Over the last couple decades, the ways music has been consumed and marketed have evolved greatly from the traditional status quo. Consequently, the musicians and performers which make up this cut-throat industry have to adapt and apply their talents on a more diverse scale, simultaneously changing the definition of “making it” in the music scene. Jonathan Lee is one such Los Angeles based musician who has built upon his talents as a guitarist, adding producing and composing to his repetoire in his ascent through the industry. A true student of music in every form, Lee’s knowledge ranges from classical Arabian melodies to West-African rhythms to contemporary soundscapes, and he has applied this knowledge to an even wider range of endeavors such as touring across the globe and co-producing the song “I Got That Feeling,” which was featured in an ad by Coca-Cola. We had the opportunity to ask Lee about his musical accomplishments, journeys in Asia, Europe and the US as well as gain some insight to the life of a successful musician in the 21st century.
Is there any event or influence on your life which sparked your interest to learn Arabic classical music?
Lee: Well I think growing up in Malaysia definitely played a huge part in shaping the type of music that I listen to today, and it was also through the exposure to the diverse aural landscape that exists in Malaysia which inspired me to learn different musical styles from around the world. Malaysian music has always had influences from various musical cultures and traditions from around the world due to its own history as a spice trading port in South East Asia. From Bolero to ChaCha, to Arabic and Persian music, from Chinese operatic singing, to Portuguese folk and to complex rhythms of Gamelan music that is reminiscent of West African rhythms, these musical traditions make appearances in Malaysian music on the daily. So I guess it was only natural that I started delving into the world of Arabic classical music whilst attending Berklee. Being able to put this style of music into context, being familiar with it but at the same time being foreign and new was exciting for me.
I’ve always been amazed by the emphasis of melodies in Arabic classical music where chordal structures don’t really exist, which is in absolute contrast with contemporary western music and my own background as a jazz fusion guitar player, and this only inspired me to find out more. I also learned Brazilian samba percussions, Latin percussions and rhythms, and classical Indian Carnatic music while attending Berklee. I’ve always found something unique about each musical tradition and I love adapting certain aspects of these musical traditions into my own productions for film/tv compositions and in my own work as an artist. I think contrasting modern music production with ideas and music traditions with historical weight provides depth and integrity to the music that is created.
Given that you have performed in the US, Europe, and Asia, are there any shows that stand out to you as being especially memorable or exciting?
Lee: I would say performing in the Palau de Les Artes Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain with the incredibly talented flamenco guitar player, David Minguillón, is one of the most memorable shows i’ve ever played at. The energy of a flamenco show, the interactions between the musicians on stage in a flamenco show and authenticity of the music was something absolutely new to me at that point, but one that I absolutely loved. And to be able to play in such a beautiful venue with amazing natural acoustics was a real blessing. It was also my first time performing in Europe and the challenge of combining classical Arabic music with flamenco was inspiring and that much more rewarding when performed live.
What are some of the more challenging aspects of touring and playing shows on the road that many of those in the audience may not think about? On the other hand, what are the more rewarding aspects of touring?
Lee: I am actually an avid traveler in my own personal life so to be able to travel to various exotic locations to perform music that I believe in was really more than anything I could ask for. That being said, I think to be able to bring the same level of energy, enthusiasm and emotion on stage show after show was definitely challenging. You go through so many different emotions when you travel, seeing certain parts of the world for the first time, meeting certain people for the first time from absolutely different walks of life, that it’s hard to bring yourself back to that moment when you wrote that certain piece of music. That being said, it was also the most rewarding part of touring as you learn so much about yourself, about how you react in certain situations and how you process certain emotions, all while under the pressure of performing your best at every show you play.
What have been some of the larger venues you have played in?
Lee: The Palau de Les Artes Reina Sofia was definitely one of the largest venue I have played in as we did a show in the Opera House as well as on the Largo Lake surrounding the Arts and Science complex. However the biggest turn out at a show that I have played at was the “Berklee Indian Ensemble Featuring Vijay Prakash” concert in the Berklee Performance Center in Boston, MA. It was a sold-out show, and to see that many people of all ages singing along to music they’ve known since they were kids, from movies they watched growing up, was such an incredible feeling. Having personally grown up watching many Bollywood films such as “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai,” I completely connected with the crowd and the nostalgia that they were experiencing which just made the whole experience that much more rewarding.
How did your work as a co-producer on the song,“I Got That Feeling,” end up being used by Coca-Cola in one of its Saudi advertising campaigns?
Lee: When I first moved to LA, I was working for a period of time with Sony/ATV Writer/Composer and ex-Boys Like Girls member, Morgan Dorr on this and several other projects. It was through Morgan that we received a brief for the project, and after our first version of the song was approved, we sent in a couple of different versions of the song with directions from the campaign managers, and not long after, “I Got That Feeling” was chosen to be used in the Saudi campaign of “Taste Has A Change!” A big part of the process was understanding what was required of us as composers, to understand the vision of the campaign manager all while maintaining musical integrity and our enthusiasm when we first started working on the campaign. The campaign was also very important to me as it was a huge step in right direction for women’s rights, not just in Saudi Arabia but also for the rest of the world as the campaign was released not long after King Salman’s decree, allowing women to drive in the Kingdom for the first time in the Kingdom’s history.
Did this feel like a big achievement to have your work heard by thousands if not millions?
Lee: It was definitely an inspiring moment to see all your hard work pay off, however I choose to see this as just the beginning of greater things to come. Having only been in this city for less than a year when this campaign launched, it really inspired me to work harder and it showed me that just like anything else, when you put in the hours into your craft, the only way to go is up.
You have worked with a few award winning as well as Grammy-winning artists. Which of these musicians/performers has played the largest influence on your career, and can you explain a little bit about what you learned by working with these individuals?
Lee: I’ve definitely learned something from each one of these incredibly talented artists, but primarily I would say that just being in their presence and seeing their outlook on life on the daily and the work ethic that they’ve adopted is really what inspires me the most. In my experience the more achieved/successful a person is, the nicer and more giving they are. I think this is due to the fact that they have reached a point where they are able to assess situations and see a body of work without bias and as such see the potential in others too. It is my opinion that this is the biggest recipe to success. People forget that none of these awards or opportunities were handed to these artists on a silver platter, they worked very hard to get to where they are and I was very grateful to be able to be given the opportunity to work with them and to see this discipline firsthand.
Are there any notable film compositions or strictly music projects you are currently working on or have planned later in 2018?
Lee: Well I am currently working on a few projects focused on film trailer cues and alternative scores for film/TV that I am getting ready to pitch. I recently worked with female cinematographer and director Madeline Kate Kann on her project, “Specular” as part of the ARRI Inspiration Challenge, which turned out beautifully. She is an incredibly talented cinematographer who I admire very much because of her drive to increase female representation in the film industry and someone that I am very grateful to have had the chance to work with. Currently I am composing a piece of music for Wales based, female director/filmmaker, Sharifah Aleysha, on her project titled, “Sayang,” which is a short film dealing with topics such as same sex relationships in a Muslim community as well as the experience of an immigrant in a foreign country with conflicting moral values to one the individual is used to. I plan to launch my artist project titled “Alowbelow” by the end of the year with three singles to follow, with much of the music inspired by the likes of Mura Masa, Kaytranada, Flume and Sango. Lastly, I will also be working with more artist and writers such as Tyzo Bloom, PomPom Music and Elsa Curan on projects where I act solely as the producer as opposed to an artist. It will be interesting to be in a position where I can take a step back and assess the situation without bias which often happens when being an artist as you are that much more attached to a piece of music or work.
The music industry is one of the most competitive in the world. How have you been able to rise to the top and distinguish yourself from so many other talented musicians?
Lee: I think having come from a foreign country all the way from the other side of the world, to have made that choice to move to Los Angeles alone and all the struggle and hard work that that implies, I do not take anything I do for granted. This reality drives me daily to work harder and to always be hungry for knowledge and to be humble, which has served me greatly so far. Another potential contribution to my success is also my mind set that it is never a race in this industry, and that if you are genuine in your music and genuine to yourself on the quality of music that you put out, your hard work and talent will be recognized. This is in my opinion the biggest driving force to my success so far and I believe it will continue to be as long as I am honest to myself.
by Giorgio Chang