How Sook-Yin Lee is transforming tragedy into unabashed pop
The Toronto artist's latest project celebrates the life of her longtime collaborator, Adam Litovitz
"Right now he's looking at me!"
Sook-Yin Lee, via Zoom, is pointing off-camera to a picture of Adam Litovitz, her longtime collaborator and former partner. Lee paints a vivid image of the photo she's referring to: in it, he's sitting on a little blue chair in the hallway of a community centre where he and Lee often went swimming. That spot, Lee notes, was where he would normally sit and meditate to the sound of industrial fans. But instead of closing his eyes and meditating, he is smiling directly at the camera this time. "It's one of the last photos that I took of him," Lee reveals.
Litovitz died by suicide in 2019. He had been battling anxiety and depression, and sought help but Lee says a prescription drug that was given to him to help actually exasperated the very thing he was trying to cure. In June, he disappeared and was later found dead. He was 36.
Lee speaks candidly about the events that led up to Litovitz's death, but is admittedly not fully healed from the heartbreak of losing someone so close. (During our interview, she catches herself starting a sentence off with, "It took time to recover," and quickly backtracks to correct herself: "I haven't recovered.") When asked how she's been coping, especially with the compounded feeling over the lives lost to COVID-19 in the past year, she admits: "I'm a scrapper and I'm a survivor. I see myself as having survived a legacy of turmoil and violence."
Over the course of her prolific career as a broadcaster, filmmaker, actress and musician, the Toronto-based Lee has always been on a quest of understanding the human condition. Her experiences, both positive and negative — the legacy of turmoil she refers to partly goes back to being raised "in a place where there was a lot of violence and mental health issues, mostly at the hands of my mother," she explains — have informed that journey.
Her work with Litovitz, specifically the musical project Jooj, was a space for them to explore and understand each other through a sonic language that, in many ways, can't be explained with words. Lee herself breaks down the unique process of trading fragments of songs and translating them to each other, but is unable to succinctly convey what it was that they were actually doing. "Adam and I never came up with a name for that wordplay, but it was definitely wordplay," she attempts to summarize. Even the band name itself proved to be intangible; Lee jokes that her and Litovitz never agreed on a pronunciation of Jooj. In private, she's always seen it as an acronym for "joy of our joys."
Lee and Litovitz started working on the followup to their 2015 self-titled debut before Litovitz's passing, but due to the ending of their romantic relationship and Litovitz being busy with other work, most notably scoring a Netflix series, Lee took the reins on finishing the album with Litovitz's blessing. The completed album now arrives almost two years after Litovitz's death, but Lee has never doubted that jooj two would see the light. (The album title uses the band name, but the release is coming out under Lee and Litovitz's names officially.)
"I knew that I would release it, that was never a question," she asserts. In fact, she's in possession of all of Litovitz's creative work still, and plans to share, as she repeatedly, lovingly described it, "his good work."
"He's such a beautiful expresser," she continues. "His paintings, his writing, his music … it's very pleasurable for me to be working with the music because I can hear him. I can hear the bounce in his step in the bass lines, I can hear him in the music. I want to share his good work so other people can enjoy Adam's expression and, on this album, our expression together."
Jooj two is a celebration of Litovitz, of his boundless creativity and his and Lee's playful bond. Whereas Jooj was a minimalist, moody collection of torch songs, jooj two, as Lee explains, is an unapologetic embrace of pop music — "put through our own very experimental, artful blender." Songs are much more driven by propulsive, mostly electronic beats and Lee's refrains are woven in through repetition, which can easily play on a loop in your mind for days. (The way Lee sings, "And away with her," on lead single "Run Away With Her" is just one of many examples of small moments that find their way of burrowing into your brain.)
In order to complete the album, Lee discarded some songs and wrote new ones in their place. One of those new additions was the closing track, "Adam." Perhaps the biggest departure from the pop embrace, "Adam" finds Lee reciting a Tibetan chant called the Green Tara mantra over spare gamelan accents. It was a chant that Lee and Litovitz performed together, sometimes in stairwells or parkades, just so they could "hear our voices reverberating off of the walls."
"This is a mantra that sort of dispels any kind of thought, gets rid of mind chatter," Lee explains. Green Tara is a goddess who overcomes obstacles and represents kindness and compassion, qualities that Lee says are "the golden standard." She's quick to note that Litovitz had kindness and compassion in spades, but Lee herself also fits the role of someone who has overcome many obstacles in her life. As she mentioned earlier, she's a survivor.
Jooj two is a documentation of joy, love, separation and grief, a portrait of two people — and sometimes just one — sorting through the next steps in life. It never provides listeners any answers, but it promises to comfort.
Lee doesn't hide the fact that the past couple of years have been some of the hardest she's ever lived through, and even as the rest of the world joins her in the act of mourning and figuring out a path forward, it can feel impossible at times to think of what's ahead. I ask Lee how she continues to stay creative, to stay motivated and, most importantly, how she remains optimistic in spite of the pain.
Through tears, she answers: "I have my body, I have my life, I have my eyes…. It is up to us to live in all of our capacity for everyone who has passed, and for ourselves. I live for Adam. I have this opportunity right now to live, and this is a tremendous opportunity."
If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, help is available nationwide by calling the Canada Suicide Prevention Service toll-free at 1-833-456-4566, 24 hours a day, or texting 45645. (The text service is available from 4 p.m. to midnight Eastern time).