It’s always nice when a singer you’ve been following for ages gets some well-deserved recognition. It’s even better, if you get the chance to interview her, when you find out that as well has having oodles of talent she’s a really nice person as well.
Nah Youn Sun comes across as self-effacing on stage – which means that listeners are initially unprepared for the assured and virtuoso performance that she delivers. And in real life she’s just as self-effacing.
I caught up with her before her London gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – which got a rave review from the Financial Times – opening for fellow ACT Records artists, Dan Berglund’s Tonbruket.1 I start by congratulating her on her recent award from the French government – Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, a sort of cultural knighthood – and she seems surprised I know about it. “Oh, thank you,” she responds with a smile, in a soft, indefinable accent: English is her third language, after French and her native Korean.
Nah is based in Paris, having moved to France in 1995 to expand her musical horizons. She grew up in a musical family – her father is a choral conductor and her mother a singer well known for her performances in comedy musicals – and she made her public debut with the Korean Symphony Orchestra in 1992. She then passed a couple of years in Korea following in her mother’s footsteps by singing in musicals. But this wasn’t really her thing: the singing bit was well within her capabilities, but she hadn’t had the acting or dancing training. “In one of my roles I played a handicapped person, which meant I couldn’t move at all.” That suited her just fine.
Musicals are big business in Korea, but Nah needed to find something different to succeed as a singer. Having acquired a love of French chanson during her teenage years, and wanting to explore jazz further, Europe’s oldest jazz school, CIM in Paris, was the obvious choice. She started with the ambition of singing like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Her teacher put her straight, telling her to sing with her own voice, not try to turn herself into something she was not. He was right, and Nah is now known for the individuality of her voice and virtuosity of her technique.
She got together her own band, and released a series of records starting in 2001. But, despite the assurance of her music, she never had a long term relationship with a record company. Each contract was for one album only, giving her the control over her own musical creativity. It is only relatively recently that she signed a three-record deal with ACT Records. After around 10 years with her French band she returned to Seoul to do something different – a more pop-inspired album, with a different set of musicians. The chemistry immediately worked, and the partnership with Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius was born. The first fruits of that were Voyage (ACT, 2009), which has a quartet, but Nah and Wakenius tour the music as a duo.
Voyage includes Nah’s own compositions as well as folk songs and covers of Tom Waits and Nat King Cole. But she has not lost touch with her chansons. “I suggested to Ulf that we try Léo Ferré’s Avec le Temps, and he immediately fell in love with it. We’re now working on some chansons together”. Last year’s Vortex gig for example included Brel’s Ne me quitte pas.
They seem to have a punishing tour schedule, but Nah takes it in her stride. “Well, I’m not young,” she says (she’s a young-looking 40) “but I manage OK: I get my energy from the audience and my fellow musicians. I think I’m just so lucky to be doing what I’m doing”. I challenge her why after 14 years in France it was only in 2009 that she managed to perform in the UK for the first time. For Nah, the French jazz scene is active enough not to need to go further afield.
But in order to grow internationally she needs to travel. In recent years she’s toured extensively in Europe, plus Malaysia, China and elsewhere, but she is always assured of a warm reception back in Korea. The jazz scene is not well-developed there (many would-be Korean jazz musicians go to America to train), but the Jarasum Jazz Festival last year drew a total audience of 150,000, so there’s clearly a market. “Jazz musician friends of mine who perform in Korea always want to go back. They never forget the reception they get. It’s as if they’re rock stars.”
Next month she is due to start recording her second album with Wakenius on ACT. It’s a similar personnel line-up to her first, but she’s aiming to get a guest artist or two. Who would she really like to perform with, other than her current band? “Well, it’s only a dream,” she said after a long pause, as if confessing a shy schoolgirl crush, “but I’d really like to work with Sting.”
“It’s only a dream,” she repeats apologetically, as if dismissing the thought.
She may come across as deferential on stage, but she’s no shrinking violet. As a parting shot, I asked her whether she participated in the student democracy demonstrations when she was a teenager in the 1980s. “Of course I was on the streets,” she laughed. “Everybody was on the streets!”
It’s time for her to head off for her sound-checks and, self-effacing to the last, with a smile, a polite bow and an annyeongi kaeseyo, she is gone.
- You can find my review of the evening over on London Jazz.