The Sun is a source of light, warmth, energy, and in many regards, inspiration. Solar has a close relationship with this astral body, and it could be argued that to some extent, she has taken upon herself to become its avatar on Earth.
It’s a late afternoon in Seoul and the South Korean singer has this virtual rendezvous with NME. Before the interview, I ask her to whom am I talking to: Solar or Kim Yong-sun? “Right now, I’m Kim Yong-sun,” she says with a cheerful clap that reveals her jovial state of mind and she adds: “There’s not a huge difference between them. In the end, both of them are me. If I’m to really think of any differences at all… the type of makeup?”
She is presently welcoming her first solo mini-album titled ‘容 : FACE’, a musical gateway to springtime where the central tenet is embracing the uniqueness of one person’s character. “I wanted to emphasise the message that everyone has a different face [in appearance],” she explains, “but because of that, each person is valuable and precious.”
With Solar, there’s no contradiction. Rather, there’s a genuineness that percolates through the screen, with each answer emanating candour. “From Kim Yong-sun, I’ve learned many things like consistency, working hard and passion. These are different sides of Kim Yong-sun,” she elaborates. “Then, as Solar, I’ve learned to communicate with people better as I’ve done so many interviews. I think I’ve learned from each side of me.”
To unravel Solar’s words means to delve into the depths of her voyage. Once an aspiring flight attendant, her path didn’t signal music as a harbour until her early 20s, when she sensed that, maybe, travelling the skies wasn’t for her. Then, during one unplanned participation in a street busking event, her voice captured the interest of a label representative who tried to recruit her, to no avail. However, this encounter soon catalysed Solar to pursue a newly found dream as a singer, trying and failing around 50 auditions until her last opportunity at RBW turned out to be that fateful door.
Still, victory didn’t come on a silver platter. She has said before that her untroubled life changed from this point, facing the ambiguity of the Korean entertainment ecosystem. “I think I felt [uncertain] a lot,” she admits during our conversation. “Considering that I debuted at a relatively older age [for a K-pop idol], I did have thoughts like, ‘Can I do well?’ or ‘Can I continue this job later?’ And because the future was so uncertain, I did have a lot of worries.”
Solar also compares this phase as being like “a seven-year-old”, callow but driven by the tenacity to circumvent the situation. For the first time, she was the “older sister”, a leader in the making. “I didn’t know much, but I would act first,” she says. “I had good endurance then, so much passion, but not much knowledge.”
Moving ahead in the limelight, in the wake of her debut with K-pop girl group MAMAMOO in 2014, Solar moulded herself anew. Her characteristic radiance blended with a sense of introspection to shoulder heavy responsibilities. At first, her stance was strict and it was difficult to express her heart, sometimes causing misunderstandings. But, with time and realisation, growth took place.
“The sides of me that had edges have smoothed out to fit better with people,” Solar adds. “As I gained experiences, I learned that there were things that weren’t great to do. I feel like I’ve learned so much since then. So now, there’s an aspect of me that is much more careful, but the overwhelming passion remains the same. It’s just that rather than acting first, I am careful and cautious.”
As the leader of MAMAMOO, Solar can be described as a pillar of stability. Her presence instilled balance in the group as they weathered the K-pop storm, eventually conquering it. “First of all, being in MAMAMOO for eight years, we really did so much. We worked hard and ran forward, so I’m just so grateful for the fact that people looked at us positively and were able to appreciate the performances,” Solar says. Although she is wearing a mask, her vivid eye-smile immediately gives the feeling away while talking about the quartet.
And it’s understandable. MAMAMOO is one of the axes her world revolves around. After dazzling the industry for a long run, the cadence of their trajectory slowed down as the group shifted their focus toward solo endeavours. But make no mistake, they always make sure to come back home to continue rising.
“Honestly, during those eight years, I couldn’t really process it,” she continues. “We were so busy just trying to live and focused on working hard that back then, I wasn’t able to process the feelings. Now, thinking back on it all, I’m so grateful for all those times and I’m thankful for everything now.”
By reaching the height of being a vocal powerhouse alongside Moonbyul, Wheein and Hwasa, it was expected that Solar would pursue an independent venture as well. In 2015, she kicked off ‘Solar’s Emotions’ (or ‘Solar Gamsung’ in Korean), a personal project that consisted of covers of vintage songs and even one of her compositions, “Star Wind Flower Sun”. This sonic canvas was colored over three years with her magnetic voice, also acting as a preamble for the next stride.
How Solar conveys her artistic identity will always be a novelty because she isn’t afraid of challenges – she welcomes them. It’s a vision that has been developing steadily, she says, so it was natural to bring that attribute for her official outset as a soloist with the audacious single album ‘Spit It Out’. “As I’m preparing [for] the albums, I always do so with an exciting feeling,” she affirms. “Every time, the desire to try something new always pops into my head.”
She furthers this on ‘容 : FACE’, an enticing production that veers from the boldness encircled in its musical predecessor. Both offerings strike a palpable aural contrast, but instead of being contradictory, they work in tandem.
‘容 : FACE’ basks in Solar’s lyricism that articulates everyday yearnings and memoirs, oscillating between joy and earnestness. Take, for example, her desire to possess a pert derrière that materialises in the sensual jazz serenade ‘Big Booty’ or the comparison between loving and eating that makes its way through the playfulness of ‘찹찹 (chap chap)’. At the helm, title track ‘Honey’ palpitates with a fun-loving cadence that brings forward Solar’s versatility as a vocalist. “I’m very bright and laugh a lot,” she says about the essence of the record. “I wanted to express this side of me.”
Her ethos may be perceived as surreal, but there’s no denying that Solar is a groundbreaker. It’s almost like a calling. Whether she is bald, flaunting a unibrow, doing pole dancing or sitting over a giant head crowned by a six-metre wig, there are no limitations for her. “I don’t really know why that is, and it might be just me as a person,” she muses. “As we’re living, all these things that I’ve tried are not things that we can normally do often in our daily lives… I think they’re all things I should do right now when I think of them.”
In the music video for ‘Honey’, Solar’s inner cosmos is set in motion as we glide through vibrant and minimalist sceneries that orbit around her. She’s the centre of it all, the queen bee that shatters the outer layers of her persona to reveal her true self. Each set has its peculiar allure, but the newspaper room, and most importantly, the dress, render a tangible reality of Solar’s mindset.
“I wanted to show myself standing before all these articles [‘should we call it gossip?’] being confident and doing what I want to do,” she says. “There’s a lot of stories going around even now, but I wanted to show that I’m going to do what I want to do, and I’ll continue to do so in the future [and well].”
Amid the rapid and fluctuating pace of the current world, it’s human nature to feel overwhelmed. There are times when it’s a necessity to pull the brake and step back to recalibrate the body and soul. And Solar did it, too. Last year, she opened up about her mental and physical well-being, sharing that she was going through a downhearted phase and dealing with stress.
“During the ‘Where Are We Now’ promotions as MAMAMOO, honestly, we didn’t really have time to rest. We were so busy, and it’s definitely not that we disliked [being busy],” she calmly explains to me. “We were busy, but we were very much happy. It was just a little physically taxing. When the pandemic happened, along with our break, I was able to release this album and get re-energized.”
‘容 : FACE’, then, recaptures Solar’s luminescence that could predict a lasting solstice in her future. As she walked a path of success, she found a new definition of what it could mean for her. One that allows for self-love. “A long time ago, before MAMAMOO’s debut, getting first place [on music shows] was what I considered success,” she says. “While of course being first place in a music show is still a success to me, now, I feel like being happy [right in this moment] is what I consider success.”
Solar’s first solo mini-album ‘容 : FACE’ is out now.