The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Hong Isaac and Chin Sooyoung's jazzy conversation over piano in 'Everland'

Singer-songwriter Hong Issac and jazz pianist Chin Sooyoung drop project album "Everland" on Wednesday

By Choi Ji-won

Published : April 27, 2023 - 12:50

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Cover image of jazz pianist Chin Sooyoung and singer Hong Isaac's collaborative album Cover image of jazz pianist Chin Sooyoung and singer Hong Isaac's collaborative album

It was their attitudes, or perhaps personalities, that clicked between singer-songwriter Hong Isaac and jazz pianist Chin Sooyoung at their second encounter in October 2022.

Photographer Rie -- well acquainted with both musicians and many others in the local entertainment industry -- connected the two, based on a hunch that Hong and Chin would connect artistically.

She was more than right. Through six months of close-knit collaboration, Hong and Chin released their first project album "Everland" on Wednesday.

"For us, it wasn't 'what' we were going to make together that mattered from the start. It was 'how' we worked. I think music that really speaks for someone unfurls with spontaneous improvisation, and that's where we coincided," Hong told The Korea Herald during an interview held along with Chin in Seoul last week.

"Everland" is a mostly English-language album led by the namesake title track. "(N)everland," a Korean version of the title song, was prereleased on April 6, heralding the two musicians’ collaboration.

The album is the latest release from Hong following his single "Stay" in August.

Following his 2013 debut with his Yoo Jae Ha Music Competition-winning self-written song "Spring," Hong has steadily built up an expansive music archive. He has dropped several albums and singles under his own name and with other artists and for drama series. In 2019, he rose to prominence through JTBC's music contest show "Super Band."

Jazz pianist Chin said the album is like a record of their conversations.

"We just poured out everything inside us, from what we could do to what we enjoyed listening to. Spreading them out on the table, we began from there," Chin said.

It was a cumbersome and inefficient process, they both admitted, but that was their Neverland, where the two musicians' imaginations ran and their dreams were born.

Threading through the six songs is a certain longing for unrequited yet persistent emotions.

"Everland," the main track, tells the story of a grown boy who wants to find love and pursue happiness, but is unable to. Struggling every day, the boy sings of escaping reality.

While identical in melodic progression, "(N)everland" has a more cynical note compared to its English counterpart, Hong said.

"I personally think that the word ‘Everland’ sounds romantic, but in Korea, it's a totally commercialized place," Hong said, referring to the nation's biggest amusement park of the same name.

"So for the Korean version, we added an 'N' inside brackets so that it's read as 'Neverland' but still carries the message we intend."

Hong, the lyricist of all six tracks, said he chose to write the lyrics in English because of the subtle difference in demeanor that comes with the language.

Having spent parts of his childhood overseas with missionary parents and studied music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Hong is a fluent English speaker. Despite this, Hong has mostly released albums in Korean. "Everland" is the singer's first English-language album.

"I think I wrote in Korean because I wanted to be accepted and heard by Korean listeners. Considering the angular shapes and pronunciation of the (Korean) language, it was quite a challenge to write lyrics in Korean," Hong explained.

The English lyrics flowed naturally with the melodies. Hong's voice was his instrument, and Chin's was his piano.

Chin, also a composer himself, said he finds discovering new interpretations of his music by others fun. Working with Hong took this to another level.

"Since I don't write the lyrics or sing, I usually visualize my music with a certain image, like a scene from a movie. And Isaac would define what I had in my mind, like a vague emotion or color, in just the right words and voice. It couldn't have been more refreshing," Chin said.

Jazz pianist Chin Sooyoung (left) and singer-songwriter Hong Isaac. (Archive Achim) Jazz pianist Chin Sooyoung (left) and singer-songwriter Hong Isaac. (Archive Achim)

The album was created with such full collaboration between the two musicians that it is impossible to define who contributed how much to where and what.

The songs usually began in Hong's studio, with Chin sitting behind the piano and Hong in front of his computer.

Chin would improvise on the piano, or Hong would blurt out a line that popped up in his mind. No matter who started the musical conversation, what followed next was jazz itself, as the two created music spontaneously -- giving and taking, listening and returning.

"Her," another title track, started with Chin imagining a pale blue color, like that of a dawn.

"The instant I heard the melody, I imagined someone walking alone on a dim street," the pianist said.

The 2013 film "Her" came across both of their minds, and they named the song after it.

Hong took the passenger seat in this case. Beginning with the line "I still dream of you," he wrote down lyrics to match a serene and warm, yet mellow sound.

"Pages" was a mash-up of the two musicians’ complexities and brainstorming. The initial version went through exhaustive trimming and chipping before it took shape, they said.

In case of "A Bird," Hong took control of the production. According to the singer, he addresses a more personal and genuine side of his story through the lyrics.

"It's like my prayer. I'm shouting to heaven, desperately howling my heart out to be heard," he said.

"It's a little embarrassing to open my bare self through the lyrics, but at least for this song, I wanted to be honest," Hong said.

Chin began his jazz piano career in New York and spent most of his 20s in the city. He studied at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and got his masters in jazz composition at Queens College. In 2013, Chin received the honorable Louis Armstrong Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publisher.

His recent releases include "Through the Blurry Window," "Paraphrase" and "Night, Water Light."

Music was the common language for the two artists. It brought them together and expanded their reach into each other’s respective universes.

"This is my first time making music from scratch with a companion. I learnt a lot from Hong. He's very considerate, which allowed me to try out various new approaches. There's much more I can do now," Chin said.

For Hong, it was not the pianist, but the person that he had chosen to work with.

"I think it's all about the person. For me, it wasn't about which instrument, but who I wanted to collaborate with. I really liked Sooyoung, and he happened to be a pianist. If he had been a rapper, the outcome may have been a hip-hop album," Hong said.