After spending three years under K-pop behemoth YG Entertainment, it would be easy to misconstrue Katie Kim, known mononymously as KATIE, as a K-pop singer. But the 24-year-old Kim doesn’t wanted to be limited by any genre-specific tags just because she’s releasing music out of South Korea.
“I think the labeling part is so overly done that I don’t really want to put myself in the box,” she tells Billboard. To take herself out of that proverbial space, Kim left YG earlier this year to join the newly founded creative start-up AXIS, headed by former YG creative director SJ “SINXITY” Shin (Seong Jin Shin). Less than a month after the news broke of her switch, she released her first single “Remember,” a lush alt R&B track that revels in her warm vocals as she bemoans the regrets of a prior romance. A second song titled “Echo” was set to be released in August, but Kim recently confirmed its delay.
Though most new artists in Korea rarely get global attention for their first single, Kim is unique: After dropping out of Berklee College of Music because the “financial burden was getting bigger,” she decided to focus on her career as an artist and ultimately applied to participate in the South Korean reality competition show K-Pop Star 4. It was partially to get the round-trip ticket to the country she was born in but hadn’t visited since moving to the States as a young girl, but after months of showcasing her skills during the show, in April 2015, she came out on top and ended up signing with YG Entertainment, which at the time included 2NE1, Psy and BIGBANG on its roster.
But three years later, Kim had little to show for it — though she recently appeared on Bobby’s Love and Fall album — and eventually left to join AXIS in May, bringing the songs she had created while at YG with her. “It only made sense that I follow my main collaborator Sinxity — he’s the CEO of AXIS now — because we started everything together, the project, and we share the same vision.”
Bathed, literally, in liquid gold in the music video for “Remember,” released in June, Kim says that the luxurious imagery is intentional, meant as a nod to the extensive gap in her career, during which she trained at YG. “We wanted to put it out there that we took a long time to prepare and wanted to show something really high-quality, and I guess that’s the way we wanted to.”
Working with AXIS, Kim has more of a voice in her music than most young stars coming out of South Korea, and she definitely doesn’t want to be limited by any boundaries because of her geographic location. That’s one of the reasons she’s singing in English, which she also says is easier for her, Jersey girl that she is. “America’s my home, so I didn’t really want to be categorized as a K-pop artist. I just wanted to be an artist out there singing a song,” she explains. “And I really wanted to show that there is no boundaries to music, as if [because] I look like an Asian person I would be just categorized as [a] ‘K-pop artist.’”
Kim originally went to Berklee to study to become a jazz singer, but “fell in love so deep” with R&B and soul that she changed her career path. She cites Lalah and Donny Hathaway and Lauryn Hill as her biggest inspirations and generally is an aficionado of ‘90s and ‘00s R&B. She’s also a fan of Frank Ocean and Anderson .Paak, the latter of whom she says is “a pure genius.”
Growing up in the U.S., Kim never really had a role model to look up to in the music industry that represented her. So even though she started her career in South Korea partially to see where a TV show might get her, it turned into something more — an exploration of self.
“Growing up as Asian here, I never felt like I fit as an American. But when I went back to Korea, I also felt that I wasn’t Korean enough there,” she reflects. “I’ve always had these kind of troubles being in the society with people. I really have a heart for people without their own places and abandoned people in dark places. I would love to speak for them and have them relate to my songs. That would be the greatest thing.”