As a member of Girls’ Generation, Tiffany Young spent much of her life as part of the inner circles of K-pop royalty. The 29-year-old spent much of her teens and twenties living a life so different from that of the average person, she may as well have been living in a fantasy.
But after leaving Girls’ Generation’s label SM Entertainment at the end of 2017 the California-born Young reoriented her direction and started to release solo music aimed at English-speaking audiences. This year saw her release the fairy tale-inspired Lips on Lips and hold her first showcase tour throughout North America, during which she got up close and personal with her fans, both old and new, in a variety of intimate venues.
Ahead of her New York City show at the Bowery Ballroom on March 6, Young sat down with Billboard to talk about writing Lips on Lips, her inspirations and a whole lot more.
How’s the tour going?
Amazing. My favorite part about creating music is going on tour, and I haven’t been on tour in a while. I’m happy, nervous and excited all at the same time. This is the closest I’ve been to [the fans] so it’s really special.
What’s that been like for you?
It’s so rare you get a second chance. And the fact that I get to live those first time moments again, it’s special.
How is it different from your last first times?
It’s more intimate and personal because it’s the music I wrote. I feel like I can bare my soul. I feel so loved and accepted and ready to take on that energy to write and be more open. Because, in the end, opening up has always been the battle for me. I’m so glad I get to talk about this with you. It’s such an exciting time. Being on stage, I become the woman I want to be. It was such a magical feeling the other night [opening night in Toronto on March 3]. I’m rarely happy after a first show. I got off that stage and was like, “Dang, all that practice. All those rehearsals, all those nights and nights and days and days of just singing my heart out, or going to vocal lessons.” Everyone was like, “Why are you going to vocal lessons?” And I was just like, “Don’t ask.” I’m just going to always stay humble to my craft. It’s magical.
How has your singing style changed since you started taking vocal lessons?
It’s opened me up so much. It’s gotten me much more technical, but it’s gotten me back to the raw emotions as well. I’m not looking at real sheet music anymore, I’m just singing to my emotions. If I want to crescendo, I’ll crescendo to my heart beat, not a rule. It feels amazing.
How does it feel to be moving forward, past the first part of your career?
I was ready to go forward and do it. I’m ready to build, I’m ready to earn that time and love that [the fans] spend on me. Their hard-earned money, and the time they dedicate. I wanted to be worth a hundred, million times more. I wanted to be priceless. That when they come, it’s not even about that. It’s about getting in tune with their emotions, opening up and just getting to enjoy music the way it touched me too.
You just released Lips on Lips, and the tour is based on it. Why did you base everything around the title song, “Lips on Lips”?
My lifelong inspiration has been based on fairy-tale fantasies. I never hid from that, and I realized it’s because I believe that no matter the struggle or the obstacle or that fight that you’re going through, there’s always a happily ever after, there’s always a moment of triumph or that fairy-tale kiss, which was that moment in the EP. I laid it out like a book, where it’s a different chapter. You go from “Born Again” to searching for love to finding and romanticizing love, which was “Lips on Lips.” “Lips on Lips” was that moment where I was back in my happy space; I loved music because it made me feel better. And no matter how sad I was, it always came back to a happy song or a song about love, or a song about fighting through it with a smile. And “Lips on Lips” is where I got back to the hopeless romantic in me. I wanted to write a happy love song. Like, “Can I have fun now? I think I’m ready to have some fun now!” I really wanted to make it into a body of work, where there’s a story for each [song], backing each other up. I wanted it to be something that’s memorable. I wanted it to be very true to me. I’m very glad. It’s not far from what I’ve always been talking about: fairy tale fantasy.
What’s your favorite fairy tale?
The Little Mermaid. I realized that the psychology of why I loved it so much was because she was in her world where everybody was telling her that she had everything, and she was a princess. But she believed that she could break out of that and find love in a bigger world. And I guess that’s what I kind of have always been searching for, and I’m happy to be back in a bigger world.
Do you have a favorite fictional kiss?
My favorite kiss scene…Titanic. As heartbreaking as the ending is, those [scenes] are my favorites. Romeo & Juliet is always a favorite. Anything Baz Luhrmann, who everyone knows I’m a huge fan of. And La La Land. Recently, I was watching Never Been Kissed just to go back to it. I think all my references have kind of seeped into me deep enough, so I got to write Lips on Lips. I got back to where I want to feel fluffy and romantic.
Yea! And my new favorite would be Crazy Rich Asians. That last scene on the plane. Everybody needs fairy tales, everybody needs that hopeless romantic rekindled back in them.
How has your approach to music changed since you first began releasing songs under the name Tiffany Young last year?
I am K-pop. I am Korean. I want to keep that in me. And I want to bring that to the table, and learn from the masters of pop, which I am still kind of mind-boggled over. Of the amazing producers and writers that I got to work with. Obviously, Kevin [Nish of Far East Movement, who also manages Young under the group’s Transparent Agency]. Still only the Asian-American act to have a [Hot 100] No. 1 record. I remember asking Kevin about continuing music. I was like, “Why do you think I should continue?” He was like, “Because I believe in change.” I was sold. I’m so lucky to have a team and a leader who gave me that answer versus, “Because it’s your life.” It’s not about us. It’s about everybody else and about the world, and the future for everybody else. Which led to Fernando Garibay, and Kris [Khristopher Riddick-Tynes] from The Rascals. John Yip from The Stereotypes is a very big part of this project. So I have all my brothers who are like, “We want you to win. We want change. We want to see an Asian-American. We want to see an Asian woman.”
Being around the masters and experts, those producers have definitely let me learn and open up and create the best of what I love in both worlds. So I think that, if ever, I’ve been loving everything about Korean music more. I’ve been loving everything about American music more. I just want to keep writing. Because it’s tough, getting into your emotions and finding the right things to say. But I must say, it’s getting much more detailed and expressive.
Have you faced any difficulties as you hone this new songwriting skill of yours?
There are times when I’m like, “Am I cut out for writing?” I ask myself that every couple of songs, when I get stuck. Like “The Flower,” for instance. I wrote it over and over. I had some amazing collaborators in the room. I had 9AM, who are new producers signed to The Stereotypes. I had Satica, my musical goddess, and Varren Wade, who did Ella Mai’s “Trip.” So we had such a cool mix of collaborators in the room. And we wrote it, then I rewrote it so many times until it became what it is now. I realized that once you find something and you keep pulling it apart, you stop being afraid. And I want to stop being afraid. That’s why I got to do 12 years of what I’ve done, and now I’m ready. And I hope it inspires future girl bands and female soloists and women in music. I just think about that girl who was lost at 11, and think about how [music] touched me and saved me, and how I could possibly do that for somebody else. That’s the magical feeling, that’s the only reason why I’m here. It’s been great to go back to my roots and my inner deepest, darkest crevices. And, you know, it made “The Flower,” going there.
How was it working with Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds on “Runaway”?
I really, really wanted to work with The Rascals. I started working with Kris and Antonio Dixon, who are part of the Babyface camp, and I went to the studio almost every day for a good three months. I felt like I was going to SM again. It was kind of that system. I would see Kenny every other day or so and be like, well, not “annyeonghaseyo” but like, “Hey, I go here. I practice and write everyday!” And it just became so organic. We were looking for a sound and a story that really honed into the fairytale lane. I realized the moment there was the opportunity to write and collaborate with Babyface — I did my research. I wanted to know what type of instrument I wanted to start the song with. I wanted that classic fairy tale love song that Babyface is such a master of creating. It’s such a dream come true. It was an amazing opportunity to go into the studio. Take the time, get to know me more, and get to learn from legends. It’s still such an amazing moment, and I’m so blessed.
Do you feel that the songs are all different stories about you? Are they connected together so that Lips on Lips tells one story about Tiffany Young?
It wasn’t a specific story, but more everything that is there about me. I believed in love, which goes back to the Little Mermaid story, and I ran away to Korea. I’m running away once again. Not running away. I had a great time, and they let me — my bandmates were like, “You spoke it into existence.” It was also so, so rewarding when I let my bandmates hear “Runaway.” A majority of them cried. Like, “This is the song I always imagined you doing.” And I was just like, “Stop crying!” It felt amazing. But that’s when I know it’s real, because they know me inside out so they’d let me know if it’s good or not.
The song that resonates with a lot of listeners is the introspective “Not Barbie.” Why is the song’s message something you wanted to focus on?
Growing up, I didn’t see enough representation through media. I think now is the perfect time, because there’s so much diversity going on, and it’s beautiful. Now more than ever, we’re talking about strength and vulnerability, and finding the differences in us to be the most beautiful parts about us. I wanted to open up about a physical condition that I had my whole life — severe scoliosis — and how that takes a toll mentally, physically, and emotionally. I wanted to open up so that anyone who feels the same way, who feels like they’re limited or that a certain situation or condition is pulling them back. I hope it inspires them to go further and push themselves further into being the best they can be. And making that the best part of them. I’ve said it multiple times. Being positively true to yourself, body and soul, is the most beautiful thing. There’s nothing else. I wanted to be able to say that very, very boldly because of the K-pop background. Because of the Asian background. I think it’s a story that relates to everyone. Any woman or man, or girl or boy, of color, of shape or form or condition, you name it. I always wanted to write something that would be uplifting.
Do you feel that “Not Barbie” goes hand in hand with last year’s “Over My Skin”?
It definitely does. I say it during the show too, but damn, it feels so good to be a woman. Because it’s not about pleasing others but about how you want to feel, and you being amazing without needing or wanting validation from anybody else. And that comes from finding self-acceptance. And when that self-acceptance comes in, you celebrate those imperfections and you make them your strength. “Over My Skin” happened fast because I was like, “I’m home! I wanna do this.” But I actually wrote “Not Barbie” during that same time. We just came out with the bolder, more fun message first.
You actually are very Barbie blonde right now. Was it a nod to the song?
For me, what I love about K-pop is that it’s 50% auditory [experience], and 50% visual. I love creating concepts and things around it. I wanted to do something new. I’ve never gone this platinum blonde before, and I think it’s a statement when you’re really sacrificing every strand of hair on your head for your creation. It’s definitely bringing something different out in me too. I guess it’s my new superhero suit. I hope it lets everybody be bold and try different hair colors.
How do you feel about your relationship with womanhood?
I’m thankful for all the incredible women in my life. From my mom then to my aunt to my sister, and then to my [Girls’ Generation] sisters. That it’s about celebrating each other, and it’s about beauty in every age. And that your imperfections, your scars are what make you strong and beautiful. I loved growing up. I loved being able to wear certain things, be a certain way. I think I really, really embraced that growing up with a group of girlfriends as well. I told them, “We get to wear this now! We get to try this now!” I think it’s still not talked about enough in Asian culture or Asian-American representation, that women are beautiful in every age. And hopefully me continuously doing what I do can show that. It’s not about what’s on the outside, but it’s that strength and that heart to continue. Showing that resilience and strength is what I hope shines.