AGI’s Ones to Watch: Youn Sun Nah


I learned that jazz is not a style, it’s a spirit.

Multiple award-winning Korean jazz singer Youn Sun Nah (also known as Na Yoon-sun) is a rising talent based in France who has released eight albums, starting with her debut Reflet in 2001. Her newest record, Lento, will be released in the UK by ACT Music on April 8. Already, it is topping the charts in Belgium, France, Germany, Norway and Switzerland. Her recent concert at the prestigious Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris was completely sold out.

She is also making waves in her home country, South Korea, where she will perform in April, followed by two appearances in China. Later this year, she will visit the United States, Canada and Japan, among other countries. She is deservedly renowned for her astounding vocal range and her music mixes a variety of influences, as can be seen in her covers of songs by acts as diverse as Stan Jones and Nine Inch Nails. This incredibly active singer kindly took some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few of our questions.

AGI: Recently you performed at the inauguration ceremony for the new President of South Korea, Park Geun-hye. How did that come about?

Nah: Yes, I was very surprised when the people who were preparing that event called me. They chose four singers and they wanted to invite singers who represent different genres of music. And you know, the history of jazz in Korea is not that long so I was surprised that they invited me, but at the same time because I used to sing Korean traditional songs everywhere I go, they quite appreciated it. The theme of the music that we performed was ‘Arirang’, which is actually on my new album, Lento, so I think that’s why they invited me, but it was an honour.

AGI: What does the song ‘Arirang’ (which was recently recognized by UNESCO as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity) mean to you?

Nah: I would say it’s a kind of Korean anthem because all Korean people know this tune. I would say it’s like Korean blues. We put everything in this song. Joy and sadness. So it represents the soul of Korean people inside. So when I sing this song in other countries, I know where I am from, my identity. But there are no frontiers in jazz – it could be everything. When I play this song, it’s not only me who wants to play it, but also the musicians with whom I play; Swedish and French musicians really like this song too. So I’m very happy to sing it. Even when I am not here, they play it as part of their repertoire, so I’m so proud. It’s a simple and beautiful Korean folk song. I’m very happy that this song could be jazz!

AGI: Then, what is your definition of jazz music?

Nah: When I arrived in France to study jazz, it was 1995 and I didn’t have any information about jazz. I didn’t know it at all. I had never heard about Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis. I had never heard ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, for example. I had to start from scratch! I had to learn first the names of the musicians… everything. So I was a kind of sponge. I asked all the musicians and my professors, ‘can we call this jazz?’ and ‘what about this?’ And they said, ‘yeah, all of them can be jazz’. They gave me a lot of CDs of jazz music played by European musicians. So I realized, jazz is not only one colour. At first when I arrived in France, I thought I made a wrong choice because I couldn’t [sing] like Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan – I don’t have this kind of husky, deep voice. So that’s why I wanted to go back home. But the first record they gave me – to encourage me – was actually Norma Winstone’s album. The English jazz singer. When she sang standard jazz, it sounded like she invented it herself. From that moment I thought maybe I could do my own jazz with my own voice. I learned that jazz is not a style, it’s a spirit.

AGI: When did you discover that you had a talent for singing?

Nah: Very late! My parents are musicians, so I was exposed to a variety of music since my childhood. I saw that they worked very hard, so I didn’t want to do music as a job, and I discovered my voice very late after I moved to France. But I used to be a great fan of French chanson and I wanted to learn it. And one of my musician friends told me that one of the oldest jazz schools is located in Paris so I thought maybe I could do both [chanson and jazz]. But chanson was not that easy so I gave up, although I am still singing it occasionally. Instead, I studied jazz at four different schools.

AGI: Already you are a big success in Europe and recently it seems that you have been receiving more attention from the Korean media, and you will hold some concerts in Korea soon. Do you think that audiences in Korea are appreciating your music more now than before?

Nah: I really hope so! I try to give a concert there at least once a year. I have some fans who have been following me for ten years, so I’m very happy every time I go back to Korea. This time I’m going to play my new repertoire. Of course, singing at home is the most important and nerve-wracking. It’s not that easy to sing in your hometown in front of your family. But I really enjoy it, and many young musicians ask me how we can play abroad. Unfortunately, we don’t have many chances to play jazz in Korea but it’s rapidly rising so we have now one of the biggest jazz festivals in Asia [the Jarasum International Jazz Festival in Gapyeong] so I’m very optimistic.

it’s rapidly rising so we have now one of the biggest jazz festivals in Asia

AGI: And do you have any plans to visit the UK again in the near future?

Nah: I played three times in the UK actually. But I really want to go again, yeah! I would love to. It was very good when I went there before.

AGI: Well we hope to see you here sometime soon!

Nah: I hope so, too! Thank you.

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Youn Sun Nah : Lento Releases will be released in the UK today

Interview by Tim Holm

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