Above: John Faye performing at last month’s Shine A Light benefit concert at The Queen. Photo by Joe del Tufo.

By Jim Miller

Like most musicians, John Faye tells stories through song.

Most musicians, however, lack Faye’s aptitude for output. 

Over the past 34 years, the Newark-bred musician has released more than 150 original songs — as a solo artist; as one half of the Philly musical duo John & Brittany; and as the lead singer for The Caulfields, The John Faye Power Trip, IKE, and his first band, Beat Clinic.

Adding to the 15 full-length albums and EPs he’s released in that time, Faye more recently has been fond of one-off singles, such as last year’s “Lightning In A Bottle,” which he wrote and produced with Sug Daniels, lead singer of Hoochi Coochi. 

Faye won’t be releasing a song this month, but he does have another story for us — one that motivated him to take a five-year break from music to piece together. It’s a tale best told by Faye: the story of his life.

John Faye’s memoir examines his history, identity and love for music.

The book, The Yin and Yang of It All: Rock ‘n’ Roll Memories from the Cusp as Told by a Mixed-Up, Mixed-Race Kid, comes out in hardback and e-book format on April 4 in stores and online. 

An overview of the book on Barnes & Noble’s site reads: 

In 1966… John Kim Faye was born out of wedlock to a 40-year-old Korean mother and a 62-year-old Irish father. Faye grew up in the state of Delaware, where laws forbidding interracial marriage were still on the books until 1967.

As the lead singer and primary songwriter of The Caulfields, Faye was one of the only mixed-race Asian American frontmen to sign a major record contract in the alternative rock heyday of the 1990s.

Just a few days before our interview with Faye, he joined more than 60 other musicians for the Shine A Light concert at The Queen on March 4, which helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for music-education programs in underserved communities. Among the many highlights of the show were the moments Faye was on stage, entertaining a packed house on ‘80s favorites like Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” and Adam Ant’s “Goody Two Shoes.” 

Here’s what Faye had to say about that experience, how he views his ethnicity in the modern world, and what moved him to temporarily step away from music to focus on the book.

O&A: What was it that inspired you to write the book? 

Faye: When my mom passed away in 2012. She was my last surviving parent because my dad died when I was really young. [Ed: Faye was six when his father died of cancer.] So, when my mom died, it made me take stock of my life. And I was obviously still doing music hardcore. 

After my mom died, I got the thought in my head that I would like to write a book that, in part, would be a way to memorialize her. And I think that I did that to some extent, in what the book ended up being. 

O&A: So, your mom had a huge influence on your life? 

Faye: Oh, absolutely. And I have three older half-sisters from my mom’s first marriage. They’re all a decade plus older than me. So, I grew up in a household with four Korean women. 

On the plus side, they were wonderful to me. But my mom had to work full-time… and all her jobs seemed to have a pretty far commute… 

Once my father passed away, it was basically on my sisters to do a lot of the day-to-day taking care of me. That part was wonderful; I’m very grateful for that. But in terms of feeling like you have siblings, the age difference was just too tremendous to have that kind of sense of connection.

I refer to my sisters in the book as more like “indentured babysitters.” They are all either in high school and early college by the time my father dies and, of course, they’re going through their own shit. I mean, they’re Korean immigrants. They’re trying to be teenagers in America, with English as their second language. They had their own lives to deal with. 

The net result of all that is I felt pretty much isolated, like I was on an island. I felt alone as a kid.

The other element of this is that because [my mom and my sisters] moved here from Korea, there was no family support system nearby. Most people I know, they can call on their cousins, uncles — you know, extended family — in times when they need something. That just wasn’t a possibility for us. 

As far as my father’s side of the family, I never met a single person from that side until literally last year. My half-brother and I connected when his daughter — my niece, who was actually the same age as me — found me on Facebook.

O&A: Connecting your upbringing to you being a musician: Was it a case where you got a chance to inherit some of your sisters’ records when they went off to college? 

Faye: They helped me through more of like an osmosis-type process. They never like, sat me down and were like, “Listen to this, this is cool, right?” I just absorbed everything they were listening to. 

They were music fans; they had lots of records because of their age. This was the ‘70s, so AM radio singles were everything. The whole Beatles/Beach Boys era; there was a lot of that. There was a lot of singer-songwriters from the early ‘70s: Carole King, James Taylor — that kind of stuff — was always there. I definitely absorbed it. 

And then when I when I started making my own allowance for doing dishes, I started buying K-Tel records, if you remember those… [In a commercial-like voice] “22 original hits, 22 original stars!” Man, they put 11 tracks on one side of a vinyl record. It was horrible for fidelity, but great for value!

Yes, K-Tel was a big, early influence. It’s like a musical education in pop music. Throughout my music career, people have always sort-of made a point of saying, “This guy can write a pop song,” or “He’s got a pop sensibility.” And that’s the reason because that music basically formed my DNA. The definition of what songs should sound like are those very economical three, three-and-a-half-minute pop songs.

O&A: Your sensibility is interesting in that you have that pop flavor to your songs, but they’re not always happy-go-lucky tunes.

Faye: That’s the yin and the yang of it all! The thing about it was I was able to — at a pretty early age, — see that there’s a dichotomy that makes music more emotionally hard-hitting. The tune can be something very accessible and palatable. But a lot of the songs I was drawn to had something a little more to say or maybe were a little darker. The reason I was attracted to that is because my life felt dark. 

Once you hit 12, 13, 14, you’re discovering your own stuff. And for me, that was punk and new wave. Because I came to that age right around the late ‘70s, when stuff like The Clash and the Sex Pistols and the American hardcore were on the rise. But my favorite bands when I was in ninth grade were the B-52s and Blondie. 

O&A: How much do you think being mixed race compounds your feelings of isolation?

Faye: There was an identity-crisis thing happening. Let’s put it this way: I’m Korean and Irish. I had no particular connection culturally to either of those things —because my father was gone. And my mother’s attitude was very much what they used to call “assimilationist.” So, basically: “We came here to America, we have to be as American as we can.”

Yes, there were obviously Korean aspects to our household. The food is really what stuck with me. But my mom didn’t speak Korean. She didn’t teach me Korean. I don’t speak it. 

I would eat bulgogi and kimchi and rice; but that was the extent of my Korean at that time. Yet, when I walk out the door, I’m being pummeled with every Asian slur in the book. This is right around the end of Vietnam, don’t forget. So, I’m being made to feel very Asian. And that’s more of a blanket term because I would be called “ch–k” and “j-p.”

I am being confronted with that — while not really identifying as a Korean — and it’s really only because of my eyes. 

I’ve thought about this a lot: It’s almost like having my father, while he was alive, going around with him, he was my protector against that. Here’s a white guy, basically saying, “This kid’s mine; don’t [f – – k] with him.”

When he dies, that’s gone.

O&A: You talk about yin and yang. In terms of cultural identification, there is something beautiful to that in the sense that you can connect with some traditions that have been long-held traditions and that are part of the expression of the human race. 

On the other hand, you can use cultural identification as kind of tribalism where you’re separating and putting people into these stacked categories of worth. Humans have used cultural identification to look down on somebody else. We still do. 

Along those lines, do you feel it’s gotten any better in this country? 

Faye: I mean, that’s a big question. And I do think about it. 

I can only really respond to that from my own lens, and this is what I’ll say: When you talk about ethnicity, you’re talking about someone’s culture, really. It’s often incorrectly interchanged with like, “What’s your race?” and “What’s your ethnicity?”  Those are two different things. 

Now, obviously, people of a certain race may share ethnicity because their culture has certain aspects of about it that they all have in common. That’s why if anybody asks me what I identify as the first thing I say is “I identify as a musician,” because that’s where my ethnicity actually lies. 

I have more in common with people who love and play music than [I do] with any Korean person in terms of shared culture or any Irish person in terms of shared culture. 

My ethnicity is a musical ethnicity.

O&A: What is it about music that you feel so strongly about in terms of identifying who you are?

Faye: Just take a look at what happened [at the Shine A Light concert]. You had upwards of four or five dozen different musicians all coming together for a very admirable cause, all putting their egos aside to do whatever it took to give people an experience that would be worthy to raise [money]. 

Look at who made up that group of musicians: You got everybody from the guys that helped start this whole thing — the veterans of the event — and then you’ve got this beautiful mosaic of musicians of all colors and ages. 

Like I’m playing on stage with Dan White [on guitar], and Brian Bruce [on drums]. Those dudes are arguably half my age or maybe a little older than half my age. Yet, I feel so connected to them. When we’re playing and somebody like Tink Dorsey is up there on bass; she’s of a completely different generation than me. 

And that’s the thing that I take away from being part of Shine A Light as being like, “Yes! I’m so grateful to be part of this. Because this is this is a microcosm of the way I would love to see the whole world be.”

— You can read more about John Faye’s thoughts on his music career — particularly his experiences being on a major record label with The Caulfields — in his new book The Yin and Yang of It All: Rock ‘n’ Roll Memories from the Cusp as Told by a Mixed-Up, Mixed-Race Kid, which comes out in hardback and e-book format on April 4 in stores and online. A book release celebration will be held Tuesday, April 25 at Ardmore Music Hall, 23 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore, Pa. Doors: 7pm; show: 7:30pm.

Jim Miller
Since 1988, Out & About has informed our audience of entertainment options in Greater Wilmington through a monthly variety magazine. Today, that connection has expanded to include social networking, a weekly newsletter, and a comprehensive website. We also create, manage, and sponsor local events.