Younee, the versatile singer-songwriter-pianist from Korea, is in London to launch her new album and play the Pizza Express Jazz Club. She takes a break from her rehearsal schedule to talk to LKL about her musical influences.
It was not a good start to the interview. I had selected the Wigmore Hall bar as a good, informal and reasonably quiet spot to meet Younee. It had worked well for LKL’s interview with Jasmine Choi. But strangely, the Wigmore Hall was closed. Younee arrives bang on time, and I’m wondering where we can go to talk. Fortunately, Younee is accompanied by her well-connected and resourceful PR, Anthony Steinberg, who immediately suggests the top floor bar at the George Hotel, right next door to the BBC’s building in nearby Langham Place. We take our seats, and watch the sun go down over west London as we talk.
Younee is a perfect fit for LKL: a talented Korean artist who just wants to be in London to make music. She has already made a name for herself in Korea – under the name Key’s Piano – and now wants to reach out to an international audience with international musicians. “Why London?” I ask. “Because of the British Invasion,” she replies. I guiltily search my memory for ways in which Britain’s colonial past might have inspired a Korean musician. Anthony’s face is looking similarly puzzled. “The great rock guitarists,” she laughs. “Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page – at one time they were all British”.
We need to wind the clock back. Younee become attracted to music at a very early age, as young as three years old. “At kindergarten I learned the melodeon. I played it so much that the tube stuck to the keyboard,” she remembers. “Whenever I heard any music I always wanted to play it back. When I got hold of a piano at school, I would always try to change the chords or try to do something different: maybe it can be more attractive if I change something.”
Clearly her hunger for experimentation was not going to find an outlet without easy access to a piano at home. She pestered her mother to buy her one, and was eventually rewarded, at the age of 8. But so obsessed was she, that she had a constant fear that someone would steal it. If she was out and about with her mother, she was always wanting to hurry home to check the piano was still there.
The different musical influences on her explain her versatility. Clearly, when learning the piano at school the emphasis is on the classical repertoire. But at home, Younee’s mother was an obsessive collector of rock music LPs. Their shelves were lined with the likes of Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.
At 14, she went to Yewon Arts Middle School (예원 학교) – part of Seoul Arts High School (서울 예술 고등 학교) – “It’s like the junior Menuhin or Purcell School” she explains helpfully, obviously familiar with schools that will resonate with a Brit. At Yewon, she was lucky enough to be taught by Shin Soo Jung – who coincidentally is on the jury of this year’s Leeds Piano Competition, which finished on 13 September.
Favourite pianists? “I love Horowitz. He hovers over the keyboard like a ghost. And Martha Argerich. She’s so fiery.” Right at that moment, Younee could have been Argerich’s younger sister – the same long back flowing hair, with a slightly wild look, particularly as the red glow of the setting sun caught her face. But her favourite composer is the slightly more restrained Bach, with his Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue a candidate for her desert island collection.
Enough of the Classics, because Younee is here to launch her album which she has co-written with Richard Niles, a producer who’s worked with the greats such as Pat Metheny, Paul McCartney and Ray Charles.
Having been keen to experiment with new chords as a child and having been surrounded by the best in rock music at home, the longing to explore things outside the classical world never left her. At Yonsei University, she had more time to explore further. At that time, Wednesday Art Stage was one of the leading music programmes on TV. It was presented by Kim Kwang Min (김광민) – a kind of Korean Jools Holland. Younee was impressed by his improvisation, and asked him for some lessons: fortunately he was friends with her other teacher, Shin Soo Jung, and he was happy to help. Before long, she was composing her own songs.
Almost on a whim she entered – and won – the Yu Jae-ha singer-songwriter competition1, which inspired her to continue. Her songs were performed by other Korean artists. But she wanted to write a song in English. She contacted a random lyricist over the internet and came runner-up in a UK songwriting contest supported by the Brit awards. She was on her way. And it was Britain she wanted to come to. Not because of the image of the English Gentleman, but because so many cool musicians came from there, from the Beatles through Deep Purple to Elton John. Asked about the bands that inspired her, she will rattle off a whole list too long to repeat here, all of whom have given her something. But Deep Purple’s keyboardist Jon Lord is someone she singles out: “he combines burning rock blues with a touch of baroque classical”.
It’s hardly a wonder that her publicity material proclaims her to be “beyond category” as a singer-songwriter: she just doesn’t fit into a neat little box. “In Korea there are many talented and creative artists, but TV music shows are all about girls dancing.” So Younee feels that the UK, home to so many of the great rock musicians over the years, must be worth trying to crack.
Via her MySpace site she connected with Korean American jazz guitarist Jack Lee, and keyboard player Bob James. James offered her a slot on one of his stage shows in Korea, and through him Younee connected with Richard Niles. And that’s the genesis of True to You, her first UK album. Composing via Skype (midnight Korean time, 4pm London time), Younee and Niles first came up with East-West and What can I do. These tracks were recorded during a London trip in 2007, and the rest soon followed. With plaudits from Richard Carpenter (of The Carpenters: “Younee is certainly a talented young lady”) and one of my favourite guitarists Martin Taylor (“TRUE TO YOU is absolutely amazing”), the album deserves to succeed.
I ask about the slightly raunchy photo which goes with the UK version of her album. I can sense that she’s not too comfortable with it. “People are always trying to turn me into Lady Gaga, or something different” she says, “but the album is all about being true to myself.” The Korean release of the CD has more demure artwork.
Having arrived in London in August, Younee has been busy. Apart from preparing for her performances in Pizza Express in Dean Street in October, she helped kick off the recent Neverending Song 24/7 12 bar blues marathon which started last Monday. She was granted a solo slot on 4 September, and was asked back to help round the week off in Edinburgh on 13 September.
She will be on Jazz Lineup on Radio 3 (11 October, 11:30pm), and on the internet radio station Radio Northwick Park on 4 October. She will be guesting at the Korean Artists’ Association evening at the Cultural Centre on 16 October, and has gigs in the Vortex and the 606 Club as well as the two Pizza Express venues. It all adds up to a busy schedule, where she aims to show off different sides to her talents. The official UK launch of her CD is at Pizza Express Dean Street on 27 October. Be there to support her invasion of Britain.
- Younee’s autumn UK tour and CD release – the official press release (LKL, 14 Sept 2009)
- www.youneeversal.com – the official website of Younee’s album
- www.myspace.com/keyspianomusic – the MySpace site of Younee’s alter-ego
- Download True to You at Amazon.co.uk
- Book Younee’s gigs at Pizza Express Dean Street on 27 October | 28 October | 29 October and Pizza on the Park 30 October
- Singer-songwriter Yu Jae-ha, 유재하, died in 1987 in a car accident when he was 25. Yu used to play guitar with Cho Yong-pil. His most famous song was “Because I love you” – 사랑하기 때문에