Pop Singer, Artist - Oh, and Eligible Bachelor, Too

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Pop Singer, Artist - Oh, and Eligible Bachelor, Too

The most eligible bachelor in town these days may be the 34-year-old Korean singer, Lee Hyun-woo. With his deep, pleasant voice, his famously languid manner of speaking coupled with his less trumpeted eloquence, and an appearance that is indisputably easy on the eyes, he is not only a hotshot star but an agreeable interview.

Mr. Lee is currently making a concert tour of Korea.

His rise to fame began in 1991 with his hit debut song "Kkum," and today he is one of the most sought-after stars in Korea. But the road has not always been smooth. His arrest on charges of drug use in 1992 appeared to threaten his career.

But he was never convicted of the charges, and his reputation revived with a 1997 album titled "Freewill of My Heart," featuring the smash hit "He-eojin Da-eumnal" ("The Day After We Said Goodbye"). That album assured him a spot in the stable of Korea's most popular musicians.

In his interview with the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition, Mr. Lee said he intends to become "more active." But his life already seems hectic. For one thing, he has a busy performance schedule. He performed in Suwon on March 11 and in Kwangju on Sunday, and is due to play concerts on Cheju island on March 31 and in Pusan on April 5. He has also written a cookbook of his own recipes due to be published by the end of the month. Consider his other duties - hosting a local TV program and a radio program - and it becomes apparent that he is not your average crooner.

The story behind his initial success is convoluted. During his teen years, spent in the United States, he had no early ambitions to become a musician. He studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York, and in fact is still determined to pursue a parallel career as an artist, planning an exhibition of his drawings later this year.

"Actually, I didn't know that I would take up a musical career," Mr. Lee said. "Although I have always been interested in music as a hobby and was part of a band with some friends." After graduation, he got a job at a local design firm in New York, but he came to dread the run-of-the-mill routine.

Chance led him to turn a pastime into a lifelong occupation. "One day, I ran into a manager of a recording company who happened to hear me singing with my band. I accepted his proposal to make a debut in Korea as a singer simply because I thought it would be exciting."

He built on his impressive first song "Kkum" by introducing Korea to rap. It proved a successful experiment.

Mr. Lee makes no bones about the difficulties he has encountered in the Korean music industry: "In Korea, singers are compelled to do things that bear no relation to music for the sake of their music careers." For instance, they may be re-quired to entertain industry moguls with impersonations of political figures or other entertainers. Even after 10 years, Mr. Lee cringes to see singers nurturing additional "talents" that will buy them extra air time.

He is adamant when it comes to his own music. "I want my music to be not merely popular but something strikingly new and different, even if this means non-mainstream, even unfamiliar. Even if my album sells no more than 10,000 copies, I don't care, if I did what I dreamed of."

His efforts to create something extreme have resulted in original sounds - such as yoking heart-touching ballads with radical rock. But Mr. Lee is experienced enough to know that it would be difficult to thrive outside the mainstream. "I'd like to overcome possible alienation by making frequent media appearances and by continuing other activities, such as publishing the cookbook."

Confucius once remarked that when a man reaches 30, he should have his own set of values and be armed with a plan for the future. Mr. Lee has succeeded, with his established musical career and resolute plans for his music. He also hopes shortly to make a debut in the American music industry. It remains to be seen whether his efforts to go his own way will find success, but at least the experiment could lay the groundwork for the development of the rather immature Korean music industry. In this sense, Mr. Lee shoulders quite a responsibility.

Mr. Lee will end his tour of Korea with a performance in Seoul in May. For more information, call 02-511-0067 (Korean service only).

by Chun Su-jin

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