THE BRAND NEW WATERS:
THE STORY OF
It was all according to plan: Sobae graduated from Northwestern with both a Bachelor's and a Master's before landing a steady job in South Korea. So why did she leave it all behind and jump into a music career?
It's a cool 60 degrees Fahrenheit night in Tampa, Florida on April 12, 2018. As concertgoers start to pack into The Opheum, a small music venue in Tampa’s Ybor City entertainment district, it certainly feels warmer.
They’re here for the We Want You North American 20-city tour headlined by two of South Korea’s biggest rap stars, Mad Clown (Jo Dong-rim) and San E (Jung San). Before they grace the crowd, though, a tall, lean figure emerges from the stage’s shadows. Below her long, dark brown hair, she dons a cut-off Super Metroid crop top, slim black jeans, a bag fashionably clipped by its chain to a belt loop, and shiny silver heels. She starts to sing.
Everyone loves a good anthem
But there was one that was missin’
So you know I jump right on it
On it, own it, baby
Her name is Kristin Kim, or, as she is known professionally, Sobae. She’s billed as a featured performer on the tour, having been selected by the two rappers over several other female Korean-American vocalists despite having officially released only two tracks at the time. “If I were in their shoes,” Sobae muses, “I don’t know if I would have gone with me.”
And yet, her smooth and confident voice fills the room with her single Homegirl featuring popular South Korean musician Exy, member of the girl group WJSN (Cosmic Girls). With every line, a feeling starts to pervade deeper and deeper for those in the crowd: a feeling that they can connect, a feeling that they actually really know her. Screams and cheers burst out like confetti. Slowly but surely, they join in.
This one’s for the homegirls, homegirls
The ones that do you wonders, wonders
We don’t let you down, oh no no no
When you see one better know know know, uh oh
AS SUCCESSFUL AS IT WAS, the tour was not a culmination of Sobae’s career—much less an establishment of a new status quo as a star. To truly appreciate Sobae, one needs to consider her unlikely and uncertain path to the stage she performed on. A mere two years before the tour, she spent the majority of her time at a desk as she worked in South Korea at a climate change foundation. “I was doing work that was fulfilling,” Sobae tells me over a KakaoTalk call from Korea, “But it didn’t feel complete.”
“I call it the millennial paradox … we've graduated from college, we've been at a job for a couple of years, and we feel like we're headed in the right direction in terms of our our careers,” she says. “But I’ve found that a lot of people don’t really feel fulfilled. They feel like they’re gonna work the rest of their lives, pay off their student loans, and that's...it.”
After work—the source of what she calls the “deadening 9 to 6 pattern”—she would hurry home to record and create demos and tracks. “I never received any formal musical training other than playing the piano and the flute,” Sobae says, adding that she taught herself how to play guitar and how to produce and mix by using programs like Logic, her current music software. “YouTube was my best friend,” she laughs.
When the songs were finished, she would excitedly post them to SoundCloud, a popular music streaming platform known just as much as a launchpad for independent music careers as a graveyard for aspiring “SoundCloud rappers”, a term usually made in jest. It was never her intention to enter the entertainment industry, Sobae maintains, so the music was more of an outlet for her inner creative desires rather than striking it big.
One day, an e-mail popped up in her inbox. She hadn’t seen one before from this sender: Eddie Shin. She opened it, not thinking too much—after all, there are many Eddie Shins in the world. It turns out, though, she knew this Eddie Shin; in fact, she knew his music. He had been a member of the Korean-American three-man hip hop and R&B trio Aziatix (“like Far East Movement the second”, Sobae explains), which signed an unprecedented $11.3 million deal with record label Cash Money Records. Shin, along with his brother Alex, had just founded a creative collective named ILZO & CO., and he had a radical offer for her: pursue music full-time. Everything around started to spin.
“I’m pretty motivated by the fear of regret,” Sobae says. “So … I was like, 'you know what, if I don’t give this a real shot, I’m going to regret it forever.'”
“YOU’RE LOOKING PARTICULARLY GOOD TODAY!” The words, as they did every week, came out like music notes dancing in harmony before smoothly transitioning into lively jazz. The tagline became synonymous with its radio show, Sunny Side Up with Kristin and Lindsay, a jazz program on Northwestern University’s WNUR 89.3 FM run by Sobae and her best friend at the time. Broadcast not only on campus but across the state, the show was proud to maintain what Sobae describes as a “cheesy and positive” outlook; in between the songs carefully selected by the hosts from a vast library of records and CDs, topics ranged anywhere from emotional vulnerability to post-Halloween recovery to the definition of character. “Every morning when we were in that studio, it was like a time of healing for me,” Sobae reminisces. “We would just go in and pick whatever we want and say whatever we want.”
In addition to the jazz which continues to flow through her bloodstream, Sobae came to love the interactive nature of the show; fans, drawn to segments such as Warm Fuzzies and Quote of the Week, would tune in and call in every week. “People think radio is sort of like an outdated medium,” she says. “It’s got a charm—it makes you feel connected with listeners that we don’t really feel with any other outlet.”
Sunny Side Up, as it turns out, was just one of many extracurricular forays for Sobae. Born in Madison, Wisconsin (“so random”, she laughs, noting that her father went to school there) before moving to Korea as a toddler, the question becomes what didn’t she do? Throughout her life, her list of activities include the musical club, school plays, choir, Model United Nations, debate and forensics, open mic nights, and a K-Pop dance crew. Sobae eventually made her way back to the states as a Communication Studies major at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, staying at the school for a master’s degree in journalism. As part of the program (widely considered to be one of the best in the country), she served as a news reporter in Chicago and Washington, D.C.; interviewing a wide variety of characters ranging from politicians (she vividly remembers then-President Obama's somber post-2014 midterms press conference) to the homeless to former gang members became part of the routine.
Nevertheless, life as a reporter and journalist would prove to be short-lived—not for a lack of talent—and Sobae returned to Korea. The purely objective nature of the job—one that inherently requires a distance from its subjects—clashed with her personality. “When I’m interviewing so many people on a day-to-day basis, and some of their stories are heart-wrenching, I couldn’t just pick myself up, report the truth, and move on,” she explains. “I’m too empathetic of a person.”
Those close to Sobae seem to agree with her personal diagnosis; in such a field, her natural ability to connect felt like a waste. “It doesn’t matter if it’s about how well-cooked the meat should be in a good burger or why certain governments are better at creating economies that serve all sides of the income spectrum,” ILZO & CO. cinematographer Henry Lee says. “Having a conversation with her makes you feel good at the end of the interaction—simple as that.”
SOBAE LAUGHS WHEN I ask her how she chose her artist name. “When I was in college, all of my friends called me ‘Seoul Bae’, as in, like, bae from Seoul,” she explains. “If you say ‘Seoul Bae’ really fast over and over again, like Seoulbae-seoulbae-seoulbae-seoulbae, it becomes Sobae.”
When Sobae isn’t working, she’s apt to her tried-and-true ways of finding peace and mindfulness. She could be feeling the cool, crisp air during a morning hike, or she could be stretching it out during a solo yoga session. Or maybe she could be walking Tongee, Tongsoonee, Deerook, and Kkamsooni, her family of French bulldogs (“I love all animals, but I prefer ugly cute over just cute”, Sobae admits). If you were to make a bet on what she’s most likely doing right now, it turns out the safest money lies elsewhere.
“I’m constantly just watching late-night talk show hosts and studying what makes them so amazing,” she says. “What makes them so funny and witty and charming? How are they such eloquent speakers? They’re role models in addition to just pure entertainment to me.”
These days, The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah and The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert (“an alum of Northwestern, so instant bias,” Sobae says with a laugh) dominate both her TV and heart. The two are the latest in a string of talk show idols instrumental to her upbringing. “It’s a little embarrassing,” she says, “But I aspire to be like millennial Asian Oprah.”
“They call her the ambassador of empathy,” she explains. “I feel like that’s one of my biggest gifts: my ability to empathize and really open my heart up with whoever I’m speaking with.” Sobae also notes that Winfrey, through her multiple media, business, and philanthropic endeavors, showcases a concrete example of the present being “past the age where you’re pigeonholed into one job or genre.”
Following this jack-of-all-trades sentiment, ILZO & CO. has taken a unique approach of supplementing Sobae’s music with a direct focus on her struggles as an independent artist via the tightly-edited and playful video series Sobae’s Balls. Filmed overlooking Seoul, Sobae in each episode calls upon her broadcast journalism and talk-show radio experience in a self-deprecating and honest celebration of her journey—all while sitting in an inflatable tub filled with blue and white plastic balls. In the second episode, she explains the title of the series comes from the fact “it took a lot of balls to make the jump and pursue my life-long dream”; the next shot immediately catches her in a freeze-frame with “THE MILLENNIAL YOUR PARENTS WARNED YOU ABOUT” overlayed in big yellow letters.
“I feel like you always need to struggle with wanting to express yourself in the most honest way and the most ‘you-like’ way possible, but you got to be a commercial product,” she says. “I don’t know if you follow K-Pop, but we’re not like those huge companies; this is really as grassroots and struggling independent artist and label as it gets. I write my own songs, do my own promotion— I have to really put myself out there.”
To keep up with the increasingly popular boy and girl groups of the industry much less the individual artists that spawn from them, Sobae and ILZO & CO. seek not to directly compete but instead to fill a niche and celebrate dichotomy. “If there’s any special insight that I can offer to an international audience, it’s that the lense with which I see Korea is through both a local and foreign lense,” she says. “I feel like there’s going to be sort of a growing...not demand, but interest, for people like myself who are straddling both worlds.” She brings up 88rising, a media and entertainment company founded in 2015 featuring musicians such as Indonesia’s Brian “Rich Brian” Imanuel and Nicole “NIKI” Zefanya and Japan’s George “Joji” Miller, for “nailing it right smack in-the-middle with bringing together Asian and American artists to an international audience.”
Such a strategy is evident in Sobae’s work: the SoundCloud track which got her noticed by Shin was a mashup of Stwo’s Virgo, Ciara’s Body Party, Kehlani’s Till the Morning, and Drake’s Hotline Bling; her singles with her label (Switch Up, Homegirl, Holiday, and Elevate, which is slated to release November 11) are not just completely self-produced but also unafraid to be in English, Korean, or both. “I wouldn’t say it’s so important to me to emphasize just that,” she says of this duality, “But I feel like in the Anglophone music market, my heritage and my cultural identity is definitely a differentiating factor.”
IN 2005 AT A SMALL LIBERAL ARTS SCHOOL by the name of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, American writer David Foster Wallace gave a widely-circulated commencement speech that Sobae labels one of her “favorite pieces of written anything.” Wallace begins his roughly 20-minute speech with what he calls a “didactic little parable-ish” story:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
“Have you heard of this?” Sobae asks me with an excited laugh after she almost perfectly recites the words from memory. “So basically, this little story is just to demonstrate that we often just go through the motions without really giving a second thought about what it means to be present.” The speech goes on to explore the idea further through multiple angles, all of which seem to align perfectly with her life: the “dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines” of adulthood, the “lame and unexciting” clichés (Sobae is quick to label some of her thoughts as cliché) which actually express great truths, the constant struggles to remain aware of the proverbial water around. “Whenever I’m met with a big decision, I always think back to it,” Sobae says of Wallace’s speech, which fittingly has become known as This is Water.
While her choice to pursue music full-time is as Romantic-with-a-capital-R as it gets, it wasn’t a simple one and certainly wasn’t universally accepted. “My parents are far from Tiger Mom, Tiger Dad,” she says, “But this decision was something they were not thrilled about. It was just so sudden, and it was so drastic, and I think they’re still sort of taken aback by it.” The idea of leaving a stable salary for the unsure route was tough enough for Sobae, but to her parents from a generation unused to the new-age ideals of following one’s passion, it seemed insane. “The ultimatum I gave them was, ‘Listen, if I don’t make this decision for myself and regret it, I don’t want to hold you accountable when I’m unhappy in the future and wonder what if?,’” she says. “I think I go out of my way to explain to them and constantly show them like, ‘Guys, I’m so happy, I’ve never felt more alive.’ I kind of downplay the tough aspects of it, just because I don’t want to worry them.”
In the end, Sobae’s parents weren’t the only ones surprised by her choice; again, it’s more of a question of who wasn’t surprised. “We never imagined that she would even consider the jump to a startup entertainment company,” ILZO & CO. co-founder Alex Shin says. “The courage it took to choose her dream over her financial stability..." He trails off. "She’s definitely a much tougher girl than she looks.”
Therein lies the intrigue of Sobae’s musical journey: it’s such a common real-world motif to choose between passion and career, with the latter winning out almost every time; it's hard to argue with a clearly lower risk of meeting the tangible pressures of money, stability, and respect—yet, the yearning and dreaming nearly always remains like a flame refusing to die. While popular media is littered with success stories of those who chose to make the leap of faith into passion, Sobae stands out by being transparent about not yet making it. “I honestly and obviously took the dramatic route and threw it all aside which is why I think people vicariously enjoy seeing me—though absolutely terrified—navigate the brand new waters,” she says. “I just want people to know: if you don’t know what you’re doing, that’s absolutely okay. If anybody says they know what they’re doing, they’re lying.”
In her time as Sobae thus far, she’s learned to enjoy the process, to trust that her goals will manifest in one way or another, to see that she’s growing in ways that would have been impossible in the office. And so, from time to time after countless hours in the studio, she stops to reflect. Then, she reminds herself:
This is water.
This is water.
Tremaine Eto owns and writes for Stuff in LA. For any comments or collaborations, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.