“I don’t remember a specific day where I just woke up thinking I’d become an artist” Lee Johan, a.k.a Aivan, explains over an iced tea in one of Seoul’s busy cafes.
Aivan only debuted last year, but he has already written a hefty amount of music in that time. It might not have been a path that he chose straight away, but music was surely calling out to him: “I was raised in a church in Canada, my father is a pastor. So, I always had easy access to all sorts of instruments, and being around the church’s worship teams, such as choirs, basically built up my musical background.” With that in mind, singing and playing instruments came naturally to Aivan. Now that he spends most of his time in South Korea, he is keen to take advantage of his talent by writing and arranging his own music. Aivan admits cheerfully that he has an unusual approach to writing lyrics, as he says that when “an idea comes to you, when you create a simple idea or a concept just blinking to your head, eventually it will all build into a bigger concept and then the words just pop out, including the melodies.”
Photo © Evermore Music
It’s no secret that the South Korean music industry is tough, but that hasn’t stopped musicians like Aivan from taking on that arduous journey and, although there are many singers out there, it’s impossible not to admire his creativity and originality. As an artist he redefines stereotypes that every young Korean man wants to focus on K-Pop, as his musical style carries a relaxed, almost Maxwell-like energy, where he mixes various genres such as funk, neo-soul, and pop with a hint of smooth jazz. However, with that desire to be different comes a complex production process, as he explains: “I don’t like to limit myself to a certain genre, to me, music is supposed to be difficult. Some people find it more comfortable to be around one genre, but, for me, I try to challenge myself as much as possible.” Making this sort of music means he faces many hurdles, as young people often keep their ears glued to K-Pop, and, for that reason, Aivan has to take on the difficult task of encouraging the listeners to give diverse music – like his – a chance.
“It’s a challenge for me,” Aivan admits honestly. “The Korean audience like to listen to easy-listening songs, or they search up on specific genres that suit their taste. I know it is a big challenge, and I know what I am doing is not really the easiest path for a successful career in Korea, but I think, at the same time, this is probably the most distinctive factor of my music. I want to not only challenge myself, but also to challenge the audience to just go through and experience my music deeply,” he laughs.
With his beautifully controlled voice, the singer can soften even the toughest of hearts. His humble approach towards his own career is also something to admire: “In all honesty, if I was really rooting for success I would have gone down an easier path. But at this point, I try to learn more about music, and get a better distinctive idea of myself.”
Photo © Evermore Music
Often writing in English, then translating into Korean, Aivan is not afraid to admit that “it is a very difficult task.” He explains heartily: “As we all know, there is a cultural difference in terms of expression [in Korean language]. I think I am more honest when I write in English, it’s so much easier to express my emotions, I try to keep it raw as much as possible and then make the Korean version. It has been working so far!
“But I do hope that, one day, I can release music in English, as, to me, the most important part of songs is the story-telling, documenting bits and pieces of my life. All the stories that you are listening to in my songs [which are in Korean] are based on my love life, crises, and experiences in general. So I wish I could sing about it in English as well.”
As a Korean-Canadian, Aivan had to get used to Korean life and way of thinking. While it wasn’t easy at first, now that he has finally adjusted to the more conservative way of living, compared to Canada, one would wonder how much of his surroundings have shaped him as a person and as a musician. “Living in Korea, studying a lot, pursuing music, I don’t really have much time to go around, trying to get new experiences, but what I rely on very much are films,” he explains. “Most nights I fall asleep watching movies and I try as much as possible to get that indirect experience of all kinds of world views, like relationships. So, yes, films play a big role in my creativity, and travel. Whenever I have holidays and time off I just drive on the road to get some inspiration.”
Photo © Evermore Music
In 2018, Aivan released his first single called Tell the World, later followed by his Curiosity EP, and on October 23rd this year, the singer released a new single called Knotted Wings. Aivan admits he didn’t have as much control with his first two releases as he does with his latest song. He received a lot of support from various producers while he was a beginner, and “it was good to get that help. I really needed a better insight into the Korean market, but with my latest music, I worked on it from the scratch. I had much more control. I tried, yet again, something that’s unfamiliar to the Korean market when it comes to music; I mixed some rock, pop and EDM!” he laughs. “I do think that this single might be more familiar to a Western audience, but I do hope that Korean listeners will appreciate this new approach as well.”
There is no denying that emerging artists find it challenging to go up against mainstream music, as some groups naturally get bigger exposure in the domestic market. “The Korean market is not an easy market for new-coming artists,” Aivan exclaims.
“It is difficult to stand out from major record labels and big name groups. But if I could recommend a different approach to music for a Korean audience, I would like them to give themselves a chance to explore all the indie artists,” he says, pausing. “Yes, that’s what I would like to suggest, it might actually help many emerging musicians out there as there is a huge number of insanely talented artists in Korea [who don’t get the exposure they deserve.]”
Although, being a new artist is not an easy task, Aivan won’t give up, as, at the end of the day, he does what he loves the most: writing music and sharing his life experiences with fans. “My music is all about documenting my personal life, and it is a really big deal for me to allow my fans to get to know me in person, not only through my music, but also through my YouTube channel where I show who I really am.”
Ultimately, Aivan’s music fulfils this purpose as his talent attracts not only the Korean but also the Western audience, including those in the UK. One can now hope that more people will find something appealing in his music, they just have to have faith in the process, and wait excitedly for more releases from Aivan.
Music Video © Evermore Music
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Roxy Simons