It’s been two years since the Korean soul pop singer Lee Hi released her Seoulite album, but the 21-year-old has been keeping busy working on new music. Signed to one of the biggest Korean labels YG Entertainment, Lee spent much of her last year exploring her sound and collaborating with the likes of Gallant and Epik High.
“I feel that I recently released my album but I realized that it was actually a long time ago,” Lee (born Lee Ha-yi) tells Billboard ahead of her performance at SXSW’s Korea Spotlight showcase on Friday, March 16.
Ever since releasing her first single, “1, 2, 3, 4” back in 2012, the soloist has proven to be one of the most talented young vocalists in the Korean music scene, with a career adjacent to that of the K-pop industry but not necessarily a part of it. Unlike other K-pop idol counterparts who are typically trained and shaped by entertainment labels for years, Lee released her “1, 2, 3, 4” shortly after appearing on a star search program, K-Pop Star, and was able to showcase her musicality to the Korean public prior to signing with YG, home to the likes of BIGBANG and Blackpink.
With her distinctly deep vocals and a strong sense of self, Lee’s soulful artistry has helped distinguish her from the K-pop masses and resulted in numerous hits, including “Breathe” and “Rose.” Each of Lee’s albums have appeared on the World Albums chart.
But while a success, Lee’s dedication to her individualized brand of pop has resulted in a more staidly-paced career than is typical of her similarly aged peers in the Korean music industry. She hasn’t released any new singles since her 2016 album Seoulite, and the most prominent song she released was her collaboration “Here Come The Regrets” off of Epik High’s We’ve Done Something Wonderful album last year. She returned back into the spotlight in January through a touching performance of “Breathe” during an award show as homage to the songwriter, SHINee’s Jonghyun, after he passed in December.
A new album is in the works, but the Korean singer admits that it’s been tough growing into her sound: “It hasn’t been so long since I’ve felt comfortable working on my music.” Working with close acquaintances Code Kunst and MRSHLL, the former of whom DJed on stage for Lee at SXSW while the latter sat in on the interview, has helped her enjoy the creative experience more.
Taking into account K-pop’s international fame is something that weighs heavily on the singer, who says that she recognizes Korean music’s global rise means that she can’t only think of local listeners. “My album will be playing all over the world so I need to work a little harder than I have in the past, so that my music can resonate with as many people globally as possible,” Lee explains, citing her performance at SXSW and the recent Japanese release of “Breathe” as examples of how she’s already attempting to approach different audiences.
But though she recognizes the attention that K-pop stars have brought to Korea’s music scene, Lee isn’t quick to call herself one. A determined soloist who laughed at the idea of ever wanting to be in a girl group, the young diva expresses mild disdain towards being lumped into the singularity of “K-pop.” “I’m happy and understand why people call us ‘K-pop stars,’ but there are so many different genres in Korea… I don’t think it’s necessary to call us ‘K-pop artists,’ but rather ‘Korean singer’ might be a more suitable term.”
The new album, whenever it’s out, is not yet complete; Lee is still looking for more music to make it more “beautiful.” As the LP will be her first released in her 20s, she is approaching her sound more broadly than in the past.
“Every time I release an album, I try to touch on as many genres as possible, and kind of focused on retro pop,” says the star. “But now I’m trying to make music based on what I like listening to, what really moves me.” When prompted, Lee mentions R&B as something she’s listening to a lot lately. Will her new album bear that influence? “Maybe,” she offers with a smile.
The “Korean singer” says the album will be coming out “hopefully this year.”