In her music video for “Red Lipstick,” South Korean singer LeeHi sits on a plaid armchair in the middle of a bubblegum pink bedroom with flower power stickers, a record player, fairy lights, and posters of Destiny’s Child, Whitney Houston, and No Doubt. You don’t know exactly what decade she’s in, but are immediately transported to a nostalgic retro wonderland once she smacks her lips and the needle drops on the groovy track.
“I’ve covered old songs many times since my debut. I was much younger back then but, as an old soul, I was already into them,” LeeHi told VICE in a video call from a studio in Seoul. “For a long time, I’ve been wanting to have my own retro style song. When I finally got a chance to participate in producing at my label, I made sure it was completely retro.”
LeeHi started her career in 2012, when she was just 16 years old, and became the runner-up in the first season of the reality show K-pop Star. She has since become a celebrated solo artist in a sea of idol groups, releasing albums in 2013 and 2016. But fans were left wanting more, waiting about five years for a big comeback. Now 25 and under a new record label, LeeHi just dropped 4 ONLY, an album that showcases more of her personality and range as an artist, especially to casual listeners who are only familiar with her ballads. But LeeHi wouldn’t call it a reinvention.
“All the songs in my albums, whether I’ve written or picked up, are true representations of how I’ve lived and how I feel. I don’t make conscious efforts to try to change or shed my old self,” she said.
“I believe you can do a certain type of music only at a certain age. I’ve got new stories that I can tell only for the time being. That’s what I focused on, those that I couldn’t possibly have had five years ago, in my early 20s.”
“All the songs in my albums, whether I’ve written or picked up, are true representations of how I’ve lived and how I feel.”
The 10-track album that dropped in September talks about love and the roller coaster of emotions one feels with it. Instead of something diaristic, these shifts are more palpable sonically, starting with the darkly romantic “Savior” and ending with the soft ballad “ONLY,” which LeeHi said was her favorite, at least at the moment.
Quite literally at the center of it all, at track five, is the single “Red Lipstick,” serving as a big, bright, “welcome back” to fans. LeeHi recalled drawing inspiration from the South Korean R&B and hip-hop duo Tashannie, whose member Yoon Mi-rae she ended up collaborating with on the track.
“While writing the song, I left some sections blank, only for her, and she agreed to work with me. The song came out perfect with a feature from her, as we had in mind,” LeeHi said.
Like Tashannie and the posters in her “Red Lipstick” bedroom, LeeHi counts music icons from her childhood as inspirations. They’re who you’d expect someone who grew up in the ‘90s would idolize, no matter where they are in the world: Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Janet Jackson, just to name a few. “My mom had a collection of pop music CDs,” LeeHi, who grew up in Bucheon, a city near Seoul, explained.
Her fascination with these artists goes beyond fandom. Outside the four walls of a studio, LeeHi remains absorbed with the life stories of musicians, watching documentaries about Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, and Lady Gaga in her free time. She feels a kinship with them now that she's a performer, too.
“Singers singing on stage come across as special and seem far away, but in fact, they’re just like ordinary people. I can certainly relate to them backstage because I see myself in a similar situation,” she said.
“Singers singing on stage come across as special and seem far away, but in fact, they’re just like ordinary people.”
As important as fan interaction is in the South Korean music industry, its artists are comparably more private than their Western counterparts. Now, like the musicians she loves, LeeHi shares a more personal side of herself with the help of a camera, documenting parts of her life in vlogs.
“I try to open up about how I work and how I live, as much as I could,” she said.
In the course of two interviews, she revealed a fascination with street cats (a regular subject in her drawings), cravings for coconut donuts, and an all-too-relatable preoccupation with Squid Game (she binge-watched the show in a day).
“If I participated in the game with no particular goal in mind, I’d probably be killed early. On the other hand, if I were under pressure and desperate enough like the characters in the show, I’d last longer. I’m that kind of person,” she said, showing another side of her personality while imagining how she’d fare in the Netflix survival drama that engrossed the world in 2021.
As rooted as LeeHi and her influences are to the past, she’s also firmly placed in the now—a singer experimenting with the retro trend currently sweeping pop music, a zoomer trying her hand at TikTok dance challenges, and one of the many artists making a name for themselves as Korean pop culture gains a foothold internationally.
She said she hasn’t thought much about what’s next, and even her short-term goals are colored by the here and now. She’d like to see fans again and perhaps perform on stage, once the pandemic is over.
“I’m not one of those who dream of the far future, but rather focus on the present, on each task every day.”