In full bloom, the magnolia stands tall over the vernal fields distilling incandescent light while the butterfly travels across the infinity transiting the wind. Having these two figures – intricately connected yet dancing like a divergent force – inside a self-created musical firmament, Wheein exists in harmony with her surroundings. But this is now. Getting here has been a journey.
“All of these symbols represent [different] parts of my identity and they are very important in my life,” Wheein shares with NME over a video call from Seoul, South Korea. Her candid aura exudes tranquility, even though she still has more schedules to fulfill after this conversation. “The magnolia flower was in my [mother’s] taemong (conception dream), so it represents my birth,” she continues, “and for the butterfly, my mom applied this symbol [to me] since I was young. She would refer to me as a ‘butterfly child’ sometimes, so it’s those little things that stuck with me and they mean my life.”
Born in the city of Jeonju, South Korea, Wheein (whose unique name takes origin from a Korean manhwa (or comic) called For The Mermaid Princess) blossomed with an organic affinity for all things art. She says her mother “was an artistic person as well”, an ever-present influence helping her turn dancing and singing into a language of her own. As Wheein devoted more time to enhance these abilities, stars continued to align and her world tilted little by little towards the magic of performing.
“Rather than anecdotes, I really had those small moments,” she reminisces in a clear, soothing voice. “I used to participate in every talent show and school event [that involved] singing and dancing and even though those stages were small, I felt happy and accomplished every time. I think it was those little moments that gathered up to build my dream [of being a singer].”
Wheein’s teenage years were bolstered by Ahn Hye-jin – better known by her stage name Hwasa – a dear friend who would share those stellar aspirations with her. Both girls, silently aware of their captivating talents, used to joke around about traveling to Seoul and participating in auditions to set foot in the world of Korean idol music. “We were confident that we would succeed in this field,” Hwasa mentioned back in 2019 during a guest appearance in tvN’s Life Bar. One could argue if it was a matter of clairvoyance or determination, but either way, that hunch was correct.
In the late spring of 2014, Wheein and Hwasa teamed up with Solar and Moonbyul to bring K-pop girl group MAMAMOO to life with their jazzy debut single ‘Mr. Ambiguous’ – and it was off to the races from there. Over the years, the quartet steadily became the embodiment of self-empowerment, armored in their commanding vocals and dauntless stage presence with blazing anthems like ‘Yes I Am’ and ‘Hip’, before branching out to successful solo projects.
Almost infamous is the axiom that after seven years in the spotlight, the life of K-pop acts – especially girl groups – is at a crossroads. It could signify the end of a long trajectory or, in true rarity, a continuation. Few groups have sorted out this hurdle, so naturally, when this instance was nearing MAMAMOO’s horizon last year, fans and non-fans alike started to wonder. A coin was tossed into the air and the future remained unscripted for some time as news of contract renewals slowly surfaced.
In the past, Wheein has said that MAMAMOO encompasses her youth, that Hwasa, Solar and Moonbyul “aren’t comparable to anyone”. That is, it doesn’t matter the altering movement of tides, the story of MAMAMOO will keep going on. After months of speculation, Wheein revealed in a heartfelt letter her decision to depart from RBW, although she signed an agreement to keep promoting with the group until (at least) December 2023.
“MAMAMOO has shared a lot with the public so far, but we definitely have more to show [going forward],” Wheein says about the quartet’s future during our interview. “I just want to prove that we are still capable of learning and be recognised as a group with the ability to continue to lead without being complacent.”
Butterflies can hold an allegorical denotation that signifies a shift in a person’s life. Whether it’s spiritually or something beyond, the enchanting winged creature conveys transformation and rebirth, indicating the start of a new chapter. Following this passage, Wheein joined THE L1VE – a recently established music label founded by VIXX’s Ravi – allowing herself to fly into distinct verdant hills in the search for growth and creative autonomy. “Definitely being with a new company is refreshing because it’s such a new environment,” Wheein says, reassured and optimistic. “I’m actually learning more sides of me [by] working with new people.”
With a reinvigorated outlook, Wheein’s first release backed by THE L1VE came to fruition after attentive craft. “I felt great from the get-go,” she says. “When I first listened to the songs and when I looked at the lyrics, I had great feelings about them. I think the whole process came together really well while making this album.” That sentiment of conviction soared high inside the recording studio. Wheein recounts that, the more she got to perceive the tracks and the more she recorded, her love for them also increased. “That’s the moment I felt like ‘WHEE’ can really tell the stories I want to share with the public.”
‘WHEE’ navigates the silkiness of Wheein’s artistry, radiating similarly to the petals of a flower. Throughout, her voice is delicately restrained but not fragile. The opener and lead single ‘오묘해 (Make Me Happy)’ deals with the allure of getting to know a lover, a feeling that she describes as “almost like playing ping-pong”. Co-written by Ravi, the melody melts across an ethereal bassline while inviting listeners to Wheein’s queendom.
“Wheein often uses the word ‘uncanny’, [so] I drew influence from that to write the song,” Ravi tells NME via email. “While the title track is great, I believe the entire album proves Wheein’s capability as an artist to make a wholesome and organic album. Wheein’s musical colour has also become clearer, which I believe is the most meaningful as well.” He also mentions that when Wheein listened to the piano intro of ‘Make Me Happy’, “she wanted it to be her title track and I agreed with her”.
Reaching the end of ‘WHEE’, liberty is laid out as a sublime treasure in ‘Paraglide’, a velvety, empyreal ode. “I was imagining the scene of me being in a paraglide and the world underneath my feet,” Wheein explains. “I wanted to say ‘just enjoy the moment of being free’.”
But, what is the song that resonates the most with the moment she is living right now? “I would say ‘Pastel’, because it means that in these hard times, I was envisioning myself as a colourful butterfly, flying around and giving colours to the dark world,” she muses. “I hope… people can [feel] healed and get more energy and get to be more colourful.”
It’s with this sense of clarity that Wheein’s dulcet tone, her biggest ally, prospers. “I feel that [Wheein’s artistry] is a paint that can colour anything,” Ravi says. “Any melody and lyric instantly becomes unique the moment it is sung or spoken through her voice and she breathes life into the tracks.”
Given the personal ornaments that cover ‘WHEE’, a spontaneous suggestion of it being a self-portrait comes up during our chat. Softly pursing her lips, Wheein takes a brief moment to reflect. “That’s a very beautiful description for this album,” she finally says with a gentle grin.
But this delineation runs deeper. At heart, it’s Wheein unveiling the layers that interweave her ever-evolving musicality, one that, with each stride, transforms her garden of white magnolias into a paradise. “Even though this album doesn’t represent me 100 per cent, it’s [composed] of big parts of me and my life.”
Flying and flourishing may sound a bit at odds, but they are synonyms to Wheein’s artistic odyssey, with more creative frontiers for her to discover where she will shine and govern. “I’m still trying to be an all-rounder and that’s my ultimate goal all the time,” Wheein concludes. “I really hope that people can join my journey and see how much I can grow [starting] from here.”
Wheein’s sophomore mini-album ‘WHEE’ is out now.