Welcome to Suran’s Land Of Fantasy
The South Korean singer on what it takes to be a creative entrepreneur, and building her fantasy amusement park of music and comfort
This story appears in Rolling Stone India’s K-Music Special Issue, on sale now. Buy your copy here.
“That’s exactly how I feel while living in the city!” Seoul-based singer-songwriter, producer and label founder Suran exclaims when asked what the line “Seoul, where I live, is a reality fantasy” from “Let It Fly” (a B-side track from her latest EP Flyin’: Part 1) insinuates.
From what I’ve gathered from conversing with friends and family who’ve visited Seoul, there’s a palpable sense of surrealism across the city. Given Seoul’s glamorous, rose-tinted branding in Korean dramas, it’s natural to find yourself amid a dream-like sequence where the lines between reality and fantasy feel blurred. However, Suran’s parallel could be an extension of how she defines fantasy. “Fantasy, to me, is something unexpected,” the 36-year-old artist elucidates. “It’s something you can’t see, so you get to look out for it.”
Fantasy is a recurring theme in the artist’s creative world. For Suran, it is more than a rosy adjective. It is, at its core, the definition of her artistic realm where listeners forge a deep connection with her music; “I wish for the listeners to visit Suran’s fantasy amusement park whenever they want. I want them to relax and have fun with my music.”
Though the singer cites Flyin’: Part 1 as “the beginning ground” for the fantasy world she wishes to build, long-term admirers would argue that the prolific artist has been laying the groundwork for this for a while now. Be it through her earlier works or OSTs, Suran’s discography has been providing comfort and warmth to those who seek it.
Needless to say, her interpretation of her artistic space is unique. I’ve heard artists describe their artistry as a safe space – one where honesty, creativity and criticism co-exist peacefully – but never as a fantasy amusement park. To me, the singer’s definition paints a picture of a serene land that evokes bursts of optimism, hope and easement – emotions you often experience when cruising through her body of work. While the building block of her catalog can be traced back to 2015, the seeds of the singer’s passion for creative expression through melodies were sowed early in her life.
“I loved singing when I was young,” the singer fondly reminisces. “I remember performing with my friends in middle school, and we performed to popular K-pop idols’ songs. I was always the main vocalist in those performances!” Though Suran’s relationship with music has been rock-solid from day one, the singer expresses her desire to become a holistic artist who takes complete charge of her artistry. “After performing as a vocalist for a while, I started to dream of becoming a composite artist who writes songs. I watched a lot of videos of international indie artists with an American friend who was a film director. It was a whole new experience for me since YouTube was not very popular at that time. For example, watching the duo Empire of the Sun’s videos had a huge impact on me. I was very motivated by their unique artistic vision of expressing music without boundaries and creating fantasy in a vast desert.”
As her love for music grew stronger, Suran saw a shift in her music consumption habits, which had an impact on her vision: “Before being exposed to such new cultures, I solely focused on music as a jazz and R&B vocalist. With new visual experiences, I started writing songs and began dreaming of becoming a singer-songwriter.” Though she can’t recall the first album that left a lasting impression on her, she credits British alternative rock band Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head as one of the albums that had an impact.
Harboring passion and respect for music from early on eventually manifested in becoming an art form with purpose. Suran adores singing (plus NASA and Elon Musk, but more on that later), and today, listeners seek to experience what the singer feels when working on her music. Elation, liberation or alleviation – they want it all, and Suran couldn’t be happier to offer a space where her music acts as a bridge that connects her listeners to tranquility.
This said tranquility can best be experienced in her 2017 single “Wine.” Featuring South Korean rapper Changmo and produced by BTS’ SUGA, the trendy hip-hop and R&B track has amassed over 49 million streams on Spotify alone, becoming Suran’s highest-streamed song on the platform. Floating over an electro-pop and future bass groove, “Wine” is about the best pairing known to man: nostalgia and alcohol. Fondly reminiscing about a past lover over a glass of bitter-sweet booze, “Wine” takes place amidst a conversation between two former lovers. While Suran expresses the desire of rekindling the love affair, Changmo is adamant about maintaining distance.
“Wine” is one of the many collaborative tracks from Suran’s discography which attests to her eye for handpicking the perfect artist to bring her stories to life. Recently, the singer collaborated with South Korean rapper Dok2 on “Devils In The City” and with NCT’s Taeyong on “Diamonds,” – both of which feature on her EP Flyin’ : Part 1. Other artists who’ve worked with the visionary include South Korean rappers Wonstein, pH-1, BIG Naughty, Yoonmirae, Beenzino, Yankie and vocalist Heize.
“I usually start with music when deciding who to collaborate with,” she says, explaining her methodology. “If I think of an artist who would work well while making a song, I imagine the whole process and then contact the person with a full heart. I think that’s how collaborations usually work for many artists.” While the process largely consists of a meticulous thought process, Suran admits to having luck come to play occasionally. “Sometimes the timing does the magic. I would meet a great artist and we’d have a sincere conversation, then everything would lead to working together. There are many ways things work.” The latter seems to be the story behind Taeyong’s feature on “Diamonds.”
Co-written and composed by Suran, Taeyong and Malaysian producer Zayson with Brian Cho joining the trio as a composer, the fantasy R&B single sees the singer explore a dreamy soundscape – a style we last saw her embrace in the 2021 single “Sunny.” The singer employs smooth, velvety vocals to complement the single’s moody vibe. Further accompanied by hip-hop beats and resonant synth-bass sounds, “Diamonds” paints a picture of a dreamworld brimming with hope and romance, where Suran perceives romance as fantasy – a serene realm burdened with no complications – while Taeyong expresses his desire of wanting a relationship described in classic literature.
“I got to work with Taeyong after finishing the initial sketch of the track,” Suran tells me about how NCT’s leader was roped in for the project. “I then expanded the concept that was based on the word ‘diamond’. As I was building an image of a hero in the fantasy world, I thought it would fit well with Taeyong. He was the perfect artist who fit the image and vocal synergy when I thought of collaborating on the track.”
“Diamonds” leads the singer’s first EP (Flyin’:Part 1) under her self-founded label S-TASY. Including the pre-release singles “Sunny” and “Devils In The City,” Flyin’ : Part 1 comprises three additional tracks – “Let It Fly,” “Wish I Could” and “Lucky Star.” Like the album’s cover art, the EP is a dreamy sonic transcript bringing stories of transformation, liberation, romance and heartbreak to life.
“I started working on this album in the spring of 2020,” Suran reveals about the timeline of events that led to the curation of her EP. “I hoped to make an album that announces my new beginning, like a notification for an upgrade.” As a seasoned artist, she values the long-term advantages that aesthetics and branding carry, and hence chose to focus her energy on “building a brand of the artist Suran, rather than completely focusing on sounds.” Explaining this further, she continues, “I thought visuals control all content these days, and that rule also applies to music. I decided I should approach that idea to meet new friends in a fast-changing world.”
Suran’s vision for mesmeric visuals extends to “Diamonds,” where she succeeds in depicting fantasy through a mix of dreamy visual effects. “That is why this album, especially “Diamonds” has various and unique sessions. It’s a song, but it paints an image of the fantasy world that I want to establish. As I was making this song, I thought of making a video; not necessarily a music video, but video imagery of the fantasy visuals with different effects. I wanted to meet new fans on a new road and expand areas where I can share my music.”
“For Part 1, I had thought of exactly six tracks,” she says about how the tracks were shortlisted for the EP. “I chose these tracks because they have similar topics, flow, and vision. The only track with a slightly different topic is ‘Wish I Could’, so I decided to include that track at the last minute. This song means the end of emotion, and it also represents the previous version of myself.”
Opening with dreamy R&B track “Let It Fly,” the singer instantly pulls listeners into her fantasy land where she welcomes the new Suran with lines like, “It’s worth waiting for you/ Something about our energy/ We’ve got the perfect synergy.” The mood quickly shifts to a darker space with “Devils In The City.” Featuring Dok2, the synth R&B track discusses the “ambivalence of human beings.” Inspired by real experiences, Suran spotlights her flair for songwriting and nuanced understanding of the human psyche; “It [revisiting the experience] didn’t feel very cathartic,” she confesses. “Bitter experiences are not something you can talk about easily, and I wanted to leave room to think for everyone who listens and relates to the song. I wanted to pass an important message as I was giving a quiet warning.”
When tackling emotionally challenging thematics, it’s absolutely imperative to pace yourself. A surge in overwhelming emotions could result in draining an artist both mentally and creatively. So how does Suran pace herself, ensuring she’s honest on a track without exerting herself? “I think my pace changes in each song according to the way I work, structure, lyrics, etc,” she explains, naming “Wish I Could” as another track where she released all her emotions.
With all arrows pointing towards just how easy it is for anyone to unleash the devil that silently resides in them, “Devils In The City” is certainly a wake-up call to those enveloped in a desensitized state of mind. Luckily, Suran offers us advice on how we can keep the devil at bay: “Honestly, I think we’re living in a world that makes it very hard to steer away from turning into a devil,” Suran speaks with conviction. “I just created my circumstances with the courage to follow what I believe in. It is hard and incomplete, but you just have to follow your own beliefs. On the way, it would be great to have a friend and lean on each other. But honestly, we know nothing is eternal, and the feeling of completeness is only momentary. That’s why we always have to challenge ourselves and move forward.”
The darkness from “Devils In The City” is soon shadowed by optimism and confidence with “Lucky Star” where the singer celebrates the innumerable versions of herself. While self-love is not a particularly unheard-of subject in K-pop (in fact, it’s a topic that is extensively discussed), I admire the route Suran takes. Rather than viewing herself in one role, as the singer, she breaks herself down into the various personalities and roles that makes Suran, well, Suran – be it the pop star that we adore and admire or the child-like innocence that we see in her even today. Crediting these versions to her success, Suran sings with absolute conviction and grace, announcing that becoming “new” was her “destiny”: “It’s my secret, but I’ll tell you/ Becoming new is my destiny/ Umm, I’ll tell you everything/ There are so many of me inside/ When I close my eyes and dance/ Whatever I want.”
Suran absolutely steals the show (and my heart) with a soul-soothing vocal performance on the fifth track “Wish I Could.” Backed by a minimalistic R&B production, it has a rather comforting sonic composition for a track that discusses the death of emotions. “I’m very glad you’re a fan of “Wish I Could!” Suran gleams before breaking down how she matches a track’s lyrics with a specific vocal style and genre. “The vocal delivery is usually the strongest when I actually put emotions in a song, but the whole process for this track was almost impromptu. When I was sketching this song, I immediately started recording while singing random words along with a pianist playing next to me. The final version is very close to the first guide version I did. I think the process of working on a song [genre vs. lyrics] really varies for every song.”
To sooth the emotional scars from “Wish I Could,” the EP concludes on a romantic note with “Sunny.” The singer returns to her roots with an irresistibly raspy vocal performance as she sings about having a conversation with the new Suran. Filled with endearment and warmth, “Sunny” explores a deep, intimate talk about what the future holds: “As I looked at you/ I thought of this, my darling/ Will things always be this good?/ Sunny like today’s weather/ It can’t always be like that/ Though we want it.”
“There is no continuous story,” Suran comments when I nudge her to reveal whether she plans on continuing the stories from this EP on a new record. “But I ‘let It fly’ with part one, so part two might be about me ‘flyin.’ You’ll find out when a new album comes out!”
While Suran has helmed Flyin’:Part 1 beautifully, a certain producer working behind the scenes has played an equally crucial role in shaping the mini-album, matching Suran’s creative vision with the right production and composition calls.
In comes Zayson, Suran’s long-term collaborator, friend and producer. “I was looking for the main producer for the new album, someone who can work well with me and can produce systemically, and I met Zayson who happened to be in Korea,” Suran tells me about how their paths crossed. “I had already worked with him, even though it was online, on ‘OJB’ from my Jumpin’ album. After meeting him, we worked on arranging the first track of the album, “Sunny.” I thought it would be great to work with him on the album, so we talked a lot about my previous experience and the direction of this album. We naturally started working together by trying various work processes.”
Above all, what matters the most is the level of understanding and whether creative wavelengths are in sync. “I enjoyed working with Zayson because I felt comfortable as I was with my best friend. Also, as a producer, he understood Suran, the artist, very well and was able to work at a fast pace. Such chemistry completed our work as a team. In fact, he was my closest friend and best work buddy for the last two years. He was a great companion on my new journey.”
I ask Suran how important finding the right producer is and her response reiterates the necessity to forge a relationship built on creative zest as opposed to talent alone. “Finding the right producer is very difficult and extremely important. You have to consider many facts, including capability, chemistry, and a good eye for the artist. There is no right answer for a perfect partner or right producer, but it is important to win the producer’s heart as an artist. If you become best friends with the producer, even if it’s only for making music, it’ll be the best solution.”
Like many seasoned artists, Suran is the sole captain, steering the vessel carrying her creative vision forward. From writing to composing, producing and more, the singer’s EP Flyin: Part 1 is a perfect introductory chapter to her artistry. “I feel like a chef these days when working on music,” she smiles. “I try to make the best ‘dish’ possible with good ‘ingredients’ and the right ‘spices’ within the given circumstances. I think the best ingredient I have is my voice.”
As the founder and CEO of her label S-TASY, Suran found the artist and entrepreneur in her frequently clash when making key decisions for this EP; “There definitely are many clashes,” she confesses. “Everything especially feels like a process because I recently started my own label. I made decisions that involved some headaches last year, but now I just listen to my heart before deciding anything.” Established in 2021, S-TASY aims to share and inspire a world of fantasy with listeners globally. More than just a business venture, S-TASY is Suran’s way of showing the music industry that it is possible to take control of your own artistry.
Between running a label and bringing her fantasy land to life through her music, the learning curve was steep, offering the creative entrepreneur room to learn, experiment and grow. “From both artistic and business perspectives, I think the whole process is absolutely golden,” Suran says about the events that have unfolded since founding her label. “You learn a lot more from life by experiencing yourself. There are pros and cons, but I learn something new every day from the system”
As for where she envisions that label to be headed next, Suran’s spirits are high. “Going as far as possible to somewhere my heart desires!” she says with confidence. “During the journey, I want to make many cool, awesome new friends, aka fans. I want to build Suran’s fantasy amusement park as nicely as possible.” Despite engraving her name in the book of success stories, Suran remains humble; “I don’t really have any advice for anyone who wishes to establish their label, but would like to invite them to do something fun and amazing together!”
Be it music, business, or even STEM, when it comes to women excelling in any creative or analytical industry, we are often told – or rather made to believe – that there are limitations to our goals and victories; that we can’t have it all. However, Suran’s story of becoming a creative entrepreneur is a perfect example that negates this regressive ideology. “I think believing that I’m doing well and having gratitude and joy are very important. It’s not advice, but something I constantly tell myself,” the singer-CEO says letting me in on what keeps her motivated on this journey. “I would like to say that mind detox is very important. I hope you believe and follow what’s right. It also helps when you try to keep love and take a step carefully, but with passion. I hope everyone remembers that there is responsibility behind every word and action and that it is important to give your sincere heart to every moment.” Suran’s advice does not stop there. While staying mentally agile and taking accountability for your actions are important, she makes an important point about trusting your instincts and creative calling; “I also chase fun. Mind control handles everything, so I always focus on what my heart tells me.”
Right before we wrap up the interview, Suran passes on a special message to her fans – “I want to sincerely thank my fans who always trust me and wait for my album, and also all listeners who listen to my music. I hope you visit Suran’s fantasy amusement park again, and I pray that you expect more things there. We’ve been through this pandemic for so long together, and I’m very proud of us. Starting this year, I hope to meet you more often on stage!”
As I bid farewell to the artist whose music gave me the emotional strength to power through the 2021 lockdown, I can’t help but wonder how the past year would have been without her artistry. Truth be told, she was one of the first artists I approached with a profile request when I joined Rolling Stone India, and, coincidentally, she also happened to be the first artist I reached out to for this special issue. Sure, Suran has a way with words and her euphonious voice never fails to fill you with warmth, but there’s more to her.
She’s an artist who values growth. Despite a terrific body of work, Suran believes she’s still “walking down [her] own path to becoming the musician [she] had dreamed of [being].” Coming back to NASA and Elon Musk, she talks about how much she admires both: “I like people who try and achieve things that not many people can challenge. It’s not easy to walk one’s path despite challenges, no matter what field of work.” While art keeps her heart pumping, questions about the future keeps her mind engaged: “I think Elon Musk is an amazing weirdo. To me, he seems like the most trendy scientist, putting the most fantasy-like shows and making science so artistic. That’s why I enjoy following his endeavors. I have watched his interviews, and I could relate to his thoughts and plans when I compared them to my career – something unexpected but something to look out for. I’m always interested in topics related to how the world will change in the future.”
But above all, her ability to spin words into poetry, sincere respect for her industry peers and determination to take charge of her own story makes her an artist who truly embodies the word ‘inspiration.’