Toronto-based artist Justin Chee records under the name Ordinary // Colours and has recently released the single ‘Pacific Division’. Chee describes the track as “the internal monologue of a person who has left their hometown to try and realize their ambitions and goals in a new city but slowly gets bogged down by the realities of a precarious economic situation and undesirable job… they start to self-medicate through the situation by turning to consumption and consumerism. They eventually start to realize the current situation will be too difficult to overcome and resign themselves to it”.
The track itself is a contrast to the lyrical content with all the instruments woven together in a gentle road trip with glockenspiel bringing a fairy tale quality to the sound. Maybe this is to reflect the wide-eyed optimism of the song’s protagonist heading off to the big city with only the slight blush of distortion fizzing in the corners of the song suggesting the fate that will befall them.
Joyzine asked Justin to give us his life in 10 songs. Childhood memories, influences early gig memories and how playing music came into their life.
1) What is your earliest music-related memory? What do you remember being played at home when you were a child?
My earliest music-related memory comes from playing a Bontempi BN8 reed organ that my parents bought for Christmas when I was about 4 or 5. It was one of those models that use a motorized fan to pump air into the reeds, so it was noisy as hell! It came with an instruction booklet, so I learned which key did what and how to add accompaniment to the melodies by playing the chord buttons. I don’t exactly recall the first song I attempted to play but it was probably something simple, like “Happy Birthday” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. It was fun for a couple of months but eventually, I got bored / irritated by the fan noise. It still holds fond memories though and even now, I’ll occasionally turn on the organ and play something for laughs.
At home, my parents didn’t really listen to any Western music, so I didn’t have much knowledge about it while growing up. It was only later on in life that I discovered that they actually had a fairly eclectic vinyl collection that had been gifted to them mostly by relatives and friends, including stuff like The Beatles’ “(1967 – 1970)” compilation, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, Nat King Cole, Donna Summer and Cheap Trick at Budokan. Their turntable broke when I was still fairly young and as they never bothered to replace it, the records were simply left on the shelf to continue collecting dust. Instead, my mom usually tuned into the local Cantonese radio station, where I would hear an assortment of old 60s to 80s Hong Kong pop hits, interspersed with Cantonese opera and gossipy talk radio. I remember this Ken Choi song (“倩影 / Sin Ying”, translated into English as “Beautiful Silhouette”) being played quite often.
(Track: Ken Choi – “倩影 / Sin Ying” (“Beautiful Silhouette”)
2) What was the first record that you ever bought? Where did you get it and do you have any recollection of the experience?
The first records I bought were two cassette tapes full of Disney Christmas carols, which I found while shopping at the mall with my mom. This was probably when I was 5 or 6 years old. We were at the pharmacy and I recall wandering over to the spindle rack of cassette tapes and wanting to buy them because I liked the covers, which depicted all the main Disney characters carolling and sledding down a hill. I played those two tapes constantly and at some point, one of them got stuck in the cassette player’s transport mechanism. I remember crying because I thought the tape was gone forever but my dad was able to successfully pry it out of the player without causing too much damage, so it was still able to play afterwards. I liked the Chipmunk Song in particular because the voices were hilarious, especially with the random Donald Duck quacking throughout. Kudos to that voice actor!
(Track: Chip & Dale – “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”)
3) When did you really start to develop a passion for listening to music? How did that come about and what were you into at the time?
Around seventh grade, I received a Walkman for my birthday and as I now had my own personal radio player, I started listening to the various pop punk / nü metal / alt rock that was popular at the time. By proxy, I also discovered Radiohead through these same stations and they served as the gateway band through which I started to seek out music with more experimental and atmospheric tendencies. For example, I remember reading a false rumour online about Godspeed You! Black Emperor collaborating with Radiohead, so I searched and eventually came across “The Dead Flag Blues”. Listening to it the first time, I remember how creepy and foreboding the monologue felt but my curiosity was piqued, so I sought out everything they had released up to that point (this was around 1999 – 2000). To this very day, I remain a devoted fan of them! On Friday nights at 11:30, I would also avidly tune into MuchMusic (essentially a Canadian version of MTV) and watch “The Wedge”, which was a half hour program that showcased alternative music videos that wouldn’t otherwise receive primetime airplay. This was where I first saw videos by bands like Sigur Rós, Interpol, My Bloody Valentine, The Dears, Slowdive and múm. In particular, “Green Grass of Tunnel” immediately entranced me with it’s lullaby like melody and animated music video, which looked impressive at that time. Unfortunately, “The Wedge” increasingly got relegated on the airwaves until it hit a 3am time slot, though they did make an attempt at revival by moving it back to 10pm and having Fucked Up’s Damian Abraham host the show. By that time though, YouTube was already ruling the world and after a few more years, “The Wedge” finally reached it’s last straw and became a victim of budget cuts.
(Track: múm – “Green Grass of Tunnel”)
4) What was the first gig that you went to? Where was it and what was it like?
The first gig I ever went to was a show for Matthew Good’s first solo tour. His previous band, which was also named after him (Matthew Good Band), was really big in Canada at that time but had broken up just as their last album was coming out. A couple of friends and I hopped on a bus to travel from our hometown of Mississauga (a neighbouring suburb of Toronto) to Hamilton, Ontario, where the gig was being held at a convention centre. I remember the first opener was a band called The Miniatures, who had a popular song called “Coma Kid” on the local charts. They had one very enthusiastic band member who demonstrated more showmanship than the rest of the group combined but his only role seemed to be hitting a hi-hat at random times. The Dears opened next and played songs from their just-released second album that I knew and sang along with. Not many people were familiar with them yet, though there seemed to be one heckler in particular who appeared to be there just to watch them. Matt Good then came out as the headliner and played an energetic set that included songs from his newer solo material, as well as his previous band’s hits, which as expected, garnered the most enthusiastic responses. Being my first gig, I really enjoyed the energy of the crowd, as well as how communal the whole experience felt for everyone watching. It was inspiring to see these musicians play with heart and abandonment. For me, it was a stepping stone in life that would eventually lead to me wanting to share my music with others as well.
(Track: Matthew Good Band – “Tripoli”)
5) What are your memories of starting out making music? What was the first song that you learned to play?
After my brief flirtation with the aforementioned Bontempi organ, I started piano lessons a couple of years later, at age 7. This continued on for about 8 years, although around 4 or 5 years in, I was actually ready to quit. I wasn’t enjoying it at all, as my mom insisted that I practice a minimum of one hour each day, with each assigned piece played consecutively three times, in a near perfect manner. This meant that if I messed up even once, I would need to restart the count again, as if it was the first time. I got in a big argument with her about the necessity of this particular approach but obviously lost, as I kept going at it for another 3 years. To be honest, this soured my outlook on music for a bit afterwards. Though I never ended up feeling like I became technically proficient, I can look back at the whole experience now and in hindsight, at least appreciate that learning piano translated into an easier time picking up other instruments, as I now knew my way around sheet music and basic theory.
Coincidentally, near the end of those lessons, I was snooping around my parents’ basement and ended up finding some items that my dad had stowed away, including a 70s era department store classical guitar (probably bought from either Sears or Woolworth’s), along with a really out of tune Chinese erhu. Just like the Bontempi organ, I found a songbook inside the guitar case that I used to start learning chord formations. I liked the guitar because compared to the piano, playing it felt much more visceral and immediate to me. This fondness may have also been influenced by feeling that I was learning to play only for my own sake and at my own pace. When I had learned enough chords, the first song I attempted to play was “True Love Waits”.
(Track: Radiohead – “True Love Waits (Live in Oslo)”)
6) What was your first band? What music was influencing you at that time? What are your memories of playing your first gig and are there any recordings out there?
In high school, my friends and I formed a not-very-good punk / alt rock band, where I played the keys and bass. It started from jamming out at the guitarist’s house, as he happened to have a full band setup in his basement. We lasted less than a year and had only written two full songs by the time we broke up. It may have been because all of us had differing influences and motivations, as one person liked Queens of the Stone Age, another liked Green Day and I was into Radiohead. At that point, I had written my first guitar song and half of another song on the piano but upon introducing them to the rest of the band, I could kinda tell they weren’t really interested. As it was approaching our last year of high school, we were also much more focused on getting into university as well, so the band became a pretty low priority. Just prior to the breakup though, we did almost get our first gig, as the singer knew someone who asked if we would be able to play as part of a “new bands” showcase at a Toronto venue called The Kathedral, which was then known for holding really scuzzy metal / punk concerts. It never really came to fruition since it dawned on us that we really only had the two songs and a couple of covers, plus a few parents who did not approve of a group of 15 to 17 year old teenagers hanging out in that environment (lol).
My first actual gig occurred at the end of my last year in university, after I posted on a Toronto-based message board called Stille Post, asking some of the other forum members advice on how to get gigs. Since the end of high school, my musical horizons had expanded considerably, as I discovered electronic music like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Boards of Canada, as well as more folky fare like Sufjan Stevens and Shugo Tokumaru. I ended up buying my first synth on Craigslist and made an EP of IDM / ambient influenced music. However, I wasn’t feeling comfortable enough to play that type of music live as the idea of jamming on a laptop didn’t appeal to me, so I ended up veering back to a bunch of folky and barebones guitar songs that I had written over the course of my university years. I recorded another EP of these songs, posted it online and a couple of influential bookers who ran some of the local weekly showcases took notice of my message board post. They listened to my songs, said they liked them and booked me for my first gig. I was the opening act for that week and I remember being very nervous while I played, since it was just myself on an electric guitar, accompanied by a set of pre-recorded backing tracks. Thankfully, the crowd was small, engaged and actually pretty forgiving, so it didn’t end up being a bad experience at all and I was encouraged to seek out more live opportunities.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any proper recordings of that first show but the second time around, I asked one of my friends to record a video of one of my songs. This show was primarily an acoustic one at a cafe in east end Toronto, so I asked my other friend (the guitarist in the high school band) to help accompany me with a second acoustic guitar, glockenspiel and harmonica. The song is called “Lunar Calendars” and was posted under my own name (Justin Chee), as that was what I was performing under at that time. In all honesty, that performance could have been a little better and being a relative newcomer at that time, the nerves were still jittery but it’s a nice reminder of how far I’ve come from those days, as now, I’m much more comfortable performing in front of others.
(Track: Justin Chee & Logan Rathbone – “Lunar Calendars (Live from the Renaissance Cafe)”)
7) What are your memories of starting Ordinary // Colours? What was the first song that you wrote for this project and what do you think now when you listen back to it?
Ordinary // Colours started as an avenue for me to release songs that I had previously put on hiatus in order to focus on my career outside of music. Near the beginning of the pandemic, I felt worried and frustrated, so I sought to vent these feelings through a constructive outlet. Working on music had always been a therapeutic process for me, so I decided to listen back to some of the demos and sketches I had recorded at random times over the past few years. The majority of them were recorded on a cassette multitracker and based on improvising instruments and vocals over top of a drum loop. Once I found 8 to 10 demos that I felt had good potential, I set my mind on further developing, recording and finishing them into songs.
The first song I chose to work on is tentatively named “Hydro Trails” and it was built around acoustic guitar, glockenspiel, electric piano and synth. The song was written while thinking back on how, as a teenager attempting to sort through a variety of anxious thoughts, I would temporarily distract myself by riding my bike on the dirt trails surrounding the transmission line corridors (in Ontario, these are colloquially called “hydro lines”) near my parents’ house. As the song is still in the process of being finished and not yet ready to be shared, I’ll instead post another song that I previously released called “The Coldest Winter”, which I feel follows a similar vibe.
(Track: Justin Chee – “The Coldest Winter”)
8) Which band/artist do you think has had the biggest influence on your music over the years? What is it about them that inspires you?
Sufjan Stevens, Shugo Tokumaru and Elliott Smith have probably been the biggest influences on my music. Not only do I think of them as great individual songwriters but my admiration partly stems from the DIY spirit embodied in their early records, which were mostly recorded at home by themselves and without much / any outside help. It goes to show a little outside-the-box thinking, along with music that’s strongly composed and arranged, can really overcome the technical and physical limitations that stem from working in a non-studio environment. I often think back to those philosophies whenever I’m stuck on my own songwriting or in the midst of tackling new recording challenges, such as using a walk-in closet as an ad hoc vocal booth or using a bathtub as a natural reverb chamber. “Light Chair” comes from Shugo Tokumaru’s first record and it has always stood out to me as a highlight. It’s rough around the edges and sometimes sounds like it was mic’d up too closely but it has it’s own charm due to the great melody he made out of just an acoustic guitar, his vocals and some toy percussion.
(Track: Shugo Tokumaru – “Light Chair”)
9) Who are some of your favourite current artists? What do you like about them?
This changes every couple of months but most recently, I’ve been listening to Nilüfer Yanya’s “Painless”, Beach House’s “Once Twice Melody”, Luna Li’s “Duality” and Ginger Root’s “Mahjong Room”.
– Nilüfer Yanya’s songwriting is talented beyond her years but when she was first releasing the singles preceding “Painless”, I initially thought that each song felt too different in style from one another. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the album had great cohesive flow and I enjoy listening to it all in one setting, from start to finish.
– Beach House is excellent as usual, with “Once Twice Melody” being no exception. I’m really a fan of synth and choir-like drones that seem to slowly evolve and drift slightly, so I end up playing “Over and Over” and “ESP” pretty frequently.
– Luna Li’s from Toronto but I didn’t really start listening to her music until “Duality” came out. Now, I’m working my way through her past discography. “Flower” is my favourite from the most recent record and it was astounding to hear it transformed from a short instrumental jam on an earlier EP to a fully fleshed out and beautiful song in its final form.
– I got into Ginger Root after watching his music video for “Loretta” on YouTube (the algorithm popped it up after I had been listening to some 80s Japanese city pop). I included “Weather”, which is actually an older single, because I think it’s one of his best songs, plus I just plain enjoy watching the video from time to time! I feel like he should be getting more attention then he’s currently receiving.
I’m gonna cheat a bit and include a song each, by Luna Li and Ginger Root.
(Track: Luna Li – “Flower (In Full Bloom)”)
(Track: Ginger Root – “Weather”)
10) You have a new single, Pacific Division’, out now, how has your approach to making music changed since you started out, and how has your sound developed over that time? What about this particular song led to you choosing it as the single?
The first reason I chose “Pacific Division” as the single is because I think it’s a pretty poppy song (at least to me) that talks about relocating to new places and seeking new opportunities but not always finding the grass to be greener at the end, which I think is relatable to a lot of people. The second reason is that it also happened to be the first song I completed out of all of my chosen demos. Compared to the other songs, it is structured very densely and contains many layers, so I found myself struggling to balance the mix while being mindful of ensuring that certain elements weren’t overlapping or fighting with one another for space. For workflow purposes, it also felt easier to finish this song and get it out of the way first, so that I could use it as a template for my other songs, in terms of “best practices” and “lessons learned”.
My approach to making music actually varies on a project-to-project basis, as I proceed in whatever manner I feel is most conducive to my creativity at that time. The closest thing I have to a recurring philosophy is to impose a loose set of restrictions / guidelines, with the intention of challenging myself. Past examples would include things like “use only this synth” or “record acoustic instruments only”. As I mentioned above, most of the current demos started from a drum loop recorded onto cassette tape. While recording the other instruments, I found that using tape forced me to make a series of creative decisions right then and there, as I played along to the parameters and tempo of the recorded loop. When it came time to put down the actual tracks within the computer, I found that I didn’t wish to modify the original song structures too much, since I wanted to maintain the spirit that was initially captured in those demos. In a future project, I would like to try going in the opposite direction, working solely with MIDI and software like Ableton Live to explore how I can compose and arrange a song in a more non-linear fashion. For me, it is always about finding novel approaches that will hopefully spark some happy accidents along the way!
(Track: Ordinary // Colours – “Pacific Division”)
Introduction by Paul F Cook