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[Herald Interview] Jimmy Brown, the Korean who sings of love in English

R&B singer-songwriter speaks about piecing together his music puzzle

South Korean singer-songwriter Jimmy Brown (Courtesy of the artist)
South Korean singer-songwriter Jimmy Brown (Courtesy of the artist)

Listening to the first few lines of indie R&B artist Jimmy Brown’s recent release “Yours,” you might not figure that he is Korean, let alone a Korean with only a year’s experience of living abroad.

Brown, whose real name is Lee Ji-won, will be an unfamiliar name to most Korean listeners, as he has rarely promoted himself or his songs outside his social media and streaming platforms.

He has occasionally caught the eye of the general public -- when BTS’ Jimin listed his song “2 Things” on his favorites on Spotify and girl group Red Velvet’s Wendy recommended his single “Irene” on her social media.

But surprisingly enough, Brown already has some 400,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and thousands of regular fans on other streaming platforms, such as YouTube and Melon. With almost 70 percent of his lyrics written in English, most of his fans are from outside the country, as can be seen from the comments left on his videos.

During a recent interview with The Korea Herald, Brown said that nothing in his life was planned, including his decision to go into music when he was 19.

“It was when I was preparing to apply for colleges in Australia. I dropped by Korea after a year there, when I stumbled upon Chris Brown’s ‘Exclusive’ and Kanye West’s ‘Graduation.’ I was never really into R&B or hip-hop until then, but listening to those two albums, I felt awestruck,” he explained.

“I’d always had this vague idea that I’d use my life to do what I really wanted to do. And with the two albums, I was enthralled by the new sounds and felt something stir deep down inside me,” he said, adding the latter part of his alias was decided at this moment.

Going through a period of what he felt like “walking a tight rope,” Brown debuted in 2017 with his first single “She Lovin’ It.” 


South Korean singer-songwriter Jimmy Brown (Courtesy of the artist)
South Korean singer-songwriter Jimmy Brown (Courtesy of the artist)

Singing about love, for love

Although love is a common theme in music, speaking with Brown, it was clear that he did not only sing about love, but for the sake of it.

He realized that many people live in emotional instability, suffering from a hurtful memory or an unresolved emotion ongoing from childhood. They find it hard to trust, to open up wholly to others, he said.

“I wanted to offer solace through music, through the love that I’ve received from my dearest ones, and tell them that it’s OK.”

In “Yours,” for instance, Brown talks about his love language.

“I think love is all about giving your whole heart. Personally, this does not only apply to love but to all relationships -- to act with the utmost sincerity to others. The song embodies such manner in love.”

Rather than trying to figure things out, trusting his intuition revealed what was buried in the subconscious, which Brown said was not something intended.

“After few releases, I discovered all my songs revolved around love, as if I’d planned it. It was then that I realized music to me was love in itself. With this comprehension as the start, making music has been about expressing my own emotions.”
 
South Korean singer-songwriter Jimmy Brown (Courtesy of the artist)
South Korean singer-songwriter Jimmy Brown (Courtesy of the artist)

Making music as work

Rather than just waiting for inspiration to strike, he exercises prudence and diligence in his life and work.

He keeps to a strict nine-to-five schedule every day on the weekdays and tries best to take weekends off. Instead of seeking out places that induce inspiration, he stays in front of his computer in his studio and makes the best out of it within the set time.

He says this regularity lets him maintain a stress-free life -- which helps Brown, who has taken the helm of almost all of his music production, pursue his work.

To focus even more on his production, he moved from Seoul to his hometown in Yesan, about a two-hour drive south of the capital in South Chungcheong Province.

“My mind became busy from all the hustle of the city. Also, I felt that city life was more susceptible to the influence of what I believed were superficial values, such as money and fame.”

Not the type to enjoy attention, and with the prolonged period of isolation from COVID-19, Brown has been able to devote himself to making music, releasing a new song every month, sometimes two or more. He has put out a total of eight singles and two EPs this year, a total of 20 songs, including a few he produced in collaboration with other artists.


South Korean singer-songwriter Jimmy Brown (Courtesy of the artist)
South Korean singer-songwriter Jimmy Brown (Courtesy of the artist)

Finding his voice

Brown jumped into music hoping to produce, not sing. But back when he started, there were not many vocalists in Korea who he thought would match his particular style of music -- a delicate mix of contemporary R&B and Western pop. In the end, he started recording with his own voice.

Along with his debut single “She Lovin’ It,” Brown released three consecutive singles -- “Ride,” “Red Light” and “Keep Callin’ Me” -- which were later bound into his first EP “Jimmy Brown.”

Now, Brown has come to enjoy singing his own songs. He has also written and composed all lyrics and melodies for his tunes by himself.

“I think it’s the most worthwhile, singing my own songs. Although I haven’t tried it yet, I don’t think I could sing with as much affection singing songs produced by others as singing mine.”

It is the smooth switches between English and Korean lyrics in his songs that make his music more special. On this, Brown said they are the result of him pushing against the limits of his ability to express himself.

“English is the language that best expresses the music I pursue,” he said. But there are times, still, when he feels the gap between the native speaker and a foreigner who knows how to speak English that cannot be bridged.

“I try my best, for those lines that I don’t feel is precisely delivered in English or sounds more coherent in Korean, I use Korean.”

As a music producer, Brown is represented by Warner Chappell Korea, the publishing arm of Warner Music Korea, and has written and composed for other artists, including R&B singer U Sung Eun for her song “I’ll Listen.”


Piecing together the music puzzle

With his talent in maneuvering between languages and his understanding of Korean listeners, Brown is undoubtedly bringing light to the broad soundscape of K-pop.

An all-rounded player in the K-pop scene, Brown has collaborated with both aspiring indie musicians and big-name artists here.

Most recently, he dropped a collaboration single, “The Good Days Boys Vol. 3,” on July 20 with two up-and-coming artists and trusted friends of his, R&B singer Sweet The Kid and rapper Rovv. According to Brown, the two-track set is part of their creative attempt to bring together the sounds of their own.

Grateful for their acknowledgement of his songs, Brown expressed hope to work with BTS’ Jimin and Red Velvet’s Wendy, as well as rapper and R&B singer Jay Park, hip-hop artist Beenzino and veteran balladeer Lee So-ra.

For the second half of this year, Brown plans to drop two EPs and later combine the two into a studio album, which will become his first full-length set.

“The first EP is currently slated for release on Aug. 14, which will be an assortment of brassy and cozy tracks for couples to listen to together. The latter will comprise more easy listening tunes for a larger, more general audience.”

In ending the interview, Brown said there was nothing more important to him than staying true and serious toward music itself. For him, making music is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle.

“Music to me is what makes me live every day. I discover and communicate with myself in the process of making music, thereby evolving day by day. I cherish this process of creation and value it the most,” Brown said.

“Music in itself, I define as something that can bring joy and happiness to people. I hope I could empathize, console and spread joy to more people with my music.”

By Choi Ji-won (jwc@heraldcorp.com)
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