ANDY LEE is a UK performer who appears at events as himself and also under the guise of KLEPTOPENGUIN.
Using a multitude of talents, including singing, keyboards, dancing and MCing, Andy has also clocked up a number of awards for his performances, including the Megan Lee Destiny Cover Contest Winner 2011, London Anime Con Talent Show Winner 2014 and Moshi Moshi Nippon! LIVEDAM Karaoke Contest UK Winner 2014.
At Hyper Japan’s Christmas Market 2014, Andy performed as KleptoPenguin and also collaborated with several of the other acts, including MK and Kelsey Ellison. Andy also won the HYPER UTAU Karaoke Contest.
How did your interest in K-Pop and J-Pop start?
Although I started out listening to K-pop before J-pop, I think my interest in Japanese culture actually started before my interest in Korean culture. When I was younger, I was a huge enthusiast of myths and legends from all over the world, and of these Korean and Japanese mythology engaged me most – I suppose that was the point from which it all started.
It’s really hard to trace the exact development of my interest in J-pop, but I was introduced to K-pop when I was around eleven on a flight to Korea, where they showed a couple of K-pop music videos on the plane (I think it was Shin Ji from Koyote). Real interest built up when I started creating K-pop ‘translyrics’ to practice my Korean – by this point I’d forgotten most of the language in my efforts to learn English when I first came to the UK without knowing a word. From there I started exploring other sub-genres and artists, including one of my favourite groups, the Korean indie band NELL.
As for J-pop, like I said, I started off with reading up on Japanese folk tales. From here my interest spread to stuff like Japanese martial arts and animation, through which I started learning about Japanese philosophy and artistic application. I think really the thing that kept me engaged for long enough to start listening to J-pop was the raw creativity of Japan. I love the visual artistry and narrative potential of Japanese animation, the interactive audiovisual innovation of their games, and the wonderful concept of space often used in Japanese aesthetics. The language is also a big reason why I started listening to Japanese music – I think it’s a really beautiful language both to speak and to write, and I hope to try my hand at writing some Japanese music one day.
Are you self-trained as a musician or did you study?
As a musician, absolutely not self-trained. I’ve received classical vocal tuition from some highly-respected teachers, and I’ve also studied several instruments. I have so many people to whom I owe the development of my musical abilities, and even now I’m still studying music in an effort to understand my art with greater detail and open-mindedness.
However, as a pop singer and performer, I’ve never received any formal training. Acting, dancing, stage presence, song interpretation – all of these skills that I’ve built up by shoving my bum on-stage repeatedly, making mistakes and then practising so I won’t get it wrong next time. I don’t want to downplay the real advantages I’ve had from studying music formally, but I think the very act of studying is the most important. Experience is a great teacher, but it’s what you make of it and what you take from it that gets you places.
So really, us formally-trained musicians aren’t part of some crazy elite, anyone can make it if they have the right mindset and put in the work. When it really comes down to it, no-one cares if you’ve had formal training, what really matters is whether you’re good or not.
Which artists have had a particular influence on you?
This one’s a hard one as I don’t think any particular artists as a whole influence me, I’m more influenced by their individual songs, performances and approaches to their work. For example, I really like the way Rei Mastrogiovanni hybridises different genres with ska to create great new sounds, but I particularly respect his emphasis on collaboration and setting up a platform for other artists to showcase their skill and communally share in their love of music. More recently, I thought that the exuberant energy that Diana Garnet brought to the stage at Hyper Japan was amazing and her stage presence just reels the audience in.
On the other hand, I love ‘ray’ by BUMP OF CHICKEN for their great combination of electronic electronic elements tastefully balanced with their standard rock band sound. I also find stuff by the band POLYSICS brilliant because of just how crazy their music is! Work by composers like Takemitsu Toru is a really good example of what it means to write ‘Japanese’ music as opposed to ‘Japanese-sounding’ music – the kind of music I hope to create someday. These days I’m getting into old-school Japanese hiphop, and I’m hoping to find some really interesting sounds there. Piano music from Japan is also awesome – Hisaishi Joe, Uematsu Nobuo, Suemitsu and the Suemith, Uehara Hiromi to list a few. Ah, there’s too much to name!
A few non-musicians who influence me include Boogaloo Kin and Les Twins, who all have highly entertaining yet deeply interpretative dance styles that taught me a lot about movement and personae on stage, as well as Hayao Miyazaki, whose sheer artistic creativity and innovative approach to incorporating different arts and cultures in his work always inspires me.
Where did the name ‘KleptoPenguin’ come from?
Ha ha, that one’s a bit of a funny one. Around the time I came up with KleptoPenguin, there were a lot of usernames with numbers in them – you know, like idolfan1995 or something – and I hated that. I wanted to find a name which wouldn’t have that annoying box come up saying ‘that name has unfortunately been taken, would you like to add the year of your birth to the end’. It either had to be so cringe-worthy that no-one would ever take it (although someone HAS taken ‘iheartedwardcullen’ since then, which was my third choice) or just a little ridiculous.
I started out as a cover artist, and so a lot of what I did was taking songs that had already been written and making it my own. ‘Klepto’ comes from the Greek prefix for ‘thief’, so I thought it embodied the idea of ‘taking a sound and making it your own’ quite well. It was, of course, only later that it dawned on me that this also had the rather unpleasant implication of me freely stealing music without regard of copyright! But I think the ‘Penguin’ part saves it. I love penguins. I mean, can you get angry at a penguin shuffling up to you, taking one of your chips in its cute little beak then running off? That’s ‘KleptoPenguin’, at least in my head.
You took part in the karaoke contest at Hyper Japan and chose ‘Let Me Be With You’ from classic anime Chobits. Why did you choose this song in particular?
I really like Chobits! I think it’s an adorable anime and the picture book used in it is a wonderful plot device. The song matches the mood of the anime really well and I’ve always found it an attractive opening. The instrumental is great and deceptively intricate – the bass line just goes crazy!
I chose it for the same reason I choose to sing most of the songs I perform – I liked the song but I also knew it well, and because of that I knew there was space to kind of do my own thing with it. The simplicity of the way the melodic material of ‘Let Me Be With You’ is put together allowed me to sing it my way as opposed to the way Round Table and Nino did it in the soundtrack. I don’t know how well I can pull off the super-cute vocals of the original, but I can’t imagine it would have been much better than putting my own spin on it – I think perhaps I wanted to show that you don’t have to try to sound like the original artist to sing a song well.
You collaborated with some of the other performers at Hyper Japan, including Kelsey Ellison. Do you find performing with others more rewarding than performing on your own?
Absolutely. For me, collaboration is the lifeblood of the music I want to create, and I think it’s also the case for the UK J-pop scene as a whole. This Hyper Japan had a lot of the performers supporting each other as audience members and taking part in each others’ performances which was such a delight to see. So much better than constantly watching your back and worrying about negativity. I don’t know where all the drama can come from – who has time for that when there’s music to be made?
It’s interesting that you should mention Kelsey, as she in particular has been my first and longest collaborator on the J-pop scene and I really don’t know where I would be without her. Since then, I’ve continued to meet so many other artists like Abipop, Scarlett Young, Beckii Cruel, Himezawa, J. Britton and MK to name just a few! To go back to the previous question of influential artists, I’d say it’s these guys – the people I meet and my encounters with their art – that influence me most. I by myself could never achieve the level of artistry that a group of us make together. It’s when these artists come and bring everything they’ve got – all their creativity, their skills and their commitment – with the intention of making something amazing, that’s when we get magic.
Do you think events like Hyper Japan are important for developing singers and performers?
I definitely think so. Stage experience is extremely valuable and events like Hyper Japan give you the platform to gain that experience. It’s also good to get an idea of how to manage an audience – people come and go, so audience numbers can shift from loads of people to an intimate few, especially if you’re not particularly well-known. It’s important that you don’t let that get you down and you deliver a really good performance, no matter how many people you’re performing to.
Additionally, events like Hyper Japan are fairly high-profile affairs so you tend to get a decent amount of exposure as well, although I personally don’t really aim for that so much (I’m enjoying my anonymity for as long as I can!). I think you should go to these things largely with the mindset of giving the audience a good time with a great stage, but it’s at these events that you get to take your music to the people, which I think is important for your development as a public figure. Most important though is using this chance to meet other artists and develop yourself as a performer within a larger network of performers – that way you’re not alone and we can all up each others’ game.
Have you considering entering the Nodojiman contest?
It hadn’t crossed my mind until recently! I really had a lot of fun singing in Japan as part of Moshi Moshi Nippon’s Karaoke Contest, and I would love to do it again. Nodojiman I believe is a slightly different set-up though, so I’m not entirely sure. Personally, having seen and met the people who have been on the contest, I don’t think I would stand a chance! I have friends who made it into the contest who’ve said great things about it, but like I alluded to before, I prefer to stay out of the limelight. The only thing that makes me step into it is how much I enjoy performing, and Nodojiman seems like a great opportunity to meet brilliant new artists and perform on an amazing stage (if I make it through!). If that’s really all there is to it, then I would seriously consider giving it a go!
What are your plans for the immediate future?
If we’re talking immediate immediate, then I’m going to go and finish up that tub of ice cream left over from last night. Less immediately, my convention schedule has pretty much concluded for the year so I’ll be focusing on my studies and maybe look into some online collaborations. Looking further afield into next year, I really want to try performing at conventions outside of London – I’ve been working a lot on expanding my credibility on the scene by entering a lot of competitions and the like so that people can trust in my ability to put on a good show for them, because I’d hate to offer any less. I’ll continue collaborating online and offline, as well as touching base with artists old and new, but am also looking into exploring some original material geared towards the UK crowd, so watch this space!
J-Pop Go would like to extend its warmest thanks to Andy Lee and also to the Hyper Japan team. Main pic by Vinny Ortenzi