Digital Journal — How many performers can you name who have fronted an alternative band; performed on stage; written, directed, edited and performed in short- and feature-length films; interviewed top acts on “The Nation’s Music Station”; and hosted a successful program on your parents’ favourite radio station?
I can only think of one: Sook-Yin Lee.
All artists get their start somewhere. For Lee, the current host of the CBC pop-culture showcase Definitely Not the Opera
, that somewhere was suburban Vancouver in the early ’70s. The venue: a jungle gym, where she performed “epic sagas” with her friend Julie to the, um, delight of the other neighbourhood children.
A middle child starving for attention, Lee would mug incessantly for any audience or camera, eternally ready for her close-up. As a young teen, her introduction to the world of cinema (particularly Polanski and Allen), coupled with the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, would force Lee into an introverted world of painting, pictures and journals.
“I became very shy,” she recalls wistfully. “[Living at home] was not unlike living in a war zone. I ended up befriending the only punk living in Lin Valley and he introduced me to existentialist authors like Camus and Hesse and to the music of bands like the Cure and Echo and the Bunnymen.”
To Lee, high school soon became “a glorified babysitting service” and she dropped out at 15, never to return. She also left the conflicts of her home and moved in with an alternate family of friends who were active in the Vancouver art and music scenes.
This family included the other members of Lee’s first band, Bob’s Your Uncle. With an eclectic Lee at the helm, the influential band would go on to record five albums over eight years and build a dedicated following before disbanding amicably in 1993.
On the hunt for new avenues of expression, Lee chose to spend an entire summer walking around downtown Vancouver dressed as a 10-foot-high egg noodle, “just to see what the reaction would be.” A producer friend looking to pitch CityTV boss Moses Znaimer decided to feature Lee in his audition tape. Znaimer ditched the demo reel but called the performer in it, offering her
a 20-minute taped audition.
“I didn’t even own a television at the time,” Lee recollects. “I was living
a very acoustic lifestyle. For the audition, I brought out my collection of water guns and wigs and let loose.” Znaimer recognized a fellow maverick and offered her a VJ position on the spot.
The idea of Lee working for a corporation shocked her friends. But for her, it was simply another forum for storytelling. “Moses is a leader and MuchMusic allowed me the freedom to express my personality in a new and exciting way.”
Throughout her six years at MuchMusic, Lee gained a devoted following through her quixotic segments of Eyeball Theatre
and through the creation of memorable characters like “Rock Chick 2000.” She honed her talents as an interviewer, conversing skilfully with the likes of Patti Smith, Madonna and Radiohead. Not one to rest, Lee also recorded a pair of solo albums and used her vacation time to film roles in two feature films: The Art of Woo
and the critically acclaimed Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
The forum of music television, as others before it, finally exhausted itself for Lee, who shocked viewers with her on-air resignation in October 2001. Needing some time to recover, she subsequently travelled to Costa Rica and then Vancouver to reconcile with her family (with limited success).
After a year of decompression, the CBC came calling and Lee was happy to accept the challenge of a new medium and re-introduction to an artistic environment like Definitely Not the Opera
. In addition to the thrill of working with such a talented group of collaborators, she has found that her radio experience has sharpened her writing skills.
No matter what her choice of media, Lee’s focus is always the story. “The best storytelling and art,” she explains enthusiastically, “comes from a mixture of form and improvisation.” It also comes through the combination of a diverse framework of media. As an example, Lee’s editing of her latest short film is informed by her musical experiences with tempo and rhythm. In speaking with Lee, one thing is abundantly clear: No single medium can provide her the requisite creative satisfaction.
As such, future plans include more film, more art and more music. Her agenda is also expanding to include public speaking. This summer, Lee was reunited with Znaimer at his annual ideaCity conference, where she was an invited speaker. After 30-plus years of continual self-expression, she was able to rub elbows with similarly inspired individuals.
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