“To live according to your standards
I can't stand it any longer
I don't even know who I am
I shrunk myself into the mold that you built”
Listening to SUNMI’s ‘Narcissism’ is akin to journeying deep into the thoughts of the thirty year-old South Korean artist and singer, where she reflects deeply on how she sees SUNMI the artist versus the person she sees in the mirror. Does she see SUNMI, the adored K-Pop idol who debuted 15 years ago, or does she see Lee Sun-mi, the young woman who became an idol to financially support her family and who garnered a wave of respect and love from fans the world over for being open about being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in late 2020?
‘Narcissism’ is not alone in SUNMI’s discography when it comes to her self-reflective lyricism, and many tracks penned by her explore how she sees herself, her emotions and her perceptions of the world.
“I started writing from my own inspirations; it's what I was going through and it was about myself,” she says, when I ask how her outlook on mental health and identity has changed throughout the years, and how this impacts her writing. “But I started to realise all this was not just [to do with] me. This is something a lot bigger, and what I'm going through… a lot of other people go through this. I felt that other people could resonate.”
Indeed, many SUNMI fans (otherwise known as Miyane) love her music not just for its dreamy, electro and often experimental feel, but precisely because its messages represent the internal and external struggles that all of us go through.
“Freely giving emotions and sharing emotional connection… my intention is not to make my fans feel more depressed or feel more negative energy or thoughts about it,” she continues to muse. “But I wish to be someone… like a friend. Someone who understands and [tells them] that they are not alone. I want to create a space where I can continue that… it is something that we go through together, as a fan and an artist.”
Breaking down her creative process with her uncovers just how much thought and reflection is put into every song that she works on. Although each track is different, she often starts from concepts and ideas: sometimes she writes them down by hand, at other times she creates a powerpoint, and uses that to collect different images and visuals that help to sum up her thoughts. As a result, she often ends up with a presentation file that ultimately shows the chronological development of all her ideas and musings.
The fact that she now has so much agency as a songwriter, composer and visual creator is a testament to just how long she has been in the industry. It was in 2007 that she debuted as a member of the Wonder Girls, a girl group under JYP Entertainment that were the first K-Pop group to enter the Billboard Hot 100 with the song ‘Nobody’ in 2009, and were an opening act for the Jonas Brothers during their 2009 World Tour. She cites JYP Entertainment founder JYP (otherwise known as J. Y. Park) as someone who has been a good influence on her and her career.
“He’s like my father!” she laughs, and immediately the rest of the room laughs and smiles with her. “I don’t really believe in being inspired by a particular artist… but I am inspired by the music of the 70s and 80s. Where you can resonate with that retro vibe.”
Although this self-professed retro sound runs throughout much of her discography, SUNMI often takes these classic sounds to new places, marrying present-day music trends with this older vibe to continue to create a soundscape that is entirely her own. This distinct artistic and musical identity has been directly driven by SUNMI herself and the loyal support of fans has even meant that the term ‘SUNMI-Pop’ has been in usage since 2019.
To that end, I ask her to pick the song that she thinks defines her best. SUNMI freezes for a moment. She tilts her head in thought before her eyes widen.
“I don’t know! Ahhhh…” she exclaims in English, before a debate opens up between her translator, one of her press managers and herself, where no one song comes up trumps.
“I think you cannot choose just one because SUNMI is every single song,” says the aforementioned press manager with much conviction, and just a little glint in her eye. The room erupts in screams of laughter borne of fifty-percent embarrassment for the statement's unashamed cheesiness and fifty per-cent recognition that the statement itself is no lie.
In an endeavour to finally come to an answer, I’m asked what my favourite SUNMI track is and without hesitation I say ‘Black Pearl’, one of her most beloved B-sides and a song that she will go onto perform in the third segment of her Good Girl Gone Mad concert in London later that night.
Finally, we have an answer: either ‘TAIL' or ‘Narcissism’.
“Because they are the two songs that represent 'SUNMI' as an artist the most, in the way I wish to be represented,” SUNMI explains.
She seems to hold her memories very dear to her. While the Good Girl Gone Mad World Tour is her second world tour following 2019’s WARNING World Tour she recollects how surprised she was by all the love and support she received back then from all her European fans. It was such memories that made her so excited to return to Europe, and for all the other European stops that are to come on this leg of the present tour.
“I hope that my European Miyane will always be by my side,” she says gently. “I’d like for them to be with me every step of the way. I’m so, so grateful for this opportunity and I still cannot believe that so many people in Europe have shown up for me.”
A few hours later, she’s on stage performing to a packed crowd. During one of her breaks from singing she tells the audience that performing in London to all her fans is like ‘a dream’.
They say we get more bitter and jaded as we get older; but in SUNMI’s 2017 track ‘Gashina’ she sings, “I’m gonna live like a flower, I’ll be myself. Can’t nobody stop me now.”
Jaded SUNMI is not: time has blessed her with much space in which to bloom.