would eventually complete the album, titled jooj two, which she released in April of last year. Though COVID restrictions have made it challenging to promote the LP on tour, Lee will be returning to Montreal on March 18 to perform at the Diving Bell, alongside openers Joni Void and Benjamin Kamino.

Lee has also kept herself busy during quarantine, having made a feature film, Death and Sickness, with musician Dylan Gamble (of Hot Garbage), released in late 2020. The film was conceived while the two were spending lockdown together. She and Gamble are also releasing a documentary film on March 16 as part of Toronto’s Wavelength Winter Festival, with another feature film expected to be ready by year’s end.

We caught up with Lee to ask — among other things we were bummed to have to cut — about her upcoming projects, prior experiences playing in Montreal and a chance encounter with a rock legend after stumbling into the wrong bathroom.

Dave MacIntyre: How’s the pandemic been treating you?

Sook-Yin Lee: I was just going through photos for the last few years and I was like, “Wow, it’s been a long time!” (laughs) It’s so weird. It feels like time collapses. I can’t believe how much time has passed. At the beginning, the pandemic was, for me, a relief in some regards. Life was really intense for me. On a personal level, it was almost like there was a crazy rat race, and I was one of the many, many rats scurrying along, and then suddenly it was a timeout… When I worked at CBC, I’d do some social experiments. One of them was like, “What happens when you pause?” My friend, Nick, stood on the side of a busy street, very still. People just thought he was a freak, like, “What’s up with the dude who’s not moving?” There’s something that is inherently strange when things stop. In this case, it wasn’t just an individual — everyone had to stop. 

It was horrifying to see what was going on with the pandemic, the death count, and people getting sick. It was quite scary. But at the same time, with everybody stopping at once, it was kind of us having to reflect on our lives en masse. I’m both extroverted and also really introverted, so I just turned to work. I find that this period of time in the world is very exciting to me. There’s a lot of fantastic and harrowing collisions of social, political, all kinds of technical trends colliding—a lot of dissent and conflict. These are great times to be making art. Really, it gave me an opportunity to observe the world, observe myself, and translate it into art-making.

DM: You’re coming to Montreal soon to perform a show at the Diving Bell on March 18. How are you feeling leading up to it?

SYL: I’m very excited. The music that I’m going to be playing was with Adam Litovitz, who I was with for many years, and we made lots of wonderful things together. He passed away in 2019, and it really threw my life for a loop. We had been working on our last album (jooj two) together. It was something we were really, really excited about. When he passed, I knew I wanted to finish it. It was about 80% done. It had to be mixed, and needed a couple more songs to be brought together… I was able to complete the album in a manner that I think Adam would’ve loved. 

I’m very proud of the album. It makes me happy to be able to share the music. When I hear him playing the piano or the guitar, his spirit is evoked for me. Art has the ability to share experience and human spirit, so it makes me very happy to play that music. I’ve done one show (for the album), as there was a brief window where I was able to play a show in Toronto when restrictions were let down. That was just before Omicron hit. We were so happy. The place was entirely full. Everybody had to show their vaccine status, so it was safe. But it was full and warm. I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to play the songs without him, and yet, I was able to do so. I had a light that signified him on stage, and I felt him with me. It was a beautiful show, and made me want to share the music more.

DM: For sure! How many times have you been to Montreal before?

SYL: I’ve been to Montreal quite a bit! In my first band Bob’s Your Uncle, when I was a teenager, we were one of the few Vancouver bands that would get out of the city. We toured Canada numerous times in an old Ford Blue Bird bus. It was an old 39-seater bus that we found in a junkyard. Our friend, who’s a manic mechanic, fixed it up, and we would tour. I very fondly remember coming into Montreal and playing places like Foufounes Electriques. I don’t know if they’re still around.

DM: Yep, they’re still around!

SYL: Oh my God, that’s amazing! We were a freaky band, like a travelling circus sideshow. We were immediately so well-loved in Montreal. I remember parking the bus on St-Laurent and bringing our stuff upstairs. It was on the second floor of a club on St-Laurent doing our thing, and people were super stoked beyond belief. There were so many beautiful people in the audience! (laughs) They would then have a DJ play afterwards, and everyone would dance like crazy. The DJ would be so innovative, and would be playing everything from cutting edge experimental electronic music, right beside an old Edith Piaf song. 

To me, it was like, “that is so cool.” One of our bandmates, Peter Lizotte, who’s from Quebec and loved to go back there, would show me all of the junk food that was so key to Quebecois culture. The submarine sandwiches’ buns are beautifully fried — so much better than the doughy ones you get outside of Quebec! (laughs) There’s a lot to love (about Montreal), and I really appreciated that. I also opened for Nick Cave in Montreal at the Spectrum when it was still around. I remember we were doing soundcheck, and I went to the bathroom. I accidentally walked into the men’s bathroom, and there was Nick Cave walking out of his stall. I guess he had a BM! (laughs) He didn’t bat an eye, he was just like, “Hello!” He was very gracious and nice, and he was happily sharing his bathroom with me.

DM: As far as for your upcoming show at the Diving Bell, what can fans in Montreal expect from the live show you’ll be putting on there, without giving too much away?

SYL: I’ve only performed these songs once, and I perform it with all my heart. I think they can expect that. It’s going to be very special. I feel so happy about the musicians who are playing with me, Joni Void and Benjamin Kamino. I’ve never met (Joni) face-to-face, but he’s very much a gem when we communicate online. With the restrictions coming down, it’s still so volatile. I think a lot of it is what happens when people have been sequestered for a few years. It’s one of those transitions that will require care for us to open up again. Some people won’t be ready to open up again, or won’t want to. I hope that we can create a space that feels good, warm, inviting, safe and also exciting.

DM: What are your plans for the rest of 2022?

SYL: Right now, I’m finishing up this documentary that will be released as part of the Wavelength (Winter Festival’s) Speaker Series. It’s an amazing series. Buffy Sainte-Marie, Beverly-Glenn Copeland, Maylee Todd, myself, Dylan and Casey Mecija. We’re all speaking on the subject of community care. I think Buffy Sainte Marie is doing the big opening speech. Every week, a new person comes up. So I imagine that Maylee Todd will probably be doing a recorded live performance. When they asked me to do it, I had just done a recorded live performance in the backyard the previous month, so I pitched the idea of making a documentary film based upon this theme. Dylan and I are making it together. I’m piecing it together, I really love it. It’s very playful, but also deep, and goes through highs and lows. and there’s a lot of funny storytelling in it, as well. We’ll be sharing that on March 16. Then, I play the shows in Montreal on March 18 and then on March 19 in Ottawa. 

I’m also finishing a feature movie. Death and Sickness was a very scrappy movie, shot on cell phones and my little handycams and stuff like that — I edited the whole thing on iMovie. I was able to license it, and from that licensing money, we ended up buying a much nicer camera. So this one is, again, a very DIY adventure. Dylan and I are playing most of the roles. We have some of our friends also playing parts in the movie and it looks great, and it’s entirely fictional. I hope to have that finished by the end of the year.

This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

Sook-Yin Lee will perform with openers Joni Void and Benjamin Kamino at the Diving Bell Social Club (3956 St-Laurent, 3rd floor) on Friday, March 18, 8 p.m. sharp, $18.80

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