Katie Kim on Dropping the K-Pop Label and Finding Herself on Debut Album ‘LOG’ (INTERVIEW)
It’s hard to think of a word to describe Katie Kim’s voice. “Acute” sounds too harsh, and “feathery” too soft. She rests somewhere between that zone, though: a penetrating, oscine whisper that compounds her honesty and witty humor. When I tell her that it would be a disservice to call her a rookie, there’s a trill in her laugh. “I think Katie back then [from three years ago] had no idea what she was going to do in three years. I think she would be surprised and kind of happy, I hope, because it's always been what I wanted to do. The songs and the music is what I wanted, so I guess I would be… pleased?”
A few years ago, Katie (born Kim Seo-hyeon) was studying jazz at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, but decided to drop out since the financial burden was taking a toll on her family. In a bid to move back home and focus on her career, she applied to participate on the Korean TV reality competition, K-pop Star 4. She was victorious: By April 2015, she had a contract with YG Entertainment, consistently counted among the K-pop industry’s “Big 3” agencies.
Three years later, however, Katie was still waiting on a debut. She’d been producing music throughout her trainee years — it just wasn’t seeing the light of day. “My passion for doing the music I love is very strong, [but] I have to make a living at the end,” she explains about the stagnate months of deciding what she wanted to do. “I don't know if I would have been really stubborn about it and still be waiting or [been] a trainee, or moved on and do some stuff just to make a living.”
In the end, artistic freedom won out. In 2018, she switched from YG Entertainment to AXIS, a startup headed by former YG Creative Director Seong Jin Shin, known professionally as Sinxity. In June, she released her gold-hued, luxurious debut single, “Remember”: a fluvial, intensely melodic testimony of how much Katie had taken control of her own music. “Remember” set the tone for Katie’s uncompromising nature: a grit to create something she is completely drowning in, and pulling others along for the ride.
As she finally releases her debut album, LOG (out May 22), Katie chatted with PopCrush about working with Ty Dolla $ign, not being labelled “K-pop,” and how the jazz she grew up listening to informs her music.
You were a student at Berklee College, then a contestant on K-Pop Star 4, and then a K-pop trainee. You have a trajectory that is true-blue K-pop and you would have been a K-pop idol, but you insist on not calling yourself one. Why is that?
What defines K-pop? The things I know is that they [stars] all speak in Korean, sing in Korean, and are based in Korea. That wasn’t what I was going for. I was actually singing in English — I’ve worked with producers out in LA, and part of me is Asian-American. I wanted to show that and just not be labelled as “K-pop” and just be a Korean person trying to sing in English and trying to make it out in America. I wanted to drop the label and just be a singer.
What kind of early musical influences did you have?
Back in middle school, high school, I was actually just listening to whatever was on the radio. I would listen to Shakira, or Avril Lavigne, and all the pop stuff. But in high school, I got really interested in jazz, the golden era and the ‘60s jazz. I listened to a lot of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald — still one of my favorite singers.
Then, I went to Berklee and got to know R&B and soul music. I dug deep into it and fell in love and I guess that's [something] that impacted me the most in Berklee. I still have so much love for jazz; I kind of developed [it] over high school, so I think those all came together in the end to analyze what my influences are now.
You do revisit jazz on your album, on the song "Better Off.”
It still has some R&B features in it. I guess it's a blend of both. I actually don't want to stick with one genre, because I don't think anybody does anymore. I definitely want to lend [my music] some R&B. R&B will be the major one but definitely blend jazz into it because that's part of what I love and what I would like to sing.
Growing up in New Jersey and then going back to Korea, you're the child of two cultures. How has that impacted your music?
I consider myself to be like the 1.8 generation, you know, like second generation… or 1.5. I feel like I don't belong there. I'm kind of in the middle, and I grew up like that. Thinking that I wasn't totally second generation, or one half generation, it was awkward for me to give myself a label.
When I went back to Korea, I wasn't American or a foreigner — because the way I look is Korean — but I wasn't even Korean because I didn't grow up there. I'm not like “Korean” Korean because I still have this kind of awkward accent when I speak, so it was very difficult for me. I went to find myself, but what am I?
I do definitely want to define myself because I think it gives me comfort in belonging somewhere. Having trouble labeling myself gave me some adversities but in the end, I feel like so many people are in that awkward position. I thought that this could be that new kind of label that we could call ourselves and be. The “awkward” label, I guess.
Let’s talk about the remix for “Remember,” which you collaborated on with Ty Dolla $ign. How did that come about?
I have one specific person that I want to thank: Jay. He was my project team leader, and he actually managed Ty back in 2000-something. They had a connection, and he actually reached out to Ty Dolla $ign and presented the opportunity for me. I was very grateful he used that on me and for my song.
Ty was very open about it, and he was excited for it too, so I was like "This is real!" It happened, and I got to shoot with him. He was very chill; I was worried that he might be a bit cocky, because he's such a famous person. To see such a small artist trying to make it, [I thought] he might think it's a trivial thing or something, but he was very friendly and such a nice person.
Are there any other artists that you want to collaborate with?
Nothing that's going on at the moment, but I do have a wish list. My biggest one — when I tell people they don't cheer for it, because they think it's impossible — but Frank Ocean. He's so low-key that I don't even know how to reach him [Laughs] He is definitely at the top of my wish list. I would [also] just love to work with other producers that I have been following. As time goes by I [hope] I can.
You were at the creative helm of LOG. Have you found that producing makes you more responsible or more mindful of what it is you're creating?
I feel very responsible because I put my thoughts and my heart and my ideas on it, so I do feel responsible for it even more. It's a very pleasing experience; I'm quite a stubborn person when it comes to my music and, well, I was very lucky to find a company that supports me and allows me to release the songs that I really love from the bottom of my heart.
Were there any fears or challenges while making LOG?
I feared for life, I guess. [Laughs] Just waiting on such a long time — I think one of the songs had just been sitting there like two and a half years now — I just wanted people to hear it and just be able to connect with them as soon as possible, but it wasn't happening so I was very worried about not having any kind of relationship with the audience for such a long time. It all came together in the end.
LOG was slated to come out last year, but it got delayed. Why is that?
It got delayed because when “Remember” came out, surprisingly it had a great response. We got some calls from labels from the U.S. We didn't reach out to any but thankfully, we got some calls. I was going and having meetings with people and trying to decide which one would work the best for me. That's why it got delayed, because we were trying to make better strategies so more people could hear about me, so [more songs] could be heard by more people.
That’s a very practical approach to your craft. Where did you develop this practicality, and why do you think it's important?
As a singer, I am a very moody and sensitive person, but over the years just waiting and sitting on my music, I learned that it's very important that people listen to it. If you have your music out and you're the only one listening to it, there's no meaning to it. It's not worth it, I feel.
I think music is all about expressing myself and having a connection with the listeners. So, although I push really hard to have the songs come from my heart, I think it's also important that people get to hear it afterwards and vibe to it with me.
During the time you were working on LOG and you realized that it might be delayed, did you feel worried?
I was very apprehensive about it. I was worried that when people find me and try to search about me, I would only have the one song. I was worried that they would turn away and forget about me. To be honest, I was very anxious about it. In the long run, though, I think it was worth the wait.