K-pop star Sunmi has spent more than a decade thriving in the spotlight, and now she’s doing it on her own terms as one of the Korean music world’s most prominent young divas.
Getting her start in girl group Wonder Girls in 2007, she went on to become one of the industry’s most beloved young stars as the group saw hit after hit in the late ‘00s, leading to their becoming the first K-pop act to ever debut a song on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2009, with the English version of their 2008 hit “Nobody.” Throughout the years, she’s vacillated between being a soloist and a member of the group; she left the act in 2010, released her first solo song in 2013, and then rejoined the team in 2015. After Wonder Girls broke up in 2017, she found her footing again as one of K-pop’s most intriguing young ingenues. With the release of her third solo single “Gashina” in 2017, she reinvented her identity as one of K-pop’s most invigorating stars, blending witty lyricism with theatrical musicality and showmanship, and followed it up with several other singles, which were all compiled on last year’s Warning album.
Sunmi recently returned with her single “Noir,” which takes on social media, blustering in a dramatic music video as a clout-chaser trying to show off her best life to the camera even while dealing with the stresses that follows putting one’s life out in the open in front of the Internet. The song fronted her Warning world tour, through which she met up with fans throughout North America and Asia.
Switching between Korean and English, Sunmi sat down with Billboard ahead of the last show of her Stateside leg of the tour at the Lincoln Theater in Washington, D.C., on March 18 to discuss her career, her music and more.
How do you feel about completing your U.S. tour?
It’s been really amazing as it’s my first world tour. I didn’t really expect that crowd. It’s all sold-out so I was really surprised. Even though I’m a female solo artist, I can have my own show in the States. I really appreciate that. I was surprised that fans were different from those in Korea. In Korea, the audience is all, ‘Sunmi, Sunmi!’ While here in the States, they’re like, “WAH!” They look really free to enjoy with enthusiasm. Compared to the boy groups… They have massive scale when they come here, but I think my fans that I see are quite incredible and I’m really proud.
You just released your new song “Noir.” What made you want to releases a song like this?
I was inspired by social media. Twitter, Instagram. “Noir” is a genre of movies, and I think social media is the noir for this generation. I’m a celebrity, and entertainers– we always want to get attention from audiences. I think that, [since] I’m the one taking this on [it] is so ironic.
The music video didn’t necessarily put social media in a positive light. Has your relationship with social media been largely negative?
I acted with exaggeration, but I thought it was cute. I didn’t want to be too direct because noir is a genre that can be uncomfortable, but I wanted to represent it in a way that makes it my thing, that isn’t necessarily negative but dramatic.
You engage a lot on social media with fans, on Twitter in particular, both in Korean and English. Do you think that’s important for stars nowadays?
Definitely. Twitter is really big, but in Korea people are more focused on Instagram. But fans exist on Twitter where they can interact. I think Twitter is a place where you can express yourself more freely.
You’re one of South Korea’s most popular soloists but you got your start in the Wonder Girls, who also spent some time in the U.S. How have things changed?
I can’t believe it. At the time, there was no section of K-pop on Billboard.
It’s partially because of the groundwork laid by you and Wonder Girls.
We started the column in 2013.
Oh, really? Well, in general the approach towards K-pop has changed a lot, it wasn’t well known. I was an opener [with Wonder Girls] for the Jonas Brothers, but now I’m having my solo concert.
What do you think has changed?
The number of people I see in the audience is different.
What sort of message did you want to share with listeners through last year’s Warning album?
The message that I wanted to deliver was to give everyone an individual warning to learn about themselves, about what’s coming, about who they are. I don’t really know my character. I often go up and down, I’m unpredictable. When I was young, I thought that I was limited, but then when I started producing myself I realized, “Oh, I can do this this way.” There were so many more ways to express myself. For example, in my “Gashina” music video, I showed my middle finger. But when I was in an idol group, I couldn’t express myself this way. Now, I can express myself more freely.
You often lean into retro elements for your songs and music videos. Why does the past appeal so much to you?
J.Y. Park, my producer in the Wonder Girls, when we were young, he would give us songs to listen to that we may not have been familiar with. Personally, I like music from the ‘70s, ’80s, and ‘90s, so I try to find instrumentals and sounds that evoke those periods and work them into my music.
Do you like wordplay? You have a lot in your lyrics.
Yes, I really like it. Nowadays, when a movie, show, or new music comes out, people really like to dissect it and analyze it, try to find the real meaning behind it. So I wanted to give fans a few more opportunities to find a deeper meaning of the songs, I feel like they really like that.
Is that how you come up with your dramatic music videos as well?
I prefer using symbolism instead of being direct.
Now that you’ve released “Noir” and are almost finished with your tour, what’s next?
I am working on my album and preparing new music. When I release an album, there isn’t anything I don’t put my hands on. I literally go from music videos to finding sources to creating the album. For this album, I preferred being a bit distant from the audience but still show who I am. Rather than make the music easy to understand, I want to show my true colors and make people understand me. When I’m creating music, I try to balance my preference with the audience’s preference, to meet in in between my needs as an artist and theirs as listeners. Through that process, I want to show more colors of myself, I want to see how people think of me. It’s going to be interesting.