LeeHi – one word, capital “L” and “H” – is not the typical female K-pop star. In fact, to categorise her as such would be a misnomer. In an industry dominated by carefully manufactured, highly stylised, synth-backed idol groups, the 25-year-old is a solo artiste who in the past year or so has seemed less bound by such glossy trappings – and refreshingly so.
Take for example her single HOLO released last July – her first under the independent hip-hop record label AOMG after having left one of South Korea’s largest entertainment companies at the end of 2019.
A soothing piano ballad with a rousing chorus that shows off her natural vocal chops (one of the most common things said about LeeHi is that she can seriously sing), it’s accompanied by a tender, slice of life-style video featuring her as a guardian angel to a little girl. No fancy sets, few costume changes, no hyper-slick choreography – and it still got netizens excited and has become a cult favourite.
“If I try to unravel my own story more and more clearly, I believe that a more diverse genre of music will be loved within K-pop.”LeeHi
Her follow-up single For You – a duet with her long-time friend, the South Korean R&B singer Crush – is equally honest and feel-good with a live recording in a studio all decked out for Christmas for a video.
LeeHi says of the song, which was released last month: “I love listening to warm carols throughout December, but in 2020, I completed the song with the wish to sing one instead of listening to one. It will sound warmer if you listen to it with your loved ones in the cold winter.”
Ten years after bursting onto the scene as a baby-faced teenager with remarkably soulful vocals and a dream to be a musician on the reality programme K-pop Star, it’s clear that LeeHi has evolved.
Tweed jacket, matching skirt and metal necklace, Chanel
“I am getting to know more clearly what I am good at and what I want,” she tells FEMALE. “I’ve been wondering about how I can show the true me through my music and, as a result, express more and more parts of my emotions through it.”
It helps too that AOMG is less restrictive a record label, she says, working on an “artist-based” system that sees its musicians involved in every part of the production and promotion process.
“In the past, I sometimes felt like I was wearing someone else’s clothes and stood on the stage a little awkwardly,” says LeeHi. “Now I think my music has become more like myself.”
Even on the image front, one gets the sense that inside her lies a passionate and poetic artist who’s unafraid to break the mould. At this shoot with FEMALE, she actively weighed in on the styling and art direction.
“Instead of focusing on being influential, I think I should work harder and continue to create music that is honest and allows me to reveal myself.”LeeHi
She cites Sabrina Claudio and Jorja Smith as musician whose look she loves and even singles out the latter’s image in her video for the 2017 single Beautiful Little Fools. “She comes out in a lace dress with a shaved head, red lip and bold accessories, and I can’t help but love everything about the song,” says LeeHi.
This all only adds to the anticipation of her upcoming album, which is targeted for release this year. Through it, she wants to portray a “more diverse image”, she reveals. (“Maybe you’ll see me in more exciting looks,” she teases.) And while her latest singles have been slow romantic crooners, she reminds that the songs that she is most confident of have a “rhythmic” side.
“Instead of focusing on being influential, I think I should work harder and continue to create music that is honest and allows me to reveal myself,” she says.
And then comes the kicker delivered with a cheeky grin: “If I try to unravel my own story more and more clearly, I believe that a more diverse genre of music will be loved within K-pop.”