Since surprising South Korea with her mature tone during the first-ever season of the talent competition K-Pop Star in 2011, 19-year-old Lee Hi has been captivating listeners with a variety of solo songs and collaborative efforts. Balancing her sultry vocals with a retro style, Lee Hi’s three-year hiatus as a soloist ended last month with the first half of her Seoulite album. She released the second half Tuesday, featuring the single “My Star,” a funky midtempo love song. Seoulite is Lee’s first album since 2013’s First Love and is a modern exploration of youth through a throwback lens.
Billboard spoke to Lee Hi about Seoulite before she released the second half of the album, and she discussed her creative process and the three years she spent preparing for the album.
You released the first half of Seoulite last month and are only now releasing the full album. How are the two parts separate from one another, aside from release dates? Do they express different emotions, musical style, etc.?
“Breathe” and “My Star” have a different sound and vibe. While “Breathe” is a ballad, “My Star” is a song that best represents who I am, or what people think of me. Regarding my half and full album, you can see the difference displayed even in the artwork. The sun is up high in Seoulite’s half album but in the full album, you see the sun set. The true meaning of my album lies in this imagery. it’s only complete when we combine the “half” and “full” album, but we must not forget that there is a significant difference between the two pieces.
Seoulite comes three years after your first album, First Love. You participated in some other YG Entertainment projects [BOM&HI, Hi Suhyun, etc.] What were you doing during that time to prepare for the album?
I didn’t receive official trainee lessons prior to my debut, which happened at a very young age. Throughout the break, I had a lot of time to prepare as an artist, so in many ways it was meaningful. It was an important phase for me to mature musically, rather than put effort into something particular.
With such a large gap, there must be some major differences stylistically between the two albums. How do you think Seoulite shows your maturity as an artist in comparison to your debut album?
I wanted to show my fans, who had been waiting for all this time, that I have developed as an artist. That’s why I built a focus towards coming up with a high quality piece of work. It led me to take an active part in the details such as the artwork, production, etc. I also took part in the overall directing. While working on this album, I had the chance to advance musically by working with great musicians like Teddy, Kush, DJ Tukutz, Lydia Paek etc.
While First Love was produced by your label, YG Entertainment, Seoulite was produced by HIGHRND [YG Entertainment’s subsidiary indie label headed by Epik High]. How was the process different?
HIGHGRND is a subsidiary of YG Entertainment, so there wasn’t a big difference in the whole process. While working with co-producers Tablo and DJ Tukutz, I had the chance to express my opinion and record various genres of music in an open atmosphere. Due to the reasons above, I had a blast working at HIGHGRND. If I ever get another chance, I would love to work with this amazing label again.
“My Star” is a throwback to the ‘50s in many ways, both visually and audibly. What was it like formulating the concept for the song and video?
Since “My Star” is very retro, I tried to express a variety of set and stage costumes to fit in with that specific era. We put a lot of thought into hairstyles and imagery. Personally, I’m a big fan of retro, so choosing the ‘50s look was a great pleasure for me.
“Breathe” and “Hold My Hand” were a bit more modern than your previous singles, but “My Star” fits well into the popularity of retro we’ve seen surging in Korea lately. You’ve always incorporated old school sounds, but why do you think nostalgia is so popular in K-pop right now?
Modern music is all good but music from the past seems more delicate. These days, the music industry is fast evolving and so this may be the reason as to why people have nostalgia for music from the past. It’s quite ironic. I also like listening to music from when I was young, especially pop, old school, retro etc. and this may be the reason as to why this fits in well with the music that I do today
There were quite a lot of collaborations put into this release. “Up All Night” features Tablo while “Video” features iKON’s Bobby, and you filmed “My Star” with One [Jung Jaewon]. What was it like working with each artist?
It was a pleasant experience. It’s always a pleasure working with such talented artists. Besides working with Bobby for my new song “Video” in this full album, in the past he also featured in my collaboration project “HI SUHYUN.” Whenever I hear his rap, I am filled with so much energy and so working with him is always a good feeling. Tablo is an artist that I had always admired. His lyrics are so full of emotion and I thank him for making the song “Up All Night.” As to One, he featured in my music video as the male lead role. Next time, I would like to feature in one of his songs or vice versa. He’s an outstanding artist and I would like to interact musically. I hope that there are many more chances to work with a wide variety of artists.
On Seoulite, you took an active role in the creation process and you’re credited as a producer alongside Tablo and DJ Tukutz [of Epik High]. What does that mean for you as an artist?
Seoulite is special in many ways. It feels like I had much more of a sense of responsibility. I was able to create this album thanks to Tablo and DJ Tukutz but since this was the first time I put my name up as a producer, I prepared in a much more enthusiastic and cautious manner. With all the efforts above, I am very satisfied with the results, which also leads to a deeper affection for this album.
You co-composed “Passing By.” What does the song mean to you? Are there any other songs that you particularly connect with on the album?
At the age of 16, it was my first time ever composing and writing lyrics for a song. “Passing By” was finished with the help of [producer] Kang Uk Jin. I felt a little shy and there are things I still need to develop, but this song was made with the emotions of writing in a diary, so you can catch my inner feelings here. I hope that many listeners sympathize with this song. I also believe that this song was a good starting point for writing my own music.
Picking a favorite is difficult. My songs are the results of hard work. When all the songs included in the full album are put together, it’s wonderful. I truly value each and every song on the track list. I hope that my listeners show interest in all my songs and not just the title song.
For the first half of the album, you released two very different songs and music videos, including the 8-bit video for “Hold My Hand.” What different styles can we expect from the rest of the album?
“Breathe,” written by SHINee’s Jonghyun, was of a completely different style than the songs that I used to sing. It was a ballad, so I was really up for a new challenge. The lyrics were based upon words of comfort to those in need. We also decided to present people who are living in Seoul, who have their own hardships in the music video.
“Hold My Hand” has a retro feel, which I really like. If you listen carefully to the lyrics, it’s all about wanting one’s lover to hold out their hand after a breakup or fight. I also took a role in the music video.
The songs from the first half did really well on Korean charts. How did you feel when “Breathe” hit number one on the charts? Are you concerned about the expectations to continuously do well?
I was worried about making a comeback after such a long time but I was deeply touched by the fans and listeners who had been waiting for my music. As always, I feel nervous before the album is released, not so much pressure-wise but more because of the excitement.
Can you explain the meaning of the album title? it’s been a popular word in Korean music lately (ie. Neon Bunny also recently released an album by the name.)
Korea is an amazing country. I grew up here and there are great places and people who produce music. I liked living and working with these people in Seoul. It’s because of this that I decided to name the album Seoulite. To be able to work with great people in such a great place, I wanted to share this whole experience.
Were there any funny or memorable occurrences during the making of the album or filming of the music videos?
I had a blast every moment of the way, both creating the album and shooting the music videos. All three videos were made with different directors and had there own distinction. My most memorable moment was when we had to shoot around areas of Seoul. It was freezing cold during winter but I had to put on a light shirt throughout the shoot. It was tough but we managed to keep the laughter going.
You have a very distinct musical style amidst the world of K-pop. Why do you think your songs continue to resonate with listeners?
Just like K-pop has it’s own distinct style, I also have my own musical style, and that’s probably what the public is drawn to. If I chose to sing a song that did not fit my character and style, then listeners wouldn’t feel this same way.
What would you like listeners to take away from the album?
These days, there are countless number of albums and songs released all in one day. In addition, artists tend to release online singles so the possibility of listening to the whole album declines. This is the reason why I focus my efforts on the whole album, so that listeners could listen to the compilation of music without picking out just a few tracks that they like. I hope you all listen and see how much I’ve improved.
What’s next for you, Lee Hi soloist, and next for you, Lee Hi collaborator?
As a solo artist, I will keep challenging myself with music, and especially hope to progress toward producing my own music. As to Lee Hi the collaborator, I hope I come across new opportunities in the future to work with new and diverse artists. Whenever I collaborate with other musicians, it’s always a good feeling and learning experience.