It is about an hour to midnight in Seoul, and the new nine-member act – comprising members Yujin (also of CLC), Mashiro, Xiaoting, Chaehyun, Dayeon, Hikaru, Huening Bahiyyih, Youngeun and Yeseo – have just returned from a long day of music show recordings and online fan-meetings. Despite their hectic schedule, the girls display no signs of exhaustion as they hop onto their Zoom call with NME, fuelled by the high of finally making their awaited debut.
Although the Kep1er are just a month into their career, the group have already been on one hell of a journey. From competing alongside 90 other contestants on the Mnet reality TV series Girls Planet 999 for a spot in the group, to having their debut be delayed after several members contracted COVID-19 (which also caused them to miss out on performing at one of Asia’s biggest music awards ceremonies), the girl group are nothing if not determined to progress onward. “It was really regrettable that we were unable to show the stage that we had prepared for the awards show,” says Youngeun. “But if we have any opportunities to show [what we had originally prepared] in the future, we would be very glad to perform it.
“I think these setbacks really helped us prepare for our debut,” adds Dayeon, who goes on to share how each of them had even spent their self-quarantine practising and preparing for their then-upcoming debut. Kep1er’s dedication shines through in their unapologetically vibrant hit single ‘WA DA DA’: “Heads up, run towards your dream / Stand up, the dream of you and me, higher, higher / We’ll run faster than anyone else / To where you are,” they declare, a battle cry of sorts marking the beginning of their promising career.
“The lyrics of the song show our aspirations of becoming the best girl group of the next generation,” leader Yujin tells NME. This is especially meaningful for the 25-year-old vocalist, who had first debuted six years prior as a member of the now-inactive girl group CLC, spending years steadily growing the group’s fanbase only to lose support from their agency five years in. Yujin, however, doesn’t dwell on what could have been, instead looking at Kep1er as a renewed opportunity to show the world what she’s made of.
“Six years ago, I think there was definitely room for improvement. I feel like this time, I was able to show my fans how much I have grown as an artist,” Yujin explains, adding that her years in the industry have lent her valuable wisdom in leading her younger bandmates to success. “I’m glad that I am able to share what I’ve learned from these experiences with the members of Kep1er.”
While barely noticeable in the group’s performances due to constant practice, the group’s three foreign members – Mashiro and Hikaru are from Japan, while Xiaoting is from China – confess that communication across languages can be an obstacle. “My biggest struggle so far has definitely been the language barrier,” shares Xiaoting, who hails from Sichuan. Even Mashiro, who spent the past six years as a K-pop trainee and learning Korean, says she continues to encounter unfamiliar words and phrases, though believes the difficulties have ultimately been worth it. “In the end, [travelling to Korea] really became a stepping stone to my dream,” Hikaru chimes in, as she nods in agreement.
“I feel like we don’t face too many language barriers in our daily conversations,” says Huening Bahiyyih, who is notably the youngest sibling of two K-pop idols – her elder brother is none other than TXT’s Huening Kai, while her sister Lea was a member of the short-lived girl group VIVA. “But just occasionally, there are times where Xiaoting and Hikaru want to say something and don’t know the right vocabulary, so they use an online translator and read them out [to us]. Those are such cute moments,” she tells us with a giggle, while the pair smile bashfully.
While Huening’s star-studded family tree is blooming with role-model material – her father had also been a singer and television personality in Brazil – the 17-year-old shares that her biggest inspiration is none other than Ariana Grande. “I love listening and singing along to her songs,” she says excitedly, adding that she had been a fan of the pop star from a young age. “I really admire how she is able to enjoy herself and put on such vocally impressive performances.”
Closer to home, Kep1er also show love for senior K-pop girl groups and idols, their favourites as diverse as the members themselves. Chaehyun voices her love for Girls’ Generation leader and soloist Taeyeon. “I feel like she has been able to make music in so many different styles without limiting herself to just one genre,” says the former SM Entertainment trainee, who placed first on Girls Planet 999.
Youngest member Yeseo shares her admiration for IU, famously dubbed the nation’s “little sister”. “Her voice is always so clear and pretty, and with that voice, she is able to express so many concepts, styles and emotions,” says the 16-year-old idol, who yearns to develop her versatility as an artist. “I’m really envious of that, and it’s a skill that I hope to master eventually.”
“When I was young, there was a time where I got to see 2NE1 perform,” shares Hikaru. “The energy they gave off on stage really struck me and since then, I have dreamt of becoming a global artist like 2NE1.” Meanwhile, Xiaoting and Mashiro cite BLACKPINK as inspirations, with the former recounting her experience attending one of the quartet’s concerts and becoming “mesmerised” by their stage presence.
As our time together draws to a close, Kep1er open up about their aspirations for their future. “We want to become a group that people can watch and gain energy from when they are having a hard time,” says Yujin, sharing her desire to put out positive and uplifting energy into the world. Moving forward, Youngeun hopes to take the world by storm with the teamwork and synergy that “only the nine of us can present” as a team. “I think fans will continue to be surprised by the one-and-only performances only Kep1er can show,” she says.
Kep1er’s debut mini-album ‘FIRST IMPACT’ is out now.