Have a question for this writer? Send him a mail or sign up for the weekly newsletter.
“I’ve been getting praised since I was young. I still crave that kind of affirmation. It can motivate you somewhat of course, but I’ve always felt conflicted about it. I’m constantly thinking things through from other people’s perspectives, trying to win their approval. But it does help tremendously with writing lyrics.”
“Recklessness in pursuit of dreams can lead to problems. By reckless I mean not being grounded in reality and seeing pain and challenges through rose-tinted glasses. You might be happy for a while, but it’s all too easy to eventually see yourself as a victim. At that point you’re more likely to miss what lies behind success.”
“That’s why it would be reckless to dive into lyric writing head-first. You first need a solid foundation to support your dreams. Second, you need to listen to a lot of K-Pop.”
“In a song, the music is your face and the lyrics are your personality. A great melody may help a song get popular, but it’s the lyrics that make a song last.”
“Good lyrics bring the best out of the music. Lyrics written only for writerly approval will fall flat. I’ve yet to see a successful set of lyrics that didn’t actually fit with the singer. It’s all about how everyone came together to work on that one song. At the end of the day, it’s collaboration that matters.”
“If you want to write anything well, including lyrics, to a certain extent you need to be a “decent person”. Because when you write you eventually run into the problem of worldview. Knowing how to read the trends or having a sense of rhythm isn’t enough.”
“Our line of work is extremely susceptible to trends. To survive in this industry, you need to be very flexible. You have to be able to tell the stories of various other people and not just your own. I guess that’s what I mean by a ‘decent person’, or a mature person.”
“You need to write ‘their story’ not ‘my story’. The better you are at that, the better you are as a lyricist. That’s why I constantly stress that a lyricist is not a literature writer but more of a music industry professional.”
Is this the special air of early success? On top of her delicate features I could even detect poise. This was how it felt meeting lyricist Kim Eana, 37, in person for the first time. I’d previously only known her as another name in album sleeves. She won the Grand Prize for Lyrics awarded by KOMCA (Korea Music Copyright Association) in 2015. In other words, in terms of royalty income, she ranks first out of some twenty thousand registered members. She also won Lyricist of the Year for three consecutive years from 2012 to 2014 at the Gaon Chart K-POP Awards.
For those of you still unsure of who she is, let me introduce her by listing her best known works:
“Good Day” by IU
“Abracadabra” by the Brown Eyed Girls
“Paradise Lost” by Ga-In
“If it Snows in October” by Sung Si-kyung
“Meet Him Among Them” by Lee Sun-hee
“Walking Along” by Cho Yong-pil
“Some Day, You…” by Yim Jae-beom
“Evening Sky” by Ailee
… In all, there are some three hundred songs.
In 2015, her autobiographical collection of essays was published in a book titled Kim Eana’s How to Write Lyrics (Munhakdongne). Flipping through the book (bound in yellow with a tacky photo) what made me decide to do the interview were the first few lines of the preface.
“I’ve never considered myself an artist. But I do see myself as a hard worker. Even now, getting a demo for a song I’ve been asked to write lyrics for gives me the same thrill as always. It’s quite scary thinking about how I could fall behind in the industry at any moment. There’s nothing I can do about it. The job won’t exist without consumer demand. So I’m giving as much as I can today.
“I once told myself that if I were ever to write a book on lyric writing, I’d do it when I was at the peak of my career, and I’d write as honestly as I could. It’s been exactly ten years since that thought. I met a great editor. I’m also thankful to have enough stories to fill the pages…. To be honest, writing my own story rather than someone else’s for the first time is uncomfortable. But I’m certain the tale of how I survived in this industry will help somebody out there.”
It seems clear that she’s now at that “peak of her career”. I met her for an interview at a downtown Seoul restaurant. She was squeezing in a late lunch when I arrived— kimchi fried rice topped with an egg, sunny-side up. She even had a manager with her. “The agency paired me up with one because I’ve become so busy lately,” she said. In fact her attractive looks make her look more like an idol singer than a lyricist.
At any event, as a reporter it was time for me to see if she actually did have stories to tell after ten years in the business. If her survival story would “help somebody out there”.
I worked an office job because I wanted to be financially independent. I kept the job even after I started writing lyrics. I’d always liked [K-pop] lyricists and often went to their concerts. I went to a Kim Hyung-seok omnibus concert once. I got a chance to meet him in passing, so I asked him outright: “What do I have to do to be your student?” (I later found out that he’s the type who can’t say no to young hopefuls who approach him like that.) He said, “Well, show me what you’ve got”, and told me to come see him at his recording studio. So I went.
He said, “Here, play something for me”, and I played the piano. I was probably really bad. Then he said, “You’ll have to learn a lot of harmonics. You’re not at the level to take lessons from a professional yet”. I said, “All right.” And before I left I said, “I’ve really wanted to meet you in person. I took a lot of photos at your concert and posted them on my blog. You should take a look.”
After that he apparently visited my blog, looked around, and took a good look at my diary entries too. He said, “Your writing’s interesting and it’s clear you really like music. Why don’t you try writing lyrics instead of composing? I’ll be in touch if I ever need a beginner for a demo.
It wasn’t my initial dream, no. I just wanted to be involved in music somehow. And I’m actually still interested in music and composing. The first time I really experienced lyrics was listening to the song “You to Me Again” (music Kim Hyung-seok, lyrics Roh Young-shim) in high school. Before that it was just another song to me. I think that’s how a lot of people enjoy music even now. First you get familiar with the music, and then it turns out, “Hey, the lyrics are good too.” I still always look back to that moment. First I listen to the music, then I write the words.
I’m not sure how meaningful your undergrad major is, especially in Korean society. In my case, my major really was irrelevant. I was certainly interested in art. But I think there was a bit of intellectual pretentiousness when it came to choosing my major. It doesn’t have much to do with what I do now.
But I recently met someone who told me art history is about expressing pictures as text. So it’s possible that it is actually helpful to what I do now. What I do now is express music in text form.
Listening to that, I think maybe they had a point. A lot of things in life can be helpful in ways you never expect.
I did. I even won prizes when I was in elementary school. I liked participating in writing contests, and my teachers made me do a lot of those.
Not exactly, but I did enjoy writing. When I wrote letters to friends, others who weren’t even friends would want one too. They said the letters were fun. I guess this is what you do in interviews, right? Toot your own horn? (Laughs) They weren’t proper prose, just poems or short letters.
There isn’t. Just as there isn’t a specific path to becoming a film director. There are things you need to prepare, but there’s no such thing as a pathway.
It is luck to a significant extent. But the difference is how ready you are to rise to an occasion when it comes your way. In my case, my luck was meeting the lyricist Kim Hyung-seok.
First of all you have to listen to a lot of music. Writing on your own without music doesn’t help much. A lot of people confuse being a singer-songwriter with being a lyricist. Being a singer-songwriter is about telling your story on top of your own music—doing two things at the same time. A lyricist just writes lyrics. The two are completely different.
Once I’d written my debut piece “When it Snows in October”, for the next few years I wrote for less than a handful of songs. In this business you only tend to work with people you know, and you only get work on commission. Which is why it’s difficult to get by unless you have another job. Diving head-first into lyric writing would be reckless. It’s one of those naïve notions like backpacking penny-less around the world to find yourself.
Until I found my footing as a lyricist I worked various jobs. My first was at a company called Saab Rosemount Korea. It was an instrumentation technology company supplying measuring instruments for things as big as satellites to smaller things like oil barrels. I worked in the marketing team. I just took care of the print-outs and did odd jobs like updating contact information.
Not back then. I started writing lyrics when I relocated to a mobile contents company. That was the first music-related work. At the time, because of Soribada the album sales were dead and mobile content was the best way of generating revenue from music. Ringtones and ringback tones. Back then I was more interested in working behind-the-scenes than in being a lyricist. Like as a concert planner or for an album jacket company. But that didn’t work out in the end.
Then I joined one of our mobile content teams. Our biggest client was SKT, and on top of selling ringtones we gave out concert tickets as customers downloaded them. It was a small thing but for me it was a really big deal.
That’s right. That’s when I first met Park Hyo-shin. He’s coming to my book concert by the way, and it feels odd to think back to those days. I was asked to write lyrics for my first demo and it worked out great. But as I wrote in my book, nobody knows who I am still. Only an interested few know the name Kim Eana—a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the whole population. If you want to make a living out of this, you first need a solid foundation to support your dreams. Second, you need to listen to a lot of K-Pop.
In my case, I kept at my music while holding down a job. I had a strange sense of confidence. Confidence that I’d find my way into the business one way or another.
It was one year after I got married. I didn’t quit because I got married. I only quit when I earned more from copyright royalty than from working at the office. Even when I was working for the company there were times my copyright royalty income was higher than my salary. But it’s not a good idea to quit your job just because you made it with one song. Because it can be a one-off thing. Sometimes you make 3 million won and some months later you only make only 200,000 won. The income is too unstable to quit your job because one song made it big. I quit when I was sure that what I made on average was at least better than what the company paid me.
When we got married he was a team leader at a large corporation where we worked together. Now he’s a producer in the music industry.
It really depends. It varies too much to say what the average status of a lyricist is. In this job there’s a huge difference between someone with a lot of work and someone with little. If you have a lot of work you’re financially well-off and you get to live comfortably, but there are many others who don’t. I really don’t know much about it though.
Composers have strong networks. They have mentors and colleagues in the music industry. But it’s not the same with lyricists as we never get to collaborate. You have your personal network but no work-based relationships. For example, composers can tell each other, “You take this part seeing as you’re good with rhythm, and I’ll take this part”. But that doesn’t happen with lyricists.
That’s how it is being a lyricist. People listen to the music they like but they don’t seek out a particular lyricist’s songs. They’re mostly unaware of the lyricist.
They tell me it’s about three hundred.
When I see them I remember, but I can’t recall all of them. (Laughs)
The way I work, I can’t get myself to write something ahead of time. Actually I think doing that is meaningless. Unlike poetry, lyrics don’t need to be good on their own. Once the melody is set you write the words that go with the music—that’s lyric writing. Occasionally you might think ahead about some themes. Not in writing actual sentences but in imagining situations.
For instance, with the lyrics of the song “Walk with Me, Girl” (a duet by IU and Choi Baek-ho) I wanted to include a particular phrase in it somewhere. But that doesn’t happen often. Usually music comes first, then the singer, and then, with the character in mind, I think of the lyrics.
There are times when I do imagine a situation ahead of time just for the sake of it. Ideas that might fit into a story. For example, wild grass is always grass once it sprouts, but the wildflowers right beside it bloom and wither with the start and end of spring. Then the grass waits thinking, “Maybe I can bloom next year.” Heartbreaking, no? (Laughs)
from Kim Eana’s How to Write Lyrics, by Kim Eana
(Munhakdongne, 2015; Korean only)
The duet between Choi Baek-ho and IU came about because Park Joo-won, the composer, and Choi knew each other through previous collaborations. Before the decision to invite Choi, I’d been wanting to include the phrase “walk with me, girl” in the duet.
But I was still imagining a setting where IU was doing the comforting, not the other way around. When I heard the song would be a duet with Choi Baek-ho, I thought the words would fit better coming out of Choi’s lips than IU’s. That’s when I imagined the two people walking together, not too far, not too close.
I imagined a conversation between them like sages in discourse. Choi is someone who wouldn’t give overly profound and serious advice. He’s someone who can add depth to simple words like “let’s just go for a walk”.
With a later line—“it doesn’t seem like it will rain”—I wanted the line to function like an assuring prediction that IU “will come to no harm”. Coincidentally the phrase “walk with me, girl” fit perfectly with the first line of Choi Baek-ho’s melody. That one line must have been meant for this song.
Writing for singers
Yes. It would be different for a singer-songwriter. They’d be free to do what they want—start with the lyrics or write the music first. But it’s different for lyricists.
When a singer decides to make an album, the songs are selected from a competition between composers. Each composer then sends out a demo to a few lyricists, who send in lyrics. The composer then takes their pick.
If you want to be a lyricist, it’s imperative that you have an understanding of how the music industry works. This is one of the reasons that I wrote stories about the music industry in my book. I also get asked to write lyrics when the song is still a work-in-progress. It’s really meaningless to start with lyrics when there’s nothing to go on. Perhaps it can work when the composer’s a close friend, and you do it half for fun.
The main character and singer don’t have to be an exact match for the lyrics to work. In fact, for singers I know very well, I add fictional elements which are different to what I know about the singer. One singer who came really close to what I’d imagined was Park Jung-hyun. Unfortunately I’ve only worked with her on one song.
Well, I’ve worked a lot with Gain and IU. IU really “gets” my lyrics but she’s best when she’s singing her own words which she wrote and composed herself. That’s why I say it’s best to be a singer-songwriter.
When we talk about how good a singer is, we usually think of his or her singing ability or vocal cords; but there’s a “diction battle”. It’s a matter of of how the words roll off the tongue, how you enunciate the words.
IU is a singer who excels at diction. She can soften tough enunciation, and other times she “chews on” soft words. And she does it at will.
That’s why the music industry says IU has a knack for bringing different nuances to words. The kind of singer-songwriter who writes with diction in mind. Perhaps without even realizing it.
It’s true that the more I work with a singer, the better the songs I write. Because I understand them better. I personally work best with Gain. And my songs turn out especially well when they’re not title songs, when there isn’t too much pressure.
Off the top of my head, if I had to name one person I’d like to work with, it would be Na Hoon-a. It’s only recently that I’ve gotten to work with veteran singers. But I definitely feel that they have a different attitude about lyrics.
When I write, I usually write while imagining the singer singing the song. Lyrics can be so different when sung than as just text. I also read out loud as I write. And I realize things like, “This word will sound better if it’s pronounced a bit fuzzily.” Or, “I hope this part will be sung staccato, with clear stops between the words.”
In many cases, veteran singers tend to sing the way you imagined they would. Yim Jae-beom was like that, for instance. As I was writing I thought to myself, “It’d be good if he could roar this part, and not think too much about hitting the notes.” And he did. He expressed it in exactly the way I’d felt it.
That kind of singer is, using their experience, able to take time with new lyrics. In the case of young singers, when they first see the lyrics they can’t afford to take time to understand the character or reflect deeply on each word. But it’s different with experienced singers. They own the lyrics like lines in a script. So it’s a bit intimidating to work with them, but the process is really exhilarating.
That kind of singer is somehow able to take their time with lyrics.
I’ve listened to so much music since I was young. Call it generation gap if you like but when I was young Koo Chang-mo was very active. (Laughs)
Even back then I was listening to everything from Korean music to pop songs. I’d always listen to the latest hits and mainstream music. I’ve been that way since I was a kid. I guess you could say I enjoy commercial music.
You really have to be into that kind of music.
In the past most lyrics only dealt with intense emotions. There was a strong sense that shallow emotions aren’t good for lyrics. That was just five years ago. People mainly believed that joy, anger, love, pleasure… whatever emotion… they all had to be deep.
But these days it’s shallow emotions that are popular. Feelings that used to be avoided in songs are now in vogue.
For example, there’s this word “seom” these days. I’ve never experienced such a thing as “having a seom”. Even if such a feeling did exist in the past, we didn’t have a name for it. You just kept the feeling to yourself and either gave up or agonized over it. These days kids call this “sseom”. And they even enjoy it.
That vague kind of feeling is a great subject for storytelling these days, and we write lyrics around it. The public can relate to those kinds of lyrics.
When I see that, I feel people are “emotionally complicated”. Meaning they have a wider range of feelings. I’m not sure if this is a generational change, or something else. But I definitely get the feeling that things have changed.
That’s the case for most of the lyrics of pop songs worldwide. But there are many pop songs with lyrics about other topics. But yes, most of the hit songs are stories of love. When I work with record producers I know well, I sometimes suggest trying a story that’s not about love. The outcome isn’t usually that great, though.
I think that’s why the album title songs mostly deal with love and broken-hearts. It’s the safest way to go. After all, pop song lyrics also move according to supply and demand.
When they made the Korean version of Cats, I helped with the adaptation. The lyricist Yang Jae-sun was in charge and I helped out a bit. But I think musicals are an entirely different field. There’s more I want to do in the field I’m in right now.
A lyricist isn’t an artist
When you first meet someone what attracts you is the face, isn’t it? And then it’s the personality that makes you want a long term relationship with that person. In a song, music and lyrics play those roles.
When you first listen to a song, you hardly ever do it for the lyrics, unless you have a particular reason to. Popular hits become popular in the first place because the music is great. You have to have good looks for people to say you’re attractive. Likewise, music has to stand out in the first impression battle. But what makes someone want to see you again is your personality. You have to have an attractive personality if people are going to want to meet you again.
My experience was like that, too. When I listened to “You to Me Again”, I listened to it every day at first just because I liked it. And then one day all of a sudden a line just hits you hard in the corner of your heart. You listen to a song just because you like it and then you think, “Wait a minute. The lyrics go like this?” It’s then that you realize. You thought it was a cheerful song because of the upbeat melody but it turns out it’s actually sad when you listen to the words.
It’s like when you date someone for their looks but in the longer run you find out that their personality is attractive too. I think lyrics can be an important factor in making songs last.
I’ve never thought of lyricists as artists. But I do aspire to do more. That said, this book isn’t an autobiography. It’s about how to write lyrics.
Naturally, at a personal level, I’ve had the desire to just write well since I was young. It was a different desire from becoming a lyricist. I want to write well even when I write a standalone piece without melody.
Never so far. I’ve never taken a literary approach to lyrics. I think singer-songwriters come close to writing literature.
For me, the dream is to create interesting stories rather than poetry. It might be very far off, but I hope to write a very interesting story someday.
I do, all the time. And if lyric writing is like this, how much more would it be for literature writing. If you want to write anything well, including lyrics, to a certain extent you need to be a “decent person”. Because when you write you eventually run into the problem of worldview. Knowing how to read the trends or having a sense of rhythm isn’t enough
Our line of work is extremely susceptible to trends. To last, you have to be very flexible so that you can tell stories of various people, rather than insisting on telling your story. I guess that kind of a person is what a decent person is, a mature person is.
Among the lyricists I look up to are, for example, Yang Jae Sun (Sung Si-kyung’s “The Road to Me” and “Endure”, Shin Seung-hun’s “I Believe”), Park Chang-hak (Yoon Sang’s “Run” and “If You Wanna Console Me”, Kim Dong-ryul’s “Start”). In terms of lyrics, it’s not that they have great technique. Their lyrics just contain thoughts that embody who they are.
Actually, when it comes to technique, if people stuck to what I wrote on how to write lyrics then everyone would end up at similar levels. Extraordinary lyrics depend on the depth of the thoughts of the people who wrote them. I think that’s what makes the difference.
That’s right. I kept stressing that in my book, too. It’s about making “his or her story” and not “my story”. The better you are at it, the better the lyricist you are. That’s why I keep on emphasizing that a lyricist is not a writer but a music industry professional. Every lyricist will come across a crisis point at least once. I did.
Let’s say I’ve become a lyricist who has a lot of work. Even if that happens, I can’t insist on telling “my story” when I’m asked to write the lyrics to dance music for an idol group. I have to keep up with the rhythm and speak younger people’s language.
When you write like that, you’re sometimes not happy with the sentence. An example would be a song with a hook where the same short refrain has to repeat constantly. For instance, there’s this song I wrote called “How Come”. In the repeating refrain, the phrase “how come” had to keep coming up. When I write these kinds of lyrics, I sometimes feel that they’re not great, so I get eager to write something I want instead.
And when you write lyrics, you have to keep in mind the road you want to take. When they run the statistics for lyricist Kim Eana, do I want to hear them say, “all her lyrics were like gems,” or do I want to work steadily even if the industry says “she’s inconsistent”. I want to be the latter.
If the lyricist becomes conscious of getting his name made known to the public things get more difficult. Even if I do a lot of work as a lyricist, an extremely low number of those who listen to the songs actually know my name. Still, lyricists easily fall into that temptation.
Even in my case, after my book came out there were more than sixty related articles online. But you could only find those articles when you searched for my name. But during that one day it felt as though the whole world was doing nothing but talking about me. So I’m trying to stay calm, thinking I shouldn’t develop that kind of a condition (narcissism). (Laughs)
Working with singers
In terms of just music, songs in medium-tempo. I don’t think I write poetic lyrics extremely well. On the other hand, there are young people who excel at dance songs. I can’t quite keep up with the sense of rhythm of the likes of G-Dragon or Zico from Block B.
Instead songs that have enough sense of rhythm and for which you can write lyrics that older people like to listen to. Those songs are generally medium tempo, I think. I think I write best for songs like that. It’s a genre that requires both technique and sensibility.
Actually it varies from time to time. As a lyricist, in terms of career experience, the most memorable is “Walking Along” which I worked on with Cho Yong-pil. Working with him was a huge deal for me.
In terms of lyrics alone, I’m fond of Park Jung-hyun’s “Don’t Rush” and Ailee’s “Evening Sky”. I remember Don’t Rush in particular because of the character in the lyrics. When I write lyrics I usually create characters. And the characters I choose are ones that have some kind of a flaw— a twisted side to them. That’s what makes characters attractive.
But in the case of “Don’t Rush”, I wrote the lyrics imagining a really mature character. And yet the outcome was great. When I pictured the singer Park Jung-hyun in my mind, she was that kind of mature person. And when I met her, she was really close to what I’d imagined. So much so that I wondered if I had some kind of sixth sense. (Laughs) When the singer conforms exactly to my imagination, I get very attached to the song because it feels like the lyrics were really made for that singer.
“Evening Sky” is a personal story. Usually I don’t write about my personal story in the lyrics but this song was inspired by my story.
Actually, I think there may be quite a few songs besides this one that contain something about me. But after I wrote for this song I was a bit concerned because there was too much of “my story”. I thought that people might not be able to relate to the metaphor that compares this to “pain”.
But the composer liked it and the people liked it. It felt very strange when I saw so many people relating to it. It occurred to me that what I had was not extraordinary pain, wound or trauma. This song taught me that the sentiment of that “loneliness” is universal.
I watch them on TV shows and really try to picture what kind of people they are.
Compared to famous singers, the newcomers are the toughest because I don’t know what they look like and I don’t have much information. So I try to gather as much specific information as I can. Gender, age and basic profile are a must, and I also ask specifically the role each member plays in the group and their concept . For instance, if it’s a girl group, whether they are the role model type or the partying type.
Good management agencies have clear concepts. Like, they party less than 2NE1 but more than 4Minute.’ (Laughs) Some agencies just vaguely tell me, “We’ll leave it up to you”. Those are the toughest.
I don’t go that far. (Laughs) But I tend to cater to others. I mean, I care a lot about what others think. It’s sort of a survival instinct.
Probably. This is going quite off track. (Laughs). My mom worked since I was young so I lived with my grandparents. They praised me a lot since I was their granddaughter. I was used to getting praised since I was a child. So I realized one day that I get very nervous when I don’t get other people’s approval.
For instance, say I was at the top of the class until third grade and then ranked tenth in the class in fourth grade. I couldn’t bear to tell that to my grandparents, because I still wanted them to dote on me. I still have that the desire for that type of ‘approval.’ Of course at a moderate level, it can be a driving force, but I think I’ve struggled with it all my life.
I said I care lot what others think. That tendency may have originated from that. I keep thinking about how I should act and speak to earn other people’s approval, or for them to like me. Subconsciously, I think from other people’s perspectives. It’s very helpful when I write lyrics.
I guess that’s my survival instinct kicking in… (Laughs)
Yes. Artists will probably say, “It doesn’t matter what anybody says. This is me”. But I try to get as many people as possible to relate to me and agree with me. Luckily, that tendency has manifested itself well.
Even if I hadn’t become a lyricist, I would’ve survived very well. Trying to make sure I stay on people’s good sides… I probably won’t starve to death whatever happens. (Laughs)
Writing good lyrics
I can’t say I studied but I did read a lot of interesting books in the past. Novels, especially detective novels, were very helpful.
But these days it’s a bit different. Writing the book, I became keenly aware of my shortcomings. I found out that I’m really bad at articulating my thoughts coherently without using analogies or rhetoric. Everything I write has frills. I would do a good job if I tell my story the way I speak, mixing it up with interesting stories, but my writing was lacking in many ways. I realized that I’m weak at those basic skills.
In the past I thought I was a good writer. (Laughs) I write lyrics pretty quickly, and before I debuted as lyricist people liked the writing on my blog. But that was just because I was an “interesting person”. I wasn’t a “good writer”.
So these days I look at the dictionary again from a new perspective. I read a lot of dry writing. I’m trying to learn basic sentences. My sentences now are a bit too twisted, I guess.
Of course they are but lyrics also need backbones. If you lean too much on one side, the lyrics get too sentimental.
It’s okay for a person with good basic skills to try this or that embellishment. For example, Song Chang-sik doesn’t always sing with all his heart and soul, but he can sing in different styles because he is amazingly skilled at what he does. But people who mimic the great masters and know only how to imitate others are different, right down to their vocal techniques.
It’s that way with everything. When you look back at yourself in the distant future, if you want something more than just style or technique left in what you’ve done, you need to learn the basics. In my line of work, what comes closest to the basics is letters. I have a lot of learning moments while reading the dictionary these days.
If someone asks you to define “reality” in a word, you can’t think of it right away although you know what it means. But when you look it up in the dictionary, what was vague becomes clear. So I have fun reading the dictionary, thinking, “Right, right, this is what it means”. It’s great to cultivate sensibility by reading fiction, but then again you need to properly understand the meaning of words..
One more thing. I realized while writing long texts that I use the same words again and again. I never knew that when I wrote shorter pieces, and I felt lacking in that aspect. So while I was writing the book, I said to my editor, “Find me as many words as possible that mean the same or something similar to this word”.
I think hard about what “good lyrics” are. About whether I want to write lyrics that make people ask, “Who wrote the lyrics for this song?” or lyrics that make the song a hit.
If you sing the same melody with different lyrics, it feels very different. Even the music feels different. So just because people say “the lyrics are really nice or great”, that doesn’t make the lyrics good. It’s really different from the way you write other things.
I asked my book editor to try singing the same song with/using different lyrics as well. You can’t understand the difference unless you experience it first hand. I actually considered providing that experience for the readers by putting QR codes in the book. Because you don’t quite get it until you’ve tried it yourself. It was frustrating because it was like explaining how to swim in words.
At the end of the day, I think good lyrics are those that bring the song to life. I think it’s wrong to write lyrics to get praised. If you want that, I tell people they should become singer-songwriters instead. You need to write, thinking about making the song a success and the singer successful.
It becomes a mess if you add the lyrics for Mr. Cho Yong-pil’s song to a teenage idol dance song. I don’t mean I try to sell my lyrics well. If you write the lyrics that suit the singer, then the song sells well and in turn my lyrics also sell well. But the primary goal is to write lyrics that go well with the singer. Next is writing lyrics that many people can relate to. I’ve never seen a song that became successful when it didn’t work well with the singer. It’s a matter of how everyone comes together for that one song; in the end it’s about collaboration.
A: It’s definitely a contradiction. So I’m not planning on engaging in any more activities to promote “myself” than I am now. But there is this. People see me on TV and know that I’m “lyricist Kim Eana” but they don’t make the connection between me and the songs I wrote lyrics for that easily. Looking at it from that perspective, I seem strange to myself.
I guess so. But I always think of myself as a lyricist.
I do have a dream that is separate from being a lyricist but it’s not something like “I want to do this one day and being a lyricist is just a step to going down that road.” Like Yang In-ja I want to stay a lyricist even when I grow old. It’s my dream to be introduced to people as “lyricist Kim Eana even then.
I have that dream of being a “lyricist” which I absolutely want to succeed in, and I have another dream. That is writing other books and expanding my writing horizons so that people will say, “Oh, I thought she was a lyricist but she wrote this, too?”
I get good lyrics when I write fast. When I write it all up in one hour or so, I get quite a good result.
In my case, once I start revising a lot it’s means that that piece is becoming a failure. I only really make small changes to fit the singer’s vocals or pronunciation.
That said, I’ve started taking some time to meditate on the lyrics little by little starting last year. I feel that now it’s not enough to write away in one sitting based on feelings.
I have an office which I pay monthly rent for. Actually you can write lyrics anywhere but I try not to at home if possible.
After sunset. I think this is common for everyone in this business.
If I think about my daily routine, I get up very late. After the book was published, my routines got abnormally busy. Usually I get up around noon and go to bed at 4 in the morning. My husband works in this business and has a similar pattern. When I get up the first thing I do is drink instant coffee. (Laughs)
I didn’t know until recently that “yama” is a word used by journalists. I was quite surprised.
Yes. The same in the music industry. The “yama” I think of is, how shall I put it, sexiness? Meaning there needs to be something that is piercing and vivid.
Actually, in terms of the “depth” of lyrics I’m not that jealous. If I grow older I’ll build on my insight. But I do get jealous of some people’s “sense”. The best examples are Tablo from Epic High, G-Dragon and Zico. They’re rappers. Rappers are in a different class from lyricists. Their lyrics play the role of the percussion instruments on their own, without the music. The three of them have that sense of rhythm, and they’re born with writing skills. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to reach their level even if I wrote rap lyrics for the next five years, because something like that’s only possible when the culture is ingrained in you from an early age.
I have state something from the outset. There’s no guarantee what I’m writing now will be released. I’m writing the lyrics for the composer Davink who’s worked with singer Yun Sang for a long time because he’s releasing an album. I also received a request for a song for a rookie from the same management agency that the singer K-Will belongs to. I also have to write lyrics for the group “Jjarimongttang” who got popular through an audition show.
In general, in the case of pop songs, many lyrics compete for one song and the winner gets picked from there. My chances are comparatively higher. Mine generally get picked 60 to 70 percent of the time. I think that’s very high. (Laughs)
It happens sometimes but I don’t like it because I feel uncomfortable. When my lyrics don’t get picked over another, I get annoyed and listen to other people’s lyrics. I think that’s another driving force for my work.
Different composers have different ways of adding lyrics to their songs. There are composers who only ask me for the lyrics (like the composer Lee Min-soo). And there are those who ask a number of people to write the lyrics, but they lie and tell me that I’m the only one they’re asking. (Laughs) They think that’ll make me write faster and put in more effort. That’s a misconception. (Laughs) I write faster and better when I compete with other people.
It varies quite a bit. Usually they give me about one week to write; sometimes two or three weeks. I had to do my first piece in an hour.
These days I don’t have to write in one hour. The ones with one-hour deadlines only happen in urgent situations. It’s literally an emergency where they don’t like any of what they got from different people.
That’s why I repeatedly say that “you need to be ready all the time”. If a song makes its way to an aspiring lyricist then it’s a really urgent job. You have to be ready to write any time. When I was asked to write for the first time I was able to do it in one hour because I was prepared.
Of course I was lucky, too. The company I was working for was far from home and it took an hour and a half to commute. If I got that call for the job when I was tied up on my way back from work, I wouldn’t have been able to write the lyrics and send it to them.
I was talking about the time it takes from the moment I sit down till I finish writing. The fact I’m not holding a pen in my hand doesn’t mean I’m not thinking. In my head, subconsciously, something is going on. I need time for what goes on in my subconsciousness.
There is this too. If I hand over the lyrics too quickly then people think that I wrote it without putting in a lot of effort. So now and then I deliver later on purpose even when I finished writing much earlier. They like it better if I take my time. It’s gotten better now since many people know how I work. Actually in the beginning writing fast used to be my competitive edge.
As a lyricist I don’t see the need to be more famous than I already am. The issue is “staying”. So now I don’t have a specific goal. The only goal I have is to survive. Be the one that lasts.
How far have I come? I don’t really care about that. But rather than thinking about writing as an unknown, I want to remain in the mainstream music industry as long as possible.
I do have a dream about writing stories. Other than that, in the music industry, there’s A&R. That’s identifying artists, finding and compiling a repertoire that suits the singer. There was a time I thought that I wanted to become a producer. But I soon realized that a person like me can never become a producer.
I’m not very good at managing people. A producer has to instruct people, fight with them and fire them when necessary and be the “bad guy”. I’m the kind of person who feels most comfortable doing a good job when I do the work myself. I can’t delegate work to subordinates. I’m most comfortable when I do everything myself. I can’t work efficiently.
It was the same way when I worked at an office. It was most fun when I was the entry-level manager. When I became the team leader, I had such a hard time. I didn’t want to work for the company anymore when there were a lot of people I had to manage. (Laughs)
I think I’m just wired that way. By reckless I mean not looking back at the reality and seeing through rosy glasses and simply beautifying pain and challenge. Those times can be good, but after a long while it’s easy to fall into a victim mentality. A successful person wouldn’t be able to see properly why he or she came to be successful.”
I also had the audacity and recklessness to make my dream come true in the past. I sought out Kim Hyung-suk to learn musical composition. That kind of recklessness is okay. But there are many people interested in this business who quit their job blindly to ”realize their dreams”. I realized my dream while working another job. That’s why I can tell them with confidence—don’t be reckless.
Well, I haven’t really thought about it. I’m the kind of person who lives each day to the best of my ability, day by day. Oh man, if it’s a problem, I guess I should invent one. I’d like to go to Havana…something like that? (Laughs)
I do have something I admire. The first time I felt the impulse to write a story was after I watched the movie Buena Vista Social Club. I wished that there could be Korean movies with elderly men and women in them that become box office hits. So I actually wrote a synopsis for a movie that featured such characters. My friends told me it’d be interesting. I stopped because I couldn’t take it any further from there. (Laughs)
In any case, I want to write something like that. Stories of people who’ve been through a lot. I find those stories really interesting. In particular, I want to write stories about people much older than me while I’m in my thirties. When I’m older, the stories I write will be completely different.
A: Song of Sword by Kim Hoon. Honestly, I never read the same book twice. But I read “Song of Sword” three times. The writing style is very straightforward and it’s so engaging. Not just serene. I hadn’t shed tears because of a book since graduating from high school but this was really good. I keep on reading it.
- No, neo-Confucianism does not explain K-pop (at all)
- Is Protestantism really the biggest religion in South Korea? Making sense of the latest census.
- Why is the time travel trope so common in Korean period dramas?
- Protesting, as a Korean-American
- Tiger moms and Korean moms—is there a difference? Part 1 of a conversation on Korean parenting.