Seo In-young, also known by her stage name, Elly, is a product of the first generation of contemporary K-pop as a member of ever-evolving quartet Jewelry. It was a simpler time when she debuted with the group back in 2002. The path to success was less about overseas stardom than cracking the broad East Asian market. Fans, while no less fervent, had fewer avenues to stir the pot with. The music, too, was less sophisticated, though much of that has to do with the musical landscape of the time more than anything else.
Everything, it seems, had a tint of humility to it bred from an inherent (if subconscious) understanding that there was no guarantee of where this thing would lead, if the wave would crash and leave the artists listing in its wake. Then there was Jewelry. With fifteen years active, the group surpassed Baby V.O.X. as the longest standing girl group. Through it all, Elly stepped out as a solo success, with hits cracking the top 20 in Korea and an enviable list of collaborations that speaks to her own artistic evolution. It all started humbly with a dream and endless ambition.
“Hello, I am singer Seo In-Young. Nice to meet you.”
From our first hellos, Seo In-young exhibits that same humility. It’s this understanding of herself and the tenuous nature of success that seemed to prompt interest in the arts and pursuing them in any way she could.
“I’ve never thought of myself as the perfect artist for music. I just work hard all the time. When I was younger, I was offered to act so I took lessons and even appeared in dramas. It was very interesting and fascinating, but not as much as doing music on stage. Although I’m also open to acting, I do not want to lose music.
“I feel that being a singer suits me. I also wanted to be a fashion designer, and since the public is always curious about and liking the clothes I wear, I am dreaming of launching my own brand soon.”
Though she confesses a lack of confidence in her abilities when she was younger, her dedication to making herself into the best artist she possibly could propelled her to greatness she perhaps never even expected. Her precocious nature as a child made way for an immediate love of the craft.
“I already liked dancing and singing when I was young, so I used to practice various singers’ songs and when I went to a restaurant to have a meal with my family, I enjoyed singing in front of people.”
But, as is a common thread among most who choose to pursue art as their career, support was shaky at best.
“However, my father was against the idea of me being an entertainer, so I thought that I shouldn’t dream of becoming a singer and enjoyed myself performing quietly at home. Then, in middle school, I was street-cast, so I had to convince my father after all.”
Seo In-young is a multifaceted woman. Despite the misgivings of her father and her own early insecurities, her love of art informed her path to success. Her voice and approach to music speaks to an appreciation of early pop. But she never eased into one artistic medium, her heart big enough and ambitions wide enough to embrace various paths for her creativity.
“Because of my love for fashion, I also receive lots of inspiration from old vintage fashion. Fashion aside, I buy the books that those singers own and read them often.”
Of course, this open adoration of various means of expression spilled over into her music. She’s tried many genres. From ballads to R&B and dance, she’s managed to reinvent herself for the past 15 years.
“I like challenges, and I’ve always wanted to know where my limit is, thus I have tried several music genres, and all of them were fun. Out of the various genres, my favorite is soul/R&B. My favorite artist is Amy Winehouse.”
It’s not exactly easy to constantly shift your musical focus, especially given the nature of the Korean industry. In-seong admits that much of what drives her shifts in musical perspective is the changing tide of Korean interest.
“In Korea, people have certain expectations of me due to my image, so I’ve ended up doing a lot of ballads. Of course, the music that I want to do is important, but the music that the public expects from me is important too.
“So nowadays, I listen to all the music and choose the one that feels right. Previously, I used to choose songs whose lyrics I liked. They had to match my situation at the time, and it was important to me how well I could deliver the message with my voice so that people would be able to relate to it.”
Her conviction in her craft comes through even over an exchange of emails. There’s a palpable urge to stretch herself, to explore all the sides of herself. It’s this need to grow that allowed her to work with a wide range of artists, from Dok2 to Zion.T.
“Collaborating with other artists is another source of inspiration and energy.” she says thoughtfully.
“I did a lot of collaborations, but the most memorable ones were when I worked with Zion.T, Gaeko, and Dok2. They were invaluable. Thanks to Gaeko, the track we did together, “Love Me,” turned out more lively and interesting and received more love.
“Actually, Gaeko is famous for not working with others that much. However, he really liked my song ‘Let’s Break Up,’ and I heard that he agreed to work with me thanks to this song. I was very grateful. I’ve always been a fan of Gaeko’s, and I think he upgraded the song with fitting lyrics and his rap skills.
“I often listen to Zion.T’s songs, and he was an artist who I really wanted to work with.” Again, the distance of space between emails doesn’t mute her effervescence. “I asked him to work with me on ‘Thinking of You’ and he thankfully gave his consent without any hesitation. Another matter which I really felt thankful for is that he spent twice as much time in the studio as me, even though it is my song. He paid attention to the lyrics and the melody matching the song and himself, and thanks to him it became a very good song. Seeing that, I thought that there was much more for me to learn.
He even made an appearance in the music video, which was a lot of fun. Towards the end of the music video, there is a scene in which we appear together. Actually, I think it didn’t come out very naturally since I was so shy. After filming the music video with him I was in awe, thinking, ‘Zion.T really is an artist.’”
“As for the collaboration with Dok2, I also heard that he doesn’t collaborate with others easily and that he only pursues what he wants to. Come to think of it, it seems that I often work with artists who do not easily work with others, and it’s an honor.” There’s an obvious smile in her response.
“The most memorable thing was that it was my first time to challenge rap. Thinking about who to collaborate with, I contacted him personally. I said, ‘This is Seo In-Young.’ And he was really surprised. I asked him to feature on my song ‘High Heeled,’ and he said he’d listen to the song first, which made me really nervous. It felt like my rap was being evaluated. I was worried for hours, thinking, ‘What if he decides not to work with me because of my rap?’ Regrettably, there wasn’t much time so I asked him to do the recording on that same day. Telling me he’s a fan of mine, he agreed to it without hesitation, and we started recording at 2 am. He thought about the lyrics for 30 minutes and finished the recording in one go.
I think my whole life I’ll be grateful to all of these people for letting me experience enjoyable collaborations, because the music will stay with me my whole life.
“The next artist that I wish to work with is Paul Kim who does soft, emotional ballads. And I also hope to work with Crush on some groovy songs.”
In-young’s ability to blend so effortlessly between genres is a product of her work within a unit. As a member of Jewelry, she honed her skills as a member of a team, learning from various points of view. In August of 2012, the women of Jewelry reunited on Yoo Jae-suk’s Sugarman 2. The atmosphere was absolutely electric.
“All members of Jewelry reuniting made me very happy, and it was so touching when we together sang some of our songs that the public used to love. When we were standing on stage together, we looked at each other and got teary. We remembered everything we had experienced together. When all the lights were turned on, before the song started playing, we felt like we had returned to the past.”
The veteran star’s collaborations aren’t limited to the music industry, however. As she’s made clear, she’s always had a keen sense and love of fashion. This naturally led to her finding a second outlet for her creativity in the medium. In 2011, she worked with renowned brand Nina Ricci to create her own line of handbags. Later, she would go on to be the host of SBS’s Star Beauty Show. With her expertise as a one-time designer, it would be great to see more of her original ideas gracing the billboards and runways of South Korea (or perhaps with the surge in interest in Korean culture, the world at large).
“I’ve liked fashion since I was young, and I dreamed of becoming a designer. My father was against me being a celebrity, my mother liked apparel, and my father was always well-dressed. Maybe since I’ve been in touch with fashion since a young age, I naturally got interested in fashion. And beauty is of course a topic of interest for every woman. If I get the chance, I would like to create clothes for the people who like my fashion style.”
Throughout her history in an oftentimes fickle industry, she’s had a long and varied career. WIth this sort of longevity it’s hard not to notice the shifts in trends and public tastes.
“Certainly, a lot of things have changed. Idols play a big role. The thing that did not change,” she declares with confidence, “is that good music will always be loved. This has nothing to do with the so-called trend. Even if the public does not show their love for an artist right away, if the artist continues to release good music, one day their true value will be acknowledged and their songs will be loved.
“The influence of K-pop has grown enormously. No matter the trend, it is incredible to receive world-wide recognition. It is a happy thing. However, I do not think that I will be able to do music like idols. I think that one should do music that suits their situation, age, and current voice.”
Another truth about the music industry is that oftentimes the young ladies have a harder time getting the recognition they deserve. Which is why groups like Baby V.O.X and Jewelry are anomalies: They withstood the test of time when it’s hard for any groups, let alone girl groups, to thrive.
“I think I’ve experienced everything that the idol groups are experiencing now, doing promotions and receiving love from fans. I always support them. Even if they don’t wish for anything, as long as they work hard at the music that they are pursuing, you never know what could happen.”
The tie-in, of course, is what she thinks the industry could be better served improving.
“This is a difficult question,” she admits. “I don’t think there’s a need to change anything, I feel that as time goes by, things will get there. However, I do hope that people can love and listen to music by various singers rather than just idols. Female singers have it especially difficult to achieve long-lasting fame in Korea, so I hope that more opportunities can be given to them.”
Her artistic journey has been long and varied. She’s had great successes and experienced incredible highs. “I am able to share the music that I love with many people,” she declares, following with: “That alone already makes me feel very excited and grateful.”
However, with those triumphs came her share of trials and misgivings
“As for the hardest part … I did group activities, with Jewelry, and I have done a lot of activities as solo singer Seo In-Young. I feel that the most important thing is the timing, which kind of music you do when, and then you just hope that the public will like your music. All of these have to fall perfectly into place, so this is something I am constantly thinking about.”
For those with ambitions to become an artist in this industry, someone with In-young’s boundless experience would be an asset. I wonder what kind of advice she’d give those just getting started.
“It seems that everyone is doing really well nowadays. As a singer myself, I am their fan and support them. Looking at them, I feel like learning too. I think it is best that people learn from experience. Even if you find out that you were wrong about something, there is definitely something to take away from it. I am sure about this. Don’t get swayed, do your thing. Although it is important to listen to advice, too many cooks spoil the broth.”
Thus we come to the duality of Seo In-young: the artist and the woman. As music is her expressive vehicle, there are which most closely defines her as both.
“I think that I am divided into two. There are people who like my ballads and there are people who look forward to my dance music. While I do not want to miss out on either, I personally think that the songs which represent me best are my ballad ‘Let’s Break Up’ and ‘Anymore.’”
That duality has manifested in various ventures: fashion designer, singer, and even for a short time CEO of her own record label: IY Company. What’s left for her to explore?
“I think that I’ve tried out a lot of things so far. It is hard to find something that I have yet to try. Recently, I’ve realized that it is getting more and more difficult to do music. I also think a lot about what kind of other music would suit me well. Music aside; since people like my fashion I have been thinking about how to go about making my own fashion. Come to think of it, the only things I haven’t made yet are cosmetics, bags, shoes, and clothes.”
It’s now time to start thinking about the future. Her talent and will to try new things has already given her an established longevity. So what’s next for Seo In-young?
“I am working hard at the work that I am given,” she says openly. “I am constantly thinking about the things I like. My fans can look forward to new music and fashion.
“I think I haven’t communicated with fans as much since I’ve always been busy working. As it happens, I tried out busking the other day and it was a lot of fun. I’d like to perform in a small theater too. I want to sing while having eye contact with the audience.”
There’s something truly brilliant about being able to speak to someone who’s been in the South Korean music industry for over a decade. That kind longevity and experience breeds an insight about the business that most newer groups (and their younger fans) won’t earn until they’ve had a few laps around the pool. Seo In-young comes from a generation that by virtue of its newness had a hand in shaping Korean pop music into what it is today. It’s was an honor to learn from someone with that type of vision and desire to keep moving forward.