Cho Yong Pil: Meet the K-Pop Legend

A rare sit-down interview with the Korean pop legend, aka, the man who knocked PSY's "Gentleman" off the No. 1 spot

Cho Yong Pil’s Seoul office in the affluent Seocho-dong neighborhood is surprisingly neat and tidy given all that's inside. The room is packed with music scores and old notes that one imagines typifies the life of this K-pop legend. Cho Yong Pil, who usually avoids media interviews, sat down with Billboard to talk about his music and his many years in the business.

Cho Yong Pil -- whose 19th LP "Hello" and its singles have been conquering the charts of late -- was calm, collected and all smiles about his recent success. It wasn’t always this way though. He says he was in despair while putting this album together and changed the tracklist at least three times.

The resulting album is, nonetheless, packed with bright and spritely tracks. From the harmony pairing with rapper Verbal Jint on title track “Hello” (which peaked at No. 5 on the K-Pop Hot 100) to the refreshing, classic pop-rock beat of “Bounce” (a No. 1 hit that knocked PSY’s "Gentleman" from the top K-Pop spot, below). There's also the deep and thick tones of "I Wanted To Walk" and his clear and confident vocals in "When I Meet You" all coalesce to a coherent, exciting album.

EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS: Cho Yong Pil in the Studio

"Everyone keeps telling me that my music is youthful now," says the 63-year-old artist. "I didn’t intend to make my songs sound younger…I think it may come off that way because the younger generation really enjoys the music. I just sang along with the lyrics, melody and style."

This album sounds fresh as it represents the talent of the world's top composers, Cho believes. “I received more than 700 tracks from domestic and international composers," he explains. "I selected tracks that were trendy.  Six out of the ten tracks were written by foreign composers," making "Hello" the first LP the the singer-songwriter received tracks from foreign composers since 1968.

For "Hello" he collaborated with acclaimed rapper Verbal Jint. It originally featured an English rap, according to Cho. “But I decided to change it to Korean because I felt it would make the song more complete," he says. "Music never gets old. Anyone who dares to try out new things can easily digest it.”

The album went through two mixing and five mastering sessions in the best studios in Thailand, England and the States--including being mixed by Grammy-nominated music engineer Tony Maserati and the final mastering session mastering done by Grammy-nominated Sterling Sound and Chris Gehringer. The album’s co-producer, Park Yong Chan, adds, “He would go over and trim each song more than ten times. Even foreign producers were astonished at how meticulous and delicate he was with each song.”  

The time and attention to detail that Cho Yong Pil put into the disc certainly paid off.  The LP has become a social and sales phenomenon. On release day, lines formed outside music stores throughout Korea, overflowing with fans wanting to get their hands on his album. The record quickly sold over 100,000 copies and had to go into reproduction to meet demand.  Currently, the album has sold nearly 200,000 copies, making it one of South Korea’s best-selling albums of 2013.  

“I think the album is receiving a lot of attention because it’s my first in 10 long years,” remarks Cho. “I’m gratified that listeners and fans in every age group liked it.”

He continues, “I wanted to put out music, but I realized it would be difficult to follow the current trend. Nothing should be awkward.  I was largely influenced by European and American music. I’m not afraid of change. My Korean style and sentiment show through, because I am, first and foremost, a Korean.”

NEXT: International Crossover Potential & LP No. 20 

He cites this shift around album No. 12, "Sailing Sound," and 13, “The Dreams,” where he worked with American producer Tom Kin, reveal the vet's metamorphosis.

"If I had to choose an album that I feel like a foreigner can relate to the most, it would be my 12th or 13th albums,” he says. "My 12th LP clearly expresses the state of mind I was in -- which was just to focus on concerts. My transformation started then and it’s still going."

Due to his newest album’s success in Korea, Cho will be releasing it in Japan, under Universal Sigma--the same agency that houses mega girl group KARA.  He also has plans to release the album in various other Asian cities.

But does he have plans to crossover past Asia in the States or Europe?

“I can’t do anything until end of this year because of my nationwide tour,” he explains. “I did consider other Asian markets but didn’t go so far as thinking about Europe or America.  It would be nice to have that kind of opportunity, but it isn’t time to paint the big picture just yet."

Gaining momentum from the recent success, Cho already has started working on his next album. Regarding the inevitable high expectations of album No. 20, he said, "Why wouldn’t I be pressured?  Especially with the expectation that comes with it being my 20th album. The music has to come naturally in order for it to attract listeners.  If I were to force it, it will take away the essence from the core of the music.

EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS: Cho Yong Pil in the Studio

"It took me almost 10 years to release this record, it might take even longer for my next. Or it may not,” he adds with a laugh. “If a great song comes out while working on the album, then I’m going to release it without thinking about the time."

Our interview wound down as Cho began rehearsing for an upcoming concert at Seoul’s near 15,000-seat capacity Olympic Park Gymnastic Stadium.

In his studio, he begins singing in his bright and resonant voice that can make one forget about time passing or where one should be next. He practices at least three times a week to sustain those youthful, piercing vocals. Snapping back to reality, when we express our astonishment that he can perform for two straight hours without any break, he replies laughing: “I just don’t know where that kind of passion comes from.”