Kim Hyun-a, better known by her K-pop stage name HyunA, motions for me to take up the seat nearest to her.
“Please, come closer,” she implores through a translator, a bashful smile carving the corner of her rouged lips.
“This way, you can see me better – and I can see you better too.”
That friendly gesture is a 180-degree shift from a text message sent by a public relations personnel the night before this one-on-one interview is scheduled to take place at a sleepy part of bustling Kuala Lumpur.
The instruction was a brief, albeit steely one: No questions about PSY, Wonder Girls and 4Minute. In other words, no mention at all about HyunA’s girl group past and famed collaborations.
It’s a curious directive. Even more so when one considers the extent at which those associations have wielded the South Korean singer-rapper-dancer’s reputation as a prominent hallyu torch bearer among global K-pop fans.
The iconic music video for PSY’s 2012 viral hit Gangnam Style – where HyunA performed a cameo as a sexy dancer – is the first video in the history of the Internet to surpass the one billion views mark. She subsequently provided additional vocals to a re-release of the track called Oppa Is Just My Style.
Meanwhile, her time with 4Minute saw the five-member outfit breaking sonic conventions with explosive tracks that underline the group’s agenda of femme power.
Songs such as Hot Issue and Crazy established the members as performers with plenty of sex and grit, while their contemporaries followed the conventional sugary girl group template.
Fair enough, surely the 24-year-old star would at least field a question about the opportunities for a solo female performer in a music scene that’s dominated mostly by male idol acts.
“Well, I think…,” she begins earnestly, before being abruptly stopped by her manager who is seated beside her. The grim-looking middle aged woman exchanges a flurry of hushed murmurs with the translator. Finally, the translator turns to me: “Do you have another question? We don’t want to talk about other groups.”
HyunA, who sits quietly between both women throughout this awkward ordeal, peers somewhat apologetically through light brown bangs that cascade over her heavily mascara-ed eyes.
It becomes crystal clear then. The focus today and henceforth, should be on HyunA and nobody else.
Earlier this year, HyunA made headlines when she became the only member from 4Minute to renew her contract with the agency Cube Entertainment. News of the group’s disbandment broke on June 13 – mere days away from the act’s seventh anniversary in the industry.
A little over a month later, HyunA returns to the airwaves with her fifth solo mini album A’wesome. The new record consists of six songs, including lead single How’s This.
The song – with its electrifying EDM beats and hip-hop stylings – instantly topped seven Korean online music charts upon release, including the prestigious Mnet.
Both fans and the press went to town with the fact that HyunA doesn’t need her former group members to stay relevant in the highly competitive music industry.
In retrospect, HyunA has always tantalised the charts with her brand of bold and racy K-pop numbers. Some of her music videos have even been banned from television networks in South Korea for allegedly being too provocative.
That aside, tracks such as Bubble Pop!, Ice Cream and Red are all commercial smashes in their own right. The question, at present moment then, is: What’s her secret to making a good hit?
“Actually you can’t really tell if it’s a good song or a bad one while you’re recording,” the diminutive songstress offers. She goes on to elaborate that additional components such as mixing and producing add to the track’s value.
“And there are so many genres out there as well,” she enthuses. “So until it’s released and the fans hear it for themselves, it’s hard to tell whether a song will be a hit or not.”
After taking a while to mull over her response, HyunA adds: “What makes a song truly great is the fans’ reception.”
The new EP also heralds the first time the performer contributed lyrics to all the songs on the record. Could this be an indication that the singer is taking more artistic control of her music now that she’s a full-fledged solo star?
“It’s always a new experience whenever I put out an album. But being a part of the process now, I can see the many different steps that go into the recording and producing process. It’s definitely different from when I was young. If I look back and go through my songs one by one, there are so many memories there as well,” she offers.
There’s much diplomacy that goes into HyunA’s answers during our interview. But in hindsight, one wouldn’t expect anything less from her. After all, she is a by-product of South Korea’s highly manufactured entertainment scene.
The oldest of three siblings, HyunA made her debut at the age of 14 with the Wonder Girls in 2006. This came after spending six years as a trainee under the agency JYP Entertainment.
However, her time with the Nobody hitmaker only lasted over a year. She was withdrawn from the group by her parents over health concerns – particularly chronic gastroenteritis and fainting spells.
She then transferred to Cube Entertainment and debuted as part of 4Minute in 2009. The rest, as they say, is history.
Since the disbandment of the group, HyunA has given relatively tame answers regarding her thoughts. The one raw moment came when she was caught on camera after a press conference in the reality show HyunA’s x19.
According to her, it feels as if people are suggesting that she’s relieved about leaving 4Minute behind.
“Of course not! How can I do only what I want to do? It’s not something I can decide by myself and it upsets me that those types of things get consumed so easily,” she had exclaimed in the show, looking visibly distraught.
Today, though, the K-pop star in front of me looks at ease in her elegant black and white dress. She had just recently celebrated her 10th anniversary in the entertainment scene.
She looks taken aback when asked what would she say to her 14-year-old self. “I do think of that time a lot, especially these days …,” she carefully rolls off her answers, “and I keep reminding myself about how I used to be.
“Looking back, I was definitely more pure and also a bit more enthusiastic. But that was all 10 years ago, and I have grown so much since then. I guess I would thank her a lot. I am here today because of that young girl.”