TvN drama Answer Me 1997 has recently finished its run, after enjoying an almost overwhelmingly positive reception, with some of the best ratings for a cable drama. Praise was heaped on not only the story, characters and crew, but also the ensemble cast, led by A Pink‘s Eunji and soloist Seo In-guk. Seo’s first drama role was as part of the supporting cast for KBS’ 2012 Jang Geun-suk and Yoona starrer Love Rain, and he managed to land the lead role in Answer Me 1997 for his second acting gig. His star has risen astronomically since the drama’s airing, with his portrayal of the smart, responsible yet self-doubting Yoon Yoon-jae winning him many new fans. And he seems to be on a roll, having already started filming for MBC’s upcoming 50-episode drama Rascal Sons, which has expressed his desire to learn more of acting through experience and exposure to seasoned acting from his seniors in the industry. So, South Korea will be seeing a lot of Seo on their television screens for a while yet; and this may mean not much music, the reason why he is where he is today.

The Ulsan-born Seo In-guk started singing at a young age, and slowly built his confidence, from performing at family gatherings to auditioning for music companies. These included his two auditions for JYP: his first try saw him rejected for not being thin enough, leading Seo to develop an eating disorder in order to lose weight, only to be rejected again for allegedly less-than-stellar vocals (which Seo believes was a result of his bulimia, with vomiting as the cause of his damaged vocal chords). He has been rejected by other companies as well, but Seo (who at that point was studying music at Daebul University), finally struck gold in 2009 when he auditioned for Mnet‘s then new singing competition show, Superstar K:

Seo was able to convert this successful audition into a competition win, becoming the first winner of Superstar K. He soon started releasing music that was well-received by the public, and his debut managed to place first on various charts, even with stunted promotion opportunites available to him. Because Seo was essentially a product of a cable TV station, he, and other “cable stars” like him, were more-or-less ignored by the three network stations in South Korea: KBS, SBS and MBC. Though Seo was allowed an appearance on KBS’ Music Bank, the singer was restricted to mainly performing on Mnet’s own M! Countdown. The lack of exposure no doubt hampered his early career; it was only after Seo came back with “Love U” that he was welcomed onto most music shows — Music Core performances are rarer than hens’ teeth — and was able to accelerate his ascent.

Seo’s releases following “Love U,” like “Shake It Up” and EP Perfect Fit have been covered extensively, including on Seoulbeats, There are some nice songs from his early career which could also do with some attention.

Seo’s first release was 부른다 (Calling), with title track “Calling You.” The release also featured two other songs: “아름다운 이별 (Beautiful Goodbye)”, a cover of a song by singer Lee Seung-chul, and “Young Love.”  The latter song was actually performed by Seo during the live rounds of Superstar K , and hints at the R&B sound the singer would continue with in future releases. Seo’s voice is put through a vocoder and subjected to other voice manipulation techniques; though unexpected (and perhaps a bit jarring) at first, the autotune finds its place in the song, and Seo sings in that mid-to-low range that just sounds so good.

From Seo’s 1st EP, Just Beginning, “첫눈에 (At First Sight)” is a song that couldn’t be passed, and not only because it features Bekah, formerly of After School: feelings of angst from the instance of love at first sight, evidently the song’s theme, are punctuated by the aggressive beat. The guitar is a welcome addition to the song, comfortably fitting around the synths and percussion, and adding body to the song. This song doesn’t push Seo, who is well within his abilities here, but it features pleasantly soft vocals that prove to be a great listen for when you’re in the mood for something mid-tempo and pop/R&B. Or something Bekah.

Also on the same album is a more traditional duet: “Prime Time,” featuring Jellyfish Entertainment labelmate Lisa. It’s an easy listen, and Lisa’s lilting vocals sit perfectly atop the melody and Seo’s own voice, standing out without completely overpowering the song — though, there were times when I almost forgot that Seo In-guk was part of it too, let alone the fact that he’s the main artist here. Lisa’s voice, which acheives a lightness without the breathiness, was a joy to listen to, and Seo’s richer voice kept the song grounded.

Google Translate renders “왜 웃기만해” as “Why Grinning” in English. On the downside, that’s as far as my comprehension of the song goes; on the upside, though, this song feels like driving along the coastline at sunset. It has that summery feel to it, a soaring sensation tinged with melancholy. The bridge is a highlight of the song, as is the chorus.

And finally, a truly unexpected gem I happened upon is this cover of A-ha‘s “Take On Me.” Titled “Take,” Seo sings the Korean lyrics with a piercing falsetto that is just gorgeous to listen to. The smooth flow of his voice juxtaposes with staccato synths. The MV for this song also recreates A-ha’s MV, albeit updating it with colour and F1 cars in place of motorbikes. A mobile phone portal joining the real and illustrated worlds (“Take” was commissioned as a CF song) also features, and for all that, I’m going on a limb to say that I like the female lead in the Korean version better than that in the original.

Seo In-guk is in a much better place now than when he first started, and he’s been able to somewhat overcome the prejudice against his path to fame. Now, with a starring role in one of 2012’s best dramas on his CV, Seo’s future releases (when he gets around to making more music) will definitely attract more attention, and hopefully more people to translate his lyrics (pretty please?). However, it’s also good to take a look at the music Seo performed before he increased in prominence, the songs that may have gone completely unnoticed. I hope you all enjoyed looking at his early music, and perhaps even discovered a new favourite. What are your thoughts? Leave your comments below!

(Jpopasia, Korea JoongAng Daily [1] [2], The Korea Times, Mnet, Nate)