Artist of The Week: FEE LION
Starting off the new year with a bang, we spoke to Chicago-based solo musician Justina Kairyte, aka FEE LION. Originally from Lithuania, Kairyte produces new-wave industrial pop that inspires her listeners to dance along with the soft and haunting melodies of her tracks. With her attention to aesthetic and detail, whether it’s referring to the atmosphere she’s creating for her audience or being arrayed in latex, she never disappoints. Having shared the stage with leading ladies like CHARLI XCX, Santigold, and Zola Jesus (to name a few), she’s got big shoes to fill; but as she laces up in her Unif Brat Boots, we know she’s going far. Milk chatted with FEE LION about her newest release “re:(Visit)”, her recent performance at Apple, and what she has in store for us this wild, promising 2019.
How did you first begin in music? / Do you remember the moment that you realized this was the right path for you?
Over the holidays, I watched home videos with my family which really shed light on the fact that a) I was a terrifyingly hyper munchkin and I am so sorry to my parents for that and b) music has always deeply moved me to dance, sing, scream, cry, etc. In every VHS video that we watched, without fail, I am hitting play on my dad’s boombox and creating elaborate performances to the Lithuanian equivalent of Kids Bop. You better believe there were costume changes. Honestly, not much has changed! Whenever I get asked this question I always think well yes I sang in choirs, and yes I took piano lessons, yes I was in musicals as a kid, but I can’t think of one defining moment early on that sparked my devotion to music. That’s just always how it was.
What are the main differences between Justina and FEE LION?
Justina gets to wear sweatpants.
How did you first become interested in latex? Why is it one of your preferred materials to work with when creating your costumes?
Latex is superior to any material that has ever existed. The power that a latex garment transmits to the wearer is so fascinating to me. Feeling half alien, half cyborg queen is exactly what i’m looking for on stage. When I first started making stage costumes for myself, I was working with clear vinyl. Also incredible but just not the same. Once I got my hands on some latex, I knew there was no turning back. The first latex look I wore actually never saw the light of day. I had this black latex mini tank dress that was extremely tight fitting but I figured…that’s the point right? I thought it would look better as a two piece so I halved it into a skirt and crop top. As I’m in the bathroom putting on my final layer of lipgloss before leaving the house, the skirt completely pops in half and jumps off my body. It looked amazing while it lasted. I’ve learned a lot since then. Over the years i’ve collected some lovely pieces that have become FEE LION staples. Inevitably, since latex is both expensive and fragile, I learned to make my own repairs. Once i got decent with repairs, i moved on to making patterns and simple original designs. I love working with latex whenever I have the time—it can be a very finicky experience but the final product is absolutely worth it. Last summer I started a tiny brand, Abductress where I post my designs for purchase. Lately i’ve been so busy with FEE LION and haven’t made anything new—but I have some patterns that i’m really excited to work on in the near future.
I’m curious about your live shows—you’re very detail oriented and put lots of time and energy into crafting an experience for your viewer, what are the most important aspects for you?
Every tiny thing is important to me. Almost to a fault. I’m working on simplifying my approach to my live show and my music in general. I love theatrics, elaborate costumes, crazy lights etc. but as a one woman operation sometimes it becomes a bit overwhelming to orchestrate time and time again. My goal is to find a way to perform a minimal yet consistently excellent show and not lose my head!
What would you be happy knowing someone took away from seeing your music performed live?
I just like when people dance and have a good time, that’s enough for me.
You’ve shared the stage with multiple well-known artists (namely CHARLI XCX, Zola Jesus, Santigold)—in what ways does performing with others impact your performance? Have you learned any helpful advice from your peers/other musicians?
It truly varies! I don’t really get nervous—I usually only get excited to play the minute I’m walking on stage, no matter who I’m playing with. Before hitting the stage there are a million things to triple check so preparation mode takes over. In general, I try to stay focused and true to myself—the only way I can give an A+ performance is if I’m hydrated and grounded. And literally the grounded part is so important—I once wore a different pair of platform shoes on stage and I was just focusing on balance the entire time! Unif Brat Boot all the way, all the time.
I am constantly inspired and motivated by my peers. It’s such a privilege to do what we do! Many of the bigger artists i’ve played with travel with a production team and I am so inspired by that. Goals.
A long time ago I worked with a French artist and his advice was the best I’ve received in years: “Go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go!”
You were an official artist on the “first ever live-streamed LGBT event in SXSW history,” what was the experience like?
I think that was my second or third time performing in Austin. I am so in love with Austin—the shows I’ve played in that city are always insane! I’ve had the opportunity to connect with a group of really incredible, groundbreaking artists there and am honored to call them my friends. I visit as often as I can. However…that show was rough for me! The lineup was nothing short of fabulous: CHRISTEENE, Le1f, Dai Burger, Big Dipper—fun times overload. I very clearly remember the layout of the venue—green room upstairs with a huge staircase visible to the audience leading to the stage. Maybe I spent too much time on my makeup because by the time I knew it the stage manager peeked her head into the green room and said, “you’re on right now”. I had one shoe on and a curler in my hair. In a matter of seconds, I zipped up my platform shoe, set that curl, applied lipgloss (crucial), and slipped into my Giselle lucite cuffs and chest plate as I ran down the aforementioned huge staircase. Made it onstage, cued my intro track and attempted to do some version of an arm stretch that I awkwardly slipped out of. It was a mess! And the whole time I’m just thinking, “omg this is all being broadcast live…”. Naturally, the set had some hiccups, not my best performance but it sure does make for a fun memory. I have to give myself credit though, at the time my setup was elaborate—I was touring with a guitar, synth, drum pad…there may have been a loop pedal in there somewhere and I had to cue my light up dress too. I still don’t understand why I felt the need to run down that staircase—could have simply taken a moment to center myself and walk down the stairs like a normal human being but hey, that’s showbiz! Regardless, it was an amazing and highly memorable night. I’m honored to have been in such great company.
Tell us about your most recent projects.
I recently worked with Apple and performed in-store as part of their “Today at Apple” programming. It was an extremely transformative gig for me. I had been stuck in a rut both creatively and emotionally for what seemed to be a very long time. I was struggling to find motivation, was bored with my process, hadn’t released anything for a year and had a halfway finished EP that wasn’t going anywhere. When I found out that I would be working with Apple I remember thinking to myself ”…oh dear…you have to make this GOOD.” It was truly the slap on the back I needed to return to my crazy, ambitious self. It was a lot of work to pull off my vision but in the end so worth it. I was able to wear an incredible sculptural garment by Alex Ulichny for the first time, whom I had been dreaming of working with for years. His piece integrated beautifully with the technology in the space and I felt as though it transformed me from a musician to a work of art. The towering LED wall playing my visuals, the perfect plexiglass table for my gear, the drama of my hot fuschia garment…it was all so high fashion, so high tech! I’ve never felt more in sync. My amazing friends—Katey Meyer, Reilly Drew and Connor Weitz documented the performance. I was so inspired by the experience that we went on to shoot more footage to create a fashion short as a way of celebrating the night. I am truly grateful to have had this opportunity. Just thinking about what an iconic man Steve Jobs was and how he was able to consistently and successfully push the boundaries of technology is deeply inspiring. I feel like I’ve been freshly upgraded to the highest iOS and can now continue to work on music, free from any previous glitches.
You just released “Re:(visit)”—tell us about this song?
“Re:(visit)” is a re-interpretation of one of my older tracks “re:”. These song titles are confusing and I almost wish I could go back and change the original! I wrote “re:” around 2014/15 in the format of a breakup email. I guess I was thinking about romance in the modern age—it seems terribly lacking. When was the last time your beau mailed you a carefully sealed, rose scented, cursive penned love letter while they were away on business? Never, most likely. I found it funny to think that the equivalent of such a letter is now an eggplant emoji text or better yet a half hearted email that may find itself in the junk folder.
I started playing “re:” live on guitar with a minimal backing track and it was always one of my favorite songs. As I started to compose more electronic tracks, I was using my guitar less and less. I wanted to find a way to play “re:” live, without having to lug around my guitar for just one song. Something about the song just works for me and it must be significant because here we are nearly five years later and I still haven’t gotten tired of hearing it. “Re:” had many different live versions until I found what is now the final product—“Re:(visit)”. This iteration of the song is my favorite and I’m excited to finally share it with the world.
What do you imagine this song being the soundtrack to? Can you imagine it in a scene?
The first time I listened to “Re:(visit)” in the car was a surreal experience. I was driving home on a particularly cold and gloomy Chicago evening after a long day of working in the studio. I remember now that it was actually winter solstice—I had bought a chakra candle, copal, Palo Santo and was planning to take an intention bath with my hematite moon elixir. Gross right? Haha, but on a side note, these intention baths that I’ve been taking are life changing. I set an intention to meditate on, light a few candles, maybe some copal and manifest my goals while I soak. It’s great. Highly recommend it. 10/10. But anyway—driving home while listening to the track! It’s gray, a slight fog hangs above the street lights lining Western Ave and just as the bass drops they all illuminate in perfect synchronicity. My jaw literally dropped. If there’s a perfect scene for the song, I basically lived it. Felt like a dream!
What does the future of FEE LION look like?
Booked, busy and drippiiiing in latex! There are so many moving gears right now. I fly out to NYC this week to play Katie Rex’s BOUND, fly back to CHI immediately the next day for TNK Fest, finish my EP, make a visual album, gear up for SXSW, tour the US, tour Europe and drink more water. Those are all in the works.
Stay tuned to Milk for more weekly artist picks.