Jazz vocalist Nah Youn-sun spent her first ever free year feeling anxious. As the pandemic persisted with no end in sight, the situation understandably became very daunting for a performer who hit the stage at least 100 times a year. Considering her new circumstances, she thought she might have to find a new occupation.
“I felt isolated on an island, especially since the musicians I had worked with in the past 10 years were all foreigners. I was contemplating whether I should change jobs and wondered if I could ever go back to how it was,” Nah told The Korea Herald last Wednesday.
Then she imagined what she would show when she reunited with her musical friends, who were also stuck in their corners of the world. Not wanting this period of social distancing to be one of despair, she decided to write her own songs. It’s not the first time the 53-year-old jazz musician created her own music, but this time she learned how to make music with a music software called Logic.
This resulted in “Waking World,” her 11th album overall but the very first one that she crafted herself -- from the lyrics down to the album cover.
“The pandemic gave me the courage to make the album,” Nah said.
The pandemic allowed her to have more conversations with her mother, which inspired her to write "My mother."
A daughter of a conductor and a musical actress, Nah thought she would not work in music. As the first artistic director and conductor of the National Chorus of Korea, which was founded in 1973, her father would cut his sleep short to write scores that didn’t exist and translate Western chorus songs into Korean at night. Her mother was a rare working mom who was pursuing a career as a musical actress in the 1970s and 1980s.
However, the daughter of two musicians couldn’t help but fall in love with music -- especially with chanson, which her high school French teacher would play at the end of class. Following a brief stint as an office worker after graduating college, she debuted as a musical singer in the Korean version of the German musical "Line 1" in 1994. Thinking she wasn't good enough to be on stage and still unsure if she wanted to be a musician, Nah decided to study first and went to France to study jazz.
“I was the only Asian studying jazz. Little did I know then that people would go to the US for jazz, not France. But I loved chanson and French, and the first jazz academy in Europe was there,” she said.
Since the release of her debut album in 2001, Nah has performed on numerous stages around the world, small and big. However, it took a while for her to gain confidence. At first, she tried to mimic a deep and soulful voice. But as she continued to perform, she realized people loved it when she sang with her own color -- singing jazz with a Korean sensibility.
"I was insecure about not having grown up listening to jazz and having a soprano tone, but those who know jazz can tell if you're mimicking or if you're legit. I started to do my own thing and I think that France, which appreciates cultural diversity, accepted my style," Nah said, adding that she feels privileged to have had the opportunity to sing at various places in France early in her career. In 2009, Nah received a Chevaliers of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her musical contributions to France.
She hopes that jazz musicians can have more stage opportunities in South Korea, big or small, because her experiences on stage were essential to making her who she is now.
"For jazz musicians, the stage is the school. I hope they can have unfettered support."
After giving about 50 performances around the world this year to promote "Waking World," Nah is meeting Korean audiences this month, including her concert at Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in Seoul on Wednesday.