When the parents of Korean jazz singer Youn Sun Nah realized that the COVID-19 pandemic had begun, they called and urged her to return to Seoul from New York, where she was based at the time.
“They said buy the ticket immediately,” the singer recalls. “There’ll be a total lockdown and you might never be able to come home. When I watched television and heard that borders would be closed, I packed my bags and I got the last ticket. I thought I would come back in three months, but not a year.”
Born in Seoul to musician parents (and named Na Yoon-sun), Youn Sun Nah learned to play the piano as a child but grew up focusing on the usual curriculum at school. She graduated from university in 1992 with an arts degree, having studied literature, and she thought this would be her career direction. She didn’t want to pursue music, she says, because she had seen her parents - a choir director and a musical actress - work too hard.
Still, when the Korean Symphony Orchestra invited her to sing gospel songs in 1993, she began taking her first steps in the world of performing and recording, eventually moving to France to study music, as she relates. In Paris, she followed courses in traditional French chanson and enrolled at the prestigious CIM School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, where she had to overcome certain artistic challenges.
In the years since then, she has performed worldwide, sung at the closing ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, contributed to a Nina Simone tribute album, and taken part in the 2017 International Jazz Day concert which was held in Havana, Cuba. (International Jazz Day is an initiative of legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO.) In addition, she has received the Officier des Arts et des Lettres award from the French Ministry of Culture, the Sejong Culture Award from Korea, and a host of other music prizes and accolades.
In an interview with SWAN before a recent concert in Brussels, Youn Sun Nah spoke of her career with self-deprecating humour, discussing the effects of the pandemic on her art and the meanings behind the songs on Waking World. She shed light, too, on the experience of being a jazz singer amidst the global Korean pop music phenomenon. The edited interview follows.
Youn Sun Nah: I’m a jazz singer from Korea. I studied jazz in France, and I travel around the world, and I’m kind of all mixed up, but I’m very happy with that.
SWAN: Are you now based in France?
YSN: No, I used to live in Paris for a long time, but actually, I don’t have a place to stay in France now. Every time I go there, it’s just for the tour, so I go to different places. I could say I live in Korea, but it’s a nomadic life.
SWAN: Let’s speak about Waking World, which was released last January. You’re doing a tour to promote it now, as that wasn’t possible earlier, during the pandemic.
YSN: Yes, we couldn’t really do the promotion thing, but c’est la vie. My manager called in 2021 to say: now you can come, you can take the plane now. So, I quickly bought the ticket, came back to France and recorded the album in Paris, and then I did some shows.
SWAN: A lot of artists have had to find ways to keep going during the pandemic, and it’s been especially difficult for many musicians who couldn’t tour, couldn’t be on the road. Has that been the case for you too?
YSN: As you know, jazz is really live music, and I think most jazz musicians feel the same way. You want to do as many gigs as possible. I don’t know if people listen to my music on platforms like Spotify or iTunes, but I feel very lucky to perform live music. More than 400 jazz festivals exist in France, so it’s a privilege.
SWAN: How did Waking World come about, and what does it mean for your fans, for you?
YSN: When I went back to Korea at the start of the pandemic, I was kind of optimistic that things wouldn’t last long. Everyone was wearing masks, but we could move around, just not take the plane. Then … six months, seven months, eight months. From that moment, I got really depressed, and I thought that maybe I should change my job, that maybe I would never be able to go back to Europe and perform. What can I do, I thought. All the musicians I played with were in Europe because I studied jazz in France, and I don’t know that many jazz musicians in Korea. So, I had a kind of homesickness even though I was home. But in Korea, we never lose hope, so I think that’s in my DNA. I told myself: you should wake up, and you should do something else; you can’t disappoint the people who’ve supported you for a long time, you should have something to present to your audience. So, I started writing some new tunes. Without the musicians I usually work with, I had to do it all by myself.
YSN: Actually, I watched YouTube a lot, and I learned many music tools. I learned how to play the guitar just by watching tutorials, and I learned how to compose with the laptop.
SWAN: And you wrote the lyrics too?
YSN: Yes, I’m not so good at English, but I just wanted to be honest, so even if it doesn’t sound quite right, I just wanted to express myself.
SWAN: But you’re used to singing in English?
YSN: Yes, after I started studying jazz. You know, when I came to France, I didn’t know what jazz was. If I’d known, I would definitely have gone to the States. I was so naïve … and maybe stupid? One day I’d asked one of my musician friends in Korea what kind of music I should study to become a good singer, and he’d said: do jazz. What is jazz, I asked him. And he said: jazz is original pop music, so if you learn how to sing jazz, you can sing anything. And I said: oh, it sounds great!
I’m a huge fan of French chanson, so he said one of the oldest jazz schools in Europe is located in Paris, so go there. Oh, great! I arrived there, and what you learn at school is American standards, and everything was in English. I actually studied in four different schools at the same time because, well, I’m Asian, and I’m used to that education system where you don’t have to have any free time for yourself! When I had only six hours of lessons, I thought: what am I gonna do with the other eighteen hours? (Laughter.)
SWAN: That kind of approach must have helped with the album?
YSN: Well, I didn’t know when I could record this album, so I just kept writing and composing. And arranging by myself, as I had a lot of time. But, as you know, jazz is like … we should gather together and arrange in the moment. When I could finally fly to France, I just gave all the material to the musicians. And they said, oh, we’ll respect your scores. And I said, no, no, do what you want. But they played exactly what I wrote, every single note. I’m embarrassed.
SWAN: Tell us about the inspiration behind some of tracks, such as Bird On The Ground, the first song, which has the refrain “I want to fly. I want to fly. I want to fly.”
YSN: Well, “bird on the ground” - that’s me during the pandemic.
SWAN: Don’t Get Me Wrong, the second track, has an infectious melody, but the message is clear: the world “has no chance with those who lie and lie”. Tell us more.
YSN: During the pandemic, I could only watch TV or go on the internet to know what was happening. But sometimes the information wasn’t true, and even though it’s a lie you end up believing everything. Yeah, so I thought the world has no chance with people who lie.
SWAN: The sixth track has an intriguing title - My Mother. (Lyrics include the line: “How can you keep drying my eyes every time, my mother?”) What’s the story behind it?
YSN: With the touring, I usually don’t spend that much time at home. But with the pandemic, I was home for a whole year, and I spent a lot of time with my mother, and I really had the chance to talk about everything, about her life and what she experienced. She’s my best friend, and we became even closer.
YSN: I wanted this to be a dream and not real, but at the same time this is the reality, so it was kind of ambiguous for me. Where am I? Am I dreaming? No, you’re wide awake.
SWAN: Tangled Soul, track eight?
YSN: My soul was completely tangled. (Laughter.) And then one day, I felt: it’s okay, everything will be all right.
SWAN: Speaking about music in general, K-pop has become a global phenomenon. Are you in the wrong field? (Laughter.) More to the point, are you affected by the huge interest?
YSN: At every show, I’m really shocked or surprised because the audience says “hello” and “thank you” in Korean. Unbelievable! There are many people who’ve told me about their experience in Korea, too, saying they’ve spent a month or six months there. It’s something that my parents’ generation couldn’t have expected because the country was destroyed during the war - it’s not that long ago - and they had to build a completely new country. They worked so hard, and because of them, we have this era. People know Korea through K-pop, through Netflix.
SWAN: Then there’s this Korean jazz singer - you. When listeners hear your work, the “soul” comes through. Can you talk about that?
YSN: When I arrived in Paris, not knowing what jazz was, as I mentioned, I told my parents: Oh, I’m gonna study jazz for three years, and I think I can master it, and then I’ll come back to Korea and maybe teach. And afterwards, I felt so stupid, and so bad because I can’t swing, and I don’t have a voice like Ella Fitzgerald, and I could barely learn one standard song. So, I tried everything. On Honeysuckle Rose, I think I wrote down every moment that Ella breathed in, breathed out. But … I couldn’t sing like her, it sounded so fake. So, I said: No, I’ll never be able to sing jazz, this is not for me. After a year, I told my professors that, sorry, I made a wrong choice, I’m going to go back home. And they laughed at me. They said: What? Youn, you can do your own jazz with your own voice. And I said, no, I can’t. Then they recommended some jazz albums of European jazz singers, such as Norma Winstone, who’s an English singer, and my idol. She has a kind of soprano voice like me, and when she interprets, it’s like a whole new tune. And I said, oh, we can call this jazz too? I didn’t know.
So, I learned to try with my own voice and my own soul, with my Korean background, and the more I used my own voice, the more I did things my own way, the more I felt accepted.
SWAN: What is next for you?
YSN: Well, everyone has told me that this album is not jazz, but that’s what I wanted to do. Herbie Hancock always said that jazz is the human soul, it’s not appearances, so you can do whatever you want to do. We’ll see. It’s been a while that I’ve wanted to do an album of jazz standards, so we’ll continue this tour in 2023 and then we’ll see. - A.M. / SWAN
Photos (top to bottom): the front cover of Waking World; Youn Sun Nah in Brussels (photo by A.M.); the back cover of Waking World; Youn Sun Nah and statue (photo by A.M.)
Youn Sun Nah’s Spring Tour runs March 9 to May 26, 2023, and includes concerts in France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
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