Arts and Entertainment

Life Happens, Lee Makes Music

Senior Isabella Lee shares the background of her passion for singing and songwriting, and her experiences making music.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Sammi Chen

Senior Isabella Lee regards songwriting as her own unique domain of self-expression. Lee’s musical background began with childhood music lessons in piano and violin that her mother enrolled her in. As a classical musician, Lee’s mother viewed music as something much more significant than just an extracurricular activity, an attitude that Lee often found overbearing. “She was very scary when it came to practicing,” Lee recalled. As time went on and her lessons became too much of a chore, Lee dropped them. She knew, however, that she still wanted to keep music in her life but on her own terms.

Singing and songwriting became something that she could do for herself, on a separate plane from her mother. With her prior experience playing the violin in mind, Lee taught herself guitar, a process she found greatly aided by her familiarity with string instruments. She doesn’t consider herself to be an exceptional guitar player, but being able to figure out chords is enough for her songwriting needs.

Though determined to stay musical, Lee quickly realized that she had horrible stage fright. Set on overcoming her fear, she joined the Stuyvesant Theater Community (STC) and tried to perform at as many of Stuy’s open mic events as possible. Her first STC audition didn’t go particularly smoothly, though. “I folded like a chair,” Lee recalled. She participated in SING!, and gradually these persistent efforts to perform diminished her stage fright.

Lee, however, didn’t begin writing music she felt confident enough to share until quarantine set in. “There’s a lot of [EXPLETIVE] that happened during quarantine, so now, more than ever, songwriting has been a huge way to cope,” Lee said.

She often found herself unable to sleep in the middle of the night, so she worked on songs during that time.“Sometimes, you know, life happens. So I would just get my guitar and start plucking at the strings, trying to find chords, and then I would just start singing to them,” she explained.

Lee may revise the words for a song, but all of her songs come to fruition within a short period of time: just a few days or even a single night. “It’s a very short creative process. I just kind of go with it,” she said.

When she takes songs into GarageBand for further production, vocals are the focus. She layers songs further by incorporating ad-libs and runs. She adds instrumentation with the help of a MIDI keyboard, interlacing complementary sounds like cello, bass, and even occasionally organ with artful subtlety.

Despite her concise creative process, Lee finds it very difficult to convince herself that a song is done. “[For] every song, I have like nine versions,” Lee estimated, explaining how she constantly finds something to change or tweak whenever she relistens. She recognizes that a lot of the flaws she finds in her songs are only perceptible to her and understands that there’s a point where she just needs to finalize a song and release it.

Lee considers Amy Winehouse to be a particular artist who has inspired her significantly and has made her more comfortable with her own voice, which settles in a low range. “She has this kind of husky voice,” Lee said. “And I fell in love with that.”

Lee’s voice is the primary instrument in her songs, and she layers vocals to create a delicate but pleasantly filling texture. “[Vocals are] the most comfortable thing for me, because I’m not very good at either guitar or piano,” she remarked.

Her EP “Self Care,” released on Spotify earlier this year, is a collection of three songs she wrote during quarantine. She had played with the idea of creating an EP for a while and found it very fun to bring that to life. While she doesn’t think that the songs on the project have a central theme or even necessarily a similar vibe, all three songs were written in the middle of the night, and she was in a similar headspace while writing each one. “In my mind, they were written in the same breath,” Lee reflected. She didn’t set out to write any of the songs with the specific intention of putting them on “Self Care” but found herself naturally associating those three songs with each other.

Interestingly, not all of the songs on “Self Care” are written from Lee’s perspective. Though she takes inspiration from her own life when writing lyrics, she likes to write about events that haven’t happened to her. She has even written songs inspired by a storyline that her friend gave her, though she has yet to release them. “Of course I write about my own experiences, but I also like mixing it up,” Lee said. “You never know whether those experiences are mine or someone else’s, and I like that anonymity.”

Music is something that Lee would like to do for the rest of her life, but she doesn’t necessarily see it as a career path. “I want it to be something that connects me to other people and a stress reliever,” Lee said. Moving forward, she hopes to release more music, perhaps in early 2021. She has a great deal of songs written that she has yet to finalize and polish up in production and expects to release more singles, and maybe even another EP. When Lee visualizes the future, she sees music as a constant that she will never fail to enjoy and as something that she will never let turn into a chore.

Listen to Isabella Lee (Isalee)’s Brand New EP “Self Care,” out now.