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[Indie spirit] Singer-songwriter Ahn Ye-eun creates new identity with genre-defying music

31-year-old singer gives new life to traditional, unusual motifs

Feb. 27, 2024 - 15:48 By Lee Jung-youn
Singer-songwriter Ahn Ye-eun poses for a photo during an interview with The Korea Herald (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Singer-songwriter Ahn Ye-eun is a genre unto herself. Boldly using Korean myth and unusual motifs to create music, she is a musician who enriches the Korean music scene, captivating audiences with her unique blend of tradition and modernity.

"It is hard to decide which genre to register with whenever I release a song. Now I have come to think of that as my strength – doing music that cannot be determined by traditional genre definitions," said Ahn.

With the strong color of her music, the 31-year-old singer-songwriter has carved out a niche for herself in the music industry, but her unique style has also been a source of trouble. Since making her name known to the public by placing second in the fifth season of the audition program "K-pop Star," which aired on SBS from 2015 to 2016, Ahn has been contemplating the color of her music.

“When I was on ‘K-pop Star,’ all of my footage was deleted for two months because the editors thought my color was too strong. So it wasn't until halfway through the audition show that I was first seen. I'm always trying to seek a balance between songs that the public will like and music that I want to do.”

Ahn's uniqueness comes primarily from her singing style, which resembles pansori, a traditional Korean narrative singing. The use of unusual motifs like traditional Korean folktales and historical events also adds to the uniqueness of Ahn's music. The horror song series, which began in 2020, is some of the most unique music she has presented.

"It's a series that started out of curiosity about whether music alone can make people feel scared. I didn't plan on making this an annual series, but thankfully it was loved by many people, so I could continue it."

After "Trumpet Creeper," conceived from a myth about a court lady who died waiting for the king, three more horror songs have been released so far, including "Changgwi," a ghost story of a man who died after being bitten by a tiger; "RATvolution," a story of a mouse that eats human fingernails to transform itself into a human and takes away his life; and "Hongryeon," which came from a well-known traditional Korean novel.

"When I work on a studio album, I sing about five songs that I want to sing and fill the rest with songs that I think listeners would prefer. The horror song series is a channel to quench my thirst for the music that I want."

The singer recalled that “Not Me Not Mine,” which was released on Jan. 21, was much easier to produce than before. "There were times when I had too many thoughts in my mind, worrying about people getting tired of my unusual music. But now I think I'm finding my way a little better than before."

Ahn’s music has various motifs. In addition to the horror song series, she made a song out of the Proust phenomenon, a phenomenon in which people recall past events through their sense of smell. Another hit song "Octopus' Dream" came after watching a documentary about octopuses whose body color changes while dreaming.

Singer-songwriter Ahn Ye-eun poses for a photo during an interview with The Korea Herald (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Asked where she gets her inspiration from, the singer said she diligently records what she encounters daily. "When I see new words or unfamiliar expressions while reading a book or scrolling down a social media post, I write them all down in my notepad. Starting with just one word or expression, I build stories and songs upon them, as if I'm mind-mapping."

"Books are helpful for people who do music. I always lecture about how reading is important, especially to my friends who do music."

In addition to her unique tone and lyrics, Ahn's songs go against the tide of what is popular today. "My songs are about four minutes and longer, on average. They can be as short as three minutes and 20 seconds but some songs exceed five minutes."

The singer is still seeking a balance between satisfying herself and being exposed to more listeners. "I’ve always wanted the instruments to speak in parts that don't have lyrics. However, recent songs tend to come out in less than three minutes, which makes it almost impossible to add enough instrumental parts. So I tried sending all the lyrics in the first half of the songs and pulling back the instrumental parts behind. Although some would just listen to the lyrics and turn off the song, some would stick till the end and feel the deeper emotions that I intended to evoke."

Ahn's boldness can also be seen in her childhood fight against diseases. Until the age of 12, she underwent five operations due to congenital heart abnormalities. “I was too young back then, so I do not remember much. But my parents told me that I was quite brave even though I had to spend almost my entire childhood in hospitals.”

As she has chosen a career in which she needs to constantly communicate with the public, she has been contemplating how she can help people with similar pain.

“In 2023, I donated 10 million won to the hospital where I had surgery. I wanted to show how healthy I am now. Also, I thought that if I let the public know about my donation, more people would be aware of the issue and the people in need. My fans participated in the donation on my birthday last year,” said the singer proudly.

Although she said she tends not to set a goal, Ahn carefully expressed her desire to go overseas. "I've been to Japan often and made some local friends. They told me that my music would work there, too. So, regardless of the size of the concert hall, even if there are only three in the audience, I want to try singing in new spaces and countries."

Singer-songwriter Ahn Ye-eun poses for a photo during an interview with The Korea Herald (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)