REI AMI: "It takes a serious mental toll to be told God hates you"

The SNOWCONE singer's sonic duality is indicative of her conflicting cultural background. Here, she unpacks that and shares new single RUNAWAY.

by Taylor Glasby
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19 February 2020, 2:00pm

“I am REI AMI. There’s no facade or alter ego,” says the 24-year-old, Seoul-born, Maryland-based musician whose songs bristle and hiss as much as croon. She took her moniker (pronounced ray ah-mi) from the first names of anime characters Sailor Mars (Rei) and Sailor Mercury (Ami), and was recently co-signed by Billie Eilish’s brother and co-writer, FINNEAS.

She’s sitting on her bed in her parent’s house, a bundle of tight, loud and charming energy whose verbiage oscillates between the bookish education her parents insisted upon and the drawled syllables and punchy aggressiveness that come from growing up on a steady diet of hip-hop and R&B. She’s only just clocked off at her day job at a packaging company. In a couple of months, she estimates, she can quit to do music full-time. “But it’s still nice to get a paycheck every two weeks to fund what I’m doing, so I’m chilling right now.”

REI began writing music as a college freshman but it took years for her to make her songs public. She shrugs, rolling her eyes. “I was a really dumb and naive bitch. I was making music that I thought was trendy and cool -- a lot of R&B, that’s what everyone was on, right? The songs were about heartbreak and love but I was never touching on subjects that were reflective of my own being.”

In 2019, REI had graduated school and split with her boyfriend, an event that made her “low-key scared for my life, it was that bad. I hit rock bottom”. She didn’t like her music and got no joy from making it either. “I was going to quit,” she says, spitting out the words. “But it triggered everything for me. Like, if you don’t do anything now, you will never fucking do it. 'Make It Mine' [her first release] was unapologetically me. I’m not trying to be cute or sweet, I’m a raging bitch in this song. I really don’t yell, I get frustrated and I cry. But for the first time, I was so mad at everything, at me especially for wasting three years of my life on a guy that didn’t fucking get it.”

Rei Ami

Of REI AMI’s handful of songs, it’s “SNOWCONE” -- with over 2 million views on YouTube -- that’s set the wheels in motion for her breakthrough. Its flute-trap beat and tongue-in-cheek rap flips halfway into raw confessions over dreamy bedroom pop. Although it's a stylistic choice that appears on several of her songs, it’s also a direct echo of her emotional workings.

Her rage emerges in her music not as a primal howl but as half-spoken-half-sung disdain so pronounced that it crawls from the speakers like fat, black beetles. Yet for every line that REI uses like a whip, there’s one that exposes her softness and vulnerability. In a world where women now experience as much pressure to be an in-control bad-ass as they once did to be submissive and ladylike, her levelling of the emotional seesaw is a relief.

“My thing is do whatever, feel or act whatever... be a boss bitch or be a sad emotional chick,” REI says. “It’s very important that I express that. That’s why I need the first half of a song to be ‘boom boom boom’, then the second half be mellowed out. We go through these highs and lows. There’s an insane pressure to be strong all the time, but I’m like, just let women be women!”

Her new single, “RUNAWAY”, toys with her sonic duality in a different manner, inserting a string bridge against thick, claustrophobic beats and samples of children’s cheers and yelps. “I’ve been sitting on it for six or seven months now. It’s fearless, very ‘shut the fuck up, I call the shots and you listen’. The production and my vocals are much more elevated and cinematic, almost,” she says. “I’m really excited to show this side of myself.”

It’s a long way from where REI AMI began as an artist, and even further from the little girl who chose to call herself Sarah so her American classmates wouldn’t have to struggle with the pronunciation of her Korean name. Her parents took REI and her older sister to the US when she was six for an American education which, she says, is highly valued in Korea. Her father chose Maryland for its good schools, some family friends in the vicinity and the presence of a Korean-American community.

“My mom was so against it at first,” REI recalls, “like, she threatened to divorce him”. REI AMI tells her stories animatedly, her face and hands busily in motion. Her gels, filed into points and painted a glossy black, make squiggles through the air. “When we moved, that was the first time I saw my mom cry. She cried every night on the phone saying how much she missed Korea. It’s such a weird feeling ‘cos you grow up thinking your parents are superheroes. When you see you see them in a moment of weakness it completely shifts your perspective. Like, ‘woah, life is hard and it hurts people’.”

Upon her arrival in the US, “it was the first time I’d seen people who were not Korean. The first year of elementary school was terrifying!” Like many children of first-generation migrants, REI “sort of became the parent to my parents when I quickly picked up the language. It made me very protective of my immediate circle. I mean, my parents and I butt heads like crazy, but I feel territorial in a positive way. Like, if you have a problem, I need you to fucking tell me so I can do whatever I can in my power to help you. Seeing that made me mature faster than my friends.”

Her parents were, and remain, deeply religious. When REI was young, her father threatened to disown her if she chose to pursue secular music, which led REI to “censor” her love for music and hide everything she was doing creatively until last summer. “I pretty much gave them an ultimatum -- you can support me or you can stand in my way and potentially lose this relationship. They did a complete 180. They don’t support the content but do support the career decision. My mom has mini strokes when she sees my videos but when I have to travel, they take care of my dog and take me to the airport, they give me pocket change and say, ‘Make sure you eat something’. It’s so sweet, it’s so immigrant parents!”

Rei Ami

REI AMI, like her music, is wave-like and unpredictable. Her bubbly enthusiasm swirls around you, but she can easily knock you off-balance with her profanity-laden confidence. She covers her face and squeals with excitement when you compliment her. Her voice hardens with pride as she namedrops Rina Sawayama and Sogumm as female Asian artists “dismantling the stereotypes”. And when she experiences “young girls, especially Asian and especially Korean, reaching out to say, like, ‘you make me feel so confident’. It’s the most meaningful shit ever. Growing up, I never had any Asian superstars to look up to on the western side. I listened to a lot of K-Pop in middle school but because their experiences were very different to mine, I couldn’t embrace them fully as role models.”

REI AMI would love to be a “voice for every young girl who is told ‘no’,” although she insists the only person she can honestly represent is herself. Her lips tremble. “Oh my god, I’m getting emotional,” she says as her eyes well. “If people can resonate with [my experiences], thank you for listening and for making me feel heard and understood.” Tears slip down her cheeks and she scrubs at them with her sleeve.

“In a religious household you can’t be yourself, you can’t think or feel the way you want to because you’re told it’s a sin or that God hates you, and that takes a serious mental toll. Especially when the one thing that brings you comfort and peace and joy is going to put you in hell. Finally I can be myself and say what I’ve always wanted to say, that’s freedom,” REI says, composing herself. She wipes her face and summons a wry, wide smile, which is just as indicative of her inner strength as her words. “Honestly, I never thought putting my feelings on a platter for people to rip apart would turn out this well!”

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