[Hallyu Power] The Barberettes bring retro back

By Korea Herald

Local female doo-wop trio pays tribute to old school music with 'time-slip' singles

  • Published : Jun 7, 2016 - 17:23
  • Updated : Jun 7, 2016 - 18:18

In an era when music has become so heavily dependent on technology to lend futuristic and computerized sounds, there’s a local Korean group that has its mind set on turning back the clock to the good old days of mom-and-pop stores, jukeboxes and barbershop quartets -- The Barberettes.

The female doo-wop musical trio is one of the fastest growing nonmainstream groups in the Korean music industry today. With their covers of popular hits from the past like “Mr. Sandman” and “Lollipop” as well as original doo-wops, these young 20-somethings successfully reproduce the sounds of their grandparents’ generation and are oftentimes referred to as the time-slip girl group. They also sport a retro-style look reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn. 

Promotional image of the female retro-pop musical trio The Barberettes. (EggPlant)

The group is currently composed of members Shinae An Wheeler, Park So-hee Park and Sunnie Lee -- who recently replaced the band’s original member Grace Kim.

“We really just started out for fun, to try out new things, something we had never done before,” said Wheeler, the group’s founder, leader, producer and main composer, during an interview on Monday with The Korea Herald at the group’s recording studio in Seongdong-gu, Seoul.

“I downloaded this radio smartphone app that had music by categories and this is how I first came to discover retro girl groups,” she added.

The trio decided to take on a small-time gig in the city’s indie band mecca of Hongdae and the rest is history.

“It was clear after our first show, we knew that we had something here,” said Wheeler. 

The Barberettes perform on stage during the group’s nationwide tour earlier this year. (EggPlant)

Wheeler first started her professional music career at the age of 15 as a backup vocalist and lyricist for a handful of K-pop idol stars including hallyu icon BoA. According to the Federation of Korean Music Performers, she is credited as a vocal participant in 110 songs released since 2002. Most recently the leader cowrote and coproduced YG Entertainment’s rising starlet Lee Hi’s lead single “Hold My Hand” which was part of the singer’s “Seoulite” album released in March.

Wheeler admitted she never anticipated the weekly harmony practices with her music school friends would end up leading to the formation of The Barberettes. Since the release of the act’s debut album, “The Barberettes Volume 1” in 2012, the group has performed its throwback singles across the country as well as abroad in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., showing no signs of slowing down.

In 2014, the members were invited to perform at Seoul’s annual MU:CON showcase where they were spotted by SXSW general manager James Minor, who invited the women to join the lineup at the 2015 SXSW music showcase festival in Austin, Texas, last March. The Barberettes were selected as one of only five local acts to perform at the internationally renowned showcase. 

The Barberettes perform on stage during the group’s nationwide tour earlier this year. (EggPlant)

“I think this was the first time that I truly realized that the popularity of hallyu was real, even more than I had ever imagined,” said Park. “I couldn’t believe so many people wanted to attend the ‘K-pop Night Out’ event.” 

“It was unreal, they were lining up around the block,” Wheeler added. “The show started at around 8 p.m. and people starting lining up at like 8 a.m., and then two hours before the show, there were so many people in line, it had to wrap around the building a couple of times.”

Despite sharing the stage with hardcore Korean rock bands and choreography-heavy K-pop idol bands, the ladies were praised for their unique style and their performances made it to numerous “best” lists including NPR’s All Songs Considered and Marie Claire. 

“We were a couple of Asian girls who came up and started singing songs that our grandparents used to listen to, so I think people were surprised to hear us, but also were very intrigued by how different we were from all the other bands,” Park says. “And the reaction from the crowd was so great. It was pretty surprising for me.”

Promotional image of the female retro-pop musical trio The Barberettes. (EggPlant)

“I think we are very different and it’s a huge advantage for us,” Wheeler added. “We don’t belong to a pretty girls dance pop band, we don’t belong to the super indie scene, but still we are something that the audience can really relate to. We are very proud of being different.”

“There is not really any other girl group that harmonizes vocals like we do,” said Lee. “I haven’t been a member of The Barberettes for very long, but what I can say about our music is that it is very pure and I think that one of the reasons that our songs resonate so well with our listeners.”

The ladies’ popularity has proven that despite their non-modern, non-mainstream pursuits in performing musical styles that were considered hip six decades ago, doo-wop music still has a niche in today’s scene and can be appreciated by music lovers, no matter the generation.

“Oh my god, our parents love our music,” the members said in unison.

“Even though our parents and their friends really love our music, we have people of all ages attending our concerts and listening to our songs,” Wheeler explained. “We’ve been told that even babies enjoy listening to our music. I think it’s something about our simple chords progressions ... it makes our songs very easy to listen to.”

Promotional image of the female retro-pop musical trio The Barberettes. (EggPlant)

The Barberettes recently returned from performing two shows at U.K.’s “The Great Escape” new music festival last month, where they caught the eye of music artiste and producer Stuart Zender, known for being an original member and coproducer of Jamiroquai as well as a coproducer for the late Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson.

“We met him at the show and the next thing we knew, he booked a flight to Korea for next month,” says Wheeler.

The Barberettes are in the process of recording the act’s second full studio album, which is expected to be released sometime later this year.

“The only thing I can really say about our upcoming album is that it will still be our retro sounds but with more pop music,” she added. “Also we will for sure be releasing a new single this month.”

By Julie Jackson (juliejackson@heraldcorp.com)

This is the 15th article in a series that explores the driving forces behind hallyu and the global rise of Korean pop culture. -- Ed.