The first thing that struck me, as I walked through the doors of Hotel Café in Hollywood last Wednesday, was the thick silence that permeated the air. Normally, in smaller venues, the muffled hum of drunken voices is a constant; it just comes with the territory. That night however, JiHAE was about to perform, and while she may not be a household name yet, she can definitely captivate an audience like one. The South Korean singer, who has lived in Nigeria, Sweden, the UK and now calls NYC home, had a presence and confidence that most performers would envy. As JiHAE introduced her West Coast band with a soulful, husky voice, all eyes in the room remained fixed on her every move. My expectations were already unreasonably high.
As she began singing, I was instantly hooked. Her voice had the sultry, raw ambience of Nico, with hints of Janis Joplin, David Bowie and Stevie Nicks, yet a quality fiercely her own. Her deep, soulful vocals were woven perfectly, combined with her higher range that verged almost on operatic. Her emotion was honest and contagious, not surprising for someone who has collaborated with the likes of Leonard Cohen and Dave Stewart. JiHAE’s West Coast band completed the ambience with beautifully catchy rifts and foot-stomp inducing rhythms. But beyond technical ability, she had mastered the art of engaging her audience. If she was nervous at all on stage, she masked it flawlessly. As it had been when I showed up, the audience remained silent before bursting into eager applause at the end of each song. At one point during her set, someone in the crowd began talking a bit too loudly, only to be immediately hushed by the majority of the dimly lit venue. During another song, a phone went off, met by a multitude of disapproving glares, mine now included. JiHAE had not only captured our attention, her demeanor on stage demanded respect, and she received it in abundance.
After a number of songs with the band, she brought out an acoustic guitar and sat, while making casual banter. “Did anyone else have a shitty 2014?” We all laughed, probably because for most of us, it was true. She then elaborated by sharing her story of the deep depression she fell into after having a close friend Johnny pass away and how she pulled herself out of it—dedicating her forthcoming song to him. It consisted of heartfelt and haunting vocals, thick with both despondency and hope, and a simple guitar melody that instantly gave me chills. After a few lines she stopped; her guitar mic needed to be adjusted. While at another singer’s show this may have put a damper on the mood, at JiHAE’s it simply proved her confidence and attention to detail. No one moved as she strummed the last few notes of her own, her emotion effortlessly leaving us transfixed.
While the feeling of her work varied with songs from her four self-released albums, the common thread was the sexy, casual and compelling quality that makes JiHAE the force that she is. When she finished, I found myself aching for more, and incredibly inspired. With her newest album, Illusion of You, out this month, and her already impressive body of work, this is just the beginning of the road for her promising career. And she can now count me as one more in her steadily growing fan base.
Check out JiHEA's music video, "It Just Feels," starring Norman Reedus. It's all shades of sexy.
Written by Lauren Hoover
Photos by Diana Mantis