Judee Zee: Songs, Smiles, and Leopard Print

(This piece was previously published on the Born To Make History: A Yuri!!! on ICE Fan Gathering blog.)

SHE bounds into the room, all smiles and hugs, both of which huge and both of which warm. Meeting her for the first time is like meeting a long lost friend; any of the initial awkwardness that comes with the mandatory introductions dissipates in favor of the jovial familiarity she treats anyone she encounters. Her personality in real life shines as much as it does online. She is candid, vibrant, and endearingly entertaining. She is Judee Zee.

Her real name is actually Judy Zabala. This twenty-six-year-old illustrator-graphic designer by trade is better known to her thousands of followers on Facebook and YouTube as Judee Zee, a singer-songwriter-music producer loved for her anime and video game cover songs and parodies.

Though she works in the visual arts, Judee considers music to be her main creative outlet. Though her knowledge about music production was acquired through intensive self-study as an adult, Judee notes that her involvement in the art and practice of music started even at a very young age. “Since I was a kid, I was always part of the chorale,” she recounts enthusiastically in a mix of English and Filipino. “Meron rin akong parang special classes for the best music students nung grade school.” (“I also participated in special classes for the best music students when I was in grade school.”)

Judee, when asked about her musical preferences, laughs. “Lahat ng genre, wag kang yung pinapatugtog sa bus,” she says, amused. (“All the genres, just not the ones played on the bus.”) Her love for music leads her to listen, and thus be influenced by, all sorts of genres. This extends not only to what she listens to, but also to what she makes herself. “Ayoko nang may certain style ako, Gusto ko, kaya ko sabayan lahat,” says Judee. (“I don’t want to have a certain style. I want to be able to do everything.”)

Music, says Judee, was always a part of her life but never its priority, citing her studies as her main focus at the time. It was only recently that she started getting back into music. “Out of the blue, I just wanted to try making my own backing track,” she says, on how she got into making music for YouTube. “Lahat ni-research ko lang dun, kung paano mag music production, tas dun nag-work. Mahilig rin ako sa self study.” (“I just researched how to do music production, then it worked. I’m fond of self-study.”)

When asked about what makes a song stand out to her, she cites its words. Judee says that she likes songs with really good lyrics. Her bias towards words trickles down to her own process as an songwriter. “Every time I write a song, kailangan one week sa akin. Usually, one week ko sinusulat ang song. Kailangan perfect, kailangan rhyming, kailangang may makakarelate na tao.” (“Every time I write a song, It needs to stay with me for a week. usually, I take one week to write a song. It needs to be perfect, it needs to rhyme, it needs to be relatable for people.”)

Judee discusses the initial shyness that overwhelmed her before ever got around posting her music on YouTube. “At first, I was really shy to make a cover,” she says in a mix of English and Filipino. “I wrote lyrics, but I gave it to someone else, because I wasn’t confident enough to do that cover myself.” The singer she gave it to, who has a YouTube following of her own, encouraged her to do the cover herself, complimenting her voice and assuring her of her talent. Motivated by this encouragement, Judee then psyched herself up. “Okay, fine, face your fears, Judee, do it. Okay. Okay, make a cover,” she says, recalling the words she told herself.

She also recalls an experience from her high school days, one that encouraged her to pursue writing. “I had this habit of writing poetry and stuff in high school,” she says. “There was a contest, write a grad song, and my song ended up winning. Yung yung naging grad song ng batch ko. Dun ako nagkaroon ng confidence na magaling ako magsulat.” (“The song I wrote ended up being the grad song of my batch. That was when I realized that I was good at writing.”)

It was when she finally finished her first song that she realized that she couldn’t stop at just one. “The feeling of having a song of mine playing on my computer or on YouTube, it’s nice. So, I wanted to keep doing it.”

Many people are surprised to learn that Judee is, in fact, a Filipino. She receives a lot of comments on social media about this, and she finds it funny. Upon reading this comments, she exclaims, “Oh my god, Pinoy ka rin!” (“Oh my god, you’re Filipino too!”) “Tas, yun, friends na kami after. Yun yung gusto ko eh, instant friends pag Pinoy.” (“Then, there, we’re friends already. That’s what I like about Filipinos, instant friends when you’re Filipino too.”)

Judee describes her initial hesitation at revealing or owning her nationality, citing an undercurrent of passive racism among YouTube musicians. Nowadays, she does not let this affect her, and, in fact, feels proud whenever she has the chance to show of her home country. “Pati yung people from other countries, natutuwa din, parang na appreciate nila na Pinoy ako and everything. Tas natutuwa sila na, kahit dun sa cover ko ng Tagalog na first time ever, yung random na baduy BL song.” (“Even people from other countries are amused, it’s like they appreciate my being Filipino and everything. They’re even amused with my first ever Tagalog cover, that random corny BL song.”) Judee says that even foreigners appreciate her work, regardless of the language she sings it in. “May comments rin ako from other countries, may Russian pa nga, who said, I didn’t understand a thing but please do more.” (“I get comments from people from other countries, there was even a Russian, who said, I didn’t understand a thing but please do more.”)

And do more, she does. Judee says that her goal is to never be satisfied with her work. “Ang goal ko lagi is, yung next cover ko, dapat better than the previous one, yun yung lagi kong goal. Hanggang sa ngayon, kung pinapanood ko yung una kong video, parang oh my god, this is crap, Nakakahiya. Pero never akong magsa-stop, kailangan di ako satisfied lagi. Yun yung talagang goal ko.” (“My goal is always to make my next cover better than the previous one. That’s always my goal. Until now, whenever I watch my very first video, I think, oh my god, this is crap. It’s embarrassing. But I’m never going to stop, I will never be satisfied. That is my goal.”)

It takes a certain kind of bravery to put yourself out there, to display something you’ve worked hard on for the judgment and consumption of a faceless online mass. To anyone who finds themselves intimidated by this idea, Judee says not to be. “Just do it. Wala namang mawawala sa ‘yo eh,” says Judee with conviction. (“You won’t lost anything from it.”) “Nasasayo rin kung ano yung reception rin ng mga tao pero as much as possible, negative or positive, yun ang gagamitin mo. Learn from them.” (What you do with the reception of others is up to you, but as much as possible, positive or negative, use it. Learn from them.”)

Beyond any potential for negativity or embarrassment, Judee glows with enthusiasm about the opportunities for personal growth and interpersonal connection. “Yung feeling rin na nag go-grow ka din, na hino-hone mo yung talent mo, na you do what you love… Sobrang, ang saya niya talaga. When people love your work, sobrang humbling siya. Sila yung reason kung bakit gumagawa ako ng stuff ko – because there’s at least one person waiting for another thing that I make. Regardless of number of subscribers, or whatever, may isang tao who appreciates your work, so i-appreciate mo din sila.” (“The feeling that you grow and you hone your talent doing what you love… It’s an extremely happy feeling. When people love your work, it’s very humbling. They are the reason why I make my stuff – because there’s at least one person waiting for another thing that I make. Regardless of number of subscribers, or whatever, there’s always one person that appreciates your work, so appreciate them.”)

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