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JVNR: ‘Language Just Doesn’t Matter’

South Korean producer Jun Roh on setting out on a world tour all alone, writing songs in English and learning how to play Indian instruments

Riddhi Chakraborty Dec 14, 2017

There are many things about Jun Roh that raise eyebrows in South Korea, like his love for writing songs in English. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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Our first meeting with Jun Roh happens completely by chance. We decided to head to for the Mumbai leg of the annual New Wave Asia Festival in late October and the initial draw was Japanese electronic producer Hibari’s punk aesthetic. Once we got there however, Roh—who goes by the stage name JVNR—ended up being the standout performance of the night. The South Korean artist started off easy with synthwave and breathy vocals but grabbed our attention when he pulled out a guitar and ripped into a piercing rock solo we didn’t see coming.

I meet him a couple of days later for a quick conversation and while it’s all very rushed—he has to catch a bus to Goa the same night—it’s pretty fun. Roh is soft-spoken but sharp as a tack, often making witty comebacks and subtle references to pop culture. He learned classical guitars while living in New Zealand as a child, but considers grunge pioneers Nirvana his biggest influence. “Kurt Cobain moved my life,” he says. “So since I was around 13, I wanted to be like that. I started to earn some money doing part-time jobs and got an electric guitar. Then I finally learned to play some real music.”

As an artist, Roh is a traveling one-man-show, taking on vocals, lead guitar and synths all by himself. He was initially the frontman of South Korean electronic pop-rock outfit WHOwho, but decided to go solo after five years of being in a band. “I was feeling kind of bored and I just wanted to get out from the country,” he explains. “I started to make my own stuff so I can go tour by myself. So this is the JVNR Project.” He adds that it is a much more liberating experience to do it all alone; there’s no one else’s schedule to worry about and no clashes over artistic differences. “But sometimes I feel lonely,” he admits.

Sonically, the ex-frontman dabbles in rock, funk and electronica but is developing a fondness for sampling and looping. “These days I’m trying to get more into sampling sounds like the sound of the street… anything I can record. I’m making a lot of videos so I can use that sound, edit it and put it into my music.” Roh reveals he has a sitar back at home in Seoul as well as a couple of Indian percussive instruments and a harmonium.

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“I like the Indian traditional music like ragas. They use different scales and different rhythms… I was trying to learn but it’s not easy.” He shows me a short clip of him playing the harmonium and it’s certainly better than my past attempts with my grandmother’s one. He explains that he’s in the middle of sampling sounds from the instruments and combining them with his own compositions to create new tracks. “What I’m trying to do is write new tracks for all the countries. I’m writing a track for India and it will come up in around February.”

So far Roh has two official singles out, the shimmering “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the funk-infused “Citylights,” has performed several unreleased tracks on tour and is working on more. He plans on releasing a series of singles throughout his current world tour and an EP or LP once he’s back in Korea—whenever that may be. On this tour alone, Roh has been to Taiwan, Malaysia, India and China and will head to Europe for 90 days and then the U.S. for 90 more before finally ending the whole thing in Japan in August 2018. It’s unbelievable when you realize he’s doing it all solo and on a super tight budget. How does he manage to book so many gigs in the first place? “My friends are helping a lot,” he says. “Sometimes I try to send emails directly to the venues and it sometimes works, sometimes it doesn’t. But so far it’s working really well.”

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It’s all a little unpredictable—as a career in music tends to be—and Roh shares that his parents were unhappy with the idea of him leaving so much to providence. “They hated it,” he says. “We had a long fight [about it] for two years.” South Korea (much like India) is infamous for its citizens’ pursuit for academic excellence and the immense pressure parents put on their kids to score top marks. Roh recalls when he moved back to Korea from New Zealand he would attend a full day of school, followed by several hours of extra classes, after which he was made to study again late into the night for his school lessons the next day. After several years of this pattern, his high intelligence turned out to be his saving grace “When I did the test for university, I was 17—I had skipped high school and gotten into university.” His parents were finally placated when they realized he would be fine if music were to ever fail him.

In fact there are many things about Roh that raise eyebrows in South Korea, like his love for writing songs in English. “Sometimes in Korea everyone asks me, ‘Why don’t you write lyrics in Korean?’ Language just doesn’t matter. I mean, sometimes I listen to K-pop and I have no idea what they’re singing about,” he says with a laugh. He adds that it’s the same thing with a lot of pop, no matter where in the world you are— people tend to focus on the rhythm rather than the lyrics because they don’t want to think too much and just want to relax, maybe escape from their stressful lives and just groove for a little while. “So I’m trying to focus on the vibe and atmosphere of the song, not the lyrics.”

Watch JVNR perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” below:

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