There’s no mistaking ITZY. Known for their fiery stage presence and charisma, the quintet have worked their way up into becoming one of the most distinct groups in K-pop, both visually and sonically. The audacious quintet paint their image with a distinctly bold palette, unafraid to demand your full attention.
Off stage though, Yeji, Lia, Ryujin, Chaeryeong and Yuna radiate a warm, down-to-earth energy. It’s a late spring afternoon in Seoul, South Korea when NME hops onto Zoom with ITZY, who are in the thick of preparations for their new mini-album, ‘Checkmate’.
“All of us have evolved a lot,” says Chaeryeong at some point during our conversation. Truer words have never been spoken: Since their debut in 2019, ITZY have transformed from free-spirited teenagers into self-assured young women. They have preached self-love as their core message from the very beginning, but it is also clear that they are constantly undergoing metamorphosis, becoming more polished, more daring, more at home in their own skin with every release.
“Our fans, my members, my family, they’re my motivation” – Chaeryeong
Their latest mini-album – led by the bold, energetic ‘Sneakers’ – is testament to that. At first glance, ITZY’s regal visuals for the new record and single appear mismatched. After all, who would connect a princess-inspired concept to a pair of running shoes? Coming from a group so fiercely committed to marching to the beat of their own drum, though, the mish-mash of ideas makes sense.
“To put your own sneakers on and jump out of [others’] expectations to freedom is the message of this track,” explains Ryujin, adding that, just like their past title tracks, ‘Sneakers’ is ultimately rooted in the message of self-confidence. “This time, we wanted to [include] freedom in it so listeners can enjoy this music more brightly, and more, like, summer!” she adds.
Yeji voices her love for the sparkling ‘Domino’, the final track on ‘Checkmate’. “This song talks about the relationship between close people, like dominoes,” she explains, adding that the song reminds her of MIDZY, the group’s fanbase. Meanwhile, Ryujin tells us that her favourite track is none other than ‘What I Want’. Known to fans as one of ITZY’s more straightforward, headstrong personalities, the dancer and rapper’s affection for the sassy new B-side comes as no surprise.
“I like this song because the couplet is really attractive,” Ryujin shares, before treating us to an impromptu performance: “I know what I want, I know what I want / I know what what what I want,” she raps. “I love that song.”
“As for me, ‘Free Fall’!” Yuna, the youngest of the group, declares brightly. “This song is really a summer song, like, wheeee, go jumping, like this,” she gestures, swaying in her chair, pointing towards the ceiling and waving her arms, all at the same time.
NME’s conversation with ITZY takes place entirely in English without the aid of a translator. Though vocalist Lia has studied a couple years abroad in Canada, the rest of the group have spent their entire lives in Korea. Even so, the girls breeze through the interview, candidly expressing themselves with ease. The members break out in a chorus of laughter, nodding furiously in agreement when Ryujin tells us that their language skills have improved. “She said that English is confidence,” she adds, pointing at Yeji, and the leader lets out a giggle before throwing up a peace sign.
From the September 2021 release of their debut studio album ‘Crazy In Love’ to a string of viral hits on TikTok – ‘#Twenty’ and ‘Weapon’, among others – ITZY have experienced an explosion of online popularity in the past year. The group are well aware of the digital waves they have made: “Rather than such [virality] or TikTok itself impacting the songs, short-form [pieces of] content are the trending things these days,” Yuna observes. That influenced their approach to ‘Checkmate’, which was previewed through several shorts and special clips on the video platform leading up to its release. “We’re trying to do something impactful, but also short.”
“Due to the pandemic, we couldn’t travel the world. But we can feel the love through the comments!” – Yeji
“Due to the pandemic, we couldn’t travel the world,” Yeji says regretfully. “But we can feel the love through the comments!” The conversation shifts to travel and the group’s upcoming ‘Checkmate’ tour, set to kick off in Seoul next month before heading to North America.
Their first world tour, it has been a long time coming for ITZY, who saw the pandemic strike barely a year into their career. “[I’m looking forward to] meeting our fans face to face, the screaming,” Chaeryeong says, smiling shyly. “Especially the screaming,” Ryujin emphasises. “Since it’s been, like, two years that we haven’t heard the real screams from our fans, I really missed it. I’m really looking forward to it!”
The success of their past few releases, while daunting to follow, has only made the group more determined to show the world what they are made of. “It would be a lie if we said we felt no pressure at all,” Lia confesses. “But I guess [this time], we just tried to focus on showing what kind of group we are, what kind of group ITZY really are, and how good we can be.” Chaeryeong shares how she remains empowered to forge forward. “Our fans, my members, my family, they’re my motivation,” she tells us, earning a resounding chorus of “awwws” from her bandmates.
As we chat, it becomes clear how much the members of ITZY have grown to rely on one another over the years. Despite some of their personalities being worlds apart, they meld together seamlessly as a team, both on and off stage. “Our teamwork and our bond have gotten much better,” Lia reflects. ITZY are a group of all-rounders, yet every member possesses specific talent – think Lia’s powerful voice or Chaeryeong’s razor-sharp dance moves – that assures each of them an important role in the group. “Because we understand each other so well, we know what kind of person they are,” Lia shares. “We know what kind of people [each of] ourselves are, so we wouldn’t want to be someone else.”
“I think the reason that person is perfect is because it’s her, like, it’s them. Like, the reason Yeji is so good is because it’s Yeji, because Yeji’s doing it,” she continues, gesturing to the leader, who lets out a flustered laugh as Ryujin nods enthusiastically. “And I think I’m doing my best that I can in my place,” Lia continues.
As our time together draws to a close, NME asks ITZY to share their hopes for the rest of the year. “I want to be healthy, first of all, body and mind, so that I can spend the happiest time with our fans and our members throughout the rest of the year,” Lia says. Yuna chimes in: “I want to have happy memories with MIDZY in 2022!”
“It’s been a while since our last comeback, but we prepared a lot, so please look forward to our album and our performances,” says Ryujin in a final message to their fans. “Thank you for waiting, and we love you, MIDZY!”
ITZY’s fifth mini-album ‘Checkmate’ is out now