Better known by her stage name, FEE LION, Chicago-based artist Justina Kairyte’s roar is starting to echo louder and louder through the city’s music scene. Fully immersed in the creative process, Justina creates not only her music but her stage costumes, promo materials, merch and the design of her cassette tapes. An explosion of artistic expression, FEE LION, in Justina’s words is ultimate strength, femininity, rebellion, fresh bruises, vulnerability, youth, reinvention and independence.
Has music always been a big part of your life? What did you grow up listening to?
“My first cradle as a baby, in Lithuania, was nestled on top of two stereo speakers from which the likes of Thompson Twins, Kate Bush & Kraftwerk would rock me to sleep. I grew up in a household where an insane array of beautiful, cultural and eclectic music was played. All the time. I remember in first grade I brought a compact disc to show and tell to share with everyone. In an age booming with Spice Girls and Britney Spear’s, the classroom was so confused to hear the Eastern European gypsy worldbeat sounds of Deep Forest’s Boheme.”
When did you decide to pursue music professionally? Tell me about the beginnings of FEE LION.
“I always had this strange vision of myself in a pitch black warehouse with lots of glitter and a microphone. Somewhere along the line, that vision blurred a bit and I took a brief semi-hiatus in which I dedicated more of my time to explore acting and later, physical theater. Although the theater world is one I very much enjoy, it never felt fully satisfying. I think the very first FEE LION seed was planted at an early stage for me; the challenge was to find the right time and place for it to sprout.
I tried New York. I tried Chicago. I tried New York again. I thought about LA. Now, I have finally been burrowing my roots within Chicago for the past year or so and nothing feels more right. I’ve rid myself of toxins: people, habits, environments. That was the first step to approaching music professionally for me. It was a very emotional and testing journey but I am so grateful to now be surrounded by beautiful, inspiring, supportive, like-minded human beings that I can call family. Creatively and intellectually, I am in a very healthy point in my life to make art and explore my boundaries with FEE LION. Right now is still the beginning.”
What’s the meaning behind the name “FEE LION?”
“Sometimes I identify with cats better than humans. FEE LION was initially just a clever way to spell ‘feline’ and a humorous nom de plume that a group of friends and I came up with over lunch one day. I think we were eating Nutella sandwiches. It has blossomed into such a special, personal, flower. FEE LION to me is ultimate strength, femininity, rebellion, fresh bruises, vulnerability, youth, reinvention, independence. It has become a beautiful vessel to house all of that.”
You used your own original artwork for the cover of your cassette tape. Is that another creative outlet for you?
“I consider myself a crafty person. Although it is a lot of hard work, I enjoy being fully immersed in all of the artistic components that come with FEE LION. It’s exciting to me! There is something so special about physically hand crafting an idea into a personalized piece of art; there is a different level of love and care involved. I make many of the outfits I wear on stage, most of the promotional materials for the shows, t-shirts, business cards, and cassette tapes. I have a very specific artistic vision for FEE LION and in order to translate that, I sort-of have to be my own CEO, a fun CEO though.”
Do you feel any pressure as a female artist to “sexualize” your image?
“No. I think that women are sexualized by society no matter what. It is my goal to make art that is true to who I am as a human being and as a young woman. What manifests from that may be raw, provocative and sensitive content which, to me, proves far more valuable than any manufactured image. Focusing on specifically ‘sexualizing’ one’s image for the sake of it being attractive or controversial is one-dimensional. A woman can shock the culture on a much larger scale through her confidence, ingenuity, talent and perseverance.”
What do you draw inspiration from when you’re writing your music? Can you explain your creative process?
“I try to be a sponge, to take in everything that is happening to me, around me, and within me as fully and as openly as possible. Then later, I squeeze out the muddy juices and see what’s been germinating. Lately this has been my process: build a simple drum track, loop it. Maybe add an atmospheric trembling guitar, loop it. Throw some drone-y synth on top, loop it. Next comes word vomit. I don’t think too much about it. I honor the fact that whatever is pouring out in sounds will eventually turn into words that need to be said. Many times it is a surprise to me, even. I’ll think, ‘Woah. That is exactly how I’m feeling right now. Has that been there this whole time? What else is buried?’ It is therapeutic.”
I hear hints of St. Vincent and Adele in your music. What artists do you usually get compared to?
“St. Vincent happens sometimes, it’s true. I used to get Adele a lot more when I played solo acoustic sets. A Bjork comparison happens every now and then, which is always such a special moment. Kate Bush. Lena Horne. Chelsea Wolfe. Sia. I played a very small show in a very large venue recently and an emotional woman came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I’ll remember this for as long as I live. You sound like the future; a woman who’s come from the future to tell us that it’s going to be okay.’ That was the best comparison yet.
What other artists inspire you? Who would you love to have make a guest appearance on one of your tracks?
“My friend turned me onto this incredible gem: Roberto Cacciapaglia’s The Ann Steel Album. I have been so entirely consumed by it. There is such a beautiful nostalgic hum to it, paired with a very eerily familiar disco drive. It’s been my ‘turn up the volume all the way and underpants-dance alone in your bedroom’ soundtrack for a few weeks now. There are so many artists that I’d love to work with. Kevin Barnes. David Byrne. Jonna Lee. Win Butler. Grimes. Thom Yorke. Michael Andrews. Ethan Kath. Mary Ocher. Deantoni Parks. The list goes on. To do an album with Bjork is my ultimate fantasy, obviously.”
Photography: Giselle Gatsby