Sunmi began her music career with the Wonder Girls, JYP Entertainment’s five-member girl group which debuted in 2007 with the track “Irony,” and quickly turned its follow-up hits like “Tell Me” and “Nobody” into national anthems. Two years into the group’s career, the Wonder Girls became the first K-pop group to enter the Billboard Hot 100 with its ear-grabbing single “Nobody,” which peaked at No. 76.
With the group’s ever-growing fame, Sunmi was a superstar in Korea as a teenager, which gave her a rare experience of going to numerous countries and gaining knowledge about the United States music industry. Soon after, she decided to develop her own sound as a solo artist, and with the support of JYP producer JY Park, a much more potent Sunmi was introduced to the world. After the release of “24 Hours” and “Full Moon,” Sunmi exhibited her charms as a solo act while promoting the Wonder Girls’ self-written single, “Why So Lonely,” which was also the final song before the members decided to leave the safety of JYP.
This is when Sunmi’s demeanor began to change. The Sunmi that emerged would dance freely, roll around on the floor and make rude hand gestures, with an attitude that had never been previously showcased. She also had personally written, composed, and produced her own music for the first time, melding her past self and new openness into one identity.
As she prepares a solo world tour, the 26-year-old Sunmi opens up about her 12-year career, past successes and future plans.
How do you feel with your upcoming first world tour?
I’m planning to hold shows starting with North America, Europe, South America and Asia. I’ve always dreamed about it, but didn’t have the opportunity [until now]. It’s the same as if [my] dream has now become a reality. It made me think that the things you tell yourself maybe do come true (laughs).
Are there any performances you prepared exclusively for the tour?
There are performances from the B-side tracks that my Korean fans haven’t been able to see, and there are also performances where we completely switched up. I think people will be able to see various aspects of the central theme and foundation of the show.
You said that a surprise new song that will be released with the start of your world tour.
The title of the song is “Noir.” In French it means, “black, depressing, and ominous.” I was curious how ‘noir’ applies in our everyday lives that we live in right now. They say there are more and more deaths each year due to people taking pictures and videos in dangerous places in order for more ‘likes’ and ‘subscribers.’ To me, that’s ‘noir’. Although noir is a genre of movies, I didn’t want to define that word in one category. I wanted to show that issues mentioned above could also be considered noir.
Each release had a very distinct aspect. In order to get there, was there anything specific that you found important in the process?
Too much of my own colors were included in them (laughs). I’m someone that makes music for the general public, so I believe I shouldn’t distance myself from them. I’m the type to think about popular appeal a lot. I believe at the end of the day the criteria behind ‘popular appeal’ is how much people can relate. When I make music, I question myself a lot about the song ? like, is it too hard to understand or have I gone too far? Thankfully many people meet me halfway and they give me ideas, which I think is the reason why it tends to work out in the end.
There are a lot of 80s sounds in your music. Why the 80s?
Producer JY Park gave us homework as soon as we arrived in the U.S.: “If you guys are going to do music in the U.S., then don’t you think you should know about the American music industry?” With that he gave us 200 songs from Motown artists. He told us to listen to each song and write down what we felt and turn it in. It was music I heard for the first time. At that time I was 17 or 18 years old (laughs). That’s how I was able to experience various genres from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and even the 60’s. “Nobody” is a song inspired by the 1960’s.
Which 1980s artist left the biggest impression on you?
Prince! “Purple Rain” and “When Doves Cry.” I was listening to these two songs and his voice just pierced my ears. Other artists were doing very soulful music with some rhythm. Of course so was Prince, but something felt different. His music was unique, and his music videos were unique, too. Even the song titles were unique. So it was interesting. Although he is no longer with us, he has inspired me in so many ways.
Is the current K-pop market very different from 10 years ago?
First off Billboard Korea was established. A K-pop section was started on Billboard. Doesn’t that say it all? The status of K-pop then versus now? As social media became bigger, people began to naturally talk about K-pop more, and video views started to increase. K-pop became a culture of its own.
What direction do you think K-pop should go in?
Most musical genres and experiments have been done all over the world. Amongst all of that, if you need to find a defining factor in K-pop, I think the starting point would be in videos. Korean groups like BTS, Black Pink, and Twice all have very high views. I think our very own visual identification is starting to have an appeal of its own. Of course musical aspects are very important too, but I believe visual elements are undeniably important, too.
You are truly standing on your own right now. Is it different from when you were in Wonder Girls?
The biggest difference is the production process. I have to be involved with everything. It’s also lonely. When promoting with a group, one person may have the spotlight which mean another person isn’t in it. At times like that you can rest for a little and let your expression relax as well, but when performing as a soloist the camera is always on me. The biggest difference is how much I have to immerse myself in that 3, 4-minute time frame.
How was the process of “finding your own color”?
I didn’t know who I was because I had started promoting when I was very young. I was running at full speed at a time when I didn’t even know what I was good at. So I started to “fan girl” over myself. I dug deep and I was able to organize my thoughts with one key word: “freedom.” I can cringe, I can cry, I can get angry, I can curse. Freedom to express all of these feelings. The reason I choose to use cuts when I don’t even look pretty in it, is because “that’s how I felt at that moment with that music.” I adamantly ask that they use it. If you watch my music video you’ll see I get hit with tissue and fall over and stuff. In “Siren” I come out quite horrifying. (laughs)
I feel like you must have felt fear when you decided to go solo. What made you move forward?
I had belief and confirmation in myself. I knew what I had to do at the next stage. I’m the type that needs to end what I started, so you could say my confidence comes from that personality trait. I believe this is also a result of my confidence over myself. Once I knew myself very well it started to all flow forward.
What color would you say expresses Sunmi?
Purple. Purple is made by mixing red and blue – It’s a color that is neutral while being unaware where the color may run off to. The color purple is a mix between popular appeal and my own identity.
Is there a musical goal that you have?
It’s my dream to establish a Sunmi genre where people hear my song and think, “It’s Sunmi music!” It’s a longtime dream I want to achieve that I still have to this day. That my music is in the same category as rock, a category called Sunmi. Sunmi style. I want to become a person that inspires.