A Korean in Paris scats with a voice that ranges from placid to piercingPerhaps it’s her lithe body, that clear voice, or the chances she takes. Whatever the case, Nah Youn-sun weaves a fragile spell that bears the intimacy of Tori Amos. “I’ve learned about possibilities,” Ms. Nah says.
Ms. Nah grew up listening to the music of the great jazz vocalists, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday. So when Ms. Nah pursued singing in France at age 26 after graduating from college with a degree in French literature, she modeled her voice after them. Husky. Sexy. Low. Her voice coach took her aside one day and said, “Don’t emulate them; use your voice.”
As Ms. Nah embraced her soprano range, her tone took on the brightness and clarity of a trumpet. When she takes to the stage, it’s like watching shining brass through a smoky darkness. Sometimes her voice is piercing; at other times, it’s soft and elusive. She scats as if singing an opera, or a Middle Eastern song.
She composes with a band of international musicians based in France, singing in English and Korean. A musical compilation produced by Buddha Bar, a hip Parisian bar-cum-restaurant, included one of her songs. “Down by Love,” her third album, has just been released.
When she’s not listening to Madonna, the 34-year-old singer is studying and performing in Korea and France. After a recent concert series in Korea, she returned to France to perform at Duc des Lombards on Jan. 23 and 24, and to work on her fourth album. While in Korea, she spoke with the JoongAng Daily about being a Korean singer in Paris.
Q. For you, will “Korean” always precede “singer”?
A. That’s my identity. I’m Korean. I may sing mostly in English, and I speak French, but I am happiest when I sing Korean songs.
How has finding success abroad rather than at home affected you?
Education here is structured; you cannot go outside that structure. In France, they’re interested in piercing through to other cultures. Being Korean has actually helped me there.
You’ve taught jazz classes at CIM, a jazz school in France. Can you tell when a student has talent?
I’ve also taught at Dongduk Women’s University and Suwon Women’s College in Korea. So many students are better than me. But you don’t know, especially with women. They might have amazing voices, but then they get married and stay at home, and the public will never hear that voice.
In addition to luck, it takes two things to succeed: technique and esprit. You can learn technique, but you can’t learn esprit. Take Billie Holiday. I would have loved to have heard Billie Holiday in real life. She had a hard life, and when she sings, I feel this icy chill run up and down my spine.
Have you heard your music at Buddha Bar?
I haven’t been there. In Korea, you’d get together for drinks after a meeting or event. In France, I practice with my musicians, and then everyone splits up to go for more practice. We study and go to concerts. I’m not teaching anymore, so that I can focus on studying.
You scat like no one I’ve ever heard.
There’s a standard to jazz, but it’s also a free form. You can be creative and improvise. Jazz has no borders. Even on our team, someone’s from Israel, someone from England. Jazz is full of irony. It came from America, but if you look at the discography, it’s in Europe that jazz is flourishing now.
What can we expect from your next album?
Two-thirds of the songs will be original compositions. I always include a Korean composition; the French love it. But I’m also working on some other types of music. My friends and I are putting together a downtempo album. I’m experimenting and we’ll see what happens.
by Joe Yong-hee