In high school, Sunmin Baek wasn’t comfortable singing in front of people. Instead, she’d take her laptop, go into her closet, stuff towels to block out sound, crank up the volume, and sing until the battery ran out.
Currently, she is signed to Korean entertainment company INYEON Entertainment and gearing up to officially debut as a singer. But her path wasn’t straightforward. In fact, she wasn’t originally a singer.
Cold Tea Collective got to talk to the Korean American singer about her relationship with music, pursuing a career in Korea, and her YouTube series “Reading Kpop Ballads.”
MUSIC, AT WHAT COST?
As a child, Baek sat under the piano as her mother taught her older sister. Too young to actually play, she instead pushed the pedals and relished the resonance of the instrument.
Raised by a mother who studied classical voice at Seoul National University, Baek was surrounded by music at a young age. She started playing piano and violin and soon joined the competitive classical world. But she started to despise the instruments.
“I don’t think I ever comfortably attended a birthday party,” she said, “because I always had to play.”
She stopped music during middle school, but that felt wrong. When she started high school, she joined choir and orchestra but still felt disoriented.
“I felt like I lost part of my identity, as if someone had erased part of my name,” she explained.
So she started piano again. She found a teacher who got her competition-ready within a month and soon, she was back to memorizing 80 pages of music and competing. Baek went on to start college as a piano major.
But a week into classes, she had a bike accident and sprained her wrist, wiping out her ability to perform. On top of her injury, she also had other accumulated health issues. She soon withdrew from college.
From rock bottom, she started thinking.
“If I’m going to get my life back up from the crumbles that it’s in, I’m going to do it the way that I choose,” she said. And for her, that meant being a singer.
Growing up, Baek had little exposure to contemporary, or non-classical, music. She was raised in a very traditional household without cable or a computer, making it hard to discover music by herself.
During her sophomore year of high school, her friends introduced her to K-Pop. In particular, Baek was drawn to IU, a female singer famous for her clear voice and a diverse musical catalogue. She was also fascinated by ballads, which aren’t common in American music and had poetic lyrics.
At this point, Baek never had formal voice lessons. She joined the high school choir but was still petrified of performing by herself. That was, until she took a chance on herself and prepared a song for a school program.
She didn’t expect much and was surprised when the audience’s reaction to her singing was positive. A teacher even asked if singing was something she was planning to pursue.
The thought of singing stayed in her mind, quietly brewing as she continued being a competitive pianist. After her piano career was postponed from her biking accident, she revisited the possibility of being a singer, specifically in Korea.
“I thought, this is something I can throw myself into,” she said. “If life is going to be difficult anyway, it might as well be difficult doing the thing I love.”
But first, she had to prove herself to her parents.
Unsure of her ability, her parents made a deal with her; if she could get the approval of the instructors at the internationally renowned Berklee School of Music, they’d let her go to Korea. They signed her up for a five-week summer program to test her.
In the first class, she was given a rating of three out of four for her ability. Compared to her peers who were touring and recording professionally already, this threw her into an existential crisis. But rather than losing confidence, it emboldened her.
“If I started later than others, I have to work ten times harder,” she reckoned. And her work paid off; by the end of the program, she was one of the participants who won a scholarship to attend Berklee.
TO SING IN KOREA
Having proved herself, Baek had the green light to go to Korea, only to waste a year at a fake academy.
Thankfully, she still had Berklee. It turned out that life in Boston was what she needed. She describes Berklee as being a sort of emotional hospital for her, healing her both emotionally and musically.
Even as she was a student, she spent summers auditioning at different entertainment companies in Korea. Finally, she was accepted at Inyeon Entertainment. She put her Berklee career on pause as she moved to Korea late 2018.
Besides adjusting to the culture shock of being in Korea, Baek also had to adjust how she sang. She added emotion to her voice differently per language and realizing this, her company’s composer encouraged her to write melodies in both English and Korean.
Her personality was also different in each language. In America, Baek was more shy and studious. Korea presented her with a chance to reinvent herself and she crafted a brighter and more confident version of herself. This affected how she expressed herself in each language.
This was especially key as she was working primarily on singing ballads.
EMOTIONS AND SUNSHINE
One constant through the change of instruments was the way music affected Baek.
“Music has always spoken to me; it makes me feel things, whether I want to or not,” she said.
She previously thought that she wasn’t an emotional person. Only a few years ago, she didn’t express herself well, instead holding onto emotions. The only way the emotions were released was through music.
“Even if I’m good at putting on a mask when I hear music, it really affects my emotions,” she explained.
After deciding to pursue being a singer, she felt freer to express herself, since it was her job to express emotions, especially as a ballad singer.
“I want to help people through my music,” Baek said. If her voice was a color, she thinks it’d be like a creamy yellow that helps soothe people.
Baek had a close friend who was like a sun, equally shining onto anyone. He believed in her singing before she did and helped her during hard times. The friend ended his life two years ago and she wants to honor his warm spirit through her music.
“I also want to be like the sun,” she explained. “I hope that everyone can find at least one small aspect [of my music] that can help them heal.”
TRANSLATION AND SONGWRITING
Baek currently is doing a YouTube series titled Reading K-Pop Ballads where she translates Korean ballads into English. This project is a mesh of her ability to translate, host events, and sing.
“My goal is to help keep the emotions alive so people who love K-Pop can experience the song a different way,” she said.
When she translates, she prioritizes the emotional information of the lyrics. In her videos, before she sings, she introduces the original artist and her translation choices.
This translation project has affected her songwriting.
“Korean music has more flowery lyrics whereas American pop music is more straightforward,” she explained. “Nowadays, my lyrics have also become more flowery.”
You can follow Baek on Instagram at aprilgpaik and find her YouTube series here, where she’ll be uploading more Reading K-Pop Ballads videos and other content. Baek is currently releasing music under the artist name WILLOW.
You can listen to her self-composed debut single “Let’s Just Sing” here:
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