Lisa has described her ability to quickly pick up complex choreography as a kind of superpower. But for an artist who grew up in Thailand, trained for pop stardom in South Korea and now performs for fans from all over, she says pairing the music with the visuals is just the best way to express herself and tell her story.
"People might not understand what the lyrics are, but listening to the beat and seeing the dance, they can feel the vibe and have that connection," a hoodie-clad Lisa says over Zoom one evening from a Seoul recording studio. (She does the interview mostly in English, with occasional asides in Korean and Thai to a pair of translators sitting just outside of frame.) It’s a few days before the project’s release, and Lisa is animated, quick with one-liners and happy to laugh at herself -- but mostly just excited to share another side with the fans who have stuck with the group for five years. Says Lisa: “It's a good opportunity for me to finally let the world know, ‘This is who I am.’”
Below, she tells Billboard about stepping up her rap skills, unlocking a new level of confidence and what goes into her eye-popping dance routines.
How did you end up choosing these songs for your solo debut?
I heard “Money” first and told Teddy, “Oh my God, Teddy oppa, I have to do this song, I want this to be my solo song.” And he was like, “OK, let’s do it!” And then we heard [an early version of] “Lalisa,” but the hook was another thing. Teddy had the idea to put my name in the hook. At first I was like, “Whaaa… I think it’s kind of weird to keep repeating my name. How’s it going to sound?” And then we tried it, and it came out so cool. I really like it.
So you knew these were the songs right away?
Yeah, I was like [pretending to hug the songs] “Ugh, these have to be mine, I can't give these to anyone."
It’s funny to hear that, because Rosé described having the opposite experience — she said it took her a while to land on her solo songs.
My sense is fairly specific. He put on a few [other] demos and I was like, meh. But when I heard “Money" and “Lalisa," I was like, “These ones!”
Did you always want to lean more into hip-hop in your solo music?
Yeah. When I dance to hip-hop, it’s like, “This is me.” I really like the “Pretty Savage” dance [from Blackpink’s The Album] — it’s very me. It’s hard, but it’s fun to do.
What conversations did you have about the message of these songs and the lyrical content?
I don't write lyrics, but Teddy always asks me: “Do you have anything you want to deliver to the fans? What's the vibe you want to do?” I told him that in “Lalisa,” I wanted to put some Thai vibes in it, and he actually put some Thai traditional music into the dance break. This is my first solo, and I want to represent that I'm Thai to all the fans around the world.
I know it’s mostly in Korean and English, but I couldn’t quite tell when I first heard it — are there any lyrics in Thai in there?
No, no, just the sounds. But there's a part in Korean where I say, “I came to Korea from Thailand, and I went for the throat." That's the part where the Thai element is in.
I don’t know if everybody listening to the project knows the story of your name. I read that Lalisa is something you changed your name to after visiting a fortune teller when you were younger. Is that true?
[Laughs.] Well, my mom took me there and asked me! We made an audition for YG [Entertainment, Blackpink’s label/management company], but YG didn't contact us back. We really wanted to get it. So the fortune teller said, “You should change your name.” [In Thai culture, changing one’s name, including doing so for good luck, is not uncommon.] The week after I changed my name, YG called me back and said, “You should come [be a trainee].” I was like, “Wow!”
It’s very funny, weeks ago, one of the camera men asked me, “What is Lalisa?” I was like, "It's my name!" People don't really know that Lalisa is my real name, because they just know me as Lisa from Blackpink. So I'm really happy that I get to do this project with the title Lalisa.
In last year’s Netflix documentary, Blackpink: Light Up the Sky, you do a lot of your interviews in Thai, which is such a beautiful language. It made me want to hear a rap verse from you in Thai.
Ohhh! Thai fans are gonna love that. [Laughs.]
On “Lalisa” you experiment with a couple different flows, including some of your hardest and fastest raps to date. What was it like recording that second verse in particular?
At first, when I heard the rap [on the demo], I was like, “Oh my God, I don’t think I can do this. I’m Thai -- how can I rap in English that fast?” And Teddy was like, “No, you can!” I practiced for an hour, and after that I went in to record. I pushed myself very hard to complete it.
Who are some of the rappers who have most influenced you or shaped you as an artist?
I don’t really have a set taste, because I appreciate all different kinds of music, and when I was a trainee I got to practice a lot of different styles of rap and hip-hop. All of that mixed together is what makes me me.
The reason I was asking was because the part on “Lalisa” where you spell your name -- "L-A-L-I-S-Aaaaaaay" -- felt like a nod to Nicki Minaj, who loves an extended vowel.
[Laughs.] Oh, it kind of sounds like that! That was Teddy's idea. At first it was going to go up [ascending in pitch], like L-A-L-I-S-Aaaaaeeeee. But we just didn't do that.
Dancing and choreography are such a huge part of what you do, and Blackpink dance routines are so complicated—
I think so! The "How You Like That" choreography video is so impressive -- the chorus sections are different, hardly any dance moves get repeated. How long does it take you to learn a routine like that?
Before I take the lesson, I have to watch the [demo] video several times, like for an hour, just to memorize the picture, the story. After that, when I take the class, I have to put every movement into a story. There's some muscle memory, but I have to get into the mindset of, "OK, this movement has to connect with this movement so it becomes a story."
And that process takes, what, days? Weeks?
No, just like two or three hours.
But the first day I learn, I'm just like [mind-blown gesture]. So I have to rest and sleep for the night, and after that, I remember everything and have memorized everything.
You've been dancing since you were really young, and you clearly love it — you film all sorts of dance videos outside of Blackpink on your Lilifilm YouTube channel. What kind of outlet does dance provide for you?
I feel like dancing doesn’t require much thinking from me. My body moves on its own, and I don’t really get stressed about what’s coming next -- I just let my body move to the music. And that’s just me. So dancing is what I communicate through, instead of words. And I feel like dancing is my best friend. [Laughs.]
Blackpink’s music obviously connects with people all over, but I wonder if touring and performing around the world has taught you anything about the way dance transcends language barriers.
Yeah, dance is kind of a universal language for me too. Take Latin music, for example — you may not understand what the artists are saying, but you feel that energy. Even with my music, people might not understand what the lyrics are, but listening to the beat and seeing the dance, they can feel the vibe and have that connection.
I keep thinking about how when you started as a YG trainee, you didn't speak any Korean and didn't know anybody, which must have been hard. I wonder if dance class was where you could acclimate, in a way, because you didn’t have to play catch-up there?
[Nodding.] When I first learned dance in Korea, the only thing I knew [were the counts]: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. And the teacher didn't tell me more! I just danced and followed along.
You record with Blackpink primarily in Korean and English, but the group also records alternate Japanese versions that often have new, English-language versions of your Korean raps. Do the songs feel different from language to language?
Yeah, totally, totally different vibe. When I sing “Ddu-du Ddu-du” in Korean, it's very cool and swaggy. But when I switch to Japanese, it feels more [playful]. We try our best to make it perfect. When I go to Japan and have to sing in Japanese, sometimes I sing the Korean [parts accidentally] and I'm like, "Oh no!" But it's not only me -- other members do it too! [Laughs.]
Your bandmates and collaborators describe you as a constant source of positivity and energy — in Light Up the Sky, Teddy says you always have an “‘It’s gonna be OK, we’re all good’ smile” on your face. But what about days when you aren’t feeling it? How do you turn the mood around?
I want to make sure every day is happy and joyful, and I want to make sure everyone around me feels the same way. If I start to have negative thoughts, I regroup and think: “OK, what should we do about this? Let’s solve it like this and move on.” I try to make sure every day is like that so I can stay in a positive mood. Life is short!
I was curious about the small things that help -- the music or the snacks or whatever else you turn to in order to cheer yourself up.
Oh, well, I have my cats! When I feel down, I just kiss my cats. And my cats are like, "Ugh, I don't want a kiss, don't pet me!" That makes me feel better.
Between Light Up the Sky and this year’s Blackpink: The Movie, released in celebration of the group’s fifth anniversary, you've been reflecting a lot on your life before and after debuting with Blackpink. What goes through your mind when you see footage of yourself as a trainee?
Whenever I see those videos, I just get reminded of what I was feeling at the time, and obviously I’m reminded of how hard I worked to get where I am now. Back then, when I was a trainee and preparing all that, I did it with this mindset of, “I can't debut unless I work really really hard.” So when I look back on those videos, I remember those feelings and those thoughts. I get reminded: That's how far I've come, and I shouldn't forget that determination I was feeling at the time. I remind myself of that every day.
What do you think you’ve learned from making Lalisa that you’ll bring back to your work with the group?
The number one thing is the confidence I learned throughout the whole process of preparing my solo. When I’m with the other members, we rely on each other a lot. There's a lot of things I learned during my solo prep that include things like leadership -- I have to make all these decisions on my own. I hope I can carry this back into the group when we promote together.
We’ve now heard solo music from you, Rosé and Jennie. What's one thing you'd like to see Jisoo do on her upcoming solo release?
[Laughs.] I want to see Jisoo sing EDM. I think it might suit her, right? What do you think?
That cover of Zedd's "Clarity" that she did on tour a few years ago was really lovely.
I'm gonna call her today: "Unnie, please do EDM!"
But we know she likes alternative music, and she also had a bit of a rap moment on "Pretty Savage" that was fun and unexpected.
I know, I know! We always tease her: "Jisoo the rapper!"
Before we go, I have to ask you about the "Did it work?" meme you inspired.
You know it?
Dolly Parton tweeted it, how could I not! What is it like watching that blow up on the internet?
At first I was like, "Is that... my legs?" [Laughs.] I think the fans are very creative. It was so fun to watch it. I'm glad that they were happy. And my legs became popular, so thank you!
You can travel the world and play arenas, but once you're an Internet meme? That’s when you know you've made it.
It’s because of my fans! Blinks are amazing.