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[Herald Interview] Korean indie's awkward couple

The initial awkward tension between them has evolved into a unique musical partnership for award-winning indie duo Kim Sawol X Kim Haewon

The members of indie duo Kim Sawol X Kim Haewon were nearly complete strangers when they recorded their award-winning album “Secret” back in the summer of 2014 in a cramped studio in Seoul.

At first, it was “intensely awkward” to be cooped up together, writing songs and recording for long hours that often stretched into dawn, the band told The Korea Herald in an interview last week at a café in Itaewon.

But if it hadn’t been for that shabby room, the sweltering heat and that tension between them, “Secret” might never have turned out the way it did, according to the band.

“We didn’t start out as friends who wanted to play together,” said vocalist and guitarist Kim Sa-wol.

The duo met while performing gigs in Hongdae, Seoul’s gathering spot for indie artists. Kim Sa-wol was then a university student juggling part-time jobs and a musical hobby. She caught the attention of film student-turned-film music composer Kim Hae-won.

Drawn purely by each other’s voice and songwriting style, the two began a partnership founded entirely on “the business of music,” they said.

“We were two individual male and female musicians that each had their own music first. Because that’s where we started, I think there’s an independence to (our voices) even when we sing together,” said Sa-wol.

That unfamiliarity may have been the defining factor of the team, its members reflect in hindsight.

When “Secret” was released in 2014, it caused a quiet but profound wave in the nonmainstream Korean music scene.

Critics heralded Kim Sawol X Kim Haewon’s music, best described as folk with a dark tinge, as something unseen in Korea at the time. 

Kim Sa-wol (left) and Kim Hae-won speak to The Korea Herald in Itaewon, Seoul, on July 6. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)
Kim Sa-wol (left) and Kim Hae-won speak to The Korea Herald in Itaewon, Seoul, on July 6. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)

Their sparse guitar instrumentals echoed with a sensual mood; a certain tension was tangible in their hushed, lyrical conversation on the furtive truths of a relationship. The album went on to win Best New Artist and Best Folk Album at the 2015 Korean Music Awards.

“Now, (Sa-wol) is the person I trust most in terms of musical partnership,” said Hae-won, who has made music for indie films like the 2014 “Social Phobia” and “Shuttlecock.”

Sa-wol subsequently released her solo project “Suzanne,” which won the Best Folk Album prize at this year’s Korean Music Awards.

“There are songs that need two speakers. Those, I save for the band,” said Sa-wol. “But there are some stories that I wanted to tell on my own, which is what ‘Suzanne’ is about.”

The two teammates will perform together at the 2016 Jisan Valley Rock Music & Arts Festival from July 22-24. They are also the only Korean team invited to this year’s Mercat de Musica Viva de Vic, a music market taking place in Cataluna, Spain, from Sept. 14-18. The market’s organizers approached the band after watching its performance in Hongdae earlier this year, the band’s members said.

At Jisan, the team will be revealing a new, unreleased track in addition to the band-set versions of songs from “Secret.” Incorporating drum and bass artistes on stage is a novel attempt for the two, who have until now relied mostly only on their guitars and vocals.

“It’s a challenge to retouch our songs while maintaining their original color,” said Kim Hae-won.

The upcoming Spain performance is the duo’s first ever overseas gig. Kim Sawol X Kim Haewon does not promote itself aggressively internationally, as it only has one manager who arranges its schedule and does not belong to an entertainment agency. Foreign fans of the band are usually those who connect with its music.

“We thought the language barrier would be a problem, but apparently not,” said Hae-won, expressing his excitement for the upcoming shows. “We don’t have specific plans for activities abroad. But one thing we know is that we don’t want to limit ourselves to the domestic audience,” he added.

By Rumy Doo (doo@heraldcorp.com)

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