SXSW Spotlight: World’s top gayageum rocker Luna Lee

Luna Lee will perform at SXSW 2018. Photo contributed by Joe Oh

Catch Luna Lee at 9 p.m. March 15 at Russian House and at 1:30 p.m. March 16 at Flatstock Stage at the Austin Convention Center

When the South Korean government pulled her South by Southwest funding last year because she wasn’t a K-Pop artist, she found her way to Austin anyway. Now, the world’s only professional gayageum rocker Luna Lee returns to the festival – for two showcases on Thursday and Friday – to keep pushing musical boundaries.

Lee takes a traditional Korean zither-like string instrument called the gayageum and custom designs it to play the popular rock and pop music that’s earned her legions of YouTube fans around the world.

“A musical instrument is a musical instrument,” Lee says. “It can’t decide the genre.”

Transforming her own gayageum to play everything from Prince to Jimi Hendrix covers as well as her own original songs means installing guitar pickups, pedals and amplifiers to kick up the volume necessary to rock during live shows.

While she’s nailed the production of her studio recordings for YouTube, she said she’d like to perfect the gayageum sound for live performances, which means some more custom designing of the instrument.

“I’m still working on it,” she says. Lee has about 15 gayageums and brought her favorite one to SXSW. She spent part of her Monday installing some custom parts for her upcoming showcases.

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Lee has been playing the gayageum since she was 11. As a teenager, she remembers coming home after school and experimenting with non-traditional music on the gayageum. She later devoted her university studies to the instrument when she majored in gayageum.

“If I didn’t enjoy it I would give it up, but once I find a new tone I’m thrilled,” she said. When Lee covers a song, she says she doesn’t just cover the music but also interprets what she imagines the musician feels when performing. “I can feel the mood of each song,” she said.

Her YouTube popularity has also sprung younger fans curious about how she created her own musical path. Lee said that she feels a duty “to pass on knowledge to the next generation.”

Earlier this year, Lee temporarily moved to Los Angeles, where she’s working on the next phase of her career. She had a residency at Disneyland and hopes to tour throughout the U.S. and practice her English this year. After that, she says, she’s open to the possibilities ahead.