A Woman Of Seoul – Interview with Youn Sun Nah

As I watched Youn Sun Nah, a Jazz singer originally from South Korea, conducting a master class, along with the Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius in Marciac I was struck by her lack of pretension and openness, as was her audience, who clearly loved every minute of her presentation.

Afterwards when we started the interview, I asked Youn Sun Nah whether she would prefer to speak French or English.  She said cheerfully, ‘Definitely French, my English is hopeless’.  As I’d just watched her sing extracts from several of her songs in impeccable English I was amazed.

She explained; she prefers to sing in English as she finds it more precise, the vowels and the consonants give a structure to the lyrics that she doesn’t find in French.  She does occasionally sing in Korean, but somehow now it doesn’t sound right.  ‘Perhaps it’s because Jazz is essentially American, many of the songs we’ve heard originally in English, so they sound awkward in other languages’.  We talked about how Rock ‘n Roll also sounded better in English, (with suitable apologies to Johnny Hallyday, the French rock icon).

Youn Sun Nah is from a musical family, her father is a conductor and her mother a musical actress; surrounded by music all her childhood, the idea of singing came to her relatively late.  There was no grand plan, even though by the age of 23 she had already performed in Korea with the National orchestra, and was beginning to make something of a name for herself.  Everything changed when she won a concours de chanson, which brought her to France to study.

At the age of 27 she discovered France, French and Jazz.  She had never been to France, she spoke no French, what was Jazz?  Previously all her musical references had been to classical music.  ‘I had no preconceived notions about Jazz, Ulf says Jazz is what you want it to be, and that seems right to me.’  For her, the most important element is to express emotion; without expressing feeling, the music is meaningless. She listens to other artists and uses them to learn how to pace her voice and breathe properly.  Ella Fitzgerald is one of her models, ‘she’s my star, and I learned so much about structuring lyrics from listening to her.’

She shows enormous enthusiasm for what she is doing and for what she has experienced in France.  ‘France has given me everything, I’m living a dream, so I’m going to make the most of it all, because the dream may not last.’  This last comment is said with no sense of gloom or dread, just an acceptance that life evolves.  Her own energy and sense of exploration would make me think that she would adapt and change if the situation arose, and that’s apart from her own undeniable talent.

Her latest album, ‘Same Girl’ (2010) which features a mixture of French chanson, pop, Jazz and world music has been high in the Jazz charts in France for 14 consecutive months, and the awards and accolades are pouring in. Apart from the French Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, she has also been rewarded by the Korean government, and has won the prestigious German ECHO award for best International Jazz vocalist.  She performs to full houses all over Europe, at festivals, and with established groups and orchestras (although looking at her schedule, it seems that the United Kingdom has yet to feature on her travel plans).

In France she is recognised as a great Jazz singer, but this does not seem to have affected her natural modesty and friendliness.  Speaking with her is a pleasure, she is outgoing and natural, and while evidently knowledgeable and skilled, she is lacking in any pretension.

Her success in Europe has had an effect back home in Korea.  The Jazz scene has expanded, and to her pleasure, more young musicians are travelling to Europe rather than the USA as they did previously.  She returns to South Korea regularly to perform and to encourage.

Latterly she has been touring extensively with guitarist Ulf Wakenius, together they have forged a remarkable musical partnership.  Youn Sun Nah has a voice that spans a huge range of sounds, from metallic clicking through operatic extravagance to intimate melodic story telling.  She uses her voice as an instrument, and together with Wakenius, who has prodigious and subtle skills on the guitar, she is able to improvise and explore, moving in sometimes unexpected directions.  Watching them together, the concentration is intense, the music stripped back to its essentials.  She told me that she really enjoyed working with just one other musician.  ‘In a larger group you can hide behind others, working with one other, you are naked’.

That evening, she performed to a packed audience in the newly opened Astrada concert Hall in Marciac.  The intimacy of the performance suited the space and the excellent acoustics meant that even the quietest of moments communicated themselves to all the listeners. Her obvious enjoyment in performing animated the atmosphere, and her ability to change mood and note with apparently effortless ease brought her public to their feet in appreciation of a remarkable performance. (My only quibble is the apparent affection for ‘Favourite things’; delivered quietly and beautifully as it is, I just can’t get my head around caring about whiskers on kittens).

At times she accompanied herself on the Kalimba, the African thumb piano, made from a small wooden box with a few tines of flattened metal.  When she first started using it she was amused that others thought it must originate from Korea, ‘it’s typical of what I want to do, I want to bring many traditions and styles together, whether language or instruments, it’s what works that matters’. The instrument to me summed up much of her attraction, it’s simple, modest even, but it produces a clear and lyrical sound.

This year at the Marciac Jazz Festival (July 27th-August 18th) she is appearing in the Chapiteau, the huge marquee that seats 6,000 people.  She will be singing with her quartet.  It will be fascinating to see how she manages the enormous space, and if she will be able to induce the same feeling of closeness and intimacy that is so much a part of her performance.

From what I know of her from our meeting, she will adapt and succeed.

Clare Doyle.

© July 2012