Yaeji performed at the Sydney Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theatre on Saturday, 27th May. Billy Burgess reviews.
The Sydney Opera House seemed like an odd fit for Yaeji, whose work is motored by dance beats and suffused with noisy electronics. But Yaeji had been here before, in 2018. “I was much younger then,” she told us. “And there are pros and cons to that.”
On her previous visit, the Brooklyn-via-Seoul songwriter and producer performed in the smaller Studio venue. This time, the 1500-capacity Joan Sutherland theatre was near-full for the first of two Australian-exclusive performances for Vivid LIVE. I brought my mum with me, who, in her seventh decade, speculated she was the oldest person in the room. This may have been true, but the audience make-up showed that Yaeji’s music appeals to a diverse demographic.
Yaeji’s 2023 debut album, With a Hammer, is critically vaunted and destined to appear on many year-end lists. Her 2017 single ‘Raingurl’ has achieved a moderate level of virality over the past half-dozen years. Even so, the 29-year-old is not yet pop-famous, but going by the unadulterated charisma and melodic panache displayed throughout the show, it’s only a matter of time.
The audience played its part in removing any awkwardness posed by the stately theatre setting. It was a vocal crowd, whose regular whooping was spurred on by Yaeji’s animated on-stage movements and the fleshy sounds coming through the PA. Heads bopped and arms waved from the outset; eventually, when ‘Raingurl’ appeared near the end of the main set, everyone rose from their seats and danced through to the end of the encore.
The foundations of With a Hammer were laid during NYC’s 2020-21 Covid lockdowns. It’s a fun listen, as is everything Yaeji touches – she has a way of sculpting instantly memorable melodies without cheapening her underground pedigree. But despite the spirited merging of house and hip hop and bounty of earworms, the record is rooted in Yaeji’s anger.
With no distractions, Yaeji told us, she couldn’t hide from her childhood trauma during lockdown. “I would watch anime from childhood to comfort myself,” she said. But this also acted as a trigger. So, she had to address her trauma, and doing so made her furious. With a Hammer represents Yaeji’s efforts to transmute her anger into fuel for creativity and, ultimately, self-understanding. “I realised that being angry about what’s happened to you is a sign of self-love,” she said.
Yaeji performed the majority of the album’s track-listing during her hour-plus time on stage. She was intermittently joined by two dancers, who accentuated the show’s playful character. But even when Yaeji wasn’t engaging in choreographed routines or spinning around on a swivel chair, she moved across the stage with intense purpose.
Yaeji admitted to feeling jetlagged towards the end of the show. But more than that, she said, she was grateful for the love she felt in the room. “You saw a different side of me tonight,” she said. And we’d happily see it again – any time.