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[Herald Interview] Out of dark tunnel, Yangpa sings to send message of ‘comfort’

The ‘90s teenage superstar talks about her turbulent 20-year career

In 1996, when cassette tapes were not old-fashioned and wide-legged pants were trendy, there was one particular song dominating the Korean airwaves: “Novice’s Love,” a love ballad by an 18-year-old high-schooler. 

Even after 20 years, Yangpa, whose real name is Lee Eun-jin, vividly remembers the first performance of that smash hit, her debut song that immediately shot the teenager to stardom.

“That tense, that jittery feeling before going up onstage... It’s still fresh in my memory. I was singing in darkness, realizing that everybody was singing along to ‘Novice’s Love.’ I’ve never felt the same kind of euphoria since that moment,” Lee recalled of her heyday in a dreamy voice during a recent interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul. 

Singer Yangpa (RBW)
Singer Yangpa (RBW)

As much as her curious stage name, meaning “onion” in Korean, attracted her fans, the highly acclaimed R&B song immediately earned her top prizes from several music shows and made her a household name. It was an extraordinary feat for a rookie, but Lee says she no longer prefers walking that glorious memory lane anymore.

“Although I’m very grateful for the song, I feel like every time I talk about that ‘Novice’s Love’ period, people take me as a person who lingers in the past. I want to be seen as a person living in the present,” she said. 

Icon of ‘misfortune’

Both in person and through her warm voice, Lee comes across as disarmingly amicable and relaxed, a testament to her 20 years in the industry. Covered in a casual orange padded coat and barely wearing any makeup, Lee whispered to the reporter that she actually enjoys talking with journalists. However, she said she wasn’t so proud of her career path. In her own words, her youth was “like going through an endless dark tunnel, tainted with disputes and uncertainty.”

After releasing her third full-length album “Addio” in 1999, Lee, tired of the showbiz life, flew to the US to study at the Berklee College of Music, to take a break. But still, her passion for music didn’t fade away, the reason why she rolled out her fourth album while overseas. 


She came back to Korea with a hope of rekindling her musical flame, but soon found herself embroiled in disputes with her own agency, which became a major protracted hindrance to her career. Lee moved around agencies, but kept dealing with repetitive in-house troubles -- one of her previous agencies went under. She ended up taking a long hiatus with the nickname “an icon of misfortune.”

“Now I only have faint memories of that time,” said Lee in a flat tone, expressing her reluctance to go into detail. “Now I know that giving in and lowering myself could have led to better results, perhaps save me from bigger damages. But you know, it’s hard to do so when young. Everyone goes through their own darkest times, but at that time, it felt like my world was falling apart.“

Lee used to burst into tears when talking about her past. Now she doesn’t get as emotional as before. Instead, she hopes to ward off that cloud and start a new life. Just like Lee doesn’t want “Novice’s Love” to represent her, she said she doesn’t want to be remembered as a singer plagued with endless problems. “I don’t plan to mention my past in interviews any more. All people think of me are my agency problems, not my smiling face, and I think that makes them tire of me,” she said. “It’s like cutting out my own flesh.” 

Singer Yangpa (RBW)
Singer Yangpa (RBW)

‘Trembling’ with new life

Due to those long battles, Lee had initially avoided partnerships with agencies. Even when she received calls from several agencies in 2015, after she successfully revamped her career by appearing in a music audition show “I am a Singer,” Lee wasn’t open to the idea. But in September 2015, Lee has finally settled down with RBW, an entertainment agency founded by Lee’s longtime acquaintance Kim Do-hoon, who had also written Lee’s 2007 hit “Love…What is it?”

At her new nest, the singer sought a major transformation both in her image and music. And a part of it was releasing a new single “Trembling,” her first original release since 2012’s “Together.”

In “Trembling,” a deep mid-tempo ballad tinged with British pop, Lee wields musical muscles quite different from the past. The seasoned singer is more stripped down in her vocals, yet keeps her unique groovy flow reminiscent of her ‘90s ballads. 

Singer Yangpa (RBW)
Singer Yangpa (RBW)

It may not be a dramatic change, but Lee was more than delighted when she received comments that recognized her efforts, even asking the reporter’s opinion about her new song. Without gimmicks, the song depicts a trembling feeling of a reunion after a breakup in everyday language. And she plans to keep her music that way; simple but comfortable, ordinary but familiar.

“In the past, I used to sing about love, especially that of my 20s. But we all grow old and become 40 and 50, don’t we? And now I want to sing something easy for them, those who struggle with parenting and work lives, and offer them some comfort,” she said.

As a student, Lee‘s dream was to enter a prestigious college and to become a diplomat. Now 38, Lee dreams of something different; to cultivate her own self in her daily life and to one day realize that she hasn’t wasted her years.

In an effort to reach the public again, Lee plans to appear in radio programs and shows. She also plans to release a single every month and collaborate with other musicians to broaden her range.

“Maybe I want to tell people that I’m empathizing with them, tell them that it’s not necessary to drill themselves in their 20s, because they still have their 30s waiting for them. Time solves a lot of things, actually,” she added.