Youn Sun Nah speaks to Qwest TV about the present moment and recounts her career through the direct exchanges that have moved her. She laughs, hesitates and, on occasion, reveals how her songs are born, as segments of her life.
The Korean singer, who studied in Paris and has been living there for twenty years, has released a new album, Immersion (Arts Music / Warner Music Group). On March 12, she debuted the album through an exclusive debut performance in the city. Her tour musicians are different to the ones she recorded with, but they all have the distinction of being multi-instrumentalists and composers. A pluralistic dimension can be found here, in titles where the composer begins to take up more and more space; her voice multiplied by samples, somewhere between jazz and psyche pop.
For the first concert performance of your new album in Paris, half of the titles were personal compositions. Is this a sign of a new direction?
For each album, there is a kind of excitement. For this one, I said to myself “It’s never too late, we can start from scratch at any time.” For me, it’s a path I never took. I wanted a different sound compared to my previous albums. So far, I’ve always made albums, live recordings, that lasted two or three days. Here, I wanted to take my time, record in the moment and then make the work deeper in the studio, which I never had the time to do before … jazz is about the present moment and it never stays the same. For the other albums, I gave my score to the musicians, they looked and said to me “Ok let’s go.” After that it was a case of “it’s good, let’s keep it.” And sometimes I would have liked to have redone aspects, but we’d agreed. And I liked doing that too back then. But this time I wanted to try something else, to work with the sounds I was hearing. I’m not someone who knows these techniques and that’s what I asked the producer to help with.
What did this job allow you to do?
In the studio we do what isn’t possible in a live setting, we go back, we add, we remove. Studio work and stage work are complementary. It can also change between the two and I like that, as well. Sometimes on the way to the studio, I hear the piece that could be acoustic and I give it a go, sometimes I want it to be the opposite, more electro. With the musicians I’m playing with right now, that kind of thinking is possible.
On tour you play intimately in a trio with Tomek Miernowski on guitar and keyboards, and Rémi Vignolo who goes from drums to percussion, double bass and electric bass. For the album, you worked with Clément Ducol and the result used lots of samples.
When I met with Clément Ducol, the producer, it was around the time of the project Round Nina, in 2014. For this album, I told him that I wanted to experiment with vocals. I gave him models that I had done alone at home on my computer. He called me right away and said, “I’d like to make an album with your songs.” And I said no – I wanted to take on other’s albums, to rearrange pieces. In any case, he agreed on the vision. As he is multi instrumentalist, piano, guitar, electro instruments, it was just the two of us in our laboratory, hence the title of the album, Immersion. Then, he called on another multi-instrumentalist, the cellist Pierre-François “Titi” Dufour. But it always remained intimate. We agreed to play with these restrictions.
“When I wrote my first song, it wasn’t because I wanted to”
When we listen to the album, we might wonder why you still cover other’s songs. Why not compose everything, as Clement Ducol suggested?
I don’t have enough confidence in me yet. When I wrote my first song, it wasn’t because I wanted to. It was the musicians who pushed me to write: “Youn lacks tracks” and I replied that I was a singer. But the saxophonist and the bassist also composed. In fact my very first composition was in my first album that has not yet been released in France, but only in Korea. So the first time I composed for the band was with “One way” (Light for The People, 2002). The musicians told me “bring it and we’ll try.” They also asked me to find lyrics and I even wrote them in Korean. Eventually we put it in the album and it I found it very strange to hear it on TSF Jazz! I compose more and more now, because the musicians encourage me to. Gradually, I’m able to do what I want … 50 of the time … 70% …
In the title “Mystic River,” which you composed, your voice bursts, it launches itself in a new way.
I‘d never written that kind of song, always ballads, almost 99% – and there, I wanted to shout a little. I worked with Rosita Kess, the lyricist, who is an Italian, but lives in Brooklyn. I’ve met her in both countries. I told her about this song and she said, “Youn, I’d like to write lyrics for this song.” We talked about women, girls, our lives … “in my life, I’m the boss.” It was strong enough and that sense in the lyrics influenced my way of singing.
We get the same strong impression in “God’s gonna cut you down,” where you seem to settle your affairs with someone and where your voice, reinforced by the samples, expresses a certain rage.
It’s very personal. I decided to do this piece because a friend of mine suffered an injustice and afterwards people didn’t want to pay any real attention. I don’t think the word justice means anything because it doesn’t exist. And then I came across this piece by Johnny Cash and yes, I had some anger.
“There, I am able to dare to do more, whereas in life I struggle to speak loudly or yell”
What do you hear in “Invincible”?
It is a song written by BirdPaula, an American who paints and has lived in France for forty years. I had asked a friend if anyone could help me finish the lyrics for a title and they introduced me to her. She’s a songwriter. She’s extraordinary; seventy years old, mediates and is very sensitive and open to vibrations. We talked about what had happened in my life, the deaths of my uncle and her mother. We talked about how we feel their presence, still. Death is not the end of the world. One becomes invincible when one is dead and I am almost jealous, in fact, even though I am going to die too. “You’re on your way home, you’re going home.”
Your voice is extremely powerful and it seems so contradictory when you say that you don’t trust yourself, we wonder how it’s possible.
I always thought that it was me who was singing, but in fact it is an ensemble. The energy doesn’t just come from me, it comes from the musicians, the public, the environment. I have a lot of jitters before and during, but ultimately, it’s the stage that gives me energy, that offers the moments that help me. There, I am able to dare to do more, whereas in life I struggle to speak loudly or yell.
I feel that it evolves between us; the audience, the musicians and me, we’re a family. And there’s no one else there, it’s so strong, as if we were in a church. We don’t hear the noise coming from outside, even if we play in the open air. It’s this moment, with these people, it only happens once. We love each other, we forgive each other, we encourage each other. And I feel the same when I go to see a concert by the musicians I love … we are all in the same boat. The scene creates unity. Maybe i’m a little crazy … (laughs).