Smiles, Hugs, and Leopard Print: Judee Zee

She bounds into the room, all smiles, hugs, and leopard print. Her personality in real life shines as much as it does online. She is candid, vibrant, and endearingly entertaining. She is Judee Zee.

Her name is Judy Zabala, a twenty-six-year-old illustrator-graphic designer by trade better known to her thousands of followers on Facebook and YouTube as Judee Zee, a singer-songwriter-music producer best known 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. Her knowledge about music production was acquired through intensive self-study as an adult, but 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.”

Judee, when asked about her musical preferences, laughs. “Lahat ng genre, wag kang yung pinapatugtog sa bus,” she says, amused. 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.

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 nagwork. Mahilig rin ako sa 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.”

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.” 

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. “Oh my god, Pinoy ka din!” she says, as her immediate reaction to receiving such. “Tas, yun, friends na kami after. Uun yung gusto ko eh, instant friends pag Pinoy.”

Judee describes her initial hesitation at revealing or owning her nationality, citing an undercurrent of 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.” 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.”

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.”

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. “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. “

Beyond any potential for negativity or embarrassment, Judee glows 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.”

Catch Judee Zee live for the first time at #yoiconph2017! Visit her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube!

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