Few Korean artists can lay claim to the sort of career K-pop legend Sunmi has had. Having entered the scene properly as a member of Wonder Girls, she and the rest of the members saw their track “Nobody” become the first Korean single to reach the Billboard Top 100, and then entered an American tour supporting the Jonas Brothers (talk about paving the way).
Following a hiatus from the group to focus on her studies, she returned as a solo artist, exploding onto the charts with “24 Hours” (which received what is referred to as an “All Kill”: topping all music charts in Korea) and then “Full Moon” and a mini-album of the same name. Less than two years later, she’d rejoin a reformed Wonder Girls, helping lead them to the success of Reboot.
After parting ways with longtime label JYP, she’d find continued success as a solo artist, from the likes of “Gashina” to “Siren” (the latter of which also achieving an All Kill).
Ultimately, she’s become one of the most recognizable faces in K-pop worldwide, garnering a fan base across the globe, as well as engaging in a world tour (not to mention becoming a vocal proponent of mental health). Now, as she prepares for a second world tour, she’s released the single “Heart Burn”. I was lucky enough to link up with her in the wake of its release for a brief chat, reflecting on her past, present, and prospective future. Read on below.
Your mini-album Full Moon was one of the first K-pop releases I got properly into when I moved to Korea. It’s wild that it’s going on 10 years since it came out! What would you say has changed the most since you released it, what would you say the most important things you’ve learned have been?
I think the change is how in peace I am with the album’s release. For the “Heart Burn” release, I focused on the excitement of being able to perform in front of my fans instead of having specific high standards.
It’s said you coined the phrase “Sunmi-pop” yourself, how would you describe it for those that are unfamiliar? I know it has a sense of sadness to it, why do you think sadness always permeates your music?
Actually, it’s not a word I made myself. Korean reporters made it for me! I don’t know why sadness permeates my music. But I think this sadness created a genre called Sunmi-pop.
You’ve put forward so many different concepts – you had an almost magical romanticism to “보라빛 밤” (“Pporappippam”) and then the zombie horror aesthetic of “You Can’t Sit with Us”: is there any particular kind of concept that comes to you most naturally? Is there one you enjoy the most?
Because I participate in all concept ideas, there’s no specific concept that I prefer more than the others. Whenever a new album is released, I enjoy the new concept…
What are you most looking forward to with your second world tour?
I’m going to be playing the bass while singing for Miya-ne (fanclub). My fans like it when I play the bass. I’m looking forward to how the fans will react when they see me playing the bass on stage.
Do you have any plans to release a full album in the future? It’d be great to hear a full LP from you after mini-albums and singles.
There is no exact plan. But I’m always thinking.
As K-pop becomes more and more of a global phenomenon, are you more interested in reaching out to foreign fans or focusing on music at home in Korea?
I am interested in reaching out to fans both in Korea and from all around the world. Because K-pop has become its own genre of music that is being enjoyed worldwide, I would love to go and reach out and visit all the places.
What’s the last album you yourself loved?
Maybe because I’m performing “Heart Burn” these days, I love my new album the most. But after July, I think I will go looking around for a new album that I love.
I know you like music from the 70’s and 80’s: what are some examples of your favorite records from the past?
I like the song “Hearts” by Marty Balin. The guitar sound and Marty Balin’s voice are so beautiful and listening with earphones makes me feel like I’m in heaven.