At the turn of the year 2021, no one expected that the “Rookie of the Year” on the year-end Billboard K-Pop 100 would go to a male solo artist. Major entertainment companies had introduced brand-new bands such as aespa, ENHYPEN, Treasure and STAYC at the end of 2020 and most of us had our attention on them. To our surprise, a young male singer showed that he was not an ordinary rookie singer by setting the record for most No. 1 appearances on the Billboard K-Pop 100 in 2021. This up-and-coming star singer is Lee Mujin, who was the runner-up in Sing Again, JTBC’s music competition show.
Sing Again is a rebirth talent show for unknown singers, including those who have released popular original soundtracks and singers who have been short-lived and have been forgotten, to be given a second chance to “sing again.” Among the contestants, Lee Mujin, or Singer No. 63 (the rules of the program did not allow singers’ names to be revealed) was captivating for the viewers. Lee was a 21-year-old art college student and the only professional experience he had was singing original soundtrack “Walk” for the webtoon Goyang Voice, For the very first competition, he sang “No One” released in 1988 by Han Young Ae, also known as the mother of Korean Blues. When he sang the very first verse with “hello,” all the judges were in awe. Super Junior’s Kuhyun commented that “Lee nailed the performance with that very first word,” which resonated with the listeners. Lee Mujin’s “No One” debuted at No. 91 on the Billboard K-Pop 100 dated Dec. 12, 2020, and peaked at No. 53. It was the very first Sing Again song to chart and remain on the chart for two months. For the other songs he sang, he was acclaimed by the judges as “he is a precious singer,” “he’s got the modern yet classic vibe” and “his voice is as soulful as the ’70s singer Al Green.”
Since the show ended in February 2021, he has been flaunting his talent more than ever. He sang for the original soundtrack of a popular TV series Hospital Playlist and Now, We Are Breaking Up. He also worked with other musicians by singing “Scent of the day” for the producer Cho Kyu-man’s soundtrack project [Refresh 21] and “Fall in Fall” for VIBE’s 20th-anniversary project. In the midst of a busy schedule, he didn’t forget to write and release his own music and continued to prove his talent as a singer-songwriter. So far, he has released two singles — “Traffic Light” and “The Assignment Song” — as well as the most recent collaboration “When It Snows” with Heize as a featured artist. Then, suddenly, his “Traffic Light” released back in May made it to the top of the Billboard K-Pop 100 on Sept. 11 by replacing AKMU and IU’s “Nakka,” which had been leading the chart for four consecutive weeks. On top of that, it managed to keep its No. 1 spot for eight weeks in a row despite the release of “Next Level” and “Savage” by the popular girl group aespa. The song became the longest No. 1 on the Billboard K-Pop 100.
Below is Billboard Korea’s interview with Rookie of the Year Lee Mujin:
Your “Traffic Light” was very popular this year. Did you have any idea this was going to happen?
Actually, I liked “The Assignment Song” better, so I was surprised to find that “Traffic Light” was more well-received. I studied applied music in school but I have always been interested in popular music as well. I had an opportunity to analyze the Korean music industry and what kind of music people demand, and based on my analysis, I had expected that it would take some time for people to get used to “Traffic Light.” I mean, brass is not very common in many songs these days. But I was wrong and people didn’t find the song that unusual. I’m really thankful for that.
It’s definitely not easy for a new artist to make No. 1 on a chart. How do you feel about it?
I’m not really big on associating numbers and music but I have to admit that they still mean something important. The numbers show me how much my music is loved and that makes me truly happy. But I sure will not stop here. I’m still hungry for more.
You debuted with such huge success. Does that give you pressure when you write songs?
To be honest, it doesn’t. Whether my songs lead the charts or not, I just enjoy the process of making music and having people enjoy listening to them. The only thing I’m looking forward to and perhaps a little nervous about is the day I have my own concert to sing only the songs written by me. “What if I don’t sing well’ and “I can’t wait for that day” are two things on my mind. I like the fact that my songs exist in this world. For me, that’s more important than having my songs heard by many people. I don’t want to be phased out. I want to sing for as long as I can.
What kind of accomplishment would make you feel satisfied?
I think I’d be more satisfied to have my songs remain in people’s memory for a long time than achieving certain numerical goals like how many people listen to my song, how long my song stays atop or how much money I make off royalties.
Another notable success of “Traffic Light” is that it was loved by all generations. It was also one of the most popular requests on many radio shows. You must have gotten all kinds of responses through all this. How do you take people’s feedback?
Comments from professors or experts definitely are helpful because there are things that can be missed when you listen just for fun. But when it comes to feedback from the general public, whether they are positive or not, I don’t let that affect me too much because it’s just their taste of music. It’s totally up to them to enjoy the song or not. Yang Hee Eun once said, “A song only belongs to a singer until it’s complete and presented to people.”
You’ve always said in interviews that you want to make “music that is easy to listen to.” What kind of music is that for you?
I guess it’s not very easy to define since everyone has a different taste. For me, it’s not about genre. It’s the kind of music that you can play or sing with comfort. You can see such comfort in heavy metal music too. In my opinion, Jason Mraz and Stevie Wonder are musicians with the ability to do all kinds of genres who still look very comfortable doing any kind of music.
Based on your songs released so far, one can say all your music has an interesting story.
Melodies can get old, but stories never die. I spend more time on stories as they are very important in any song. My music is a gateway to my emotions. I like to tell untold stories and express my thoughts in my songs. I thought I have quite some experience in love to write about it in a song, but it’s not easy. I might be just avoiding it because there are already too many songs about love. Oh, but actually “When It Snows” released in early December is about love.
Anything you have experienced recently that you want to write about?
I want to make a song about “aftershocks.” They could be smaller vibrations of the ground you feel before the main shock or the aftermath of the earthquake in a different region. I’m not sure when it will be released but I’m working on something like this.
Have you thought about singing a song written by another musician?
I wanted to get a song from AKMU’s Lee Chan Hyuk. I used to write casual and cute songs, but I felt the kind of music he writes is out of my league. Also, there’s a Japanese duo called Yorushika. They are mostly active online and their videos get billions of views. One is a vocalist and the other one is a composer and I’d like to get a song from the composer.
On Sing Again you describe yourself as “a singer like the yellow traffic light” because the way it only lights up for three seconds but tries its best, for every chance it gets resembles you. Now that you have more opportunities to perform, how would you describe yourself?
There’s no other way to describe me than “I’m Lee Mujin.” This is how I wanted to introduce myself on the show but because of the rules, I couldn’t.
Why did you choose Sing Again among so many audition shows?
I just wanted to be ready before I present myself to the world. That was the show when I felt I was ready and I decided to take the opportunity to prove myself.
You seem to be more excited with the guitar in your hands. Do you feel better when you sing with the guitar?
Not necessarily. I do feel more ready to sing when I strap on my guitar. It’s more fun too. But recently, I’ve lost my interest in playing the instrument. I’m starting to feel like it’s taken for granted and some people even assume that I can’t sing without one.
During the shoot, I noticed you have “I am Lee Mujin” engraved on your guitar.
On Sing Again, I had a guitar from a maker called Dame. I had taken on a part-time job to save money and bought that guitar for my college admission test. They are usually for beginners. I found out that the same model was sold out after the show and the company contacted to thank me and gave it to me as a present.
When did you first start playing the guitar?
I think I was in 5th or 6th grade. I took a class at a local community center, but they never gave me a guitar. You would expect to see the instrument when you sign up for a piano or drum lesson. So I got home pretty upset and my father gave me his old guitar to learn with.
Your father must have some kind of musical influence on you then?
When I was in elementary school TVXQ and Big Bang were the two major K-pop acts of the time. But my father would be playing in his car Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or the classics of Kim Hyun-sik. Naturally, I was exposed to diverse music and that’s how I developed interest in music, I think.
Whether it’s the liberating style when he plays his guitar or the rhythmical groove in his performances, the list of reasons so many people fell in love with Lee Mujin is endless – or in Korean, “Mugoogmujin,” also the name of his fan club. However, it’s inarguably his voice that instantly captivates the listener’s heart as he can easily mesmerize with the first verse of “Hello.” When Lee covered ‘‘Whistle”(1988) by Lee Moon Sae, singer and producer You Heeyeol gave him the highest praise by saying “While the song poses its original vibe, it sounds like it belongs to Singer No.63. It’s a song by the current generation. Whatever he sings, he will be able to make it his style.” Throughout the competition, everyone across generations couldn’t get enough of Lee as he provided the older audience a chance to reminisce and the younger with a new and exciting take on old songs.
I would say your voice was one of the key factors in your success at Sing Again. Do you consider yourself a born or made vocalist?
I worked really hard on my vocals. I was really bad at singing. I listened to a lot of music and studied each singer’s interpretation and style. I did countless covers for practice and put in so much time perfecting them. There were times I got tired at studying the theories but it didn’t stop me from training and finding my own tone. I think this is how I became more comfortable with any genre I sing. I don’t necessarily have a dynamic vocal range, but I think I’m good at details.
It’s quite interesting that you are in your 20s but you mostly covered songs from the ’70s and ’80s. What’s on your typical playlist?
I listen extensively including songs with their copyrights expired (copyright to a song is expired 70 years after the song is released) and the ones that are just released. As long as they are easy to listen to, I enjoy all kinds of genre.
You’ve been part of many concerts following the show Sing Again. What was your first concert like?
The reason I wanted to be a singer is to sing on a stage and interact with my fans. That’s how important communication is to me. I used to pay for a small underground space to perform or just volunteer to sing. So it’s been fantastic being able to perform on much bigger stages. Eventually, I really want to sing at 88 Jandi Madang where Jason Mraz had his concert a couple years ago. He’s one of my favorite artists and I was very inspired by him. Watching him on that stage made me think I also want to be up there. I’m sure I’ll get a chance in the future.
If you hadn’t become a singer, what would you be doing now?
I once considered becoming a music therapist. Singers generally interact with people who listen to their music but music therapists on the other hand, interact with a very specific group of people. I thought that was something that could make me happy.
It’s almost like you debuted this year. What would you say is the most critical moment in your life that made this possible?
It’d have to be when I first received a compliment for singing a folk song. It was during my music class in elementary school. We were supposed to sing this folk song as a class. Everyone shied away and I ended up finishing the entire song with the teacher. He told me I had a good voice and I should consider singing, including folk songs. [Laughs] Since then, I really got into music because it was the first thing that anyone told me I was good at. Then, there is when I got into Seoul Institute of the Arts to major in Applied Music – on the second try. This was the moment that helped me not give up on music. And finally, I’d have to say that every moment is critical for my career. One thing I’m thankful to myself for is the fact that I’m constantly thinking about what kind of music I want to make. This is what drives me.
How would you define the year 2021?
For me, this year has been a wonderful beginning of my career in music and I wish to continue on that journey. And I’ll be able to find out how everything turns out down the road. The true judge of yourself is not the public but only the “future” you. If there are no regrets, that must mean I didn’t do so bad.
“I’m Lee Mujin.”
“The only thing I’m looking forward to and perhaps a little nervous about is the day I have my own concert to sing only the songs written by me.”
“One thing I’m thankful to myself is the fact that I’m constantly thinking about what kind of music I want to make”
“My music is gateway to my emotions. I like to tell untold stories and express my thoughts in my songs.”