Creative Crush: Interview with Ettie Kim, songwriter
Ettie is one of my close creative friends from college, and an amazing songwriter, musician, and artist. We met during the first few weeks of freshmen year, when our dorm floormates were all on the subway going to an event in downtown Manhattan. Everyone else was chirping, small-talking away, but she was standing there by herself, reading a book of e.e. cummings poetry. And that's when I fell in love.
Tell me about you.
Law student and songwriter. Jack of all trades, master of none. I'm always fighting to incorporate things that nourish me creatively in an otherwise uncreative occupation of being a law student and possibly even becoming a lawyer.
How do you make the songwriting happen?
Growing up, the way I got into songwriting was through poetry. I felt like I could start with the lyrics first, and the music would come. I think that always speaks to why the raw, acoustic indie musicians (people like Bon Iver and Cat Power) are such excellent musicians; their music can stand alone because of how strong they are as writers.
A lot of people view electronica as vapid and not substantive, or they’re turned off by it because it tends to be free-floating. I’m trying to be more intentional in my music to remediate those two concerns.
What books, poems, or songs do you keep coming back to?
Pablo Neruda, Your Feet
His love poetry is insanely good. I was able to read him at an early age without feeling like I needed to build up my literacy. He was able to capture such complex emotions and relay them to a wider audience.
e. e. cummings, i carry your heart with me
i carry your heart with me gives me chills every time. He’s just a master of grammar. He inspires me when I’m feeling very complacent. One of my ambitions in life is to write a song that can play on grammar and words the way that e.e. cummings has been able to do.
The temptation, however, is always “oh this song is catchy enough… it’s good enough compared to the mainstream empty calorie music out there. I sometimes do fall into that trap and it inspires me to read more.
Kimbra, Love in High Places
Kimbra is freaking fearless. I listened to her song 5 times a night. She just does whatever she wants. Yeah, she may not enjoy the level of popularity that other mainstream artists have, but that encourages me to do my own thing and not necessarily write mainstream pop-y stuff just because I know it will sell.
Bob Marley song - Is This Love
As a songwriter, I tend to be worried and want to explain a lot and have this story and a plot line and characters. But it’s a simple song and it’s so gorgeous.
What’s in your regular creative diet?
It never happens like me sitting down and saying I’m going to write a song today. I don’t necessarily “go” anywhere, I just try to be receptive to anything that happens in my life. Carrying around a Moleskine is so important for my process. Throughout the day, if there’s anything that’s inspired me I’ll just jot it down, whether it’s a few words, or a song, or a color… or the scene of seeing someone.
My subconscious picks up on things, and learning to trust that has been really important to me. Because you’re never trying to be explicit with poetry, right, — it’s all in the subtleties and it's all in being able to paint a real picture that appeals to all five senses.
So, how do you learn to trust what your subconscious picks up on?
I think it's just trial and error. I never fail to write a song based on things that feel so random to me when I'm writing it down, but then, 3 months later, it just makes sense. If I'm finding certain things impressionable enough to write them down, then there must be a theme - it must demonstrate what kind of season or mood I'm in.... such that I'm able to make these seemingly disjointed things become coherent in a song later.
Kening: I love that. It's like what you're writing down is a reflection of you. And you is a mystery. But you're writing down the symptoms of you, and the songwriting is a reflection of your inner core, that you can't access otherwise.
Yeah. It's not like songwriting was ever about the money. For me, songwriting has always been first and foremost a selfish exercise of needing to process my life.
What are some creative routines or rituals you practice?
My instinct is to actually try not listen to music. I think it forces me to be a synesthesiac in my approach to songwriting, and to try to be as original as possible.
Because I’m a law student and all I do is read and write, I feel SO deprived of anything that feeds my soul. One thing I’ve been trying to get into is therapeutic coloring, and not making it look like a hot mess. Sometimes it's as simple as getting back in touch with my sense of touch and engaging the rest of my five senses; it helps me be more of a whole person. I think becoming dead to my surroundings—unaware and apathetic— is really the worst for my songwriting practice.
Photography, for instance, forces me to find beauty in the ordinary. I got a fish eye camera and it forces me to think on that wavelength. There really is just so much beauty and so much to appreciate. Inspiration is everywhere - and it doesn’t require a trip to some remote country.
Tell me about your digital habits.
I try not to use social media for the purposes that drive insecurity and FOMO. That’s something I can’t stand about social media but I’ve always seen it as a necessary evil as a creative. I was at a cafe and I almost laughed out loud when I heard a creative say, "Instagram is my Linkedin." And that’s a cute way to put it, but it is very much the case now.
I try to only use social media in so far as I’m using it to get inspiration — I try to limit it to once a day, cause it really just takes one moment in the day to scroll through everything. I really hate the idea of me not enjoying the present because of how often I checked my notifications.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a creative?
Always keep your eyes open. (Grace Coddington)
One of my inspirations is Grace Coddington, who is the creative director and unsung hero of Vogue. She made Vogue's photoshoots really tell a story. She’s able to recreate these very rich and sometimes overwhelming spreads because — well, her number one advice is to always keep looking. During the interview as she’s saying this, there’s images of her in the car. Even as she’s in the car, hurrying to her next appointments, her eyes are always facing the window and absorbing her surroundings.
It goes back to the subconscious thing. Everything that we keep our eyes open to will resurface in some way, in our thinking and in our creative work. That image of her in sitting the car— clearly she needs to make it to her next appointment— if I were her I would be looking at my iPhone, but she’s just looking outside her window the entire time.
What’s your intention for this year?
I want to be true to myself. And I know that sounds so trite, but what I mean by that is... for good or for bad, I’ve absorbed a lot of what people have told me. I was raised to prioritize certain things over others (mainly academic excellence over creative excellence). There are external pressures that I still feel myself influenced by, and some which I've internalized. This year has been an arduous process of me figuring out who I really am and what I really want, and what makes me me. Why I am in law school when I feel more whole making music?
Have you figured it out?
I know that ultimately, I won’t be happy as a full time noncreative. I just don’t know what that means. I don’t know if it means that I still finish law school… and use law school to make ends meet as I pursue something more full time as a creative, or if it means I drop everything and run the other direction. I definitely don’t see myself doing something noncreative longterm…. it’s a work in progress.
Ettie dropped out of law school shortly after this interview, and is embarking on a full-time creative career.