[INTERVIEW] Meet Seori, Korea’s Next R&B Super-Rookie
Upon her debut in May, Seori was an intriguing enigma. The singer-songwriter’s debut project was impressive for its scale as well as quality: a number of unconventional media projects, including a novella and exhibit, accompanied a polished first EP in ?depacse ohw, despite coming from a label just debuting its first artist. Each was surrounded by a cryptic presentation that invited curiosity, and listeners have noticed: title track “Running Through the Night” has garnered millions of views while the EP sold out temporarily in June.
Recently, Hellokpop had the chance to chat with Seori for her first formal interview, exploring her story, music and the worldbuilding of her debut project in detail. In a conversation spanning an hour, we discovered an artist and album more than living up to the intrigue.
The Artist: Who Is Seori?
Seori first drew attention in 2019 for a series of cover videos uploaded to her YouTube channel; a cover of Abir’s “Tango” went viral, and the covers have racked up over 5 million views to date. She then became inactive on the platform before resurfacing this spring under ATISPAUS, a collective of artists working in various forms of media, and releasing debut EP ?depacse ohw. Our conversation began by exploring that history.
HKP: To start, please introduce yourself for Hellokpop readers!
Seori: Hello Hellokpop, I’m a newly debuted musician named Seori. It’s such an honor to be able to interview like this. Great to meet you.
HKP: How does it feel to have debuted, and what have you been up to since the release?
Seori: It was so good to be able to finally tell my story with my official debut, and I’ve been hard at work on new music to share in the future.
HKP: I believe you’re the first artist to debut at ATISPAUS. How did you meet your current label?
Seori: So I had been working on music for a while, writing songs. I was looking for a good platform to share my singing on, and I uploaded some simple videos to YouTube. They contacted me after that, and when I met with them I found people who had really creative goals. So I thought this could be interesting and we ended up working together.
HKP: So you had been working on songwriting even before your YouTube activities, and then found the company?
Seori: Right. It was a little difficult working on an album by myself and I was thinking it’d be nice to have people to work with. I’m really glad to have found a team that aligns well with me and it’s been a lot of fun to collaborate.
HKP: When you say align well, is that about work approaches and artistic philosophy, things like that?
Seori: Yes, right. They appreciate the music I work on, and they come up with bigger goals based on it. They wanted to partner with me in expressing it through film, writing, art, and so on. So it’s been great to be able to show off diverse media in addition to music.
HKP: It seems like the reactions to your YouTube activities were very positive, looking at things like views and comments. What did you think at the time, and what kind of experience did that become?
Seori: I didn’t expect much going into it. I started YouTube because I just enjoyed singing and I was curious how it might sound to other people. But there was a bigger reaction than I thought, so that was really amazing and it gave me some confidence too.
HKP: Going back a bit further, tell us about when and how you first started music.
Seori: Ever since I was very little I had this desire and admiration for making music, but it was hard to get started. But as I watched various singer-songwriters I wanted to express my own stories and started composing songs. That was the start.
HKP: How old were you when you started?
Seori: I first started training in music in my second year of high school, and started writing songs around 19.
HKP: You’ve listed Coldplay, Avril Lavigne, Paramore, and G-Dragon as your favorites and influences when younger. There’s a bit of distance between these artists and the music you do now. Did it look more like these pop or rock styles when you first started writing?
Seori: I’ve always wanted to try it since I enjoy listening to these genres and artists so much, but it wasn’t easy. The music I started out writing was similar to what I do today. I do still want to try creating rock and more intense music sometime, like the people I look up to.
The Album: ?depacse ohw
Seori released her first EP on May 12, titled ?depacse ohw (pronounced in reverse: “who escaped?”). The six tracks within, each written and composed by Seori, brim with restless energy yet often break out into striking, satisfying vistas. We dissected the album and its overarching theme of “escape” song by song, seeking to understand its substance and production.
HKP: You prepared this album for two years. Could you tell us about that process?
Seori: It didn’t start out as an EP, and even I didn’t know what kind of songs would come out. So I just kept working alongside Graphix, another artist at the company, and the first song to be completed was “Running Through the Night”, the title track. I met ATISPAUS during the process and started crafting an EP with music that fit together.
HKP: The album’s theme is described as “escape from difficult reality”. Could you elaborate?
Seori: Right, escape is the theme that runs through the album. I didn’t start writing with that theme in mind, but I guess all the emotions and thoughts I had at the time were similar. I feel like everyone has a moment when they want to escape somewhere. But then you like reality too, and you feel afraid… I felt these things and thought others do too. So I wrote, and it came out as an album about escape. And since people can’t freely go outside these days, I also hope they might find a little bit of comfort through my music.
HKP: So it wasn’t the original intention, but as you wrote it coalesced around the title track that way?
Seori: I thought each song was about something different, at first. This song’s about this, that one’s about that… I just did my best to write each one, and at one point I realized the topics were similar. But I also think they’re discussing this [escape] in different perspectives and expressions, so I wonder if that made it a bit more diversified.
HKP: I felt that diversity as well. Sounded like you worked through a diverse array of styles within that broader R&B or soul genre. But overall, it’s still got a dreamy, chilly sound and a delicate touch in the vocals, which made me think of Billie Eilish a lot. Is there an artist you listened to a lot or found inspiration from as you worked on the album?
Seori: I definitely really like Billie Eilish, big fan of her first album. I tried to listen to as much music as possible. I’ve liked Western pop even before working on the album, so I listened to that a lot. The first musician I ever liked as a kid was Avril Lavigne. I’m still a huge fan as an adult, so I think the diverse emotions she displays might have been a big influence on my writing and expression.
HKP: Let’s start talking about the songs in more detail. Could you introduce “Hairdryer” for us?
Seori: It’d be nice to have a memory that makes you feel good just by recalling it, right? I have a memory like that, and I think everyone might have at least one. But reality isn’t always as sweet as memory, right. So the memory you want to go back to in times like that, I compared that to a hair dryer. I hope people could revisit their memories and feel better as they listen to this.
HKP: I might say the drowsy, absorbing mood is also a reflection of that.
Seori: Yes, right.
HKP: And that memory is showing up as this very specific action of drying your hair.
Seori: Right. I personally really like touching my hair. It puts me at ease, and as a kid, when my parents stroked my hair I’d feel relaxed and fall asleep faster. So I have good memories associated with drying wet hair. Funny thing is, so I tend to write songs as I’m going about my day. Like on the subway, or just in my routines, as if I’m taking notes. This song is actually a melody I hummed to myself while drying my hair, that I liked enough to record.
HKP: That really worked out well, then.
Seori: Yeah, I was just drying my hair in the bathroom and humming some melody, and I thought “Oh, that’s pretty good?” And it went on to become “Hairdryer” today.
HKP: When the chorus hits, the instruments pause for a second and a vocoder comes in. It makes me focus more on the vocals, and I’m curious if that was the intention.
Seori: To be honest, at the time I’d just learned about a new vocoder… [Laughs] I was pondering how to make use of it and trying it out here and there, and finally thought I found the right song and part for it. So I developed the song around that. The very first things I wrote for that song were the bass intro and that vocoder chorus, and I filled in the rest around that.
HKP: Tell us about “Running Through the Night”.
Seori: I think “Running Through the Night” expresses that desire to escape most strongly. The reason why it’s “night” is, I think for many of us our bedtimes are being pushed later. We spend the mornings and afternoons working, so at night, rather than sleep, we think, we listen to music, we watch something. I think that’s expressing a desire for freedom. So I wrote this song out of a wish that we could be free at night at least, even if we have to return eventually. Personally, I rode a bike for the first time in a while back then. It was at night and it was so liberating and refreshing, and the rushing chorus and sweet lyrics come from that memory.
HKP: Hearing from you, it sounds like your ideas often come from direct experience. Do you tend to get inspiration that way?
Seori: Mostly yes, and from indirect experiences too. I may not always be writing songs while running at night, but I think the memories I record end up as the basis a lot of the time.
HKP: Those lyrics felt really romantic and vivid. “Fill my eyes with the moonlight”, “The last star holding its light”. They paint a picture in your mind. Do you emphasize these aspects when you write?
Seori: Yes, I do. When I listen to music, I’m immersed for the longest time in songs that paint a scene in my mind, like a movie. So I hoped other people might feel that way with my song too. And rather than showing a situation explicitly, I try to express it with a little ambiguity, so each person might interpret it differently.
HKP: Was this song supposed to be the title track all along?
Seori: It was the first one I wrote but not necessarily the title. It ended up having the most common theme, so it became the title track.
HKP: Could you describe “Really High” as well?
Seori: “Really High” is expressed in a more fun way. Playful, but strong. So I tried to include a lot of fun lyrics and really enjoyed working on it. It’s got a bit of a bouncy vibe… there isn’t really anything else that feels bouncy aside from this song, so it was one of my favorites since I wanted to show off a different color too.
HKP: I also thought this was the only song I’d describe as “joyful”, along with the groove.
Seori: Right. It’s a joyful expression of escape. Like, “Run away!” as I tried to add witty lyrics in my own way.
HKP: They’ve got a sense of wit like punchlines do. In the later half there’s a part where backing vocals come out chanting like “la-la-la”. Is that for a similar reason?
Seori: Yes, I recorded that as if I was just yelling without any thought. Not so much singing a melody but just shouting it instead. [HKP: Like spitting it out?] Right, I went with a spitting-out kind of feel.
HKP: There are parts where the lyrics are definitely Korean, but sung with an accent or rhythm that makes them sound like another language. Some examples being “In my mind you’re overworked to death / I’ll quickly call for you a nurse“. It’s in other songs too and seems to be a unique style of yours. How did you come up with it?
Seori: So right now I’m trying to enunciate well so that you can hear me but… [Laughs] When I talk normally I don’t enunciate that well and tend to mash my words, so that’s part of it. I also just tried to have some fun with the pronunciation. I’m not sure how it might feel for listeners, but I wanted to explore the fresh kind of charm that pronunciation can evoke. Fortunately I think many people have been understanding, so I’m grateful for that.
HKP: Tell us about “Fairy Tale”.
Seori: “Fairy Tale” might feel like a somewhat difficult song, but to describe it simply, there’s always this process of despair, right. In the process of disappointment and despair, you have a defense mechanism where you no longer want to open up your heart, but there’s also the desire to move towards hope or another thing you want. This song is about the point when they collide, the mindset of going back and forth between them. And questioning whether the thing that I dreamt of – whatever that might be – was all just a fairy tale. So I tried to construct a fairy-tale sound. I was also really into New Age waltz at the time. When I listened to those songs I could picture these movie-like scenes, like I mentioned earlier. So I used a lot of waltz elements, wanting to express that myself, and also included the startling chorus to represent despair.
HKP: Along those lines, I thought the song had a really wide range. There’s that drop where the sentimental fairy tale just falls apart, the picturesque waltz like you said, and so on. Was it difficult to coordinate this when it’s so varying and dramatic?
Seori: This song was actually a lot of fun to write like “Really High” was, because when I set it up as a series of scenes like a movie, it sort of came together naturally like writing a story. So it wasn’t particularly difficult, and I just wrote it while imagining a particular scene.
HKP: So you’re saying because the background was already drawn to an extent, it was natural to follow that. Was this the first song where you followed that kind of strategy?
Seori: I think I subconsciously did that for most songs. Especially when I’m working on arrangement, once I’ve been inspired by a melody or a source and come up with a picture, the work becomes more interesting.
HKP: Aside from the intro track, this is the only track to be entirely in English. Why’s that?
Seori: I actually wrote and recorded both a Korean version and an English one, with the lyrics being a little different. We felt like the English version had a bit better flow so that was the one to get picked.
HKP: And please introduce “I Wanna Cry” as well.
Seori: “I Wanna Cry” reflects a lot of personal grief for me, and if you listen to it, I actually didn’t write explicitly about what I felt or about a specific message. I wanted the listener to reflect my sorrow against their own experience, to interpret it their way and in their context. I just focused on that emotion of hurting. So it’s a song that made me sad while making it, and even afterwards as I listened to the completed song.
HKP: In some sense it’s empathy without words, where the listener can empathize based on their experience despite, or maybe because of, the lack of detail.
HKP: As I listened I thought maybe this song talks about ‘escape’ the most directly, but as you said at the start, every track actually does a treatment of escape in its own way. That collision between wanting to escape and wanting to remain could apply to “Fairy Tale” too.
Seori: Yes. Oh, that’s right! When I wrote that it was just in the heat of the moment, so it’s exciting to have it tie together in a new way. I really like that just now.
HKP: I think it’s an interesting album that makes those interpretations possible. After hearing more about it, I feel like an EP might have been too short to contain all the stories and diversity on hand. What was it like selecting the songs to make the cut?
Seori: There were several other songs, but they couldn’t all come along. Some clashed against the theme or musical characteristics slightly and I excluded some tracks that were hard to pull together. So if I get the chance, I’d love to share those songs later too. Our teams are collaborating on creative projects through film and writing, rather than me doing it all on my own, so after some long discussions these were the six tracks that came out.
Beyond the Music: Companion Media
As aforementioned, one of the things that made Seori’s debut so intriguing was the ambition of the project. Two of ?depacse ohw’s singles were turned into artful music videos with quality production value and cryptic imagery. A full novella accompanied the album’s physical package, telling a well-realized, surrealist tale that seems to weave in and out of the album’s narrative and is brought to life in evocative illustrations. (The novella is also being episodically uploaded to Seori’s website each week.) A pop-up store called “Seori Station” opened in Seoul to coincide with release, offering experiential space including a recreation of the set from “Hairdryer”‘s music video. What motivated these ventures?
HKP: “Hairdryer” and “Running Through the Night” each had really visually striking music videos, and seem to be getting good reactions too.
Seori: If you just watch the pre-released “Hairdryer” you might wonder “What is that about?” But I think watching “Running Through the Night” helps with the interpretation a bit. We worked hard to make the two videos have one connected theme. Since ATISPAUS has creators in writing and painting and filmmaking as I mentioned, I think having the lore come together and having conversations as we worked on a shared topic was helpful.
HKP: Sounds like these different works were developed in tandem. Did the songs complete first and then the other pieces get worked on based on that? Or was everything developed at the same time?
Seori: The former. I think they were influenced a lot by “Running Through the Night”. So the other pieces were developed with a focus on that song.
HKP: You mentioned lore briefly. There’s a novella that was released alongside the album, and they seem to have strong direct ties. Some scenes in the novel resemble scenes from the music video as well. Was the whole album designed to be organically tied to the novel?
Seori: We put in a lot of effort to do unified worldbuilding, so that you wouldn’t feel a dissonance between the novel and videos. We also planned to have it come together like one piece of work, where the music or novel would fill in each other’s gaps. I didn’t write the text of the novel myself, but at ATISPAUS we have a writer, Seri. She wrote with a sense of affection for me so I’m always thankful and I find it fun to read.
HKP: The novel is fiction, of course, with a lot of surreal elements, but there are a lot of realistic and detailed depictions as well. It made me curious whether some elements of that story are based on your own story too. Like the protagonist’s thirst for making music, for example.
Seori: Not all of it is my story, but that desire towards music and a few things like that [are]. I’m kind of close with [Seri]. [Laughs] As we had a lot of conversations, I think she might have indirectly included some of those things I felt. I feel like the rest of it is setting up for the next story or the next step.
HKP: And I’ve heard that story will continue in the next album, too. You’ve already tried things like the novel and a pop-up store exhibition with this album; is there another medium you’d like to attempt next time?
Seori: I don’t know if it’ll be the next album, but even down the road, I have a personal wish to do an exhibition or campaign for charity. If the opportunity is there, I think maybe ATISPAUS might do a giving campaign with me as well.
The Future: What’s Next?
As the interview came to a close, we wanted to discuss what the future might hold for the budding musician.
HKP: Unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic struck right before your debut. After having prepared for so long, you might have felt let down or disappointed.
Seori: I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t disappointing after working hard to prepare. But more than anything I feel awful that it’s a painful time for everyone, and as we face restrictions due to social distancing, I’m hoping that my music could offer even a small comfort.
HKP: Will we be able to see new covers or SeoriTV content on social media, as before?
Seori: I’m actively engaging with social media now, and definitely planning things like videos to share not only my music but also about myself as a person, about Seori.
HKP: What kind of music would you like to do going forward? What’s a musical goal you’d like to achieve?
Seori: I want to become an artist who isn’t trapped in or tied to a genre and can share diverse musical colors. There’s a lot of music these days that can’t be easily classified into genres, after all. And with stories as well, I want to unpack even common topics from diverse perspectives.
HKP: Lastly, tell us your aspirations for future activities and career!
Seori: The thing I wish for and consider more important than anything is, since I’ve just gotten started, I want to grow more musically and I’m working to do that. I’ll put in the effort to show growth not only in musical terms but in diverse ways. I don’t want to stop at what I can already do or grow complacent. I’ll be diligent.
All photos in this article were provided by ATISPAUS. This interview was conducted in Korean and translated into English by the author; it has been lightly edited for conciseness and clarity.