By Nathaniel Nelson
The one major thing you lose in a written interview with Peter Jyk is his signature British accent (it’s also why he’s liable to get “Pizza” written on a Starbucks latte). Due to his father’s work, the Korean-American NYU student spent his childhood moving between nations and even continents (check off New Jersey, New York, London, Seoul, and Hong Kong), learning along the way how to forge personal relationships quickly and develop a consistent sense of self despite his changing environment. Nowadays he lives between New Jersey and Manhattan and expresses his creativity mainly through song, with his first EP expected later this spring. A pop singer-songwriter in the tradition of John Mayer, trained in the blues and tinted with some jazz, Peter Jyk leaves few who cross his path uncharmed. I sat down with my friend to talk about his new single and upcoming EP, the road ahead, and the music he makes and admires.
Right off the bat, do you have any bad roommate stories?
Oh, I have so many bad roommate stories, and, unfortunately, they touch upon all five senses—the most prominent one involving my roommate with bad feet smell. It went on for a semester, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him because we were such good buddies.
So why music?
My parents are actually family friends with the world-renowned Korean pianist Yiruma. When my mom was pregnant with me, Yiruma was applying to college—he must have been 17, 18 at the time. My mom was really inspired by his piano-playing, and wanted me to be just like him. I picked up piano when I was six but, unfortunately, living in Hong Kong in that time, the tutors around me were mostly Korean and, perhaps it’s the cultural difference, but they emphasized mostly memorization, as opposed to expression, when it came to learning music. So I would grudgingly play the piano until I was about 14. Then I told my mom, “Look, I don’t think this is working out for me.” She asked what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to play the guitar, because I was inspired by Jimi Hendrix when YouTube came out in 2005. I was watching some of his videos, and I really wanted to replicate the energy he had when he was up on stage. And with a piano I just couldn’t imagine doing that.
On that note, who are some of your other favorite artists? Who inspires you when you’re creating your own music?
I have two forms of inspiration: musicianship—just purely me enjoying the music—and songwriting, which I see as a distinct thing. With musicianship, when it comes to guitar, I have a lot of respect for the “old guys”: Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, B. B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan. I think, watching those guys play guitar, it just goes to show there are a lot of codes I have yet to crack on the fret board. When it comes to songwriting I have a lot of respect for John Mayer, Tame Impala. It’s because those guys, when they’re writing a song, have a truth.
What other new music are you listening to these days?
Grimes, FKA twigs, Childish Gambino, Daft Punk.
What is it about the blues and jazz that appeals to you?
When you listen to something like “Live at the Regal” by B. B. King, each note he plays, and each time he bends those notes you can really sense the gravitas of a musician and how much weight they put in. It’s a very expressive genre. People might say, “Well, it’s only a five-note pentatonic scale.” You’ve got to understand: even if it’s just a pentatonic scale, each of those notes can be played so differently. If I were to play those same notes, it would be so different, even if it were the same exact tempo, because each person has a different way of expressing themselves with the guitar as an instrument. Therefore, I think the beauty of blues is that it allows room for flexibility in expression. The end goal for me is to play those same notes, but to reach people in my own way. The way B. B. King did. The way Eric Clapton does. The way Stevie Ray Vaughan did.
You haven’t seen La La Land yet, right? Ryan Gosling has a monologue halfway through that sounds exactly like what you just said, except about jazz.
[Laughs.] No way, really?
What is your approach to songwriting? Do you start with the lyrics, melody, concept, or what?
It changes from time to time. I’ll sometimes sing a melody that’s appealing to me, and then break that down into a chord structure, or I’ll play a chord progression that I think sounds fresh and then add the melodies on top of it. But I’m always consciously thinking of a theme, because I don’t make a melody or a chord structure without knowing what a song is going to be about. For instance, there’s this idea I’m trying to work with right now: that we’re either very self-deprecating, or sometimes very cocky and ambitious, but it’s often hard to find yourself in the in-between. We’re either high up, or low, but I think the magic happens when we’re in the middle. With this idea I’ve got a chord progression that’s set, and I’m weaving the lyrics on top. It’s like working on a giant puzzle. Sometimes I start working on the corners, and I’ll look at the big picture and find I’ve already got a section there. Then you branch out from there.
What do you see as the toughest and easiest aspects of writing music?
No songwriter has it easy. We’re constantly agonizing, constantly wondering how we can relate this better to people, and make it more cohesive, more expressive, and more palatable. You can write a song and say it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever written, but if no one understands you can you really say you created great art? I don’t think you can, so I always try to make things more relatable for the public at large.
The easiest part… I don’t think there is an easy part. I guess setting the mood is easy.
Tell me about the new single, “Overthinking,” from your upcoming EP.
I’m a big overthinker—with school, and especially relationships. Am I saying too much or too little? Am I doing it right? Do I look good today? All that jazz. So I wanted to write a song with only two chords. I didn’t want to overthink the melodies, I didn’t want to overthink the chord progression. So I literally just came up with two chord progressions, and wanted the song to speak for itself. I think I mentioned this earlier, but I don’t think any reputable musician thinks “Oh, let me just write 10 more songs today.” Rather, they would think about if there’s a need to express some sort of truth, and that’s where a good song is born. I have this desire to connect with people, and I know I have a lot of friends, a lot of close friends who overthink things a lot [winks at this interviewer] when it comes to relationships. This is my way of telling my friends, and an audience at large, that it’s okay. We’re going to get better from here. That’s the message.
What sorts of themes and styles are you trying out on your new EP?
The EP is titled “Modulation.” In music theory, modulation refers to the process or the result of changes in key. It can happen abruptly, sequentially, or gradually. In any case, musicians can purposely change the theme or the tone of a musical piece with modulation. The analogy here, then, is that our lives are like the music: the changes we make in our lives are analogous to the modulations a musician makes in his or her music. So I am here to share the modulations I have made in my life thus far: topics including relationships, self-esteem, childhood regrets, etc. In terms of the song styles, I am slightly restricted because I have to be realistic about how I can perform these songs: I don’t have access to a full band or well-equipped stage, so for the most part, I will be performing things on my acoustic/electric guitar solo or with a bassist/keyboard player. Thus, I usually write songs that can be played just on the acoustic. I do, however, have access to studios, so in some sense, I can experiment with wide range of instruments and sounds for the official release of my EP: my genre is acoustic pop rock with blues/jazz influence, but I am more than happy to venture off into bit of electric soul, psychedelic, and folk as well. So I’ll keep you all updated on this.
You’re working on this while still in school, so I have to ask: What do you think of the NYU music scene? Do you feel connected to it?
I think NYU music scene can be lot more prominent. Besides coffee house or open mic nights here and there, the only major music event for students is really UVL [Ultraviolet Live, the final round of NYU’s annual talent competition], and that isn’t even completely inclusive because it only allows the top musicians of NYU dorms to compete against one another. So if you aren’t in housing, you can’t compete. But I’m not just talking about competitions or avenues that allow musicians here to be heard. The music community itself is divided. Tisch has their own thing, so does Steinhardt, and they are all exclusive to music major-related students (no way for outsiders like me to get involved seriously). That reminds me: back in my sophomore year, I had plans to start a music jam club called JamYU. I’m glad this interview is going on the Internet, because this is where I’m publicly letting out my idea: I’ll be asking for the credit if future NYU students ever start a club like this. [Laughs.]
But going back to the idea: it would have been a club where students of various musical interests and instrumentalists would convene to jam over a genre or style. Each session would last about 10 minutes, and the musicians would rotate (different drummer, guitarist, saxophonist, etc.). It could literally be a jam over Purple Haze, or some mundane jazz standard chord. I couldn’t care less. The point is, musicians would be able to try out new things and learn from one another, and network so they can hire one another for gigs, recordings, and all that. In other words, JamYU would be a hub for NYU musicians from various backgrounds to come together to play and have fun, but also learn and make connections. I don’t know. It sounds like a very optimistic goal, and who knows, the music majors might have gotten super cocky and condescending, but at least we would have had a school-wide community for NYU musicians.
What do you plan to do after NYU? Is music the end goal?
The plan after NYU is to get a stable job that can pay for my expensive hobby, music. Let’s face it: buying instruments, booking studio sessions, hiring musicians, and all that jazz is very costly. Making music sure is for the privileged. Some of my friends worry I’ll climb too high into my job and never have time for music, but I know in my heart that will never happen, because if I don’t end up becoming a star, the end goal for me is to start an entertainment company for musicians and associated acts. So at the very least, I can help others achieve their passion and dreams.
Do you have advice for aspiring musicians?
Yes. Stay hungry. Don’t be satisfied with how many scales you know, how many songs you can play. I don’t think any musician is ever complete. Work on your craft. If you’re a metal musician work on tapping skills. If you’re a jazz musician work on different modes and chord progressions. I think even Kendrick Lamar would agree that he can get better at freestyling, even Eric Clapton would agree his blues scales can always be better the next day.
Okay, last question—and I worked pretty hard on this one: if you could play onstage at the Garden with Buddy Rich on the kit, Pino Palladino on bass, and then Stevie Ray Vaughan with Jimi Hendrix, each playing one neck of a double-necked lead electric guitar, what would you eat for your pre-game meal?
Oh, gosh. I’m going to have to fly to London, go to Gordon Ramsay’s Michelin-star restaurant to eat his beef Wellington.
You can check out more of Peter’s music on his SoundCloud.
Nathaniel Nelson (N8) is a filmmaker and writer.
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