An Interview with Sunwoojunga: On “Serenade”, Self-Discovery, and Artistry
Sunwoojunga is among Korea’s most prolific and acclaimed pop musicians today. Since winning two Korean Music Awards with her breakout sophomore album It’s Okay, Dear (2013), the singer-songwriter with a jazz background has released a steady stream of celebrated solo work spanning multiple genres while also participating in numerous collaborative projects and soundtracks. She is also known to K-pop fans as the producer behind 2NE1’s “It Hurts (Slow)”, HyunA’s “Morning Glory”, IU’s “Jam Jam”, and many other works by some of the scene’s biggest stars.
On December 12, 2019, Sunwoojunga released Serenade, her third full-length album and the culmination of a series of EPs from the past year in Stand and Stunning.
Recently, Hellokpop had the chance to chat with the artist about Serenade and its creative journey, her side projects, international listeners, and more. This is Sunwoojunga’s first interview to be published in English; it has been translated from the original interview conducted in Korean.
Hellokpop (HKP): Great to meet you. Could you introduce yourself for Hellokpop readers?
Sunwoojunga (SWJA): Hello, nice to meet you! I’m Sunwoojunga, making music in Korea.
HKP: You’ve been so active in many areas since It’s Okay, Dear in 2013, but it’s been quite a while since a full-length album. When and how did you begin conceiving of Serenade?
SWJA: I think it was right after 2019 began. Though of course I had many ideas about the third album come and go even before that. As for dividing it into three releases and the overall atmosphere, I began to plan that in earnest as I made “Sam Sam” around January 2019.
HKP: What made you decide to release the album in a trilogy? Your 2016 EP, 4×4, was also released track by track each week. Any relation there?
SWJA: There’s somewhat of a relation. I was able to plan out this idea of a trilogy because I had experience doing that serial release. My music has diverse styles and atmospheres, so I’ve long had a wish to do a categorical release in parts. That was the first reason, and the second is the same reason that I had trouble making the third album. I get influenced by the rapid changes in our world and the music industry, so what I wanted to do kept changing as well. As I made “Sam Sam” I did get this strange assurance, that this would be the beginning of the third album, but it was still difficult to come up with the overall blueprint. I think it was even harder because it had been so long since a full-length album. So, I came up with the idea to reflect the changes I would go through en route to the full album, just as they came. That’s to say that I didn’t set off with a destination in mind. The reason why it’s in three parts rather than some other number is, I didn’t want it to go on for longer than a year and it felt like dividing a year into three would feel about right and it was the third album so the number three felt good and… all that, heh.
HKP: It’s got large volume at 16 tracks and was released over several months, so I imagine the production process must have been unusual too. How was that experience?
SWJA: It feels like I’ve recorded all of my 2019 into music with nothing left out. I had to release every three months, so every process that goes into a release, even apart from the music production, was very hardcore too. Still, it was really meaningful. Because I was able to pour my whole heart into this full-length album process that I had been thirsty for. I got to be on a few variety shows unexpectedly so it was really, honestly, very difficult but… haha. But my mind was entirely on the album.
HKP: The new songs added with Serenade feel a bit more loosened up overall than the two EPs from earlier. Were you aiming for a more relaxed sound?
SWJA: Very accurate! During the process of completing the album, the end became clearer. I set a goal to loosen up and do that well, and I tried hard to achieve that. It must have worked well…. success!!
HKP: The first track “Interview” has this sense of untangling a deep inner burden, one that’s hard to even express in words. Looking at the lyric “To put my whole story into a short moment”, it seems applicable to the very act of a musician expressing herself through music too.
SWJA: Right. But I thought more about life itself. We have things we want to express but we mostly have to contain them within the limitations of words. Even with family or a lover, or with a really comfortable and close friend, you can’t be totally free from limitations. I tried to express this difficulty that arises because we are social beings, using this more concrete subject of an interview.
HKP: In “Run With Me”, the intimate but passionate and desperately beseeching lyrics remind me of “Eternity” (2018). But it’s interesting that it’s “Let’s run away (together)” rather than “Don’t leave me” this time. Kind of like a love song that’s also offering comfort.
SWJA: I’m very very glad that you described exactly what I felt. Both “Run With Me” and “Eternity” bear similar marks of that energy, of that yearning kind of love that I tend to unpack. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of one object as I wrote the two songs, but there is one person who came to mind when they were first created. So maybe that’s why, haha.
HKP: “Serenade” has a peculiar accompaniment. The drum echoes and bass ringing out really give off some night vibes. Did you arrange the track based on a particular inspiration or experience?
SWJA: I am really fond of that musical style that’s slow and consistent, and so very tender and careful, the one where as the musician expressing it you have to maintain a gluey and pleasant tension. I think so much of the scent of night went into it because it’s a song that I started making on a night full of stray thoughts, imagining beloved friends, writing it as if to pray. I wanted to make a song that’s like a fairy, who’s floating through the air on a slow beat and helping make people’s nights be a bit more peaceful.
HKP: Both “Interview” and “Serenade” progress softly but have parts where synthetic notes come in and change up the mood. The chorus of “Sooni (I’m Your Fanatic Girl)” (2016) did something similar as well. It seems like you enjoy using electronic elements in order to give songs a twist?
SWJA: It is a twist, and also a development. It’s a method I like and use often to escalate the sound and emotion. There’s a complete acoustic side and an analog-based electronic side to my sound at all times. It’s actually a bit more of a challenge to write a song using just one of the two.
HKP: “SHUTTHEFXXKUP” starts with some strong language from the first line, but you sing it in such a bouncy way. There’s something refreshing about the message too, and I feel like you must have had a lot of fun working on this one.
SWJA: It felt like a swearing therapy session. Band members did the chorus with me, and it was so, so much fun to stand in a circle around the mic and look at each other’s faces and sing out swear words as we tried not to laugh. We often feel camaraderie and joy with our friends as we exchange some fresh swears right? You all do that too right..? So I sang the swearing lyrics with that kind of feel. Of course the overall point of the song is to satirize a world that has too many words being spoken and written, but it’s not like it’s some profound satire and I wanted it to not feel heavy, so I made it a fun track.
HKP: Listening to the full album in order, “Superhero” seems like a turning point of sorts. Even back in Stand this was the most memorable track because the melody was so defiant and the arrangement so intense, and many of the tracks that now follow it are large-scale and dramatic. Was this part of the intention in putting the new tracks up front and ending the album with tracks from Stunning?
SWJA: Yes. Although I didn’t really think of “Superhero” becoming a turning point. I thought mostly about the overall feel within the chunks of this album that were released as EPs. Stand, which contained “Superhero”, has a defiant kind of feel to it. It had a lot of experimental sound and the emotions were sharp-edged. A lot of tension. Stunning, which came after, has more of a matured emotion with the edges retracted and stronger on the inside. The new tracks released last are very much at ease. But the emotions there are more fragile than peaceful. So that’s why it’s ordered the way it is. The fragile and easy new tracks, then Stand which tries hard to look strong, then Stunning which caresses that anxiety and embraces it to move on. I also wanted the final track to be “Classic” no matter what.
HKP: “Fall Fall Fall” is a soul track with dense atmosphere, the only one of its kind on the album. The black gospel-style chorus vocals were striking, and I noticed that you performed those yourself. Has gospel music been an area of interest for you as well?
SWJA: As you study popular music, you often cover jazz and gospel on the way. At least that was the environment in Korea when I was studying. Still you can just let it pass by if it doesn’t speak to you, but I really love classic genres like those. I’m not so interested as to really delve into them, but I very much welcome the opportunity to experience them through vocals or arrangement. I don’t think I’m particularly fit to express gospel as a vocalist, but I still like it so I tried stacking the chorus as if to mimic it.
HKP: “to Zero” could have been a difficult song structurally, but then again the melody and lyrical expressions almost seem like a folk song and sound intuitive. How did this track come to be?
SWJA: Every song is different, but when I write songs I usually think of the music and some core lyrics at the same time to form a little theme. But for this song, I just wrote down the lyrics like a poem and then attached the music onto them. So you might notice that the beat and measure counts don’t work out in an exact way. Composing mostly begins with this immediate desire to record an emotion felt in some moment, but for this song I didn’t want to change a single word. I felt like it was completely recorded, just the way it was. So that’s why I ended up putting the music in later. Since the structure of the song was already unconventional, I could be even more flexible in the arrangement. I usually restrain myself a lot when putting on the finishing touches, but for this one song, I got to pour out and expand the emotion to my heart’s content so I was happy.
HKP: In the liner notes of Stand, you mentioned that “a person who is no longer okay but insists that they are okay” is a preview of what the third album’s story would be. This third album seems to have many pieces that are about a disparity between outside appearance and what’s on the inside, about contradictions. Stuff like the characters of “Serenade” who all carry scars, a birthday where you find it difficult to even accept the well wishes (“My Birthday Song”), things that are precious but cannot be seen (“Invisible Treasure”). There’s even a line where you sing “What you see is not all there is” (“SHUTTHEFXXKUP”). I’m curious if that’s an intentional theme.
SWJA: I think that’s probably right. Before I thought of the title Serenade for this album, among the other titles I considered included Small Size and See, My Place Is Just a Little Dish. I’m someone who normally does a lot of self-repentance and self-criticism and that’s where a lot of my creative energy comes out of, and the last few years have been even more complicated. It was a time in my life that was ripe for feeling all kinds of disconnects. Back when I was making the second album, I was okay with not being okay. I really felt like everything would end up okay, and my discontents and sorrows felt like ingredients that would help me become okay. But at some point, it became the opposite. I looked okay from the outside, and I was in a situation that looked like I should be okay, even to people close to me, but I really wasn’t okay at all. I had gained some material comfort, and that let me do more things than before, but this stuff didn’t feel like it was fully mine and like it could collapse at any moment. Because the third album was made in a time when I was feeling like that, I think the way it came out was more inevitable than intentional.
HKP: On the other hand, album-closing “Classic” just exudes this ease and confidence and swagger. In some sense, it’s the song that’s furthest removed from the air of anxiety and self-doubt that characterized much of It’s Okay, Dear. Would it be an overstatement to say that it’s the track that best captures the Sunwoojunga of today?
SWJA: I think this probably connects to the previous question. The anxious and self-deprecating emotion of the second album was actually freeing. Because I would feel that stuff, but I could say “It’s okay”. But “Classic”, which I made in the opposite state of mind, was a huge contradiction for me. The process of deciding to include that song and actually making it was almost like some kind of ritual. I had to summon out things like my sense of self-worth which had gone into hiding, the baseless cheeriness I had while making the second album, the brazenness to tell myself that I’m doing okay no matter what anybody says. I can make any song, if I can just make it and be done with it. But I would have to sing this and express it with my body, and I felt like I couldn’t do that, so that’s why it took so much struggle as to call it a ritual. How could I do it in a way that doesn’t feel like a forced act, and what would be the coolness that I could express without becoming someone else? As intense as this time was, I’m satisfied by the end result. So at this point I can agree that it’s the song that represents me the best today. Not just because it’s a cool song, but because it’s the song where I diligently discovered my own ‘swag’ that I can readily express. And also because of the genuine courage I gained after I put this song out into the world.
HKP: What are your thoughts on the finished product of Serenade? Was there anything that you wanted to show or try but didn’t get to?
SWJA: Of course every piece of work has minor lingering wishes, like I could have sang that better, or what if I chose differently on that arrangement. But thinking about the album as a whole, I have no regrets at all. I think it was made just right for me, nothing less, nothing more.
HKP: You’ve recently held a solo concert to coincide with the album’s release. Tell us a bit about how that went.
SWJA: I’d been making and releasing the third album since the start of 2019, and I got to close out the year with the solo concert, so afterwards I felt all of my 2019 washing over at the same time. But it’s more of a “this is just the beginning”, rather than “it’s over”. Because the concert was the real completion of the album, and I’m feeling my shortcomings as much as my growths. Thanks to that concert I’ve gained a reason to work even harder performing the songs from this album.
HKP: You’ve also consistently released music that is quite different from your core work. There were the jazz album with Yeom Shin-hye [Riano Poom, 2014] and ‘MoJungChae’ activities [with Mothervibes and Echae Kang], for example, and the After My Death movie soundtrack from last year was also very refreshing. I’m curious if your creative process changes when you work on such different styles.
SWJA: Yes, completely different. It’s like I’m this filter that remains the same, but the ingredients that enter the filter and the bowl that they go into after passing through the filter are different. So after I do diverse activities like those, the filter gets a huge upgrade. As long as I have time and I can reach an agreement with the company, my philosophy is to do as many of these diverse musical activities as I can.
HKP: Through songs like “Springgirls” and “Classic”, you’ve proven your chops at writing danceable tracks as well. Could we continue to look forward to such styles?
SWJA: I absolutely love dance songs, but like I answered earlier, the songs that I’m going to sing need to be songs that I can handle. “Handle” here has a lot of different parts to it and I have to keep a dispassionate standard. I guess I’ll have to write them if they come out of me, but I probably won’t release all of them into the world. Or, and this has a very low chance of happening, I become someone capable of handling danceable tracks… a very unlikely story.. Oh, I don’t mean to say that I can’t do dance songs because of visuals or stamina. Physical aspects are only a part of the reason.
HKP: Over the years you have produced for a diverse range of artists from indie to idol. Is there anyone you’d particularly like to work with?
SWJA: Producing other artists is so exciting and something that helps me greatly as a musician, but one thing I’ve felt as I’ve gained experience is that I’m best at producing for myself and it fits me the best. Of course I’ll gladly work if I figure I can handle it, but I don’t really get the feeling of wanting to produce someone else unprompted.
HKP: What was the most memorable collaboration or production you participated in recently?
SWJA: At the Seoul Forest Jazz Festival last autumn, I got to do a special collaborative performance with jazz pianist Meari Nam and the beat&fx-maker and performer Sowall. It’s still super cool no matter how much I think about it, so I think of that a lot. I have a lingering wish to leave some record of that collaborative work that will probably stick for a while.
HKP: After releases like “Springgirls” or the “Cat” collaboration with IU, it feels like your name recognition has increased overseas as well. Those songs have been popular on platforms like YouTube and Spotify, and in various communities it’s not uncommon to see K-pop listeners with broad interests who are aware of and enjoy your music. What has been your assessment?
SWJA: I’m fascinated when I see big feedback from time to time, but even for me I learn about songs and musicians from around the world (who aren’t even that active) through ways I never would have imagined, so I’m just feeling like it must be natural. I actually haven’t gotten to see too much of it, maybe because I don’t actively go out searching.
HKP: What do you feel is an element of your music that international listeners could find attractive as well?
SWJA: I think my most distinctive and strongest trait is that I’m musically flexible. The fact that I can flexibly apply my tools – like my voice and the methods I use in arrangement now – to express energies in many different shapes, I think that might radiate attractiveness more abroad where the language isn’t shared.
HKP: In a similar vein, which song(s) would you recommend to international listeners as an introduction to your music?
SWJA: “Baepsae”, “Workaholic”, “Cat”, “Eternity”, “Sam Sam”, “Classic”.. did I pick too many? Haha. They’re all very different styles and you’ll never be bored, so please be sure to check them out, everyone!
HKP: You’ve not only released the Serenade trilogy this year, but you’ve also been busy with other activities including live performances, broadcast work, and more. What was the most memorable experience from 2019?
SWJA: The moment when I decided to finalize “Classic” in the form that it was released. It was such an enormous struggle, like I expressed earlier as a ritual, and it was a really big experience to discover myself step by step within those colossal decisions.
HKP: What are your goals for 2020?
SWJA: I’ve released the third album, so now it’s time to work hard putting it out there! I’m planning to get on stage and sing these songs for people in as many different ways as possible.
HKP: Lastly, please tell us anything else that you’d like to say!
SWJA: Everyone who is reading these words, I wish I can meet you all in person one day! I hope the coming year will have more peaceful nights for you!
Read more on our coverage of Sunwoojunga’s work: It’s Okay, Dear (2013 In Review); Riano Poom (with Yeom Shin-hye) (2015 In Review); 순이 (Sooni (I’m Your Fanatic Girl)) (2016 In Review);백년해로 (Eternity) (2018 In Review); Stand (album review)