The MuchMusic VJ, CBC host and multidisciplinary artist released ‘jooj two,’ on April 9.
By Nick KrewenSpecial to the Star
Fri., April 9, 2021timer6 min. read
With the April 9 release of “jooj two,” Sook-Yin Lee is keeping the memory of her “twin flame” alive.
Lee, a multidisciplinary artist and broadcaster most widely known for her stints as a MuchMusic VJ and host of the popular CBC radio program “Definitely Not the Opera,” had formed the group jooj with her partner Adam Litovitz and released a self-titled album of their experimental electronic music in 2015. (“jooj” or “zhuzh” means to tweak something to make it better, although Lee says they didn’t know what it meant and they just liked the sound of the word.)
They were about 80 per cent through the recording of the 11-song “jooj two” when Litovitz, a Genie- and Canadian Screen Award-nominated composer who suffered from depression, died by suicide in June 2019.
When faced with such a deep, personal and painful loss, it would be understandable if Lee had chosen to abandon the project.
But speaking last week from her Toronto home, the singer, actor, director, playwright and TV host said the thought never entered her mind.
“If anything, it was a question of when I could get my mind together to complete the album,” Lee says.
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“Our work was very important to us — we made so many things together. We made performance art, music, movies. We were constantly playing and coming up with so many fun things to do and loved to make things.
“And this album in particular, we were really proud of.”
Lee says she wanted to share his creativity.
“Adam exists in his good work,” Lee says. “He’s a fantastic writer, a beautiful drawer …
“I love this album. I can hear him playing the instrument. I hear the kick in his step in his bass, and I hear and see his fingers playing the piano and really feel him in the music. So it was never a question of ‘if’ I would finish it, but ‘when.’”
The Vancouver-born Lee says the loss of Litovitz, with whom she was involved romantically until 2018, touches her daily.
“Everything is with me all the time,” she admits. “It’s interesting working with loss and in cataclysmic moments in life and in difficult moments for me was losing Adam, who was my — I just learned about this phrase called ‘twin flame.’
“That sounds like me and Adam: We were very, very close, as close as two people can be. He passed and it was very, very hard for me. It’s been really quite a lesson in living. I had had losses before, but not anyone like this.
“It’s so hard to describe; there are so many dimensions to it. I do feel he exists in my day-to-day life. He exists inside me in ways that are so hard to describe. In memories … when I see his friends and we hold love for him and experiences … it’s not like Adam exists as a noncorporeal ghost in my house or anything like that, but I do feel his essence and I do feel communication with him in subtle ways.”
Lee says the reason that she and Litovitz clicked creatively was because they “played.”
“A lot of children play and, as we get older, it’s considered time to grow up,” she explains. “Artists know how to play. I remember meeting a group of friends — we were meeting to see John Zorn perform and I had a couple of silly hats with me.
“And I asked, ‘Who wants to wear this with me?’ Nobody but Adam did. He was really good to go in and dance and explore. On one hand, there’s this bright, buoyant, fun playful spirit, and then he had this really incisive brain.
“It’s a complicated love. It’s a love that I’m grateful to have experienced and I miss him terribly.”
Lee describes the methodology behind “jooj two” as a great example of their interplay.
“I’ve always been writing songs — lyrics first — and then trying, with a hammer and chisel, to fit the words into a melody,” said Lee, who first performed with Vancouver alt-rockers Bob’s Your Uncle.
“So I decided to approach melody first, and Adam and I would come up with a sonic fragment which would provide the bed of the song.
“I would respond to that audio through improvisation and stream of consciousness words. I didn’t know what I was saying — I came up with things in the moment — and I sang a lot of onomatopoeia or wordless word-sounding sounds that would enhance the melody.
“Then I would pass that to Adam and he was really honing his ability to overhear. In the last few years, he loved just sitting anywhere and listening to conversations. It wasn’t so much about what was being said — it wasn’t like eavesdropping at all — but more like little fragments of words would tickle his ear and he’d write them down, and he’d sometimes in hearing them mishear them and write something even more amazing.
“Sometimes they were the words that I said and sometimes he came up with delightful, different understandings. Then he would pass that back to me, and I would craft and finesse them as a poet might, and then pass them back to Adam and he would put his poetic and editorial ear to it as well, and then we’d finally come up with the songs.
“So this work is very much music that bubbles up from the subconscious.”
Lee says the results would often surprise the duo.
“We were very DIY-fashioned artists and we’d look at each other and go, ‘How the hell did we do that? How does that come out of us?’
“There was somehow a very propulsive, very energetic and strong abrasive pop music and robust songs that were so different from the torchy, slow soul ballads of our first album.”
Lee also says Litovitz’s death brought to light how important it is to get proper treatment for mental health issues.
“Adam’s suicide occurred at a time when he was wrestling with difficult life things that so many people are wrestling with,” she says. “I don’t know about you, but the word ‘anxiety’ has really come to the fore in the last decade. More and more people are feeling anxiety.
“With Adam, he was just trying to figure out who he was, what he wanted to do and how he fit into this world.”
Lee said she only learned about Litovitz’s situation after reading notes that he had meticulously written.
“He took a lot of notes,” says Lee. “I had read all his notes about the effect the drugs were having on him and his friends had shared correspondence.
“Unfortunately, Adam didn’t have the help to find the drugs that would help him.”
Lee says the pandemic-induced suffering many are experiencing due to lockdowns and isolation is a real problem.
“People are struggling with mental health and they’re not equipped with the help they need,” she says. “Some of them are taking drugs that are exacerbating their conditions.”
Lee also suggests that if you know an acquaintance or loved one who is experiencing mental health issues, try to truly hear them.
“For friends and family and loved ones like myself, I wish I had been a better listener to Adam when he had described some of the difficulty that he was feeling.
“I would say, ‘You’re going to be OK. You’re going to pull through,’ as opposed to really hearing him.”
Lee, who says her grief comes in “spikes,” didn’t use music as the only medium to express her bereavement: she also made a movie in lockdown called “Death and Sickness.”
“It was about the experience of losing Adam and then being thrust into the global pandemic, into lockdown,” she explains.
“It strikes me that the sort of collective loss of the world as we know it and just the monumental losses — so many people losing their loved ones, losing their jobs, losing a sense of normality of what was, in some cases, people losing their lives and losing their health — there has been so much loss.
“We can’t really control what’s going on, but there’s a deep sense of uncertainty and limbo-land.
“When I walk out onto the streets, I see so many stores in the city transforming before my eyes — whole swaths of buildings gone and new developments being raised — it’s something that we’re all feeling. All of these things are what continue to motivate me to share the work of Adam and I.”
Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based freelance contributor for the Star. Reach him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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