Singer J.ae is back with a new mini album titled "Sentimental." It features eight R&B tracks and is expected to bring a breath of fresh air to music charts dominated by trendy idol bands.
Singer J.ae Back, 'Sentimental' as Ever
Music these days is like the genre of thriller novels: the songs stick in your memory for a while, but never really leave a lasting impression. For idol bands, this method is an effective way to show off their talent in the fast-paced music industry, while listeners get a chance to hear the next "bestseller." But for singers like J.ae, who debuted in the late 1990s, music is more than just consumable material ― it provides an original soundtrack to life.
The 32-year-old singer is back with a "special" album titled "Sentimental," and although she admitted that she was so tired she couldn't feel her tongue, she looked enthusiastic and thrilled to meet her fans.
"I sleep about four hours a day because of all the promotions, interviews and my midnight radio show. I'm tired, but I'm (still) smiling," J.ae told The Korea Times during an interview last week.
"Sentimental" has eight tracks, all impeccably written and produced with a hint of nostalgia for the 1990s and featuring the sweet and emotional voice of J.ae.
"This album was going to be a Lady Gaga-type album when we first started last year. But now, there's nothing even remotely similar to that," she said laughing.
The album can be categorized as a "mini album," she explained, adding that a mini album is somewhere between a full album and a single (which include bonus tracks).
The singer has released a total of six full albums under titles such as "In Love Again" (2007), "The Crush of Love" (2004) and "In Love" (2000). So why the name "Sentimental" this time?
"I think my voice evokes more emotion. And, yes, I'm a sentimental person. Music is the voice of people who feel all these emotions but (find it difficult) to put them into words," she said.
"There are so many love songs, and I think there's a reason for that. When you are hurting, or really happy or lonely, it's hard to express; you don't even want to. Songs help you to do that: They become the original soundtrack of your life."
The album's lead single, a sultry, soulful number titled "No. 5" that features some interesting sound samples, was added to the album just a week before its release. From her experience, the right songs never come easy. But they come at the right time.
"We were in a rush! As soon as I heard it, I was like 'yes!' The intro of a door unlocking, the cat meowing ― I loved the details. That's why we don't have a music video out; we had to scrap the original plan (to make a video for a different song)," she said.
"The songs that were coming out all had this link, a string connecting them. This was the kind of album I wanted to do: earthy, very acoustic and real, without a lot of (adornments)."
Understanding the public's interest in dance music, J.ae's company insisted on doing something "trendy, plastic, shiny and sparkly." But in the end, it was hard to ignore the fact that this was not the sound J.ae was going for.
"I said OK, it sounds like a good challenge ― something my fans haven't heard or seen, something I haven't done yet. I've been doing this for 11 years, so I get bored sometimes," she explained.
"But then, I'm listening to the music out there lately and it's repetitious -- happy and shiny. To try and jump on that bandwagon is just pointless and ridiculous. I had to stick to the voice that I have."
"Sentimental" is about giving the public what they have been missing at a time when trendy dance music is saturating the airwaves. It's a breath of fresh air for those that are sick of the norm, or that were never really interested in it to begin.
The singer continuously used the words "down to earth," "simple" and "natural," to describe the album, reflecting not only what she had in mind as an artist, but also a sophisticated and sentimental 32-year-old.
"My goal is to make music that is easy on the ears. I'm not trying to badger the listeners by repeating the lyrics a hundred times and finally hypnotize you," she said with a smile.
"Hopefully, (the songs and lyrics) move you now or will move you in 10 years. If it doesn't move you now, that's OK. I have faith that when you experience life that much more or when you need some comfort, my songs and voice will comfort you," J.ae said.
J.ae gets 'Sentimental' with new album
When J.ae arrived for her afternoon interview, she didn't appear primped up with a face full of teeth grinning from ear to ear as most starlets and young boy band members do when they make the media rounds.
Instead, she showed up wearing the kind of low-key under-the-radar type clothes real people wear - jeans, jumper and a warm jacket with comfortable shoes.
And why should she doll herself up when she's been around the music game for well over a decade?
Veterans don't have to make desperate attempts to try and impress media folks by showing off.
On this day, since going around different dailies earlier in the wee hours of the morning to promote her latest album "Sentimental," she looked a tad grumpy about not yet having anything to eat.
"I'm feeling hungry as hell, I'm starving!" she shouted.
"Talking takes a lot out of you when you're trying to be on and focused. Interviews can get repetitious but it's just one album you're trying to promote so all my answers end up being similar."
After a two-year hiatus from the recording studio, she is back with her sixth studio album that she says has rejuvenated her love for doing good soulful music.
"It's old school SWV meets TLC," she said pitching the concept for her new album and putting it in a nutshell.
"I like my songs to be dry and sad. Even the upbeat tracks in the new album aren't really upbeat."
Sure enough, with her record company fully in support of her creative vision, her new album is full of smooth R&B tracks and runs on a consistent tone of melancholy and yearning according to the 33-year-old songstress.
"The songs on the new album aren't trendy and don't have repetitious hooks and beats like the music that's out there right now. It's not like a jingle," she said.
"And that was my goal because the fact of the matter is, I'm not an idol - I'm not Lee Hyori, I'm not 'Gee Gee Gee Gee, baby baby baby' so I was like, 'Where do I go from here at this point in my career?'"
On the new album, J.ae says there was a song that is "110 percent me."
That song, composed by one of Korea's most revered guitarists, Sam Lee, didn't make the final cut.
"He wrote this real simple guitar ballad and I really liked it and asked him if I could write the lyrics to it," she said.
"I liked the song so much I didn't want to do it injustice by doing it in English and have only five people listen to it. It took me like four weeks to do it but I did it."
She continued saying "The song is about a long distance relationship which I've been through so that's like 110 percent me. But I kicked my own song off the album. When my company asked where my song was I told them it just didn't live up to my expectations as it was just too depressing for the album. It went on a snail's pace and just didn't fit in. It crawls its way to the finish line."
For J.ae and her camp, they know all too well of the uphill battle to try and convince the masses to embrace music that isn't all about catchy, repetitive hooks.
With the new record, she just wants to corner an entirely different niche.
"I thought I might as well make music for people who are sick of this shiny glossy stuff and want to hear music that's smooth and easy," she said.
"Unfortunately smooth and easy doesn't sell here, which is why I'm appreciative of my new label. But at the same time because they've been so good to me, I've thought maybe I should have sold out a little because I want them to make money. You know I'm not such a jerk where I'm just going to do what I want to do."
In her laments about the current trend of music, she drops Sade and Maxwell's names as her inspiration as a singer and musician that she has aspired to throughout her career.
"My goal is to do music like Sade and Maxwell," she said.
"Their music may not be 'in' but I can guarantee you people will still be listening even after 100 years. I want to do music where people will wait for you. So when an album finally comes out people will appreciate the wait. I've never been fame hungry."
One thing that stands out and is noticeable about J.ae are her eyes. There is depth and gravity to her gaze that can pull you into whatever she has to say.
She exudes a genuineness missing from the usual crop of entertainers who come to interviews armed with stock quotes of answers fed to them by their PR team or manager.
"I can be a melancholy person. That's not to say I like to sit around with dark makeup on being moody pondering about life and death," she said.
"Sometimes, I just I don't have energy for people. I'm not a people person. I'd rather just stay home, watch a movie, read a book and play with my dogs. I don't particularly enjoy opening myself up to people. People in general don't interest me at all. Music now annoys the crap out of me. It's just so insulting. My magnet goes towards sort of the sad stuff."
On whether she's an introvert, without missing a beat she says "Oh yeah, with a capital I," and added, "Put it up on neon lights - well no, not neon lights since that would be too flashy - so may be in dark and grey."
Before her life as J.ae, she was Jung Jae-young, a self-proclaimed tomboy from the coasts of the Bay Area in Northern California.
Hearing her talk about her salad days as an aimless free-spirited girl that at one point aspired to become a phone receptionist at a "poshy hair salon," and after that, a nun, you start to wonder if her path to a career in music all came to her organically.
Some chase after the dream but for her, it seems she had always been meant to become a singer.
For one, she comes from a long line of family with music in their blood. Her grandfather, father, and aunt - Jung Hoon-hee - were all noted singers in Korea.
And for most of her career, J.ae has struggled to find the right balance of self-promotion and remaining low-key to be free to do what makes her happy.
"I can't sell myself to save my life. My brother is the complete opposite and he always tells me to set up a twitter account and make a professional Facebook page but I don't even know where to begin," she said.
"I'll do it because it benefits me but I just know I won't update them and I know it'll just fizzle, so why should I bother even starting one when I know I won't be keeping my fans up to date on what's going on with me."
When she's not at the recording studio, J.ae can be heard over the airwaves. She hosts her own daily music show titled "Music Planet" on TBS eFM seven days a week.
Sources: The Korea Times & The Korea Herald