Born and raised in the state of Ohio, Kim Jeong-wook, also known by his stage name Dabit, discovered his passion for music at the age of 10. Prior to moving to Seoul, South Korea, he went to a school for contemporary music and jazz. Dabit began his professional journey as a solo artist back in 2013 when he released his 1st single, Whoo Whoo Whoo, on which he showed his vocals and musical talents while combining jazz and pop together.
Photo © Jae Eun Kim
Although Dabit started his career in K-Pop as a young idol, he quickly realised that the music he was made to play wasn’t his cup of tea. His career might have slowed down a bit by not playing by K-Pop’s rules, nevertheless, he still manages to find a way to make the music he likes. In addition to the artist’s voice which has a soulful, harmonic and pleasant sound to one’s ear, if you are Dabit’s dedicated listener, you might feel that the singer’s music is lyrically driven.
Photo © Jae Eun Kim
Dabit has various singles under his belt, including a couple of releases in 2020: Don’t Wanna Be and Burnin Out. It is vital to mention that the singer became the first Korean artist to perform in Tunisia, and he also toured over 30 cities in 15 different countries. Even though the world has been consumed by Covid-19 and stopped artists from touring and meeting fans, Dabit found another way to stay connected with his fans: social media. He is often active on Instagram where he speaks to his fans as well as shares his new music with them.
We recently spoke to Dabit about his journey into music, his latest release, Burnin Out, and the artistic challenges he must face in these unprecedented times caused by the pandemic.
Music Video © Dabit
First of all, let’s talk about how it all started. Was music a path that has always called to you – was there a moment when you realised that music was for you?
I grew up with 2 overachieving older brothers. So, growing up, I was given a specific formula of academics, athletics, and extracurriculars to follow in their footsteps. After realising I excelled at none of them, I felt like nothing was truly mine until I discovered music around 5th grade. That was probably the turning point in my life where I invested most of my identity in music and singing.
You easily combine various genres in your music such as jazz, soul, funk and pop. What kind of approach do you use when writing and producing your music?
I don’t have a specific approach or a formula when making music. As cliche as it may sound, I just wait for inspiration to hit and I try my best to follow up on it until I have completed the idea. That being said, I love listening to all types of music and I work the best under emotional highs.
You were born in the state of Ohio, USA, however, later on, you decided to move to Korea to pursue your career as a musician. Looking back at your life in the USA, and now in Korea, to what extent do you think your surroundings shaped you, creatively speaking, and in what way?
Growing up, I never had much to distract me: I took the bus to school, my parents had to drive me everywhere else, computer time was limited, and I had no smartphone or neighbourhood friends. So, I think I spent most of my time at home daydreaming and being caught up in my overthinking, emotional self. I think that led me to becoming more emotionally self-aware at an earlier age. But looking back, I definitely think that has given me more emotional substance as a singer-songwriter.
Photo © Jae Eun Kim
In 2013, you released your 1st single called Whoo Whoo Whoo, a really good mix of swing jazz and pop. A year later, you recorded Zone Out, which was followed by UP & DOWN in 2015. Then, in 2018, you released Gimme Magic. And now, in 2020, you gifted the audience with Don’t Wanna Be and September’s single Burnin Out. All of your releases have an amazing swing jazz, pop and funk feeling to them. Each song is truly different and really well arranged not only musically but also vocally. As you have various songs produced already, let’s talk about your latest single, Burnin Out. What was the creative process like for this particular release?
Burnin Out was inspired from the term “burnout” which is the practice of spinning the wheels of a stationary car, causing it to smoke from the friction on the tires. Other than looking cool, its purpose is to heat up the tires and gain traction before racing off. The song itself is about reviving a relationship that has already peaked and is on the verge of dying. It’s asking for one last crazy ride together before deciding on whether to call it quits.
I have worked with many producers, but this is my second time working with producers 220 and Jango: I previously worked with them for Don’t Wanna Be. They have a very different approach to writing a song from start to finish than I do. But, overall, I have grown so much after working with them. They keep me accountable in making sure I finish the song, we bounce ideas off each other, and they also give me artistic flexibility to tell my story.
You started your journey in K-pop as an idol, however, you left the idol career relatively fast as you wished to make music you truly love. Has being an artist changed other aspects of your life since you moved to Korea?
When I chose to move to Korea, I thought that I would be planting my feet exclusively in Korea and its music industry. I quickly realised, however, that K-pop’s reach stretched far beyond Korea. After deciding to pursue a solo career, I had my first ever solo concert in Tunisia, which led me to touring over 30 cities in 15 different countries. Within those travels, I have made so many new friends and found myself not just appreciating but also immersing myself in their culture. Being an artist has opened me up to loving a much bigger and beautiful world.
Looking at the Korean music industry, and since you became a solo artist, have you suffered any ‘resistance’ or scepticism from within the industry? What would you say are currently your main artistic challenges?
Definitely! I’ve been ignored, rejected and told to give up on several occasions. As much as I wish to be an artist making music for the sake of expression alone, I too thrive off of validation. Coming from a background of K-pop, however, it’s sometimes difficult when the validation is based more on your looks, age, and flashiness rather than your music alone. Even today, I sometimes find myself comparing and putting myself to the same standards as some of the K-pop idols out there. It can be exhausting.
Photo © Jae Eun Kim
Would you say the music that inspires your work matches what you listen to when you’re a part of an audience? Or are you a fan of genres other than your own?
I actually draw inspiration from many different genres. All genres have different elements to learn from and appreciate. I definitely try not to limit myself.
Which song (songs) in your catalogue best describes the sound and style you ultimately prefer and why?
If I had to choose, I would have to say that Lonely Love from my Up & Down EP is the closest to my true essence. For some reason, my voice just naturally gravitates towards a jazzy R&B kind of vibe. Strangely enough, I haven’t explored this genre in depth through my music though. I add a small element of it into all of my music, but it’s never the driving force. I think it goes to show that your music preferences don’t always reflect 100% on the music you end up releasing.
Many artists say that improvisation is a large part of the creative process. How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
I love improvising. I went to a school for contemporary music and jazz, so improvisation comes naturally for me. I think, however, in mainstream music, organised and repetitive ideas tend to work the best. Composing always has an improvisational element to it in the beginning, but I prefer my end products to be consistent and clean so that people can easily follow along.
Usually, it is considered that it is the job of the artist to win over an audience. But listening is also an active, rather than just a passive, process. How do you see the role of the listener in the musical communication process?
When a song is being produced, I may be bringing the core of the song, but the structure is often made with the listeners’ perspective in mind. The producer and I will discuss everything starting from when the chorus should hit, to how many bars the intro should be. This is all decided based on what the listeners would likely prefer. After the song is out, I rely on my fans to make playlists and listen to my song constantly so that it can be picked up by the algorithm and pushed out further into the public. Basically, the listeners are the driving force of every song.
Music Video © Dabit
Who motivated you to work hard and stay on track?
If I am being honest, no one keeps me accountable and I am horrible at keeping myself on track. My attention span is amazing when I’m on a roll, but when I lose my inspiration or find myself in a creative rut, I quickly lose interest or give up. That is why I try to find different things I can be productive with simultaneously. I honestly wish I had more creatives around me to inspire me to work harder.
When you’re not working, what do you do to get away from it all and relax?
I love cooking and eating at home. I also find it very therapeutic to take walks with my dog in the middle of the night when no one is out!
Is there anything you would like to change in the music industry that might help emerging artists get bigger exposure in domestic and foreign markets?
Spotify has done an amazing job in making its platform more accessible like a social media platform, where you can control how you package your brand and music regardless of whether you are signed. Thanks to algorithms and more control over content that’s being published, there are more and more talented independent artists being discovered every day. I really hope that this kind of market and platform will translate well into the Korean music industry as well. Korea is still very much about a perfect and polished image that is almost impossible to attain without the backing and funding of a company. I think opening up this market in Korea will bring a surge of creativity and new talented artists that will inspire and bring K-pop to a whole new level!
The world has been consumed by Covid-19 and made it very hard for musicians, and other creative professionals out there, to organise tours, meet fans, etc. Looking at the current situation, what’s your wider vision? What do you hope to achieve within the next year or so?
This past year has definitely been a struggle for me as well. After months of trying to force things to work under a pandemic, I realised that I had to change my outlook completely if I wanted to survive as an artist. Instead of focusing on where I want to be in the future, I am focusing on what I can do in the present. Because my fans can’t see me on tour anymore, I am trying to make myself more available through different online platforms. I have also decided to spend less money on photoshoots and music videos for the time being, and use that money to release songs more regularly. I am really hoping to use this time to personally connect with my fans and flood them with as much content as I can!
Photo © Jae Eun Kim
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler
Featured photo © Jae Eun Kim