Ailee (Amy Lee), the Korean-American singer who charmed the K-pop industry with her vocal prowess and countless breakup anthems, was the homecoming queen at KCON USA (presented by Toyota) this past Friday.
Born in Colorado and raised in the Garden State, Ailee moved to South Korea in 2010 to pursue her career as a singer. After going viral in 2011 following a jaw-dropping performance of Beyoncé’s “Halo,” Ailee formally launched her career in 2012. Her debut song, the emotive “Heaven,” peaked at No. 3 on the K-pop Hot 100. Soaring vocals and sonic versatility enabled her to rise to the top of the industry, with jazzy break-up anthem “U&I” giving Ailee her first No. 1 in 2013. Empowering dance numbers like “I Will Show You” and “Don’t Touch Me” and the introspective R&B ballad “Singing Got Better” cemented Ailee’s position as one of K-pop’s top divas.
Hours ahead of her taking the stage at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, Ailee entered the interview room with an ensemble befitting of a top star, with thigh-high glossy boots that added inches to her small frame, a Chrome Hearts-inspired manicure, and above all, an ever-present warm smile. The effervescent singer sat down with Billboard to discuss her aspirations, which female musicians inspire her, and her special homecoming performance.
Welcome back to Jersey!
Yes, I’m so excited to be home home. I’m home!
You’ve lived in Korea since 2010 so what do you think is the difference between this scene here and the music scene over there?
Oh, wow. Well, actually I don’t know what it’s like for the music scene in the States yet! [Laughs] I have yet to find out, actually, so hopefully…
Any aspirations in that area?
Right now… I’m just hoping that I’ll find out about the music industry over here.
You’ve shown your strong side on powerful songs like “I Will Show You” and your softer side on “Heaven“. Are there any dimensions of your personality that you’d like to show fans and non-fans alike through your music?
Oh man. So I’ve done a lot of diva-like performance songs. I want to do, cause I’m very bubbly too, I wanna do the bubbly cutesy stuff. But it doesn’t fit me. I don’t know! They say “don’t do that, don’t do that.” But I would like to try to do the cutesy stuff that girl groups do. They look so cute doing it. You know what I’m talking about, right? We’ll see, we’ll see. I think I’m done with uniforms after Dream High. [I’m] too old for that now, almost thirty.
There’s generally the assumption that K-pop artists don’t have much control over their concepts and their music. What are some of the major decisions that you’ve made through your career?
I was very lucky with that because I have a lot of say in the creative part of my album. My company is really good at — oh my gosh, all this Korean is making me forget my English — compromising on decisions together. We make our decisions together. Most of the things that I do and most of the stuff that comes out I’m pretty much 100% on board with. They always ask my opinion on everything too.
What do you think is the most important decision you’ve made thus far?
I feel like that’s hard to say because every album is an important decision. So, um, oh man. That’s hard. I feel like the hardest decision I had to make was my last album, for Vivid, for the title track [“Mind Your Own Business“] and the sub-title tracks in the album. It was really difficult for me to choose what kind of songs would actually make it on the album and what songs to cut. That was hard because all of them were really good.
A lot of recent American songs deal with the theme of female empowerment. What songs make you feel empowered? What do you do that makes you feel empowered?
There are so many! I hate questions like these because I have to pick one. Y’all make me choose and stuff? Definitely Beyoncé songs. All Beyoncé songs. They’re very empowering. And also I pick Rihanna and Alicia Keys. And Beyoncé! For the top three artists that I respect that do music for female empowerment. They get me going. All the time. And, um, the things I do that are empowering? I don’t know… I guess, when I’m making music, that’s when I feel the most powerful, the most free. I get to express who I am through my music so I guess that’s when I feel the most confident.
How big of a role do you have while you’re creating the music?
Well, when I’m writing my own stuff I do everything on my own. When I’m working with other producers or other writers, I’m not too hard headed. I’m very open minded when doing creative stuff.
It’s been almost a year since you came out with Vivid last September. What have you been working on?
It feels like not too long ago. Maybe because my toe healed up not too long ago. [Ailee was injured while filming a music video in 2015.]
How is your leg doing?
It’s good. I’m dancing today. Hopefully I don’t break anything on stage.
Please don’t break a leg.
I was actually working on my next album while working on my Vivid album, because, you know, I had a lot of time to sit around and work on it! I have a lot of music that I don’t even put out because…I don’t know. It’s just something that I save for maybe even later or I don’t want to put it out anymore. I’m always constantly working on music. So whenever I meet the right song and the right time I guess that’s when my next album’s coming out.
Social media’s popular among K-pop stars and, unfortunately, haters are closer to artists now more than ever. How do you cope with negativity?
Oh, I’ve been blessed, like really blessed, with the fact that I don’t really get a lot of negative comments on my social media or anything like that. I’m really blessed and thankful for that. It means I’m doing something right! [Laughs] I don’t mean to sound cocky or anything but I’m really grateful that a lot of people try to see me in a positive light. I do that to other people so I feel like that kind of reflects…
Giving out the positive energy?
Yes! My English is mumbo jumbo right now.
You’ve been active for several years and have carved out quite the place for yourself in the industry. As a senior which new artist or rookie groups are you looking forward to?
Oh, I’m a senior now?
Okay, I’m a middle-aged K-pop artist now. [Laughs] I love Mamamoo. They’re very talented vocally and performance-wise, so I definitely have a look out and am a huge fan of them. And my baby brothers Seventeen are very talented. I’m always proud of them. I’m glad that I’m here with them this evening and I’m excited to watch them perform too.
You’ve known them since pre-debut?
Yes, we trained together for a brief moment.
And, finally, do you have a few words for your American fans?
I hope to actually see them more often. Hopefully I’ll be able to perform here a lot more often after this event and thank you for all the support.