One of the joys of South by Southwest is reconnecting with some of the artists you got a chance to talk with the previous years. So when Iim Yoo-jin (better known under her stage name Neon Bunny) walked into the back room of Starbucks to meet with us, I instantly went in for the hug. What can I say? I’m a hugger. Thankfully, she embraced all of us easily with a kind, if shy smile.
Introductions & Memories
Though we’d spoken last year, this was the first time she was going to be answering questions for Rock N’ Seoul. As such, and disregarding our brief history, we had to get the formalities out of the way.
“So for our readers, say hello and a little bit of who you are.”
“Hi. It’s been a year since I last saw you guys.”
That out of the way, we settled in to have a conversation about what she’s been doing since last year, where she plans on going in the future, and more interestingly, her perspective on the indie music scene in South Korea, more specifically in Korea’s Mecca of indie: Hongdae.
“We missed you!” I begin, because it’s true! Even in the midst of the madness of 6th Street, she was just as sweet and understanding as can be.
She excitedly responds, “I missed you guys too.”
As this was her second year at the festival, obviously we wanted to know how she felt about coming back. “Are you excited?”
“Yes. It’s more exciting than last year,” she says as we all lament the inclement weather that threatened Seoulsonic. Luckily, the sky didn’t actually open up until we were all safely inside the venue, but the thickness in the air combined with the never-ending press of bodies and noise did make for a very… interesting interview experience.
It was only natural for us to want to know if she felt a bit more comfortable this time around, having already experienced the craziness last year. We wanted to know if she’d settled into the groove of things better.
“Yes,” she said. “Things are different. Because I’m on my own right now. Without a band and stuff. So it’ll be kinda lonely.”
This, of course, was something we’d noted with her first performance of the festival—an impromptu invitation to perform at a Dutch electronica showcase the previous night. That showcase had its own bit of craziness, believe it or not—though considering the atmosphere inherent in SXSW, you’d be best to err on the side of just believing anything can and does happen. She reveals she’d missed her initial flight coming in, so getting to the venue in and of itself was a task. As she’s completely without staff this year (that’s right, honestly and truly solo), there was a bit of a struggle to get where she needed to be with her sanity intact.
“I missed the flght yesterday. Then I suddenly got the show at D12, and I was like, ‘Oh no!’ And I was running, and it was a disaster!”
Despite all that, Neon Bunny shows herself as the consummate professional. Her show was testament to that. “We were there. You did good! You had all these fanboys in the front! Did you see them?”
“Yeah! I was surprised.” Her eyes light up at the memory.
“One of them just shoved past and was like, ‘I’m standing right here!’ He knew all your lyrics. Was doing an interpretive dance! Somebody asked to marry you.”
We all devolve into a fit of giggling girls as we replay the scene out in our minds. But it begs the question: does she actually enjoy performing in this format? Part of a showcase, on her own, her entire onstage destiny in her own hands. (Trust me, when we say alone, that’s exactly what we mean. She set up her stage all by herself with the help of one or two of the venue staff.) “Is it harder for you to perform that way?”
“Well, it’s easier. But sometimes it’s a bit awkward.”
I’m taken back to her first performance at last year’s Seoulsonic. Though her music tends to speak for itself, it was obvious she was a bit shy closing the evening. “Do you like performing?”
“Yeah,” she says without hesitation. “Especially it’s really nice to be not involed with K-pop stuff. I like K-pop, but I just really want to….”
“Separate yourself from that?” we supply.
“Yeah. ” She takes a moment to reflect. “I really want to break into the States market, so it’s better for me to start doing my show with various artists like that. It was really nice to play with all those various artists.” Part of me believes she wants to clarify her stance on K-pop a bit. She raises her eyes to the sky for a moment to gather her words. “I think that’s very important to me. But I like to play with a K-pop band as well. I can do that in Korea so… it’s fun.”
“Just different exposure here, without being lumped in with K-pop,” we add.
“That’ll be good for you.” The truth of the matter is, her sound is eclectic enough that she can actually break into multiple genres with ease. Getting exposure playing with various artists can only solidify her brand, make her stand out if for nothing else her relationship with different artists, artists whose musical profile may be disparate from her own. At the very least, the industry will recognize her genre flexibility and her willingness to experiment and collaborate.
Even so, it’s hard to forget her initial timidness when she first steps on stage. Something I’m constantly battling is stage fright. How does someone with her understated personality handle that sort of thing?
“Sometimes drink some alcohol.”
Of course! That’s a popular answer among most of the performers I’ve observed or spoken to before.
“What’s your favorite? What do you drink?”
“Just beer because I’m not really that good at drinking, so if I drink something too strong, I can’t perform,” she admits. “But, yeah, I have to do a lot of things like that, so if I get too drunk it’s no good, so maybe just a little bit of beer.”
As is the case with many of our interviews, we devolve into conversations about alcohol. Not sure what that says about us that people so easily get into these kinds of chats with us, but there it is. But since we are on the subject, we just have to ask, American beer vs. Korean beer. Which one?
“I mean, it doesn’t matter to me. Beer is beer.” An answer we can live with. Because when it gets right down to it, it’s all about what gets the job done, right? She then reveals, “I love Hawai’ian beer.”
I’m not much of a beer drinker myself, but I’ve never actually heard of a Hawai’ian beer, so that gives me something to think about.
Collaborations & New Directions
Last year she mentioned an interest in maybe collaborating with Brooklyn-based rap group Flatbush Zombies. Indeed, in the twelve months since our first meeting, she’s managed to collaborate with a few more artists including Mark Redito. With her musical versatility and her enthusiasm for working with different artists and producers, we wanted to look deeper into who she’d like to work with in the future, and if she already has some collabs in the works for her fans.
“Is there anybody here that you’d really like to see?”
“I haven’t really checked the lineup. I got here late. I really wanted to meet starRo (Japanese producer), but he’s already done.”
That raises some really interesting possibilities in and of itself. “Do you want to work with him?”
“Yeah!” At this point I can’t help but feel a warmth whenever she smiles. With as soft spoken as she is it’s easy to mistake her quiet nature with shyness. But she’s so expressive when she’s excited, her passion naturally spilling forth whenever we touch on a subject she’s especially enthusiastic about. “We were talking, saying we should work together, but he’s really busy.”
So in the event they can’t make their schedules synch up, she’s got to have a list of people she really wants to get in contact with. “I really want to work with starRo!” She’s obviously calling him out, so starRo, if you’re reading this, get in contact with Neon’s people. She really wants to make this happen. “Oh,” she proclaims, “and then I met Ryan (Hemsburg) for the first time. I really want to work with him. I met him in Seoul too!” Her face lights up with a memory: “Last night I saw Ryan play here, his first time. It was just amazing. Really amazing. I was, like, fangirling.” Sounds familiar.
With her more recent collaborations, she had the opportunity to work with Eternal Dragonz founder V-kim.
“We just kept emailing each other. I have to do that. I keep forgetting to. But yeah, he’s really nice.” The Eternal Dragonz collective certainly would fit in her vision of an eclectic sound coupled with a diverse roster of artists. She goes on to say, “I want to work with other female producers as well.” That’s a future plan we can all certainly get behind.
What’s even more surprising is the show she’s been promoting during her time in Austin. Mark Redito Presents Likido, an LA showcase including Neon and Princess Nokia! Of course this would be my time to freak out because Princess. Nokia!
“Have you met Princess Nokia before?”
“No, it’s my first time.” Though she laments, “All my friends are like ‘You’re playing seirously with Princess Nokia!’ I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ And they’re, ‘Whoa what! I want to go to the show!’ But they don’t care about me.”
We of course all laugh. We’ve all been there. You think your friends are excited for you, but when it comes to someone they’re a fan of, people aren’t loyal. But it just reaffirms Neon’s affinity for performing as part of a larger collective. It seems she thrives in the community feeling of sharing the stage with a variety of artists. “Do you prefer that more than by yourself?”
“Yes!” Again the energy and excitement in her eyes. It’s addicting, really.
It seems as though there may be more of an opportunity for her to work with a variety of artists away from South Korea, especially in a live setting. With several collaborations (or at least connections) under her belt, it’s certainly something to think about. It’s a common point of interest for many people who’ve never experienced a Korean audience. Just how does the Korean stage compare to one in, say, LA?
“Is there a big difference between a Korean audience and an American audience?”
“Yes! There’s,” she reflects for a moment. “The Korean audience is a bit chilly, not like dancing like [at the Dutch showcase].”
That’s not hard to believe. The show at D12 was out of control. There were even a few dancers spinning light strings like psychedelic lassos in the confined space of the mini dance floor in front of the stage. “I few hit me in the head,” Jenna remembers, rubbing at the sore spot.
“It isn’t like that in Korea,” Neon says softly.
Recently she got to experience another distinct audience, one certainly different than the Korean crowd. “You just did a showcase in Japan, right?”
“How did that go?”
“Oh, Japan was amazing.” I could get hooked on her energy, really. It’s understated, but there’s no denying when Neon’s excited it suffuses everything around her. “I was really surprised because Korea and Japan have like a love-hate relationship. So it’s really surprising to see Japanese people like my music, because I’m singing in Korean. Japanese people are really kind of….” She takes a moment to search for the right words, her excitement getting the better of her vocabulary. After a few seconds, she admits, “I don’t know how to explain in English, but they’re really serious. That’s why they have Otaku. If you like them, they like you for the rest of your life. So that was really surprising.”
It’s clear this is her first time experiencing that level of fandom. “Like real over-the-top,” we supply.
Admittedly, that level of hysteria would make me nervous. I couldn’t imagine having to fight my way through that on my own. But Neon Bunny seems up to the task. Even so, we at Rock N’ Seoul have sworn to protect her should she have to battle the surging masses.
“Nice!” she says with a smile and a chuckle.
With a Japanese tour under her belt and another string of performances in LA, Neon’s certainly keeping herself busy. Even with the seeming nonstop schedule of shows between SXSW and the end of April she’s still found time to start working on new music.
“I’m working on my EP right now. Maybe I’m taking too long time to make it,” she reflects a bit sheepishly. “I can make it quicker, set a deadline by summer.”
“So you need a deadline?”
“Yeah I need a deadline to work.”
Again, we’ve all been there. Left to our own devices none of us would be as productive as we probably should be, but we’re friends now, right? And friends don’t let friends fall behind on their tasks. “We’ll help you. We’ll just email you like, ‘So hey, when’s this coming? Hey how about this?'”
“Yeah, I need that,” she says with a giggle.
Despite what she considers slow output, if her latest, Stay Gold, is anything to go by, Neon’s going in a more jazz-fusion direction, a desire she expressed in our chat last year. “I remember you said you sort of want to make music that’s a mixture of your jazz influences but more up-to-date. So do you have something like that in mind for your new stuff?”
“Yeah. I’ll be in LA for 10 days. I really have nothing else to do. Maybe I should make my songs have an LA vibe. Really smooth like that.” Now wouldn’t that be something stellar? A So-Cal, laid-back ease combined with the signature Neon Bunny sound.
“That’s my plan,” she says.
Of course, in the land of eternal sun, we remain hopeful but expect to see more pictures of Disneyland than studio time. With her next statement, that expectation is more of a certainty.
“My friend’s getting me in for free!”
The entire table erupts in equal parts jealousy (because those tickets are expensive) and a collective sense of knowing. “She ain’t gettin no work done,” I quip.
“I mean you can’t pass up free tickets. And it takes a few days to go through the whole park,” Jenna adds. “Just bring your laptop,” she suggests.
“Yeah, bring my laptop to Disney. That’s my plan,” Neon agrees. Don’t be surprised if you hear the sounds of screams and roller coasters in the background of her next few tracks, ladies and gentlemen.
But as far as accompaniment goes, it’s going to be interesting to see what direction she chooses to go. In her vision of a laid-back Cali vibe to her sound, does she plan on exploring the possibility of live instrumentation on this album or future albums? “Do you have a live band in studio?”
“Not at the moment,” she admits. “Maybe some guitar.”
“But you prefer the electronic.”
“I’ll try to do different styles. I just want to make it quicker, because I’m taking too long.”
She seems to be really bothered by the time it’s taking her to craft her next release, to the point where that sunshine in her eyes sort of clouds over with self-depreication. However, for my money it’s a good thing to take time to cultivate one’s art, to ensure what she’s releasing is the best it can be.
“Yeah, but it can’t take such a long time,” she says.
She’s obviously a firm believer in holding oneself responsible for getting work done. It’s a commendable trait to have in an artist—culpability for one’s own destiny. But since she’s so intent on checking herself for her lack of creative hustle, there must be something in the process that she’s doing differently.
“First album I was working with one producer for the whole thing. Second album was working with different producers and my own too. So my goal is to produce all the album by myself without other producers. All done by me. It’s gonna be a real challenge for me. But it should be fun!”
Here we get to the root of her frustrations. It’s not a lack of enthusiasm or motivation. In fact, she’s duly motivated to make this a completely solo endeavor. Perhaps her coming to SXSW on her own was an extension of that idea, getting a feel for what it’s like to completely go it alone. Her desire to build from the ground up on her own merits means most of her newer work is going to be exceptionally personal. A question that’s always buzzing around my mind is if an artist has a particular song of their own creation that’s particularly meaningful, whether in message or just in its creation.
“Do you have a favorite song of yours that you’re really proud of?”
“Oh!” And that spark is back. “My recent song called ‘Blue.’ It’s on the Japanese special edition. Yeah, I’m really proud of that song. It was like a challenge for me making that song. I love that song.”
“What was challenging?”
“Challenging about just, being the first Japanese release, and it was like no vocals at all. It’s a different approach. It’s not like poppy or catchy, but it was really fun to work on that song.”
A change in approach and vision could certainly cause some anxiety, especially as a departure from what your fans are used to. However, she stepped out and took that chance. “Did you do something different for the Japanese audience?”
“No, just somehow I was just working on putting in shamisen for that song, and it was different for the Japanese label. So I needed to release it in Japan.”
We at Rock N’ Seoul adore when artists fuse traditional instrumentation with modern genres. What greater collaboration of sounds and perspectives than the raspy twine of the Japanese shamisen—a three-stringed instrument most comparable to the banjo—with the synapse-pop of electronica? “It’s such a beautiful instrument,” Jenna says, love and adoration in her voice
“Yeah,” Neon agrees. “it’s really cool. I love it.”
It’s easy to see Neon Bunny going for traditional sounds to put in her music. After all, she’s expressed a keen interest in integrating more of her jazz foundation into her modern-day soul. But when asked if she’d want to try music that’s more instrumental based she lets out a few emphatic “No”s with a shake of her head and a sheepish smile.
“It was more an experiment,” she explains.
In the next part of the interview, things get a little heavy. Stay tuned to see Neon Bunny’s thoughts about travel and the ever-expanding music scene in South Korea. In the meantime, check out her latest album, Stay Gold, as well as keeping up-to-date with her comings and goings: