Neo-soul is believed to have originated in the mid-1990s with the exquisite work of Tony! Toni! Toné! and with D’Angelo’s debut album, Brown Sugar, released in 1995. While Tony! Toni! Toné! was well-known for their soul and R&B sound in the late 1980s, it was their 4th album, the last one they made as a trio, which brought the new genre to life: neo-soul.
Neo-soul quickly expanded its horizons in the US with Maxwell’s 1996 release of Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, Erykah Badu’s 1997 debut LP, Baduizm, and Jill Scott’s 2000 album, Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1. The aforementioned albums made an impact on future works of artists such as Alicia Keys, John Legend, Bilal and India Arie, who enhanced the meaning of the genre as well. The majority of neo-soul artists, those in the US, Europe or Asia, have yet to crossover to the mainstream market, somewhat because, as bizarre as it might sound, that specific sound of music still doesn’t appeal to a wide-range of listeners. However, with established and more emerging singers out there, one can only hope for the best.
Photo © Courtesy of Magic Strawberry Sound
It took a while for Samuel Seo to find his way to the music he plays now. Born in Seoul, South Korea, the singer spent most of his childhood and teenage years in the USA and Canada. He was quickly exposed to music by learning how to play piano as a child. Starting off as a heavy metal fan, the artist was into Slipknot, Deftones and Disturbed. After losing interest in these heavy tunes, he moved his attention towards hip-hop. The discovery of hip-hop led him to pursue the genre itself; prior to his military service, Samuel Seo released a series of singles, including a mixtape Now or Never. In 2015, the singer released his first studio album called Frameworks for which he was given the Best R&B and Soul Album Award at the Korean Music Awards in 2016. His second album, Ego Expand (100%), earned him more nominations the following year.
2017 was the time when Samuel Seo collaborated with various singers, including Jeon Ji-yoon, a former member of 4 Minute, and he also recorded a collaborative project with Qim Isle called Elbow. A year later, he released UNITY, followed by The Misfit in 2019. Samuel Seo is known for his extensive work on music; he is fearless when it comes to incorporating various music genres, and while he is recognised by his notable soul, jazz and R&B albums, many see him as the man of neo-soul. UNITY II is deeply rooted in soul with smooth jazz overtones, and the album also has that impeccable early 2000s soul sensibility as well as very conscious-driven lyrics [translations of his songs are widely available online]. Without a doubt, Samuel Seo’s unique style attracts those who appreciate an excellent quality of music.
We recently spoke to the artist and chatted about his work as a singer-songwriter, his influences and the source of his inspiration. Samuel Seo also shared his thoughts on the Korean music industry and his plans for the future.
Photo © Courtesy of Magic Strawberry Sound
Before discussing the scope of your work, let’s talk about your latest release, UNITY II. UNITY II is deeply rooted in soul with smooth jazz overtones and it has that impeccable early 2000s soul sensibility. What was the creative process like behind this particular album?
Everything was the same [as on my previous releases] except for the fact that now, I know the taste of my music, and how to treat it in the right way, both in terms of sound, and in terms of the cultural side.
You have been a singer for many years now, you also write and produce not only your own music, but also for others. What did you listen to while growing up and what were and are your musical influences?
I started off as a heavy metal listener when I was about 11. I was introduced to Slipknot by my cousin, and the moment I heard their album, IOWA, I instantly fell in love with it and started digging more into other genre-related bands like Deftones, Mudvayne, Mushroomhead, Disturbed, Korn, Marilyn Manson, Murderdolls, etc. And around the age of 14, I kind of got tired of listening to those and started listening to more hip-hop related tracks, among which Common struck me the most. Moreover, I started listening to a lot of other rappers’ albums and Motown classics.
The thing about Motown’s music was that it didn’t hit me as hard as Common’s album did back then when I was a kid, but as I aged I started to understand why a classic was called ‘a classic’. And this process took quite a long time prior to setting up my own musical taste. I’d say my taste in music was completed when I turned 24. That is the time when I fully understood what type of music I loved and should aim for, [that said], it took around 6 years to figure out how to create my own sound. I’m still getting there, but now, I can proudly tell people that my latest album, UNITY II, is the beginning of my new chapter as a musician.
What was the first moment that made you realise that music was for you?
I never really thought about taking my music career seriously, to be honest. This just happened naturally. I was so into music, and I have never thought about making a living out of anything other than music ever since I started writing tracks.
Each one of your releases, whether it’s an album, a single or an EP, is a superb mix of various genres. And what I noticed is that you connect with your dedicated listeners as well as a new audience very well. How do you manage to get through and make that special connection with those who appreciate your music, especially those who don’t speak Korean?
I’ve never tried to keep the connection between my dedicated listeners and my new audience. All I cared about was the improvement of my songs and the amount of soul that I put into the music. I try to take those to the next level every time I release a new album.
Music Video © Courtesy of Magic Strawberry Sound
As I mentioned before, you combine various genres in your music such as jazz, soul, funk and synthpop. In general, what kind of approach do you use when writing and producing your own music and music for others?
First, I think about the person that I’m writing for. It’s mostly myself and sometimes for others. I need to know what kind of personal taste they have within them. And in this case, what I mean by taste is the real personal taste, not just something that’s trending. So, I usually spend a lot of time speaking with whoever I work with, and decide which genre I should go for next.
You were born in Seoul, however, you spent most of your childhood and teenage years in different countries, including the USA and Canada. Looking back at your life in those countries, and your current life in Korea, to what extent do you think your surroundings shaped you, creatively speaking, and in what way?
Every country I’ve resided in had a different grammatical system, and emotions in daily life, I just picked up elements which I thought might suit me well ever since I was young.
Looking at the Korean music industry, and since you became an artist, have you suffered any ‘resistance’ or scepticism from within the industry? What would you say are currently your main artistic challenges?
A lot of us do. I live in a country where trends actually matter. So, in order to keep up with the current music market, we have to somehow adapt it into our own music, but the advantage applied in terms of trend is only for the lucky few.
I’ve seen many musicians try to follow trends which I didn’t think really suited them, for no reason but because they were trending. I wasn’t free from that kind of environment myself either so this is not aimed to blame anyone, but now, what I want to do is to set the right mindset for musicians. They ought to know what they truly love about music and how they want it to be expressed in their own way. Nobody told me about these kinds of things before. [And] how I want the Korean music scene to change is for people to make music they truly love because they’re devoted to it, not because it is profitable or trending.
Improvisation is a large part of the creative process. How strictly do you separate improvising and composing when it comes to your own work?
I don’t. Most of my works come out on random occasions. And most of the time, when I play instruments for my songs, I usually forget what I played right away. It usually takes about 70 to 100 takes per instrument when I work on a song, and among those improvisations, I narrow them down until they turn into a single line.
Photo © Courtesy of Magic Strawberry Sound
You collaborated with various artists, including Yerin Baek, Kim Oki, Jung In, Nucksal, Eden and many more. What was that experience like for you? Were there any artistic differences between you and the aforementioned artists during the recording process?
It was fun. Most of the time I usually work alone, but working with different people is another way to keep myself motivated and interested in music.
I would like to talk about your 2016 release called Kafka. A digital single that was inspired by Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and on which you collaborated with rapper Verbal Jint. It’s not often seen that artists are inspired by writers such as Kafka. What drew you to the German writer, and what part of the novel was the main inspiration behind the song. Was it the characters of Gregor Samsa and his sister Grete, or was there another reason behind it?
The story hit me hard in a really bizarre way. I really emphasised with Gregor being rejected by both his father and sister whom he trusted, his death by being hit with an apple, and his family’s hopefulness in the end, despite all the hardships they faced.
After reading the novel, I was so confused and I didn’t know what to think of it. That’s when I first started researching Franz Kafka on a deeper level. When I found out about his own concept of existentialism, I first thought this novel was written to criticise capitalism, or to express the emotions of a human being who was so isolated from others. My thoughts just spiralled and went on forever, so I stopped there and tried to focus purely on the story and read it again. And later, I realised that no other novel has ever taken me this far, [as a result] I decided to write a song simply based on the story and the impression I got from it.
Until now, you have recorded a hefty amount of music. On which of your songs do you think you delivered your personal best performance so far, from an emotional and technical point of view?
I’d say Cloud and Cycle from UNITY II. I didn’t try to add any unnecessary elements, but all I cared about was to give the listeners [an idea] of how I felt emotionally during the process of making the songs with the vocal work along with the instrumental arrangements.
The role of an artist is always subject to change. What’s your view on the tasks of artists today (e.g. political/social/creative), and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
Being an artist means leaving traces behind for the young ones to help them to choose their path. It could be the exact same path I walked on or it could be something else. Trying to encourage kids in the right way so that they will grow up to become musicians is one of the factors of being an artist that I care about and enjoy.
Photo © Courtesy of Magic Strawberry Sound
Which aspect of being an artist and the music-making process excites you the most and which aspect discourages you the most?
The most interesting part is that I get to leave traces designed by me. Especially when the music is released in a way that I imagined. And the fact that my level of fame has a certain type of limit when expressing my opinion towards the crowds, that’s a discouraging element I face every time I release a new album. I’d like to show my fellow artists another good path to pursue, but in order to add power to those moves, I need to have more influence over others [within the music industry].
How much, do you feel, are your creative decisions shaped by cultural differences – and how much, vice versa, is the perception of sound influenced by cultural differences?
In terms of sound, I have been definitely influenced by the musicians within the genre that I admire, and those are the sources and ideas that I get when I’m working on my music. And on the cultural side, it is inevitable to avoid the basic formula of making a certain genre, but since I’m Korean, it is also inevitable to talk about the stuff that I’ve been seeing through my own life.
When you are not working and writing songs, what do you do to get away from it all and relax?
Motorbike, [drinking] green tea [and] trying not to be glued to my phone.
Who motivated you to work hard and stay on track?
Kids who are serious about taking music as their future career. As I mentioned before, an early generation’s duty is to give them as good of an example [advice] as possible. And I am sure I’m one of those people [that can give vital advice].
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?
2020 has been a difficult year for everyone, and for me as well. But I decided to add more to my work; I am not only pursuing my career as a singer-songwriter, but also taking one step closer to my other goals such as producing. [In addition] I try to spend more time learning more about music. [While doing all those things] I think of the bigger picture too. My production team has been active for less than a year, nevertheless, we are booked for more projects [in the future], and with that in mind, I hope we get to achieve greater things next year or so.
Music Video © Courtesy of Stone Music Entertainment
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Julia Litwinowicz
View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.