“Words sound so much more beautiful when sung.” (An Interview with Hunjiya)
Wrapped up in every song is a past, a personhood. Few express that as well as Korean-American singer-songwriter Hunjiya, whose debut EP was released just over two months ago. With a spellbinding voice and a keen ear for the poetry in every melodic line, she's captured a stunning reflection on music and the histories that make it. Please join us in welcoming the wonderful Hunjiya.
HM: You recently transitioned to releasing music under the name Hunjiya (from your previous name, ALICE K). What prompted that change? How has the shift affected the way you view yourself as an artist?
AK: I always wanted a stage name that wasn’t my actual name, but still had a lot of meaning behind it. “Hunjiya” is an interpretation of my birth name, “Hyun Ji.” When my family calls me, they always refer to me as “Hyun-Ji-Ya.” In Korean culture, a lot of names have the added “ya” at the end. It’s another way of calling Korean names—sort of like a nickname. I always liked the sound of that better, and it reminds me of my family’s voices when I hear it. I took the Y out of “Hyun” just for pronunciation's sake (although other people still do pronounce it incorrectly).
The name change hasn’t really affected the way I viewed myself as an artist. Like I said, “Hunjiya” is an interpretation of my birth name—which I never got to use a lot. So now I get to use both my Korean and American name and sort of have another identity on stage.
Your new EP, Lineage, is a beautiful mix of English and Korean that explores themes of family, love, and memory. What was the spark for the EP, and what was the best part of making it?
This past summer, I spent around 3 months in Korea, which was the longest I’ve ever spent in my homeland. I don’t get to visit the country or my extended family very often (every 4–6 years or so), so I really wanted to spend as much time as possible with my family. My grandparents had never heard any of my music before and I had never heard any of their stories before. So I wanted to create this EP as a gift to them, and as a way for me to hear more about my family roots. With that being said, spending one on one time with my grandparents and hearing their stories was probably the best and most memorable part about making the EP.
To build on that: how is writing lyrics in English different from writing in Korean? How are the two processes similar?
This was actually my first time writing in Korean so it was a little unfamiliar at first. I even had my parents and friends read over my lyrics to make sure they all made sense.
Since English is the language I’m more comfortable with, I know how to say certain phrases and words in multiple ways. This makes using certain poetic elements a lot easier within my lyrics. However, in Korean, there are certain words and phrases that sound so much more beautiful (to me) when sung. A lot of times, I start off with the general idea and scrap lyrics in English, and then translate and edit them to Korean. The two processes are similar in the way that I’m explaining how I feel through the same concepts, but they happen through different interpretations and sounds.
In its four gorgeous songs, the Lineage EP features recordings of actual conversations with your grandparents. What is the significance of those conversations to you, and why did you choose to include them directly rather than alluding to them in your lyrics?
I recorded those conversations because I didn’t want to miss any information my grandparents told me. I also had a feeling they were going to say some endearing things—since they were talking about someone they love. I chose to include bits of those conversations because I wanted to include my grandparents for this project, and I couldn’t reinterpret the way my grandparents explained those certain parts of their stories. I thought the emotion they conveyed in their responses were something so personal. Even if some people didn’t understand it, I felt that even the tone of their voices showed their personalities.
You're a visual artist as well as a brilliant singer-songwriter. How do the two art forms affect each other in your mind?
I was actually a visual artist before I even considered doing music. So, these two art forms definitely coincide within each other for me. When I’m writing songs, I’m thinking about what something or someone looks like, what colors are going through my mind, what the different setting is, etc. When I’m creating a visual piece, I really enjoy listening to specific albums or songs to spark ideas or to visualize and get into the mindset of that artwork.
Why was it important for you to create your own album artwork for Lineage?
I’m honestly just a picky person and enjoy doing anything creative myself—and, because this EP was a gift to my grandparents, I wanted to do everything by myself.
Your single "Lavender" (which you released as ALICE K) centers on your experience as a bisexual woman loving women and was released at the end of Pride Month 2017. What, to you, is the role of music in helping people come to terms with and take pride in their identities?
Like any other form of art, music is a way for artists to creatively express parts of themselves that might otherwise be kept in hiding. This was actually my first song about my bisexuality (sort of my way of coming out to people who didn’t know yet) (hey high school friends!) (and hey mom!). Your sexuality can be a very personal and terrifying thing to share and I feel that when it’s shared in a universal form such as music, it can help others feel reassured that they’re not weird or alone.
With that in mind, how do you approach exploring your identity in your songs?
Honestly, I feel that with every song I write, I learn something new about myself. It’s a very self-reflective and vulnerable process as you force yourself to overthink and overanalyze the story you’re trying to tell. You’re thinking about what you love, what makes you cry, what makes you want to punch walls, what something smells like. Once all that overthinking is done, you have all those emotions out and packed within 3-5 minutes that you can always go back to and reflect on.
Who are your musical influences who are not musicians themselves?
I know this might be typical, but I would probably say my family and friends (my non-musician friends). Those people in my life have taught me so much throughout the years and have really shaped me into the person I am. My mom was a visual artist, so I get a lot of my creativity and spontaneity from her. My dad has had many hobbies/passions throughout his life, but he always worked so hard to be proficient in every one of them. I definitely think I get my drive and motivation (and stubbornness) from him.
What are you looking forward to in the next few months? Years? How do you think your work will evolve in that time?
I’m actually studying music at university right now! Within the next few months, I’m looking forward to working on my musicianship and collaborating with my extremely talented friends. Within the next few years, I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of music I create, who I create it with, and where it will take me. I’m still learning, so I know that my work will grow and progress with me too.
Bio: Hunjiya is an 20 year old singer-songwriter and producer from Upstate New York with a style that combines elements of jazz, pop, folk, and neo-soul. In 2015, she was chosen as 1 of 6 finalists out of 11,000 applicants in the first ever Singer-Songwriter category for The National YoungArts Foundation.