South Korean electro-pop singer Cifika was in the midst of a five week tour of the United States when she took the stage at The Belmont on March 16 as part of the South By Southwest Korea Spotlight showcase. On her first-ever tour, the 27-year-old had come a long way from making music with nothing but a laptop while living in California.
Born Cho Yousun, Cifika is a rising electronica artist in her native country, but doesn’t really feel it. “I’m a Cali girl,” she said, after explaining that her stage name is derived from Pacifica near San Jose, where she learned basic music theory. Having spent a decade living in California, the artist first started making music just over two years ago with her computer, right as she headed back to Korea after finishing school in the States.
“I moved to Korea without knowing anyone in the music industry or even a single producer,” she recalled. “I just went there and I just got connected with really cool producers and singers, vocalists, writers, and I dunno — it happened really instantly.”
Much about Cifika and her career has happened swiftly. She decided to learn how to create music and, inspired by Flume, Washed Out, James Blake and Bjork, she picked up her computer and began producing electronic music. Just a handful of years later, she’s released two EPs and become a rising star in South Korea’s tiny electronic scene.
Cifika weaves atmospheric electro-pop with touches of R&B and techno with seamless ease. The draw of electronica for Cifika is its ephemeral nature, which reminds her of feelings, which are similarly invisible.
“Electronic music can only be performed with electronic devices, and I think I really am into that idea to being virtual — not real but actual real,” she said. “Like your emotions are real. But you get emotional change if you listen to electronic music.”
But though she focuses on the lack of tangibility in her music, Cifika also places special emphasis on what her audience will see, whether it’s on stage, where she often wears avant garde costuming and incorporates bright sets, or her music videos. “When I make music, I visualize the image of my music first because I have a graphic design background,” she explained. “So when we execute ideas, I talk a lot with my visual directors, my stylists, my makeup artists, my producers. We’re all art directors, together.”
Cifika’s seen a lot of interest internationally, but the electronic music scene in Seoul is pretty Spartan. “It’s not a thing yet,” she said bluntly. But she’s trying to make it a thing, and is increasingly gaining prominence in South Korea’s music industry. While her albums are all about Cifika and don’t feature any other artists, collaborations are important to her as a learning experience and something she wants to keep focusing on. Earlier this year, she released “MOMOM” with Oh Hyuk of popular indie band Hyukoh.
“I never would have thought to think like [Oh Hyuk] or any other artists I’ve collaborated with, so it gives me new energy,” she said. If I meet new people, new artists, I get new energy that comes flowing from them and I try to absorb and accept that as a circular thing, and then I take that into my music.”
There’s a sense of intimacy in Cifika’s music, which build soundscapres from her layered vocals and hypnotic beats. Though she works with another producer, all of her songs are based on her thoughts and experiences, and her latest EP Prism serves as a look at the last two years of her life with tracks like “Pieta” putting her hardships under the microscope.
“It’s about the sorrow in your heart when you realize that everything feels like destiny but you can’t change your destiny,” she revealed. “But you keep trying hard to break that future to make a better life and route. After releasing [Intelligentsia] I was having a really hard time on the economic side. As a musician I felt that I had failed because not a lot of listeners knew me and I didn’t have a lot of gigs to show my songs to the audience so I felt really bad. I felt that I was broken. That’s why I wrote ‘Pieta.’ It’s weird because after ‘Pieta’ everything’s going really well. It’s like my lucky charm song.”
Whether it’s luck or hard work, it seems to be working for Cifika. Her record label Third Culture Kids decided to send her to the States this year for a tour after the release of her second album, one of the largest Stateside tours ever held by a Korean artist. “The United States is very special to me because I got a lot of inspirations here,” she said. “It was the first place I learned how to make music. I always wanted to come back and perform in my own language, so I just decided to do it.”
With Korean music’s international presence on the rise, Cifika is very aware that she’s not part of the prominent K-pop industry, and she’s totally fine with that. Intent on keeping it that way, even. “K-pop is not my thing. I respect [K-Pop artists], and I do listen to some tracks. But I want to pursue something deeper and different. Something that’s really new because K-pop is very pop in nature. Everything’s perfect. It’s produced by a 100 of different producers, just one track. I want to do everything, I want to control everything — my visuals, my music, my lyrics, my melodies. I want to do everything.”