Junny: Your New Sonic Solace
Korean-Canadian singer-songwriter Junny to talks about his leap from Canada to South Korea, artistic transformation and what it takes to compose tracks for some of K-pop’s leading acts
This story appears in Rolling Stone India’s K-Music Special Issue, on sale now. Buy your copy here.
Junny was four when he moved to Canada with his family, around 14 or 15 when he wrote his first song, and 23 when he took the leap of faith with his move to Seoul to pursue his dreams. Now at 26, the singer feels music was his natural calling.
Growing up, Junny recalls watching his older brothers sing along to Korean ballads and classic R&B tracks such as “End of the Road” by Boyz II Men, and like any impressionable youngling, he mirrored his siblings’ steps. “I would watch them sing and try to copy them wherever I could,” Junny shares. If you scour the Internet long enough, you’ll come across adorable snapshots of a young Junny in his natural element; from being cradled by his loved ones and displaying his dimpled smile as he enjoys his favorite tunes, to pulling a pose that can best be described as the cover of a fiery nineties hip-hop mixtape.
His journey into making music began in elementary school with a brief flirtation involving the trumpet, but flirtation bloomed to commitment when he pledged his devotion to the guitar; Junny considers this as his first “real instrument.” In fact, while you may know him as an artist with a natural affinity towards pop, lo-fi and R&B, the first album he purchased with his money was Green Day’s punk-rock perfection American Idiot.
The real breakthrough came in 2018 former EXO member Luhan purchased one of his tracks while he was still making music from his family home’s basement. It pushed Junny to take the leap of faith and book a one-way ticket to Seoul and finally chase his dreams. “I had never visited Korea until I graduated high school in 2014,” he opens up about his relationship with his second home. “I obviously knew where Seoul was and what it looked like through Korean TV shows and K-dramas, but actually being able to visit was a totally different beast.” The singer dives deeper into his first impressions of the city, describing it as love at first sight. “I wish there was a way to explain it properly but to simplify it, I felt like I finally got to meet a long-lost version of myself.”
Reflecting on his 2018 flight to Seoul, he expresses a mix of optimism and inevitable apprehension for someone uprooting his life to start a fresh chapter; “I can’t say I wasn’t scared but I was very excited as well, excited for my future. The things I wanted to pursue here were all I was thinking about. I’m so glad it all worked out and I’m still chasing my dreams.”
It’s been three years since Junny’s big move and over a decade since he started exploring his ardent admiration for music. At present, the singer’s body of work spans nine singles, four EPs, three OSTs, two albums and one singles album, which also happens to be his most recent project.
Released as a surprise project for his fans, Nostalgia comprises two tracks– “Solo” featuring Singaporean singer-songwriter lullaboy, and “Nostalgia” featuring GOT7’s leader JAY B. “He’s like an older brother to me, always supporting me and giving me great advice,” Junny explains when I ask about his musical chemistry with JAY B. “I try to learn watching him do his thing and we both have respect for each other musically, and I think that’s what makes the songs we work on together have great chemistry.”
He picks “Fame” (the third track off JAY B’s solo debut EP SOMO: FUME) and of course, “Nostalgia” as the two tracks he enjoyed working on most with JAY B. “It just meant so much to me being able to feature on his song, and him featuring on mine. We both helped each other out and I’m forever grateful.”
Newer fans of both the artists, especially those who got into JAY B’s music after he parted ways with JYP Entertainment to pursue a solo career, may not be aware of the depth of their friendship. It precedes their 2021 releases, dating back to the time when Junny received a DM from JAY B. Still new to the city and slightly unacquainted with the K-pop industry, the Korean-Canadian singer was naturally apprehensive about the message and assumed it was from an account impersonating JAY B. It wasn’t until half a year later that he realized the authenticity of the ‘dubious’ account behind the DM and immediately decided to catch up over coffee. That same year, JAY B introduced Junny to ØFFSHORE– an R&B soul crew composed of IHWAK, HNMR, ROYAL DIVE, JOMALXNE, MIRROR BOY, DEF. (JAY B’s moniker) and ROSEINPEACE – and the rest was history. Junny began to make a name for himself in Korea’s underground R&B scene, soon rising to prominence as one of the artists from whom we could expect great things.
While the songwriter and composer is dedicated to building his discography as a singer, he continues to play an instrumental role in shaping some of the biggest hits for K-pop acts. Be it Kai’s chart-topping solo debut single “Mmmh,” Baekhyun’s “Privacy,” WayV’s “Action Figure,” NCT U’s “From Home” or IU’s “Troll” featuring Dean, Junny has left behind his artistic hues in every track, shaping them to become some of his best works to date. “When writing for other artists, there is a certain criterion that I have to meet. This gives me a guideline of what kind of song I need to write and I try to be as creative as possible within that boundary,” Junny shares, breaking down his methodology behind writing tracks for some of the biggest names in the industry. I ask if he has any favorites and, predictably, he’s torn. “I really love all the songs that I write but if I had to pick one, I would say ‘From Home’ by NCT U because I just had so much fun writing this song with MinGtion, who I co-wrote this song with, and both of us being such big fans of Nineties R&B, we tried to fit as many runs and harmonies as we could.”
Music without lyrics is still music, but music with lyrics is a doorway to an artist’s soul. Regrets, sorrows, fears and triumphs weaved into verses to narrate their stories which– if all goes well– would hopefully become the stepping stone to fathoming their musical legacy. In fact, lyricism is not only how we form an attachment to an artist’s work but also how we come to terms with unearthed stories only our hearts recognize. It is no surprise why songwriting is one of the tougher forms of art to crack. Everyone can put their thoughts to paper, but very few can match emotions with words and phrases that tug at your heartstrings. When it comes to his compositions, Junny admits that creative freedom may get the best out of him. “Feeling overwhelmed is a very accurate description of when I’m writing my own songs,” he opens up. “I don’t think of it too negatively because it just means I have that many styles and themes that I can write about, and it’s up to me to decide how and when I want it a certain way.”
He does, however, confess to having established a songwriting routine that empowers him to keep things new and fresh. “I think that’s what I’ve learned over the years. There isn’t one way to write a song and there are many other ways that I still haven’t tried out yet,” he says. “That’s the beauty of songwriting – it’s the only time I can control everything at my own will.” Songwriting is definitely more than a space for expression for the singer. “It’s a tool for me to get away from stress and just the struggles with everyday life,” Junny points out. He admits he’s the happiest when writing and making music with people he admires. Citing his profession as a “privilege,” he credits this honor to his biggest cheerleaders; “I am thankful for having parents who believed in me and having great people around me all these years in Korea.”
Delving deeper into his songwriting style, Junny lets me in on his creative process. While he may have established a songwriting routine when it comes to the technicalities, the artist’s approach is arbitrary; “It’s always random but I lean towards deciding on what the song should be about.” Establishing the theme is paramount as it gradually leads him towards the title of the song and in some cases, the title strikes the young songwriter’s mind towards the end of his writing process.
As a songwriter and composer, 2020-2022 were defining years for Junny. Throughout this period, the singer had his hands filled with projects for K-pop superstars such as EXO’s Baekhyun and Kai, leading female soloist I.U, NCT U, NCT Dream, NCT 127 and WayV amongst other acts. “‘Mmmh’ was a different experience from others because this song already had its structure and style,” Junny explains about the creative process behind Kai’s solo 2020 debut single. “I went into this song with a different mindset and I tried my best contributing to bringing out Kai’s strengths through the melody and lyrics, and I’m just really glad how it turned out!” The track’s sultry R&B-pop soundscape delicately swirled with Kai’s husky vocal performance fittingly embodied the international superstar’s acclaimed showmanship. The viral sensation went on to top the iTunes song chart in more than 40 countries, creating a record as the first artist from SM Entertainment to achieve this milestone. Thanks to the K-pop idol’s international stardom and the track’s sensual choreography that went viral on TikTok and Instagram, the music video currently holds the title of the most-viewed debut music video by a K-pop male soloist and has the highest music video views by an SM male soloist, breaking an eight-year record, both held by former Super Junior-M member Henry’s 2013 release, “Trap.”
When asked if he kept virality in mind during the composition, Junny’s answer is firm. “Not at all! I just wanted to contribute and do my best for this track, and I just felt confident and comfortable writing it as it was a genre that I was very familiar with. The reception and the song going viral is all thanks to the fans and Kai himself for giving such a great performance on this song and his whole album.” With the boom of short-format content, getting a track viral on platforms such as YouTube, TikTok and Instagram Reels has become an integral part of marketing strategies. In fact, record labels have positions exclusively dedicated to developing strategies to make a track the next viral sensation– be it through influencer marketing, rapidly adapting campaigns and strategies to the ever-changing algorithms of social media platforms, or curating the next viral challenge; having your track linked to a viral trend is a proven way to attain exceptional numbers across charts and streams.
As a composer who creates tracks not only for himself but for external labels and artists, Junny weighs in on whether Internet trends subconsciously creep into an artist’s space, influencing them to create a track with grooves catered towards the general public. “I’ve seen it happen a lot and have even thought about it,” he comments. “Personally, I’m not against it nor am I fully supporting it because at the end of the day, it’s about what I want to say through my music and if it means having to tick off these boxes [viral track checklist] I’d just do my best to be creative with it and try to show my own colors.” He concludes on a rational note, acknowledging how the dynamic nature of the music industry is here to stay, making it easier for him to focus on creating music he values. “The world is constantly changing and growing as we speak, so I’d rather just try and make music that I like and hopefully, others will like it too.”
Industry aside, as a standalone art form, music is evolving by leaps and bounds. Especially in an industry such as K-pop that is globally renowned for its advanced multi-genre approach and birthing pop-culture trends, it’s human for artists to debate whether they wish to incorporate the recent trends in composition and songwriting or focus on curating fresh trends that suit their style. However, in Junny’s case, the singer has a clear approach that he aims to pursue without the faintest presence of doubt. “I want to create fresh trends that fit my style and I feel like I’ve only recently learned to do this. It’s something that I am so proud of and it will definitely show in my upcoming work.”
We move on to discuss “Privacy”– the fifth track off Baekhyun’s third EP Bambi. The warm, sensual concoction of lo-fi and jazz notes describe a lover’s intentions of keeping a romantic affair on the down-low. Looking to keep the intimate moments reserved between the couple, “Privacy” has an easy-to-listen composition that fits the singer’s sultry vocalizations like a glove. “I wrote this with my very close friends, who also happen to be songwriters. As fans of Baekhyun, we all discussed how we wanted this song to be written, and after a lot of brainstorming, we came up with a theme,” Junny explains. “From the lyrics to the instrumental melody, everything seemed to fit what we all wanted and because of that, it’s a very special song to me.”
Amongst the numerous tracks he’s composed for other artists to date, “Privacy” holds some resemblance to Junny’s own sonic identity. “I think it’s unintentional most of the time,” he says about whether he intentionally leaves a slice of his artistic colors on tracks created for other artists. “Like many songwriters, I tend to have a certain melody style that I prefer and it just comes naturally when I’m in a session. It also depends on whose song it is. For ‘Privacy’ it felt more personal to me writing it because it was a male solo song and had an R&B-neo-soul influence that I was very familiar with.”
The conversation would be incomplete without discussing NCT U’s “From Home.” For those who may not be well-versed with SM’s ambitious global idol group, NCT is a 23-member group that actively promotes material under three fixed sub-units (NCT 127, NCT DREAM and WayV) and is widely known for its cultural diversity. With members from Korea, Thailand, Japan, China, the U.S. and Canada, the group is amongst one of the most diverse K-pop acts. While it primarily promotes under its fixed units, the group also occasionally puts out singles under NCT U, a rotational unit that comprises members from different sub-units. One such example of a project stemming from NCT U was the 2021 R&B-pop single, “From Home.”
For a group as multicultural as NCT, “From Home” was a fitting track paying homage to their roots and journey to date. Performed by members Taeil, Yuta, Kun, Doyoung, Renjun, Haechan, and Chenle, the track’s sentimental theme outlines how the NCT members– united by their dream of becoming singers– ended up finding a new home in one another. While the song is mainly sung in Korean, the track also features lyrics in Japanese, Chinese, and English. Nuzzled on a bed of warm, comforting melodies and emotive vocal performances rich in falsettos and soaring high notes, “From Home” extended its purpose, providing comfort and solace to fans across the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This song had two key points,” Junny says, dissecting the technicalities behind the track. “SM wanted a mid-tempo classic R&B track and a subject that can relate to the members who are away from home. I felt a bit of a connection living in Korea and being away from home, so writing the lyrics was a breeze from what I remember. In terms of melody, MinGtion and I went crazy and made vocal harmonies that were like no other, and it was an amazing time working on this song.” Co-written by an equally diverse and talented group of songwriters, Junny shares his experience working alongside writers representing different ethnicities. “My experience working with different songwriters was great. Here in Korea, a lot of songwriters are not very expressive and me being an expressive person and dancing, jumping up and down, getting hyped to the songs we’ve made– I’ve made a lot of people laugh for sure,” he grins.
Journeying forward, we slip into the second facet of his artistry as we canvas his self-composed tracks and without missing a beat, Junny’s September 2020 release “Movie” takes the spotlight. Amassing over 11 million streams on Spotify and over 990,000 views on YouTube, “Movie” is undoubtedly an all-time favorite amongst Junniverse (Junny’s fandom). The single opens with a playful piano melody right before the singer’s breathy vocal performance fills the melodic space. Celebrating a delightfully pleasant romantic relationship, Junny pens down a larger-than-life, almost cinematic love story with lines like, “Our running time is 9 and 5/ As if we are the main characters/ Suddenly our life has turned around like a movie/ It was once all black and white/ But now I see the color red, representing my love for you.” As a listener, it’s difficult to point out what makes this track a potential contender for a timeless hit– perhaps it’s the single’s upbeat soundscape brimming with brass-percussion sounds or the stirring romantic lyricism elevated by Junny’s dulcet vocals. Either way, it’s a track that rightfully reflects his efforts.
“’Movie’ is a song that I’m very proud of,” he says, adding, “The theme was just right. I had a lot of difficulties writing the hook for this song. I was so happy with the verse and pre-chorus, but I just couldn’t find the right hook for the longest time. After many days of writing over and over again, one day it just magically worked out and because of that struggle and effort, writing this song is still, to this day, unforgettable.”
Like many songwriters, Junny dissects complex emotions such as romance through varied lenses. If you experienced a burst of warmth while grooving to “Movie,” get ready to taste the bitter-sweet remains of past relationships with “Nostalgia.” Accompanied by a scenic lyrical music video, the latter release in 2021 fuses the charisma of eighties dream-pop with Junny and Jay B’s breathy, mellow vocals. Co-written by the vocalists alongside Jane and No2zcat, the track deals with themes of nostalgia and past romances; “Inside a small drawer/ Mixed up with the fragments of the past/ There lies that small, dried-up piece of memory/ That I’ve never been able to unlock.” Through the track, Junny unpacks the process of revisiting the past, suggesting it as a therapeutic process that requires one to accept both the good and bad aspects: “If I can turn back time and relive my younger days/ Will I be able to walk without any regrets/ Taking a trip down memory lane, although it wasn’t perfect/ I’ll embrace them with all my heart.”
Detailing complex human emotions requires one to tear down their walls and get vulnerable – a situation that might present itself as a challenge. But Junny sees power in this vulnerability and considers it therapeutic rather than challenging; “I have my fans who relate to and enjoy these songs, and it lets me know that I’m not alone and I’m able to make music that people can connect with and enjoy.”
Junniverse can definitely expect a lot more creativity and honesty on the idol’s forthcoming album. “I am working very hard on this album and it’s coming along great,” he exclaims. “I’m proud of these songs, and you can expect new sounds and stories that I’ve never tried, but I’m considering it to be a representation of who I am as an artist and what you can expect from me in the future!” I ask about how much of himself and his personality he puts on his records, to which he responds with two extremes: “It all depends on each song. Some could be 200 percent while some could be just 50 percent, but the effort and attention to detail will always be the same. Working on this album, I’ve realized that there are so many sides of me that I haven’t yet [explored] and I’m just so excited for everyone to listen [to it] when the album is finished.” As Junny gears to fill his album with stories his fans can resonate with, the singer reveals that those stories will be packaged in different genres. “The album is filled with new genres and some that my fans may know and love as well.”
While I was working on jotting down the questions for this feature, Junny and Korean-American rapper and Dive Studio’s podcast GetReal regular pH-1’s catch-up session over coffee set Twitter ablaze with possible collaboration rumors. I nudge Junny in this direction– can we possibly see a follow-up release to their 2020 collaborative single “Aura?” He ponders for a bit, searching for an appropriate answer that doesn’t reveal too much too early. “Maybe in the near future?” he ultimately responds. “You’ll just have to find out but a shoutout to pH-1! He’s so humble and talented. I’m so glad we were able to become friends through GetReal.”
On May 2nd, Junny released “Get Ya!”- a bright pop pre-release single featuring, you guessed it, pH-1.
An album-creation process begins with the right balance between inspiration and creativity. The latter may be perceived as a boundless journey– the more you charter, the more you discover. For Junny, creative growth begins with conversations and discovery. “I do my best to listen to new artists. I enjoy finding new artists, talking about music and having long conversations about what it means to make ‘good’ music, and through these moments, I learn from my peers and friends about their perspectives, which helps a lot in my growth musically.” Cruising through his discography certainly paints an illustration tethered with spurts of musical and perspective evolution. Some of Junny’s earlier works rarely digressed from the dark R&B space with hints of hip-hop thrown into the mix. However, over the years the singer has grown comfortable with the idea of making happy, feel-good pop music– a style that is cut out for him.
While many may downplay the effort that goes into creating pop music and categorize it as a frivolous genre with zero scope of credibility and talent, Junny values pop and everything it stands for. “I used to be very genre-specific and was against trying out new styles of music, but K-pop really got me to open my mind and made me realize the beauty of pop music and the insane amount of talent that goes into making a pop song,” he admits. “I think whatever music anyone makes is serious; be it bright or dark, it describes someone’s emotions and it’s expressed through melodies that we can listen to and sing along to. That in itself is so special and I don’t see why popular music is any different. Now that my views have changed, I feel like I’m making the music that truly describes who I am.”
With Junny visualizing himself dabbling with different genres, this change in perspective is certainly not a temporary affair. “I want to be known as an artist who keeps on tackling new genres and continuously evolves musically. I can’t imagine myself as a one-genre artist forever and with each project, I want to try new things. I feel like that’s just my personality in general.”
As we approach the end of the interview, talk about the past and future sweep in. Curious to know whether Junny had sketched out a rough idea of the artist he wants to become when he set course from Vancouver to Seoul, I pose a question that allows him to detail the same whilst establishing how far he is from achieving this goal. Junny presents a heartwarming response, which not only mirrors his confidence toward his art but the unwavering commitment he’s seeded into consistently redefining his artistic boundaries. “To be honest, I’m so thankful and happy about where I am now, but I do believe that I can grow in life– you never know what may happen, so I’m just continuously going to work hard and enjoy making music for my fans for the rest of my life. That’s the kind of artist that I want to become. I want to continuously strive to make better music for myself and others.” He continues, “Junny is who I am and I want that to show in my music. I want to stay happy and healthy but most importantly, I want to be able to make music and perform for people all over the world, and my goal is to do what I am doing now, but just on a bigger scale.”
As for the hopes and aspirations he holds, he pens down a thoughtful message for his future self, brimming with excitement, optimism and conviction. “It’s been three years since I’ve come to Seoul to pursue my music career and it was one of the biggest choices I’ve had to make in my life. A lot has changed since then and I’ve learned so much over the years that now it truly feels like I’m entering a new chapter in my life where I am able to show who Junny is as an artist rather than a songwriter. I wish for the best and let’s continue on this new path for myself and the people who love my music. Good luck!”
Just as we exchange goodbyes, I ask Junny whether he has a message for his Indian Junniverse. What follows next is a stream of infectious energy and words that capture the genuine admiration he holds for his fandom: “It’s my first time doing an interview with Rolling Stone India and I am so happy and honored that I’m able to connect with my Indian fans! I hope my answers were entertaining enough for you all and thank you so much for your continuous love and support! I’m working incredibly hard on this album and hopefully, we will be able to see each other in person very soon! Also, this album is dedicated to my fans [in] Junniverse. Wherever you may be, I love you all.”