[En:terview] ‘Solo’ Heejin: “CEO Jeong Byeong-gi said I changed the most”
Reporter Kim Su-jeong, CBS No Cut News
Even prior to debut, the LOONA project became much-discussed in the industry with its immense scale. And Heejin was the very first member to be revealed from it. When she released the bouncy “ViViD”, Heejin was only sixteen years old. Heejin was beloved in a group, went through an unwanted contract dispute and found a new agency, and now has become a member of a group called ARTMS. Seven years after her debut, she’s embarked on perhaps her “biggest” challenge yet. Namely, a solo debut.
Ever since her LOONA days, Heejin was called a “hexagonal idol” or “all-rounder”, meaning that she was highly skilled in all areas. But she confessed that the goal of a solo debut, which she had planned for a vague time of “someday”, had come sooner than expected. On the afternoon of October 20th, CBS NoCut News interviewed Heejin at the Modhaus offices in Gangnam district, Seoul, ahead of the release of her solo album K.
Her first album after moving agencies to Modhaus as well as her first solo, K was released on the 30th of last month. She received the tracks in early July, and preparation began in earnest in August. Modhaus is helmed by Mr. Jeong Byeong-gi, who participated from the early planning stages of the LOONA project. It is said that ARTMS group activities and Heejin’s solo activities were planned from the moment she joined the company.
While it was pre-planned, Heejin still felt that the opportunity had come sooner than expected. She said, “I always had thoughts regarding solo promotions. I’d wanted to try it at some point, but I didn’t know it’d happen this soon. I thought it would take a few years.”
Continuing, she said “In some ways, I’ve always been part of a team, but coming out solo, it does feel burdensome and I’m very nervous. I think this has actually been a stepping stone to make me grow faster, these moments. I’m often tired and physically strained, but I’ve been very grateful. I’ve always liked it when I’m able to grow quickly in a short amount of time”, while smiling.
The title track, which could be called the face of an album, was chosen later than other tracks. Heejin, saying “You have to record the title first for the overall direction of an album to be decided. That way the side tracks can be chosen to accompany it well,” noted that it took quite some time to select and record the title track.
“Algorithm” is a song about a breakup that keeps coming to mind after love. It’s a result of reconstructing a sound that led Western pop in the 80s and drawing out the dynamic texture of K-pop style. Asked how it was chosen to be the title, Heejin laughed, saying “To be honest, this… May not seem so modest, but I thought this was a genre I could pull off really well.”
The song also aligned well with the image of Heejin as envisioned by CEO Jeong Byeong-gi. While Heejin said “I felt like it could come across as an extension of (debut track) ‘ViViD’. It really went well with my identity and direction as CEO-nim views it,” she avoided firmly defining her colors. She added, “There are still many things I’d like to do, and an incredible number of things still left to do. From that perspective, I’m grateful to have debuted early. I think that’s going to be a real benefit for me.”
Even after the title track was selected, edits came frequently. Lyrics were redone many times, and the song was re-recorded six times. Heejin added that she repeatedly thought, ‘Today’s the last time right?’ ‘Today must really be the last time.’ Simply put, “everyone put their best into it”.
Among the side tracks, “Nokia” is the most cherished. “I really wanted to try a song with an acoustic vibe”, said Heejin. “I’ve liked the guitar from the beginning. It’s an extremely emotional song with a guitar riff. It’s a breakup song but weirdly I felt really attached to it, and with the lyrics and all, it was really easy to immerse myself while recording. CEO-nim had said, ‘I would like to hear this song in your voice’. I am very glad that it turned out well. I look forward to performing this song on stage someday”.
The interview occurred before the album’s release, so we were curious whether the album’s side tracks were very different, or had a similar feel. Heejin then replied, “Generally, I think a lot of tracks are easy to listen to and smooth. Including the title track. Whether in the car, or at home, or on the move, you can listen to a lot of these tracks easily. I listened to this album a lot, too. I think these songs won’t get old.”
From a member of a group, to now having to lead an album by herself. Working on an album solo was indeed not easy. Heejin confessed, “Having to record many songs was very difficult in some ways. Your voice needs to keep up, but I caught the flu while recording. At one point, I couldn’t shake off the flu for 2~3 weeks, so I recorded in that state and eventually we had to scrap that whole thing. I realized that I needed to maintain my condition well. Because there really is no one else to cover for me.”
Performing a song around three minutes all by herself while also making its dynamics come alive: that was the task before Heejin. She reviewed: “In the group, I usually did verses and took care of hooks, but I’ve learned a lot from having to handle the whole buildup and climax all by myself, things like ‘I have this powerful of a voice in me’, ‘I can sing this tenderly too’.”
Another challenge was lyric-writing. Heejin participated in the lyrics of title track “Algorithm” as well as side tracks “Video Game”, “Nokia”, and “Addiction”. “Algorithm”, in particular, took many edits. Heejin said “The general topic was set in advance, but the pronunciation of something might be too awkward, or if the lyric was too abstract or broad, it needed to become more direct yet also not childish, so that was what I paid attention to.”
Saying “It wasn’t easy to create something from nothing. But some songs were easy. Sometimes the ideas would bubble up and I’d come up with something quickly,” Heejin previewed that she would likely continue writing lyrics for her own albums in the future. She added, “If it only contains other people’s work, I feel like I’d be unsatisfied and volunteer to work on it. And there's fun that is only found in that.”
CEO Jeong Byeong-gi’s encouragement also gave her great strength. “When I was first getting my lyrics confirmed, I felt so embarrassed. Because this was my first time trying it. CEO-nim is very honest, so if something sucks, he will say it sucks. So I sent him my lyrics late because of the embarrassment. But he told me, ‘This is well-written though?’ and that calmed my heart. After that, I figured weird lyrics and well-done lyrics are up to the listener, so I’ve become bolder about challenging myself. CEO-nim fortunately liked it, so I was able to work with confidence.”
Being credited as a lyricist on all of the album’s songs aside from the intro and “Sad Girls Club” is especially meaningful for Heejin. She said “Honestly, I also wanted to work on the other song (“Sad Girls Club”), but the lyrics were completed too soon. There is a credit for the overall production, and CEO-nim said he would include my name, Jeon Heejin, on that line too. So it’s even more meaningful for me.”
The title of this album, containing intro “Kehwa” and title track “Algorithm” alongside “Sad Girls Club”, “Video Game”, “Nokia”, and “Addiction” for a total of six songs, is K. The same K as in K-pop and K-drama. Asking “Is it not the word representing Korea”, Heejin explained that “It means wanting to become the album that represents Korea. I think the beauty that symbolizes Korea is really well-reflected, too.”
In the album teaser video, Heejin wore a hanbok. Korean elements permeate the album, too. Heejin said: “Since it’s an album that represents Korea, I wanted a lot of components of Korean elements to be included too, and they accepted those ideas, so you can see a lot of this in the album. There will be two versions, A and B; one is the hanbok-oriented version that you could say is totally K, and the other one is more of a street vibe.”
As mentioned earlier, CEO Jeong Byeong-gi was there at the beginning of LOONA. It was only natural to come to the Jeong-led Modhaus after winning against her former agency in the legal battle over her contract. What Heejin liked was “That I didn’t have to start over from 1.” Calling Jeong “someone who understands us so well”, Heejin said “That’s why I was able to prepare for this album so comfortably and actively put out my ideas, and they accepted them to a great extent.”
What kind of vision did CEO Jeong present for a “solo Heejin”. Heejin said, “He wanted to show the maximum abilities that I couldn’t draw out (in the past). When I saw CEO-nim for the first time in a long while, he told me, ‘You’ve changed the most.’ Not in a bad way - in the past, when someone told me to do something, I would say ‘Yes, understood’ and carry it out, and that’s the mindset of a rookie. Now, having been an idol for a while and having pride in my own album, I speak out actively and honestly. I speak up even about inconvenient things without beating around the bush, and he said he really loves how my personality has become so spirited.”
“Back then there used to be set goals, and now I think it wouldn’t be bad to be more flexible, go with the flow. I think it’s important to become well-established in everything, so I can catch any opportunity that comes, whatever it is. Honestly (this line of work) often doesn’t go the way I plan, so… I am a planner type, but often that actually makes me miss out on something.” (Laughs)
Heejin made a wish: “I want to show people that I can fill out the stage even when I’m alone. I’m someone who’s so happy to step onto the stage. As much energy as I expend, I hope all of that is delivered to you.” Then, “This time, I hope it’ll be an opportunity for people who didn’t know me well to find out once and for all,” she emphasized. “I’m only going to be giving you unforgettable performances, so please look forward to it.”