Interview: Musician EJ Lee On… A Lockdown Album, Lyric-Writing, And Expressing Your Identity Through Music

EJ Lee, also known as Half-Boy, is a musician and songwriter. EJ released their latest album in December 2020; written and recorded during the first national lockdown, it explores themes of queerness, anxiety, and friendship.

We spoke to EJ about the process of writing lyrics, recording a whole album on their phone, and using their music to help come to terms with their identity.

How did you come to be so interested in music?

I’ve played music since I was a kid, and I was in a band in high school – but once I moved out after college, I sort of just needed something to do. I started a project just to learn how to song-write; I wanted to mimic the style of my favourite musician at the time, and I wrote music about where I was from – my home state of New Hampshire. It took a long time – a few years – to do it, because I really didn’t know what I was doing. But from there it really took off; once I got to the UK I joined a band, and that really inspired me as well. A whole lot of people inspired me to make music.

You write your own songs – where do your lyric ideas come from?

I need to write based on a place, and how I feel about a place. My first album was about where I grew up, and then I wrote an EP about California when I lived there for a while. My most recent album is more broad, but it’s still keeping to the same theme of songs about people I met here in the UK; it’s more about identity, and it’s more personal, but still based in real stories and locations.

“It’s so different now – but it’s a different way of doing things which has allowed me to learn a lot of new things that I wouldn’t have otherwise learned.”

EJ Lee

How does the process of writing lyrics go?

When I was learning, I used to play a lot of covers just to try to figure out how chord structure and progression worked; because I was studying a particular musician, I studied the type of chords and instrumentation he used. Sometimes it just happens within an hour, and I’ll write a whole song – I don’t know where it comes from, it just happens and I can’t write it down fast enough. Other times it’s like pulling teeth. I’ll work on a song for a few months, and rewrite or adjust it as needed to make it make sense. I want my songs to be personal to me, but also something that can be related to.  

It’s different every time – sometimes I’ll know from the lyrics the way I’m going to play it, and I’ll write the music to fit the lyrics. Other times I hear a melody first, and then I have to try to figure out what chords work best, and how lyrics can fit in. I’m not that good at music theory anymore, so I can’t necessarily always write down what I hear, but it’s interesting to keep trying things and mess around with it.

EJ Lee

How did things change for you when lockdown hit?

It was really different. I used to play drums with my band once a week, and I haven’t played drums in a year. It’s so different now – but it’s a different way of doing things which has allowed me to learn a lot of new things that I wouldn’t have otherwise learned. Because of lockdown I was on furlough, so I just worked on my music 24/7, and I never would have done that otherwise.

You wrote and produced a whole album during lockdown – how did that happen?

I don’t know if this album would ever have been made if it hadn’t been for lockdown, because it was just a way of coping with all of the madness going on, and was a product of this different environment. It was all recorded on my phone. I did as much as I could with my guitar, and then the rest of it was electronic instruments. 

It started when my best friend said to me, “I want you to write me a love song,” kind of as a joke. I hadn’t written music in a long time, but it was the easiest song I’d ever written. I wrote it in an hour. And after that she said I needed to keep going, and writing. I was with her during lockdown, so all of these songs started coming out, and I was just recording them in my bedroom. It was something to keep focused on during the first lockdown, where there was so much uncertainty and fear. A lot of my anxieties came out in the songs, because I couldn’t put words to them in reality. 

How do you stay motivated to keep making music, particularly with the world as it is right now?

It’s hard, because there are some weeks when I just can’t do anything because of too much anxiety. But I have to be doing something all the time, or multiple things at once. That’s how I can get through difficult situations. Having a project that I could work on during lockdown was a life-saver, as something to focus on rather than worrying. It’s so hard – I’m lucky because I’m on furlough, but if you’re not, I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to get through this situation, let alone try to be creative as an artist. If I wasn’t on furlough, I wouldn’t be doing this. 

“I felt like I needed to embrace it and claim it in a joyous way. I like who I am, and I like being this person that feels half-boy sometimes.”

EJ Lee

The lyrics to your songs are very personal – how did you explore your identity through your latest album?

It was originally based on my experience of working in London, and all the friends I’d met there; how I became able to express myself more freely and come to terms with identifying as non-binary, and grappling with what that means – how that affects me personally and my relationships. And how I can navigate the feelings associated with feeling trans, and feeling unsure of myself and my own body. So there’s a lot of anxiety around that. The rest of it is based around how I had a lot of internalised homophobia that affected how I felt about my relationships to female friends, or how I felt how they might see me. This learned behaviour was affecting my mental health a lot, so a lot of that anxiety is present in the songs as well. But there’s also a lot of joy in there, because I think it’s a very joyous thing to be who you are, and to be able to be who you are with a group of people – so it’s not all sad!

Is the name “Half-Boy” also a part of that expression?

Yeah. It was a lyric first, and when I first wrote it it was kind of an insult to myself; it was this self-deprecating statement. But then I felt like I needed to embrace it and claim it in a joyous way. I like who I am, and I like being this person that feels half-boy sometimes. I wanted to make something mine that I had previously used in a self-deprecating way, and express my identity through that.

EJ Lee

Do you find it helpful to express your feelings and anxieties through music?

I think it’s almost the only way I can get them out sometimes. When there just aren’t words for it, music is one of the only ways that I can express it. I honestly never really expected anyone to listen to it other than some of the people I know, so I don’t really write with other people in mind. I probably should, because it’s a very grim tone sometimes; but I think at least if I was listening to it and I hadn’t written it, I would want to feel like I could relate to someone going through what I was going through, and hopefully that is true for people listening. One thing about being in the queer community is that you can feel quite alone and isolated. When I was a kid, it didn’t exist to be non-binary – it wasn’t a concept that I’d ever heard of. So I just think, if I had known about this, I would be such a different person now.

Do you have a song that feels most personal?

I think Nighthawk was the most difficult one to make, and it took a very long time to figure out. I’m very proud of how it ended up, because it was a mess when I first made a demo. It came a long way, and I feel like it’s the most honest track. The lyrics are more honest than I’ve been on songs before; the idea of the nighthawk speaking about anxieties, and how my brain swirls around questions, was a bit honest for me. I also think the orchestration was different to anything I’d ever done. I had a friend (Hannah, also known as SPIKE) come on and help with adding a lot of synth, and a flute; she’s someone I play in a band with when there’s no Covid, so it was really exciting to have her contribute to it – it wouldn’t be the song it is now if she hadn’t. It was very much a group effort in that way, and I’m very proud of it because of that.

EJ Lee

What advice would you give to queer creatives that are just starting out?

I guess I would say just write things and accept that they’re going to be bad the first hundred times, and that’s ok. It’s going to be bad for a while. It might take a while, but you’re going to learn with every new song you write. The way I went about it, of studying artists that I was inspired by, really shaped my sound; so I would also say really study who you admire. There are so many amazing queer artists out there right now, and there are more and more every day. Just play their songs. It will teach you what you like to hear, and from there you can create your own personal sound.

Who have you been inspired by musically?

It’s all about the lyrics for me – if I don’t like the lyrics I’ll find it hard to get into the artist. I was most inspired by an artist called Sufjan Stevens. He is a folk singer who writes a lot of queer-coded songs. Troye Sivan is an amazing gay pop star; King Princess has great songs. And honestly, I’ve loved Taylor Swift since I was eighteen. I think she writes incredible songs. The woman can write a bridge, and that’s really amazing. I love her work.

What do you want to do next?

I’d love to write more songs and make another album. I have a friend who wants to help me produce one in real life this time, which would be amazing. But really what I’m most excited about is going out and playing drums again, because I really miss it. I’m looking forward to getting in a practice room with a drum set and playing with my band.

To listen to and purchase Half-Boy’s latest album, visit their Bandcamp page:

All proceeds from the album go to the charities Mermaids UK and Say It Out Loud Club.

You can follow EJ on Twitter at @EJ_Lee1 and on Instagram at @EJ_058.

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