Jen Rim Builds (Run River North) Solo Work Through Strong Melodies And Emotional Honesty (INTERVIEW)

Jen Rim recently released her self-titled EP, her first solo release following many years spent with the band Run River North. Exploring her Korean-American identity, and what it might mean to work as a solo artist, both play key roles in this body of work. Built upon sonic experimentation and a bedrock of emotional honesty, her new songs created with Boaz Roberts, bring in elements of classical and operatic composition while taking things into emotive indie music territory. 

I spoke with Jen Rim about this journey from a band to solo work, her time spent alone deciding her direction, where these songs come from in terms of personal emotions, and the joy and excitement of finally being able to play them live for audiences in recent days. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: How has the return to live shows been?

Jen Rim: I did a recent one at Hotel Café, and thanks to everyone at Junk Food, who put together a showcase of their artists. It was such a dream come true after everything going on and having that itch to play again. Especially, to play these songs for the first time. I told my manager that it felt like Cloud 9 and I just wanted to keep playing. Some of these songs have been in my files for over a year, so it’s been great to get out there and play them. I remember sitting in my house last year wondering if I would even have the opportunity to play a show at all. To make that a reality felt really good.

HMS: I’m so happy for you. What led up to your solo work debut?

JR: I was with my previous band for about seven years, until early 2018. Then I actually took a hiatus and did not want to be a musician for a second. Ironically, I moved to Nashville, and that was a time to just sit and learn to be an adult. I paid rent and worked a full-time job. I needed to learn how to do “normal things” since I did the band life right out of the gate. It was a time for me to ask big questions, like “What are my intentions with doing music? Why am I doing it? Why do I want to do it?” Honestly, it was a time of silence that I really needed. I grew up in LA, and it was a time to step away from home and all of the voices and chaos. 

Nashville is so different from LA and it was really awesome to be somewhere new and meet some of the best people out there. The biggest thing I had learned from touring was building relationships, connections, and conversations, and learning how to do that outside of music was where I found something that I have a passion for. Especially as a Korean-American, in Nashville you don’t really see a crowd of Asians, but I was in an atmosphere where I felt loved and respected there too. I also became more confident in my identity as well. 

Slowly, I started writing music again and I reconnected with an old friend called Boaz Roberts, who I had met on tour with my old band, actually. I flew out to LA for a writing session and when we met up, we felt like something really good was happening. I felt that he was able to translate things that were happening in my head and move forward with them. For that reason, partly, and also that I was ready to come back home, I moved back to LA. I felt more confident about my own choices after that experience. 

HMS: That’s an amazing story. Had you tried writing music and lyrics all through your time in music, or was this a new step?

JR: Yes, I remember the first time I ever wrote lyrics. My dad used to be and there was just a song in my heart around the age of eight or nine. I wrote a song and I put it in my dad’s office. I think he was so moved by it that he shared it with the congregation. I remember being shy about it but also being proud that he felt proud. But I didn’t really dive into lyrics. I had a lot of insecurity about it. It takes me a lot to get into literature or a really good book, so I dismissed it. I tried writing again when I was in the band, and that is the song on the EP, “A Little Longer”. It was very different and very personal compared to the things that we were singing about in the band. So I kept it aside and shelved it for a long time. There was something that I wanted to say rather than trying to sound smart. There was an inkling and desire to be honest, and I think that’s the only reason I have been able to write these songs.

HMS: That really comes out in the music. I think a lot of people listening to music right now are looking for that honesty and vulnerability from artists right now rather than things that are very prepackaged or over-produced. But a sense of outreach to audiences is important, too, I think.

JR: Absolutely. I think that was why I approached the big question of why I wanted to make music. My time in a band really helped me to connect. I started off being the really shy girl in the back and I would always have my phone with me as a safety net. As I started to have more experiences, I learned to let go of a lot things. I started seeing more than just the music aspect of doing music, but the connection and the outreach. Even though all of our stories might be different, we all crave those feelings and emotions and want to be heard and understood. I had the sense that out of loneliness or emptiness, you can have people share similar experiences and stories with you all over the world. I was really fond of that. 

That was really important to me as a Korean-American, because growing up I was very insecure about that identity. But doing this music and having people show up to talk to me showed me that no matter where we are as humans, we want to be understood. That was the key for me. When you watch performers, you can tell the difference between someone who is doing it just for the success, and someone who really wants to lead and take a crowd somewhere. They bring out that passion and honesty, and you can feel it in the room. 

HMS: I really like the approach on the EP, with the balance between the vocals and the music being so equal. I haven’t seen that kind of interplay in a while. Most people seem to have less pronounced vocals. This is more like solo vocals, or even opera. It doesn’t dominate the music, but it’s almost more of a give and take between the two.

JR: Totally. I think melody has such an influence, maybe because I grew up playing classical violin first. You grow up hearing all sorts of melodies in your head. I think in the writing process, generally, I will come up with a melody line and will try to fit the lyrics along with that. I really agree with you that the melody has such a strong backbone and it’s such a great way to facilitate what you’re trying to express through the words. 

HMS: That approach creates a really strong identity for the EP. I heard that these songs often express things that you didn’t feel you could say to other people out loud. Did you find that you were discovering things that you felt and thought through the writing process?

JR: Absolutely. It was a double-combo of growing up in a Korean-American household and going to church. You have this identity placed on you and you are expected to be perfect, in a way. You have to say the right things at the right time and greeting people respectfully. Those are some of the things that were drilled into me and I had to un-drill those things and just be a human. It took people by surprise when I started to let go of those things that I felt didn’t fit with who I was. It was terrifying to me because I started to talk differently and believe in things differently. It made friends and family question me. I think I really had to figure that out for myself. It’s not that everything was fake in my life, but it was an adjustment of unlearning and learning who I am. In the past, I felt like so much had poured over me that I was almost drowning. It took a while for me to come out and breathe again.

HMS: I can find a lot of that relatable because I come from a big family and a strict background, myself. Also, with your experience of being in a band as part of your development, if you’ve never had that separateness, you have to go through that process of being separate, too. 

JR: When I started the band, I was 18, and everyone else was older than me. I definitely hid behind everyone’s voices. At that time, I was going through a lot of brokenness, seeing my parents separate, then going through anorexia. Now, I see that I was fragile then, and I would never have thought that person would be doing solo work now.

HMS: The songs really feel like a conversation, even if it’s partly with oneself. They do sound like you’re listening to your internal voice. Like in the song “Tell Me”, where you talk about lying in silence and listening to the internal. 

JR: It was a way to learn to process things. I was learning to speak out loud in that moment of processing. All these little things added up from my day, and I was lying down awake at night thinking, “I don’t know what to do or where to go here.” I think that was what I needed to speak out on, those moments of the big question mark. “What do I want to do? Who do I want to speak to? Do I need to speak to anyone?” Those are moments I hadn’t really talked about before. It was a highlight of this EP to follow those internal thoughts that happen in between one decision and another that explain why you’re going to choose the next thing. For me, that is crucial. It leads to whatever path you’re going to take. It’s important how we choose to think about our decisions.

HMS: It’s interesting, because there are often no witnesses to those moments, but they could be incredibly decisive and influence the rest of your life. By writing these songs, you show the importance of those moments.

JR: That’s the scary part! It’s up to us. You don’t have anyone there telling you what to do next. I grew up in a way that accepted being told what to do, but life doesn’t really work that way. You have the responsibility to choose your way, even in small ways. I am a barista and sometimes it’s hard to walk into work. But I ask myself, “Am I going to go in with a pouty face and be depressed, or am I going to choose to go in with joy and gratitude that I have a job and have great co-workers?” I think it’s all in your mind how you choose to live your day. I’m learning and failing but it becomes a little easier to see hope in those moments.

HMS: You have to interact with so many people in that role! That’s so hard to maintain positivity in those roles. 

JR: It really is amazing how one person can make a huge impact in one room. Working in a coffee shop really shapes character. Are you willing to do the dirty work that no one else is willing to do? Are you willing to speak kindly to a rude or very needy customer? It tests how I’m going to choose to respond to people. I really am trying.

HMS: Do you think that working on focus and determination helped you see this first solo album through? 

JR: Well, I could never say that I did this alone. That’s another thing that’s crucial. You do need some alone time to find your voice, but you also need people. Along the way, the big reason that I believe that God exists is because of the people around me. Each of those hard moments in my life were things I couldn’t have faced without certain family members and friends. There were so many times when I questioned the point of even trying, but they helped me to see where I could be but also helped me to see that I had the strength to move forward. 

When you’re in a low moment, you really don’t want to hear that. But you start to see how far you have come, and then you think that maybe you can keep going. Those were the people who helped me to remember that in times where I might have forgotten. I was able to take ownership of those encouragements. 

HMS: That does remind me a little bit of the song “Again”. Because you can hit those moments of extreme self-doubt, wondering if you’re setting yourself up to fall again, as the song says. Or is it a new start, a new chance? It sounds like the people in your life who can make a difference are there in that moment.

JR: Exactly. When I was younger, I didn’t realize that life was going to consist of many failures, and one after the other. One vivid image from when I was living in Nashville was when my Anorexia turned into binging. I was living alone and felt so low and hopeless. I would say, “Tomorrow I’m going to do better.” But I would fall over and over again. I wondered how many more times I would have to do it. It felt like I was never going to overcome the situation. I don’t have answers to those moments, but the only way that I had in order to move forward was to keep failing. It took me many tries before I realized that I needed to reach out for help. I had to be open to hearing truths that I might not want to hear.

I remember when I first met with a therapist, I asked, “Do people really overcome these things?” She smiled and said, “Of course, absolutely.” It gets me teary-eyed talking about it, but I remember sitting there feeling like a person who had been in the dark, letting themselves be abandoned. I had to believe that I did not deserve that anymore. But it doesn’t switch overnight. You have to take the small, heavy steps forward. Seeing where I am now compared to where I was in 2018, I know I made the right decisions. 

Photo credit: Nancy Park

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