Jayesslee: Loved by millions - who are they?

Jayesslee: they're famous but not outside church circles.
YouTube / Screengrab
Jayesslee: they're famous but not outside church circles.

Janice Lee, aka Jayesslee (pronounced Jay-ess-lee), are arguably the most marketable duo in Australian music but hardly anyone outside church circles knows them. They rarely gig at home and when they do it's been to church audiences rather than at mainstream venues.

"Although we were born and raised in Sydney," Janice told Malaysian radio station 89.9 BFM, "we do the least number of shows in our home town."

It's hard to see the 25-year-old Korean-Australian identical twin sisters, who are devout Christians, remaining unknowns with their major Australian debut less than three weeks away at the VIDinc "YouTuber festival" in Sydney.

Scroll down to see Jayesslee perform Gangnam Style

It's not hard to see why the Lee sisters have built the most subscribed YouTube channel by any Australian, with 1.4 million followers in less than five years (about half a million more than self-described YouTube sensations Janoskians).

The Lee twins are model-pretty, seem endearingly sweet-natured and their acoustic versions of mega pop hits are near-perfect for their genre. They've accumulated more than 904,000 likes on Facebook and have more than 100,000 Twitter followers.

Unsigned and unheralded in the mainstream media, Jayesslee are proving YouTube is the new model for "making it". Their massive YouTube following would already net an impressive income: every time you view one of their clips, Jayesslee receives a small payment because you've watched an ad before the song begins. When you've been viewed 220 million times on YouTube, those payments would quickly add up.

They also have an EP out, Studio Sessions (including one original), and sell their songs and merchandise through their website, not to mention tickets on their round-the-world tours, at which they play to audiences of several thousand.

The sisters have carefully managed their public profile for several years, focusing on social media and only giving occasional interviews, usually with new media (especially with an Asian link) and avoiding mainstream media.

The most easily available information about them comes from chat in their song clips and their literally puppy-dogs-and-ice-cream interactions with fans on Twitter and Instagram. From it you can learn Sonia is the one playing guitar, has a spoodle named Charlie and a weakness for snow cones and fast food, and is married to Jayesslee's manager, dashing learner-pilot Andy Yang.

Janice, who is also married, likes mint choc-chip ice-cream and has a new Great Dane puppy named Misty. Janice seems the more thoughtful, given to a mischievous sense of humour and occasional moments of reflection: on, of all places, Instagram, she hinted at an inner battle over her cultural identity: "Am I Asian? Am I not? ... I still call #Australia home."

Among the thousands of videos by or about Jayesslee on YouTube are a handful of interviews (mostly two or more years old), which show them to be savvy young women who pause and check in with each other before carefully answering questions. Sonia told internet producer/entertainer Nicki Sun in 2011 why they have rebuffed the approaches of big labels. "We've had opportunities to meet big record labels and ... to work overseas but through YouTube we are able to be free and be goofy the way we are."

Although both have sung since a young age, Sonia told 89.9 BFM they started writing and playing together after being apart for four months when Janice went on a mission to Cambodia. The year they got serious was 2011, after they both quit the same graphic-design course and then a job making smoothies. Janice admitted they initially faced opposition from their father, who steered them towards dentistry and law - until they hit a million subscribers on YouTube. "As soon as we got to 1 million he [said], 'I can see that you are getting somewhere now,' and he's a huge supporter now."

Last year Sonia told interviewer Sira Sous, of Korean entertainment website hellokpop, that they had both been through depression after their mother died while they were in high school. She also said they were in no rush to be signed because they wanted to retain their independence and creative control.

This year has been a relatively quiet one for the Lee twins: three gigs in Hong Kong, a new YouTube channel launched (jayessleetv) and only two new covers uploaded (plus the obligatory Harlem Shake clip, which remains on their Facebook page although one fan alleged Harlem backwards means "Son of the Devil").

But it's what happens next that is the fascinating question. Being a proud Christian never hurt a musician and even Christian music sells big. What are the limits for a pair of talented, twentysomething Asian-Australian twin sisters with a taste for the songs of Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Jason Mraz and Jessie J? In 2011, when Malaysian radio asked if they were "ready for a full-blown pop career", Janice responded: "Bring it on.'' When asked where they will be in another five years, she joked: ''Madison Square Garden ... with Justin Bieber."

It seems only a matter of time before a bidding war breaks out for the signature of the Lee twins.
Jayesslee can be found on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook and seen live at VIDinc on August 18.

Sydney Morning Herald