Yours Truly, Whee In: An Ode From an Artist to Her Fans
South Korean singer-songwriter and MAMAMOO member Whee In opens up about her latest EP ‘WHEE,’ her creative process, and her biggest aspirations
It’s an hour shy of midnight when Jung Whee In joins Rolling Stone India over a Zoom call from South Korea. Despite the odd working hours, the vocalist embodies the textbook definition of elegance. Donned in a grey oversized blazer and a red blouse with her hair neatly tucked away in a bun, I can’t help but marvel over how she remains cheery at this time when most of us are at our most dishevelled.
“I’m going to be a lot busier starting tomorrow,” she informs me, referring to January 18th, when the promotion cycle for her second EP, WHEE is scheduled to begin. “So far, It feels like a warm-up session.” Her words are both from the seasoned professional habituated to the grueling post-album promotion cycle, and the triumphant artist so eager to promote one of her best records to date, that she began press interactions before the promotion period was officially in motion.
Following her debut in 2014 with the K-pop girl group MAMAMOO (one of the most sought-after groups in the industry, celebrated for their live vocals), Whee In has blossomed into an artist with a myriad of talents. Comprising Solar, Hwa Sa, Moon Byul and Whee In, MAMAMOO made their official debut on June 18, 2014 with “Mr. Ambiguous.” Hailed for their empowering concepts and strong vocal performances, the group’s discography boasts an array of tracks from pop to jazz, R&B, retro-synth and more. Last year, the group celebrated their seventh anniversary with the release of the pure ballad bliss W.A.W, which ranked ninth on Rolling Stone India’s 10 Best K-Pop Albums of 2021. Though the album was just four tracks long, the record minimalistic blend of mellow piano and soft strumming on the guitar across tracks allowed listeners to focus on the quartet’s exceptional understanding of vocal variation and harmonization.
Early beginnings to Whee In’s musical projects outside of MAMAMOO can be traced back to the 2016 single “Narcissus.” Performed alongside Super Junior’s Heechul and TraxX’s Kim Jung Mo for SM Entertainment’s digital project SM Station. Following the 2016 ballad release, Whee In collaborated with US musician Jeff Bernat and singer B.O. on “Da Ra Da” in 2017 and with South Korean rapper Sik-K in 2018 on her first single-album Magnolia lead by the R&B hip-hop single “Easy.” From 2018 to date, Whee In colored the lines outside her artistic molds with her first non-collaborative, soulful single “Good Bye” and appearances on OSTs for popular Korean Drama such as Hospital Playlist, One Ordinary Day and Record of Youth. Considering MAMAMOO’s vast discography, spanning three albums, 11 EPs, and Whee In’s endeavors as a soloist– which includes two EPs and a singles album– the singer-songwriter is truly a gift that keeps on giving. 2021 was a defining year for the soloist with the release of the Christmas single “Solo Christmas” alongside vocalist and label mate, Aliee and her first EP, Redd.
A canvas of honest colors, Redd glides through an array of sounds starting with the new jack swing lead single “Water Color”; “I’m still a dreamer/ I’m gonna raise me up/ I want more colors for me/ Now, just pick anything.” From the urban-infused track “Trash,” acoustic-pop extravagance “OHOO,” R&B stylized “Butterfly” to the indie-feel good “Springtime” and the EP’s concluding track “No Thanks”- a soul-inspired self-love anthem, where the vocalist chooses herself over a former lover, Redd was a sonorous beginning to Whee In’s artistic expression.
In her latest release WHEE, the 26-year-old singer-songwriter focuses the record on the indestructible light within her—a concept that is meticulously illustrated in the story film titled The Light. Serving as a trailer to her sophomore EP, the 45-second clip sees Whee In break down her definition of light; “The root of all things, something that ceaselessly changes.” It’s a fitting description of her artistic odyssey from her bold, audacious first EP, Redd to the bright, dreamy realm of WHEE. “I started preparing for the album and attending meetings since last October,” she says. While the seeds of her labor were sowed roughly four months back, Whee In reveals the concept is something that wasn’t set in stone from the very beginning; “I think the concept came naturally when the songs and the lyrics of the album came out. I just got to refine them as I was completing the album.” Contrasting the EPs hints towards the robust creative shift Whee In focused her energy towards. Guided by a minimalistic production, Whee In’s signature mellow vocal performance takes the spotlight, helping the vocalist expresses the palette of sounds and styles that makes Whee In, Whee In.
Ruminating over Whee In’s discography brought one question to mind: Could Redd and WHEE be connected? With WHEE centered around light, the color white (an amalgamation of all seven colors of the rainbow) immediately engulfs the senses. Is WHEE an extension to Redd—a record that saw the vocalist celebrate all the different colors that makes her rare? Taking sips of her cold brew, Whee In listens attentively, waiting for the translator to convey my question before she answers. “For me, I tried to focus on connecting the themes rather than concepts of each album,” the vocalist discloses. “So, it is true that I try to connect and continue the themes with the names and titles of my album.”
Being the first major creative project under her new label THE L1VE, WHEE marked a pivotal chapter in the soloist’s career. Founded by the K-pop idol-turned-CEO RAVI of VIXX, THE L1VE signed an exclusive contract with Whee In, vowing to future her creative ambitions as a soloist early last year. The news broke out a few days after her former label, RBW, announced her departure. Opting out of a contract renewal, Whee In chose to sign an extension with RBW until December 2023, allowing her to be a part of MAMAMOO’s upcoming promotional activities such as concerts and albums. With a new team and mentor, Whee In’s experience was nothing short of delightful. “Working with the new team was definitely something I enjoyed a lot while making this album,” she enthuses. “They really brought out the good sides in me and my productivity in a new atmosphere, so I’m really thankful for that. I think that lead to great production and a great album.”
As for working alongside RAVI, Whee In gives me a peek into her CEO’s mentorship style and how he effectively created a pleasant environment in which she could truly express herself. “Rather than advising me on the actual production of the album, [RAVI] really talked to me as a friend and as a big brother. He really made me feel comfortable.” She adds, “Even though he didn’t give me any specific advice on the production, my talks with him really helped me while making this album for sure.” RAVI was also one of the six songwriters behind the lead single on WHEE, “Make Me Happy.” Helmed by up-tempo beats with a dreamy synth mix accentuating Whee In’s breathy vocalizations, the track is tinted with gentle strokes of romance and allure, setting in the mystique in the EP. “I think the main reason why I chose ‘Make Me Happy’ to lead the EP was the track’s addictive hook and It also has a really memorable lyrical point,” Whee In explains. “I think it was the song that could the public could really relate to. So that is why I chose the song.”
The music video takes a page out of Disney Animation Studio’s playbook, painting its cinematography with lush CGI landscapes and whimsical splashes of butterflies and floral arrangements. In its entirety, “Make Me Happy” is the reverie you grew up seeking happiness from– a paradise where imagination is your guide, whisking you through a cascade of sensations. As the video unfolds, you become mindful of the intentional usage of butterflies. In the literary world, butterflies symbolize transformation and hope—a symbol in synergy with Whee In’s definition of light (something that ceaselessly changes). Perhaps artistic transformation was one of the underlying messages of the music video? “The main keyword of this album is me, hence I wanted to make butterfly this album’s signature item,” Whee In divulges. “It’s actually is related to a really significant childhood memory. Plus, the butterfly is a symbol that my mom has passed on to me, which means a lot, which is why I really wanted to present it as my signature item from this album.”
Whee In was so committed to sharing her artistic session that she made it a point to attend as many off-studio meeting sessions as possible: “I will say out of 10 meetings, I was in eight or nine of them. That’s how much I was involved in making this album.” She credits a collaborative environment as the prime reason behind the creatively-rich record. “I was sharing my ideas with very good people and I think that whole process led to the production of a good album at the end. In fact, for the music video, I was constantly communicating with the video director. I wanted to put my ideas as well. The whole team worked collectively on this album.” The record is indeed a reflection of Whee In’s conscientiousness and commitment to creative fruition. Whether it’s the falsetto-rich ballad “Pink Cloud,” in which she seeks comfort for her lonely heart, the 32-second, lo-fi interlude “Deserve” where her breathy vocalizations gleam in all its glory, “Pastel” a sensuous, flirty R&B number expressing the need for an irresistible romance or the dreamy concluding track “Paraglide,” WHEE is every fan’s express ticket to escape the world and enter Whee In’s comforting, colorful version of paradise.
Whee In lets me in on her vision for the soundscape, explaining how she was keen on showcasing her various sides as an artist. “I wanted to focus on making this album very easy to listen to” she states. “I wanted to create a very moody tone so everyone can listen to it in their room, sitting on their sofas or lying on their bed, just very easy to listen. This is why I wanted to focus on my style and include a lot of special styles, including the falsetto.” Diving back into the familiar water of songwriting, Whee In pens down a heartfelt love letter to her fans in, “Letters Filled With Light.” Undiluted, sincere and honest, the indie-pop number finds solace in a fresh, crunchy guitar arrangement with Whee In serenading her fans with a mellow vocal performance. As she sings “You are the only light in my world/ I can’t explain the days without you/ The light that will fill both of us,” the track immediately reminds you of the songwriter’s narration in the trailer film: “The source that keeps me alive, that hence, everyone deserves. The light.” It’s a touching ode to her fans who’ve ceaselessly supported the artist through varying creative pursuits. “The whole album is a message of fans that I picked out very carefully. Infact, there were many other messages that I wanted to fit into the album, but couldn’t,” Whee In reveals. “‘Letter Filled With Light’ in particular is a song for my fans and my loved ones.”
We backtrack for a second, as we talk about the several milestones in her illustrious, decade-long career, starting with Magnolia. Whee In takes a moment to contemplate before letting me into her journey as an artist. “For each album, I consider what I like, what can I do and what people love about me,” she says. “Those are the things I constantly think about when I put out an album.” As for what the journey has taught her so far, Whee In’s response securely rests on the summit of introspection. “I think I’ve learned that being steady is the key and that’s the direction I want to take as an artist. I’m keen on studying music and my style. That’s the goal I want to fulfill as an artist.”
Right before we wrap up the interview, we discuss her varied expressions as an artist, be it as a musician or a painter, and I ask whether we can expect an art exhibition from her in the future. She smiles before elaborating on her future projects. “I’m just hoping for the COVID-19 pandemic to end so I can communicate with a lot more people as we used to,” she says. “I don’t know if it will come true, but hopefully that time will come soon enough for me.” She continues, “And as for music, I’m always thinking about new projects. So, things will come for sure. I am also ready to perform in front of the crowd again. So hopefully I can fill this year with many fun things. I’m looking forward to it.”
I let her in on how MAMAMOO continues to be an inspiration and symbol of empowerment for young Indian women (including myself), and how during the pandemic, their music provided solace for thousands of fans. “We have never been to India yet which is a very sad thing,” Whee In says. “Hopefully, we can perform in front of our Indian fans when things get better. I just want to say thank you so much for supporting me and MAMAMOO from so far away and giving us constant love. I just want you to stay safe and happy!”