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[Herald Interview ] Former Solid member talks importance of sticking to old-school roots

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Updated : December 11 2015

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R&B singer Kim Jo-han poses during an interview with The Korea Herald at his pizza joint, Ace Pizza, in Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul. (Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)
At a time when rhythm and blues music was virtually nonexistent in the Korean music scene, Solid, the now-defunct vocal trio of Korean-American singers, became one of the pioneering forces of Korean soul with its debut in 1993.

Former Solid members Kim Jo-han, Jeong Jae-Yoon and Lee Joon, whose debut album was aptly titled “Give Me a Chance,” are, to this day, still regaled as among the country’s most influential figures in introducing the R&B genre to Korean listeners.

Solid was short-lived. The members amicably parted ways after four years, and main vocalist Kim embarked on a solo career shortly thereafter. Since then, the singer has added the titles of producer, composer, lyricist, vocal trainer and even restaurateur to his credit.

“On my journey to just learn, I was taken in different directions,” said the 42-year-old during an interview with The Korea Herald at his pizzeria, Ace Pizza, in Sinsa-dong.

“With Solid, it was a great time with the guys, but I wanted to explore and really grow as a musician,” said Kim.

Continuing to lend his old-school style to the present-day R&B scene, the vocalist dropped his sixth solo album, “Once in a Lifetime,” last month. Although he had released a handful of singles and small EPs during that time, the new album marks his first full studio release in eight years.

“It’s been too long,” he says. “I’ve had a couple singles, I’ve had a couple of mini-albums and OST songs come out, but I felt like I was getting sidetracked with singles.”

Admitting that as a child he harbored dreams of becoming a chef, thinking of his singing talents as a mere hobby, the singer and restaurateur marries analogies of food and cooking when describing his musical philosophy.

“You don’t really get to see what a chef can do until you can see what he can do with a full-course meal,” Kim explained, referring to the release of his new full-length album.

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R&B singer Kim Jo-han poses during an interview with The Korea Herald at his pizza joint, Ace Pizza, in Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul. (Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)
“Anyone can make one dish ... but to have a meal with dishes that complement each other, I think that’s what this album is.”

Having spent more than two decades in the local music industry watching the tides of music shift from R&B to the now ever-so glamourized K-pop and hip-hop genres, Kim says he has never found himself swept up by the glitz and felt compelled to part from his Solid R&B roots.

Despite having been the vocal trainer for some of the country’s hottest K-pop stars, including Girls’ Generation’s Jessica and Taeyeon, the members of 2AM and 2PM, Sistar’s Hyorin and many more, when it comes to his personal music tastes, it’s all about soul.

“Looking at all the music that is out lately ... you see the changes and what people want to hear. But actually, what people want to hear isn’t always the good stuff,” Kim explained. “I’m still an old-school country boy. I was born in Georgia so I always want to go with that little bit of old school.”

“I’m a soul singer no matter what,” he added.

In the singer’s latest 10-track album, featuring the lead single “I Know, I Know, It Hurts,” Kim says his focus was not creating a “popular” record meant to top charts. Instead, he chose to focus on quality live instrumentation and music that uses “no gimmicks.”

“Music needs to come from a beautiful place,” he says. “You might be the biggest star, but stars fade quick.”

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R&B singer Kim Jo-han poses during an interview with The Korea Herald at his pizza joint, Ace Pizza, in Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul. (Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)
“I just wanted to go back to where I was from and reset,” he said as he scrolled through the seemingly hundreds of voice file recordings on his smartphone, adding that he self-recorded about 95 percent of the sounds that are in his new album.

“It’s like when they say eating food at home is supposed to be better for you versus eating out because it tends to be more salty and greasy ... but when you make food at home, you can hold up on the butter a little. And for me, I just feel like I don’t put any MSG in my music.”

The R&B singer says the integrity and purity of music should not be compromised for the sake of timeliness.

“The way you make food taste good without MSG is to cook it longer, to cook it better,” he says. “We could have just thrown some MSG on our music and say ‘OK, we’re done’ so we could get it out there faster ... but I just wanted to wait for the magic.

“I think that when you’re younger, you want to show everybody everything. It’s like being a new rich guy who won the lottery -- you got it so you want to flaunt it. But in music, you have the drums, the piano, the beautiful lyrics, the voice that holds it all together, the bass that gives you the groove. And when you make all that right, it becomes a harmony. That’s why the album took me so long to make -- because every little piece is so important.”

Not looking to remain complacent with his new body of work, Kim said that he has already started the production process of his next album.

Along with his extensive singing career as one of the original Korean R&B icons, Kim says he is still looking to grow as a musician, delving more and more into behind-the-scenes roles such as writing, composing and producing, with eyes freshly set on the international market.

Last month, Kim announced the establishment of his new international R&B dream team, “658 Laundry,” looking to combine forces with famed musical minds to compose, produce and keep the purity of R&B alive.

The nine-member music composing team includes a wide array of music professionals including Grammy Award-winning DJ Luney Tunes as well as Jeff Bernat, an up-and-coming American R&B singer who has established a strong Korean fan base, selling out concerts and collaborating with a number of local artists.

However, regardless of his many solo endeavors as a restaurant entrepreneur, singer, producer and vocal trainer to the stars, Kim says none of his undertakings have been an attempt to establish himself a reputation outside of “the guy who used to be in Solid.”

To the contrary, the artist admits he doesn’t mind being known as the former Solid vocalist and is proud of his band’s role in contributing to the meshing of Korean and American music and culture.

“Before Solid, there was a gap between Korea and America,” he says. “But since we are ‘gyopo’ (Korean-American) we actually helped bridge that gap. I think that’s one of the biggest things Solid helped contribute to.”

Still remaining in close touch with his Solid crew, Kim admits there always seems to be talk of the members reuniting. However, as of now, it’s all just been talk.

“I am really proud that people still remember and still love our music, because that means I’m part of their life,” Kim says.

“There was no cheating, there’s no Auto-Tune, we were writing our lyrics, we were writing, arranging our songs. I mean, where do you find a group like that now?” He adds, “That was one of the beautiful things about Solid, we weren’t a group, we were a band.”

By Julie Jackson (juliejackson@heraldcorp.com)

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