From jazz club singer to YG Entertainment producer, and now a popular singer-songwriter in her own right, Sunwoo Jung-a used to make music for herself, but now she says she has other people in mind when writing songs.
She made the latest step on this musical journey with the release of her single “In the Bed,” on Jan. 5, in which she sings about being thankful for living with someone you love.
“Gazing at your bare feet while you’re sleeping, my heart gets all worked up for some reason,” Sunwoo sings gently. She says the words reflect feelings that came to her one everyday morning.
“It was just like depicted in the lyrics. I woke up before my husband one day, and it was as if in the movies,” the 35-year-old said. “Even I was surprised at myself because I’m not such an emotional person usually, especially when it comes to my music.”
There are just some moments in life when you feel a rush of gratitude at unexpected times, and that morning, which was just another day with her husband -- who she had known since high school -- became a life turning moment for Sunwoo.
“The act of living together itself is special for me. I was never the sort of person who’d dreamed of living with someone else if it hadn’t been for my husband,” she said. “I’ve always believed myself someone innately alone. He made me overcome that idea. Marriage for me wasn’t just about promising an eternal love but something more incredible.”
With the Korean title translating as “Living Together,” Sunwoo, said her new single was not about marriage but perhaps all acts of romantic cohabitation.
“One of my biggest goals with the song was to illustrate the love of real grown-ups. Married to my husband for eight years, and dating him for many years before, the love we share may not be young and cute, but romantic in its own way, and not many female artists in Korea sing about that sensual aspect of mature romance.”
This led to the English title “In the Bed.”
“Living together means sharing my most vulnerable and comfortable moments with the person and, in most cases, sharing the same bed despite all the different habits and discomforts coming from them,” she said. “Sleeping in the same bed seemed possible only through the power of love.”
Although the song started off from a momentary realization of gratitude, it struck a chord with a lot of people, and even her husband, who Sunwoo describes as a very rational critic when it comes to her songs.
“I played the song to him on our wedding anniversary ahead of the official release, and he told me the song really carried its message and, I think, he shed some tears then,” she recalled.
“It was made on a small production budget, and while that fact had always made me hold back my anticipations, my husband’s reaction released me of all the worries. It became my best wedding anniversary gift and the song had done its job with just that. But very luckily, it seems to have touched upon the hearts of many others.”
Sunwoo said this fresh gaze on her mundane life resulted from the prolonged virus pandemic that forced her to spend more time with her cohabitant.
“I think the value of family and everyday life was what has protected me in the past year. I thought I was able to enjoy solitude, but with time, it turned into a feeling of loneliness that came down on me hard, especially as I had really exhausted myself in producing my third studio album.”
Although her relationship with her husband still becomes tense and rough at times, Sunwoo said she feels there is a kind of protective layer wrapped around them now.
“Even in the same kind of situations, I feel we’ve become more mature in dealing with them. Again, I feel that love is invaluable in all relationships, whether it be with lovers, colleagues or family members.”
A songwriter’s dilemma
Sunwoo seems to effortlessly reveal herself with music. Just as we all go through diverse stages and changes in life, Sunwoo is able to portray her life through limitless genres, ambiences and styles.
“I think making music is like writing a diary for me. While in the song ‘CAT,’ I sing about the very simple emotion I felt looking at a cute cat, in ‘It’s Okay, Dear,’ I voice the many thoughts about life and death that went through in my mind when I lost my dad young. The deep emotions I’d experienced during my many years with my husband are also in the songs. So, while my music might seem dynamic, they ultimately represent my life until now.”
Music for Sunwoo was not all this serious from the start.
Spending her early years in the dark underground jazz bars and indie rock clubs, throwing herself onto the stage for the small number of people who appreciated her songs and performances, Sunwoo was discovered by YG Entertainment producers in 2008 for her unique sense of arrangements and creativity. Starting by remixing existing songs, she came to contribute to creations for YG’s biggest artists, including 2NE1 and GD&TOP, while returning to underground stages at nights until 2010.
Experiencing the two extreme ends of Korean music scene -- performing on stage in a niche genre while working behind the scenes with the mainstream K-pop industry -- Sunwoo said her ideas in music has definitely evolved over time, along with the professional value she defines of her job.
“I think my 20s was all about really expressing and exuding out the energy solely for myself. Thankfully some people tuned in with me and I could genuinely enjoy that time. Entering my 30s, I came to wonder about how I should contribute to this world as a musician. Especially in times when the society goes through a difficult period, I faced a discomfort that my job could seem like a carefree entertainer.”
This “dilemma,” as Sunwoo puts it, reached its peak as she produced her third studio album -- released in three different chunks of “Stand,” “Stunning” and “Serenade” -- in 2019.
“I searched for the significance of music for ordinary listeners and read comments that music could heal people and even save them at the worst moments in life, and I came to define that my professional virtue as a musician was to comfort people with my creations.”
Ironically, the virtue of innocence is what has been keeping her strong as a musician.
“Staying pure is important because my music needs to stay harmless to the people and it’s the only value that can make me pursue that responsibility,” she said. “Maintaining your innocence is not easy, requiring tireless efforts of self-reflection, but I feel I know that once I feel satisfied, this will easily make me settle for the present, and I’ve seen so many people hit the pit after faltering for just a moment. If I want to do music forever, I must stay true to my heart.”
But virtue was not just for the public but also for self.
“This might sound like I’m being hard on myself, but I think that I’ll become worthless if I cannot do music anymore, and I desperately want to prevent that situation.”
Rising to stardom steadily over 25 years of music, Sunwoo was cautious to admit to her popularity, stressing she still had a huge yearning for more.
The song “Courtship” (2017) reflects her craving for more love from the public.
“People might think the song reflects unrequited feelings toward a lover, but it’s actually for the public. I’m not talking about just the numbers. I think this endless craving for popularity maybe an instinctive feature and a driving force as a pop music artist. I always jokingly tell people around me that I’ll be the ‘superstar granny’ because everyone experiences climaxes in different phases of life and I don’t know when mine will come.”
She has also courted fans outside Korea.
While the genre of Korean indie-pop is gaining a larger audience outside the country, Sunwoo admits the language barrier is significant, especially for singer-songwriters like herself who depend on word play and metaphors.
“We even thought about releasing the same music in an English version, but this requires double the amount of work and money and this isn’t easy for small labels or indie musicians. But a translation is inevitably different from the original creation, so as for now, I’m trying to incorporate more English into my lyrics.”
To reach out to a larger foreign audience, all the videos posted on Sunwoo’s YouTube channel, run by her label Magic Strawberry Sound, are accompanied by English and Chinese subtitles, usually uploaded within few days following the release of videos. “When I see comments from foriegn fans asking for subtitles, I actually feel like grabbing them and crying out ‘come back, the subtitles will be out soon!’,” she said, half laughing half crying.
“Concert is also a big factor in helping indie Korean musicians venture abroad, and prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, overseas concerts had actually been quite active among diverse musicians who enjoyed limited popularity in Korea. It’s a shame because a live concert presents a unique experience and energy in itself.”
Even without the concerts, the singer-songwriter said she works day and night, preparing new songs and developing unreleased works. Sunwoo does not only work on her independent albums but also television drama soundtracks and collaborations with other musicians.
“Around the point when I start mastering a record, my mind is already on the next project. Although I don’t have an upcoming project decided for now, there’s always work to do, and it’s grateful that I still find the process all fun.”
By Choi Ji-won (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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