'Castles' Review: Royal Pirates' James Lee chronicles journey of heartbreak and healing on emotive 7-track EP
The singer suffered a debilitating injury that seemingly ended his career as a bassist, but he wasn't ready to say goodbye to music. He returns stronger than ever with his second EP
Korean-American singer-songwriter James Lee, the former bass guitarist for the band Royal Pirates, has returned with his second solo EP 'Castles', an emotional 7-track release that really gives new meaning to the phrase 'summertime sadness'. James Lee began his career at the young age of 16 as a musician in the metalcore act Azusa. He eventually left California behind and moved to South Korea with the Korean-American band Royal Pirates. Following a two-year training period, the trio made their Korean debut with 2013 single 'Shout Out' and later, their hit album 'Drawing The Line' in 2014. The Royal Pirates weren't new to the music scene, having begun putting music out under the name Fading From Dawn with the three original members, guitarist-vocalist Kim Moon-chul, drummer EXSY, and bassist Richard Kim, Moon-chul's older brother.
The band began to find their footing in California, but sadly, Kim's death from a car accident in 2008 put a damper on those plans. After they changed their name, found themselves a new bassist in Lee, and made their mark in South Korea, it seemed like their time had finally come. But in 2015, a freak accident nearly severed Lee's left hand, leaving him unable to play the bass guitar. He briefly switched to playing synth for the band, before electing to step away permanently on account of his worsening health.
There are very few things quite as devastating for a musician as losing the ability to play music. But Lee wasn't ready to let go just yet. Following five surgeries, he moved back to Los Angeles and began putting together his first EP, 'The Light'. The crowdfunded album hit 300% of its target and performed well in South and Southeast Asia. Lee also collaborated with several idols including Sooyoung Choi of Girls Generation, and, outside of his own music, he would also go on to produce chart-topping hits for Jason Zhang and Angelababy as well as a chart-topping album for JG. His modeling career soon picked back up again, with Lee even appearing as a celebrity guest on 'America’s Next Top Model': Cycle 21.
Now, Lee has returned with 'Castles', his second EP that dropped on July 31, and it sees the artiste grappling with heartbreak, painful goodbyes, and desperately holding onto loved ones as they slip through fingers like sand. 'Castles' is a release woven with sad songs perfect for those late-night summer drives, but it is also a wonderfully crafted EP that delves into emotional depths that reflect the traumatic and triumphant journey Lee has had thus far. It is also, additionally, a musically sound record. With the raw emotion of Yellowcard and Lauv and sounds reminiscent of Zedd and The Chainsmokers, 'Castles' is an artistic blend of acoustic-pop/rock and EDM, with a little something for everyone.
On the creation of 'Castles', Lee shares, "Castles is a milestone in my career that expresses the growth I've had as a writer and a producer. When I wrote The Light EP, I relied on the help of some fantastic producers, but for Castles I trusted myself. Even though it was based on the thought of sandcastles washing away, I still find myself reflecting on the process and journey of creating rather than sulking over what's lost. I've become a realistic optimist." And that, essentially, is what makes this EP such a heartwarming listen: this is a journey through pain and healing, one that serves as a reminder that while good things can come to an end, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.
Lee further shares his hope that listeners not only recognize the beauty in the intricacy of the album but also the urgency in cherishing every moment. He states, "I hope people that listen to Castles will hear everything, from the details in every single arrangement choice to the way the words are expressed in each song. I decided to lean into the music I grew up loving so much. Though the tone of the album is emotional and sad, the greater takeaway for people is to appreciate the moments we have because nothing lasts forever."
He certainly accomplished that on this release, which has a deep sense of melancholy that reflects what it can feel like to have to let go of hopes and dreams you've held on to, and make way for a new journey in its place. 'Castles' saw Lee step more into the roles of songwriter and producer, and it really shows: this EP is not just musically gorgeous, it is extremely personal, and shows just how much Lee has grown from 'The Light'. And while it's really difficult to pick a song as a standout, 'Liar' is probably the one track that warrants several listens. It puts Lee's songwriting and vocals front and center, backed by a gorgeous acoustic guitar, and really gives you the opportunity to experience the artiste's musical gifts in full glory.
To make the release of his second EP even more special, Lee provided various offers on his Patreon for fans to have their names included in the credits of his upcoming music video for 'Liar' as well as on the physical copy of the 'Castles' EP – a small gesture to show his fans that they are just as much part of this journey as he is. In addition to his much-anticipated second EP, Lee also released the track 'Alright' with former f(x) singer Amber Liu as well as the lyric video for 'Over Us'. And as his loyal fanbase continues to grow, Lee continues along the path of recovery as he creates authentic, honest, and relatable music along the way.
'Castles' is out now on all digital streaming platforms.