INTERVIEW: Youn Sun Nah - Co-Publication with Citizen Jazz (FR) and jazzaround (BE)

Youn Sun Nah
Photo credit: Sung Yull Nah/ ACT Music

South Korean vocalist YOUN SUN NAH has a new album She Moves On. To mark the release, she gave a joint interview to Jean-François Picaut (Citizen Jazz, France) & Jean-Pierre Goffin (jazzaround, Belgium). Translation for this co-publication with our partner sites by Sandie Safont:

LJN: You’re back on the scene with She Moves On, your first album in four years. You also took a long break from touring. What happened in between?

YSN: Well, a lot of family time was spent at home in Korea. I was still doing music but didn’t want to think about a concept for the next album. Having toured extensively for two years solid, I realised I’d missed out on a lot on other fellow musicians’gigs, so last summer I went to New York for a three month catch-up session. I checked out the club scene and attended lots of non-jazz gigs, from Sting to Beyoncé to Peter Gabriel to Guns & Roses... and some hip hop, too. I needed to recharge the batteries and stay fresh. Then I went back to Korea and last November, I bumped into keyboardist Jamie Saft....

LJN: Jamie is best known for his contribution to avant-garde music with John Zorn and Dave Douglas. Can you tell us about your - quite unexpected – collaboration with him?

YSN: I knew Jamie came from the avant-garde scene but when I listened to his own work, I discovered a whole new world - very lyrical, simple and beautiful... Jamie’s a versatile musician. He also plays reggae, metal, classical and writes film music. I sent him an e-mail saying that I’d love to work with him and he replied in a typical American way:  ‘‘Hey man, come on!’’ A few days later I was heading for Woodstock...


LJN: Is that how the new album project came about, then?

YSN: Kind of. We’d had regular work sessions for three weeks when we thought : ‘‘Why not make a record together ?’’ and that’s when he suggested we got Brad Jones and Dan Rieser on board. I really wanted guitarist Marc Ribot to join in but his schedule was so busy it didn’ t seem feasible. I e-mailed him just on the off-chance and luckily for us, he was in New York at that time so we managed a last minute session with him.

LJN: Marc is mostly known for his work on electric guitar although he recorded solo albums on acoustic, too. Did you have him in mind for the duet version of No Other Name?

YSN: The lyrics to this song are so intense that I first considered recording an a capella version of it. At the same time, I knew that Marc Ribot’s take on it would create some sense of space into the music but I didn’t give him any cue. We never rehearsed the song and we recorded it in one take!

LJN: Vanessa Saft, Jamie’s wife, contributed a few songs on the album…

YSN: Vanessa is a painter, a writer and a musician. She wrote the lyrics to Evening Star and I wrote the music. The song Too Late  was a last minute addition written by Jamie and Vanessa for me. They finished the song on the very last day of the recording – Vanessa didn’t have any chart for it but she had recorded the melody on her mobile phone. I listened to it for twenty minutes and then I thought I couldn’t do it. Jamie insisted and encouraged me – ‘‘Come on Youn, you’re a professional, you can do it! ’’ and so we did it in one take. It was quite epic because I didn’t have enough time to memorize the melody and the lyrics, so I had to make it up in places. Jamie’s and Vanessa’s approach to music is very organic - very different to mine. We Korean people are very disciplined, we have to prepare things. Jamie and Vanessa don’t. They’re great musicians with a true love for vocalists.

LJN: You cover quite a lot of songs from the 1960s on this album. Are you nostalgic for that time period at all ?

YSN: The songs we chose for this album were all composed by legendary songwriters that have shaped the history of music. Instrumentalists around me don’t listen to singers much – not that they don’t appreciate them – but Jamie listens to Frank Sinatra, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan all day long! He just loves vocalists, which really surprises me because it’s not obvious when you listen to his music and yet he said to me that it’s precisely where he gets most of his inspiration from. He has the complete discography of Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Frank Sinatra… singers that I love too but whose repertoire I wasn’t fully aquainted with. So Jamie & I had listening sessions together, starting with all of these artists’early recordings. The Dawn Treader features on Joni’s first album and No Other Name by Peter, Paul & Mary was recorded when they were very young. These songs really move me – maybe because they’re not their most famous numbers.

LJN: Did you choose the songs because of their lyrics?

YSN: There are songs I cannot sing because they deal with things I haven’t experienced in life yet. Some other songs have a universal theme to them, so I’ll sing them because I can really relate to them. When you sing in another language, you need some time to soak the words in. To me, it’s the same process as painting: one colour after another. Choosing the repertoire for this project was proper team work. We almost went for Drifting as a title for the album because the lyrics to the song really touched my soul.

LJN: What about the two traditional folk numbers that feature on the album?

YSN: I just love folk songs. Guitarist Ulf Wakenius introduced me to a lot of Swedish folk music while we were working on my last two albums. I felt the same emotions that one can feel in Korean music. Different chords but same emotion. So I explored folk music from around the world and one day a friend of mine sent me the audio for A Sailor’s Life. I took to it immediately. I knew Nina Simone’s version of Black is The Color (of My True Love’s Hair) but then Patty Waters’ avant-garde take just blew me away. This song sounds simple yet universal and that’s the beauty of folk music.

LJN: You also cover Fools Rush In by Johnny Mercer. Stan Getz, Glen Miller and Elvis Presley gave legendary versions of this standard. Were they an inflence at all?

YSN: Frank Sinatra’s rendition was more of an inspiration. Jamie has this CD of Frank that he plays every day in his car. I’d been thinking about singing a « proper » standard a long time so when I heard this song, I knew it was the one. It’s very popular among both singers and instrumentalists. For our version, I suggested we had Hammond organ on it.

LJN: Why is it, in your opinion, that South Korean people like Western music so much ?

YSN: Our interest for this music goes back a long way. Our country is 5000 years old and some history books show that our people have always liked singing, dancing and music in general. Our own Eastern tradition is very present and difficult to learn. Music education is very important at school. When I was little, most of us had piano lessons. We had to choose an instrument and we would mainly practice Western music. Things changed during the War and then the country’s interest for the arts and music came back strong. To such an extent that teaching Western music has become like a tradition in most secondary schools and universities. Although we’ll never be able to play like Chopin or write like Mozart or sing like Billie, Western music has definitely permeated our own Eastern tradition. Not just classical music but also pop music and that’s why we’re taking so much interest in your culture.

She Moves On was released on 19th May 2017 (ACT)

LINKS This interview on Citizen Jazz
This interview on jazzaround

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