Like many who can’t stand the anticipation, Girls’ Generation’s Tiffany waited until eight episodes of Game of Thrones’ latest season were out before sitting down to watch them on her day off.
“I can’t sleep after each episode so I waited until now. I’m on [episode] 6, so I’ll be caught up today,” the 26-year-old starlet told Billboard, discussing her plans for her first day off since the release of her long-awaited solo album, I Just Wanna Dance, last month. The K-pop star had been busy over the past six weeks: she not only released a chart-topping album and follow-up track, but also held her first solo concert.
Calling from Seoul, South Korea, Tiffany took the time out of her binge-watching to discuss what it was like to pursue her own path after rising to fame as an integral member of one of the most iconic K-pop girl groups of all time.
How have you been feeling since I Just Wanna Dance came out last month?
It’s been a whirlwind. I’ve been working every single day since and before [the album was released]. I had fun. I’m happy. I’m relieved. I mean, it’s always the first time that’s scary or that gets to you. I think I’m just excited that this is just the beginning of more music.
And you also recently released your follow-up track, “Heartbreak Hotel” featuring rapper Simon Dominic.
So “Heartbreak Hotel” was originally supposed to be on the album, but due to circumstances that I did not know [Laughs], I had to push the release a little later. But it all worked out for the best, because it came out exactly on the same day as my concert, so it was kind of like a gift to my fans.
I Just Wanna Dance and the title track did well on several Billboard charts and was received well in South Korea. What was your reaction to the warm response?
I still can’t believe it, because being in Girls’ Generation for the past nine, 10 years, it took so much for the group [to reach that point]. I know how much it took and takes. And to chart as a solo artist is still kind of surreal. Very, very exciting and kind of fun all at the same time.
It was the first time you worked on your own album since you debuted in 2007, right?
Yes, It’s the first official solo album. I’ve always been working on music and I’ve been writing since 2014, but this was the first time I released something official. I think the real exciting part about becoming a solo artist is that you get to really decide on what your new sound and what your new message will be. I got to choose the music and what it was going to be about.
The album was quite divergent stylistically from what we expect from Girls’ Generation. What was it like exploring a new, retro-tinged sound?
I think that’s what a lot of people, even my label, was saying. But this is the music that I have been listening to and what I grew up with. That American pop sound is definitely an extension of what I wanted to create from Girls’ Generation. Even in the American pop scene, there’s a lot of throwback going on, and I’ve been pretty influenced by the music trends right now. But I’m heavily influenced by the ’90s. When we went through the meetings about what my sound was going to be about, my company [SM Entertainment] brought this song “I Just Wanna Dance” over and said, “What about something like this?” And I thought it was still very up to date and current. But I think I just really wanted to experiment with what I could do. And my company is still trying to, I guess, figure out exactly what I want. And we’re just working at it.
Fans have been calling your new style of music “passion pop.” Was that what you were hoping for?
I think it’s exciting that fans can immediately pick up on what my music is about and what I’m leaning towards, that they get to actually feel it. That was kind of the biggest goal of this album: that when I do create a performance or video, it’s not just going to be about a lot of pretty outfits and lights, a lot of teenage stuff; it’s going to have a lot more emotions and depth.
How did the other members of Girls’ Generation react to your new sound on the album?
They said they’re surprised yet it still feels so natural, and I think that’s the biggest compliment. I didn’t want to sound or feel out of place. I wanted this whole transition to be super smooth and natural. Like, “Oh yeah, we knew there was this side of her” or “We knew she was going to create something like this.” I’m pretty sure everybody expected me to be wearing pink, though.
Did any single artist or song influence you while making the album?
So many! Because of the titles, everyone’s like, “I guess Whitney Houston was such a big influence.” Because, you know, “I Just Wanna Dance” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” plus “Heartbreak Hotel.” I grew up listening to such strong female solo artists. I love Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears… But my members were like, “Your album art reminds me of Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time,”‘ and maybe that’s where it all came from. So all of the American female artists in the ’90s, I guess?
And Nicola Roberts from Girls Aloud wrote “Talk,” correct?
Yes! That was amazing. I didn’t know that it was Nicola’s song until I got the credits when we were finishing it up. I was like, “Do you guys know?” and they were like, “Yeah.” The whole company was super cool about it. I guess it was because they were working on the song for a while and they handed it over when it was done. I didn’t know — it was so cool! And I’m such a fan. I remember watching all their videos and the British Music Awards and telling my members, “This is what we should be doing later on.” Things like that. So that was super cool.
It was definitely suaver than the bright, girly image you portrayed in the past, specifically on your Instagram account. Was it a conscious decision to veer away from that?
I think I wanted my solo debut to be very unpredictable. Because I feel like this is just the beginning and this is just one of the many styles that I want to showcase throughout my career. I definitely want to go back to the bubblegum, girly stuff that I’ve been doing, which I can say is definitely my forte. Especially when I’m performing live, I do have tracks that are like that. But I think I am older, I am a solo artist; I wanted to take this first impression much more on a personal level versus all the other Girls’ Generation or [subunit] TTS music that was kind of bright and bubbly. This is a much more chill vibe. I think that’s what I was going for.
And you worked on “Heartbreak Hotel” with Simon Dominic, the co-CEO of Korean hip-hop label AOMG, marking the first time an AOMG artist worked with SM Entertainment.
Everybody is still in shock. So originally, I think about a year back, I had been working with a couple of AOMG producers. I’d been working on a lot of music around the time I got the demo for “Heartbreak Hotel.” So when I got it, I thought, “I really want a strong featuring artist on this” and thought that Simon Dominic would be perfect because, to me, he has this ultimate bad-boy persona. I love his lyrics. It came out so amazingly. This was totally different, unexpected and unpredictable in its own way. I had a lot of fun.
You also, belatedly, released an English-language remix of “I Just Wanna Dance” with Kago Pengchi. What spurred that?
So originally, we were only going to release it in Korean, because the label wanted to see what the response was going to be like. But we had such amazing feedback from the international fanbase, Billboard and all the major American streaming platforms. It was really spontaneous. They were like, “We want to release the English version!” And I had recorded the English version over four times, so it was ready to be made. I was super excited, because I think it sounds better in English. If I could, I would love to release all the songs in English.
But you did release your self-composed track “What Do I Do” on the album itself in English. Why “What Do I Do” rather than the title track?
I turned in a set of self-written songs, and that was the one that made the cut. And they knew the song wouldn’t feel the same unless it was the original version that I wrote. The company was really supportive of that. I was like, “It’ll sound and feel different, because that’s how it was originally written.” I guess that’s why it was the only original track to make the final cut that came out in English. But who knows in the future? [Maybe] the company will totally understand and say, “Oh, she does need to sing in English!”
Do you have a preference for singing in English?
Yes, I do. It comes much more naturally. I don’t know, it’s easier.
What was it like when you discovered the company had accepted your song for the album?
I had no expectations. I just wanted them to see what I had been doing, that I’d been working constantly at this. Last year’s schedule was really insane, because we went back to back to back with promotions and touring. So I was like, “Hey! This is what I’ve been doing, this is what I sound like.” I mean, I’m just starting out. I’m just starting out as a songwriter. I feel blessed that I got to put at least one self-written song on this album.
Sooyoung wrote the Korean lyrics. Was it nice to work with one of the other Girls’ Generation members on your solo debut?
It was definitely nice that I got to draw in one of my members, because she’s had a lot of experience writing for Girls’ Generation. She’s been the lyricist multiple times for the Girls’ Generation albums, and she has a talent for writing. She knows me the best in terms of sound and what I needed. She has also been there every second of my life. I thought that was really special.
And you’re the second member to go solo, following Taeyeon. Do you think that you learned from her career?
Definitely. Because Taeyeon’s album went so well, all of the fans were really looking forward to what I was going to bring to the table. I think, you know, each member’s solo production feeds off each other’s. It’s also going so well for all the other girls who are acting or doing other solo ventures. It’s exciting to still share such a connection with the members and the fans through our solo activities.
You filmed the music video for “I Just Wanna Dance” in California. How was it returning to your home state?
It was surprisingly cold. It looks sunny, but the energy was totally different [from past music video shoots]. I’ve only shot on set, under lots and lots of lighting, and it was all set up. This was all outdoors. It was very spontaneous. We’d see a certain background and the director would be like, “OK, jump in!” It looks totally different than what I’ve been doing the past nine years, and I’m kind of happy with that as well.
Was it hard to film the video without all the other members?
It was so different. The difference was that I got to take a really long time figuring out what my character and this video was going to be about. “I Just Wanna Dance” was put together by a team in my company, but I got to play director for “Heartbreak Hotel,” to put the story and the mood together. I’m glad that I got to take time doing that. It turned out very naturally. It didn’t seem like it was — well, a lot of the Girls’ Generation videos are a bit more animated, in a sense, and this wasn’t.
You took a directorial role in “Heartbreak Hotel”?
I didn’t say so. But that’s what I’ve been doing for all the TTS stuff. For “I Just Wanna Dance,” I wanted to focus on putting the music together and recording, things like that. “Heartbreak Hotel” was actually supposed to be on the album as the prequel to “I Just Wanna Dance.” It kind of sums up why I just wanna dance the night away. But production and things that I didn’t know about came up, so we had to push the release a little back for “Heartbreak Hotel.” But because I got to see what someone else put together for my first image, the company was really supportive of me putting the next track together in terms of the video and the featured artist.
So “I Just Wanna Dance” is actually the response to “Heartbreak Hotel,” even though the former was released prior to the second?
Yes! I think so. When I got the song, I was like “Oh my gosh, this just all makes sense.”
What did you draw on to create the music video for “Heartbreak Hotel”?
I think everybody goes through [the] “falling for that bad boy” stage. You know it’s not going to work out, but you really want it to. The story is so predictable in a way, but I guess the music kind of holds it all together. The music was always going to be the most important part. The video and the song are definitely [based on] personal experience.
What did you think people’s reactions to your album would be?
I didn’t know what to expect. I just really wanted my fans and the audience to say or to feel that it was only natural that I went solo. That it wasn’t just because this was the next step. I really took lots of time and thought about what I wanted to do in the next part of my career. It wasn’t something that was planned overnight. I guess I just wanted it to feel like a natural transition.
Do you think you were able to pull it off?
I think everybody was a bit shocked that it wasn’t rainbows and unicorns. But I think that was the surprise to it. I think that was the most exciting part. That I’ve become this unpredictable artist when everyone thinks I’m so predictable.
How does it feel having actually gone solo after being in Girls’ Generation and TTS all this time?
It was a dream come true because that has been my dream since day one. It feels so good that I got to have such an amazing experience with Girls’ Generation. They’re family to me now. Throughout our whole journey, I got to be with such talented members. I’m so grateful that I got to be with such a talented group of girls and I got to learn before making mistakes as a solo artist. [Going solo] still feels natural, yet unreal. I’m still adjusting. It’s only been six weeks.
Do you feel that being an Asian-American woman affected your career?
I’m kind of glad that over the years K-pop has really been going into a much more global audience. Especially since I really am leaning towards pursuing the American music market. I haven’t really started officially working in the U.S. yet, but I definitely feel like times have changed and that there are so many more Asian American entertainers and artists right now. I feel like there aren’t any barriers to overcome compared to a long time ago. When I was younger, there were no Asians [in the media]. To be able to have this whole long career and then still be able to come back and still have everybody think, “Oh, she’s a K-pop girl but she’s still American,” I think that’s something to be excited for and grateful for.
Can we talk about your recent SNL Korea appearance? What was that like?
It was so much fun. I grew up watching SNL in the U.S. It’s such a big deal to be a musical guest or a host. The show hasn’t been around that long in Korea but I told them, “This is huge for me and I hope we’ll create something that no one will ever see coming.” The staff, the crew, the cast, everybody was just in a really good place and there was such good energy that they really knew what I wanted to do. I told them that I’m not very funny in Korean. And they were like, “How are we going to make you funny?” And I was like, “I don’t know, that’s up to you.” We went through a long process and three meetings. And it turned out so well. I’m glad that SNL Korea is turning into this platform that artists want to come onto and showcase not just their music but also the personality behind the music.
Along with promoting, you also just held your first solo concert. How was that in comparison to performing with Girls’ Generation?
I got to do everything. I had such a strong team. I told them what I wanted, the show, the videos, the sound, the stage, what the band should look like, etc. and they really brought it to life. It was my first time performing alone, performing with a band, and it all just came together really well. My fans were super responsive and I had such a good time. I was a little nervous the first day but I think this experience is totally unforgettable. I haven’t had a first time experience in a long time because we’ve always been on stage and have always been touring each year. But this was definitely something totally different.
What’s your favorite song between the album and your new single?
My favorite track would have to be “Talk.” I liked it the first five seconds I heard it. This song is so right now. I think everybody would relate to it. It’s very vulnerable. Blunt yet vulnerable. The lyrics, the sound, the tracks, the melody, it all came together so perfectly.
What do you want people to think when they hear you’re coming out with a new album?
I want to be an artist to look forward to. I hope that they’ll want to hear or be curious about what my next story is. I pursued music because I listened to someone else’s song and said, “Omigod, that’s my story! That’s how I feel.” And I hope that I can be that type of artist as well, where I will put out something very honest or raw and someone else will be able to feel through that. Whether that’s something sad or something happy.
You mentioned that you have hopes to move into the American market. Do you think that’ll be something we see soon?
Hopefully in the near future. My label is very spontaneous and supportive all at the same time. Because it’s the first album, I do want to take my time to decide what my next move is going to be. I still want to kind of live out the summer and then see what I wanna do next. But I’m always working on something. I never can kind of just let go.
So what are you working on now?
Right now, I’m planning on writing again. I was writing before the album release, so there are a couple tracks already. But I’m glad that my company is okay with me kind of wanting to wait things out. I always want to put out an album when I know what it’s going to be about. I don’t want to throw in all these random songs and say, “Okay, that’s an album.” I think I’m just waiting to find the next theme for it.
And we’re going to see you KCON LA in July, right? Will you perform any of your new solo releases?
With Taeyeon and Seohyun, yes! As of now, we’re going as the subunit [TTS] but when it comes to going live we are very spontaneous. Hopefully we won’t get kicked off the stage. But we are in LA and I’m going to be super hyped up because I’m in my hometown. Hopefully we’ll get to share something special. Stay tuned!