Interview: Park Jiha – A Multi-Faceted Approach to Music (October 2019)

The one that follows is our third interview with Park Jiha in five years. If you have already read the previous ones, you might presume that it’s old hat, but nothing could be more wrong. In fact, it’s as if, through the years, we have met three different artists.

Despite the fact that her music still moves in the same direction and Park Jiha still plays traditional Korean instruments but “untraditional” Korean music, her perspective on art and her creative mindset have shifted.

Back in 2014, when we first had a chat with her, we were at Womad UK. Park Jiha was sharing the stage with Jungmin Seo, giving life to a four-handed project called 숨[suːm]. While, two years ago, she had just released her debut solo album, enriched by many guest musicians. Communion, as its title implies, was all about a collective approach to creativity and music writing. Finally, our latest meeting occurred a few weeks ago, a few hours before her Rich Mix show, part of the K-Music Festival. She was in town to promote her second release, Philos, out on Glitterbeat Records, an album that is by far her most intimate and personal work.

In five years, Park Jiha has changed deeply as a musician and arguably as a person too. So, another chat with her was needed to understand more about all the transformations, small revolutions and development in her artistry and vision.

We started from there, from the last time we met, and what has changed and happened since…

Two years ago, when we met here in London, I was playing my first album, Communion. But I wasn’t playing by myself. I had other people who were playing instruments with me; I was playing together with them. But this time, I really wanted to fill up an album with my sounds alone. And my second album, Philos, is that. I made it alone and recorded various sounds by myself for the album. Also, tonight I’ll be playing by myself on stage, with sounds that I previously recorded, that I’ll be playing alongside.

Previously, in the past, when I was working as part of [suːm], I think I was still having residual thoughts that I really needed to show my technical skills as much as possible. Whereas, as time is passing and I’m focussing more on my music, I think I’m heading in a much simpler direction, where the quite elaborate technical side of things is becoming less important to me. But to make it as simple as possible, in order to create a balance or harmony and make it as beautiful as possible, is more what I’m aspiring to.

We wondered if that happened because of a personal need and if she was looking or seeking something in particular with this new experience.

In my opinion, when you play with others, you can get a lot of energy from other people, and you can receive a lot of things that you might not have thought of by yourself. When I started music, I was part of a team, and since then, I have played music with other people outside of [suːm] as well. But I think I was a little bit exhausted from the relationship with other people. And that’s why I think I had that sort of wanting to create music on my own and to play on my own. And I think that was the biggest factor. But in order to create the overall sound that I create, I record myself; this could develop into something where I continue operating on my own. Or there could be some changes in my life, where I return to working with others. It’s not really based on a specific reason; it’s just the way my life has sort of flowed. So, sometimes you work together and sometimes you’re working alone.

Also, the titles of Park Jiha’s albums reflect her change in attitude. Communion was indeed a glaring hint at a shared creative work, while Philos is all about an innate devotion towards arts, nature and the everyday life.

When I was working alone making my second album, I had to repeat many times and to concentrate, and I was going through this process of repetition and focussing and concentrating hard.

There’s an energy that comes together, which I think can relate to very big or profound love for something, that I wanted to differentiate. It’s not a love for your partner in a romantic sense, but for something else. And the best word I found to convey that was ‘philos’. So, I think it was the best choice I could find towards explaining this album. And that’s why I chose it. 

Another distinguishing element of Park Jiha’s albums is the colour of their covers. If Communion was a bright purple, Philos portrays an intense and dark shade of green.­­­­­­­­ We asked her if there was any hidden meaning behind the choice.

As a general idea, I just wanted some colour covers for my albums, some pop colours. Then, violet is my favourite color, and I picked it for Communion. While for Philos, I remember that my mum said that when I was young, I used to like green, and that’s why I chose it.

One of the chapters of Park Jiha’s new album, possibly one of its most inspired ones, is the title “Walker: in Seoul”. We tried to understand if the tune was a sort of tribute to her city…

Honestly, that song wasn’t made with the intention of trying to explain Seoul. Usually, I really, really love walking. I found out, you know, it’s a great way to get a sense of an overall place and an atmosphere. And you can really feel the wind or nature or listen to the sounds.

So, while I was walking and sensing the environment and the surroundings, feeling and listening, that’s how this song came about, because it happened to be the place I live in, rather than an attempt to explain the city itself.

Despite not being 100% traditional music, Park Jiha’s sound is deeply rooted in the Korean tradition, also considering the quintessentially Korean instruments she plays. So, we asked her whether that characteristic of her music was a strongpoint or a sort of weakness when relating with a non-Korean audience.

Although I’m still playing traditional Korean instruments, what I was doing in the past, especially when I was part of 숨[suːm], was to think that I needed to put more traditional elements into the music or inject more traditional aspects into them. So, I felt a bit more pressure around that, whereas now, the more I am making and playing music, I think that pressure has much reduced. Now, I don’t really see or think of myself as playing traditional Korean music, but just making music itself, rather than feeling under influence or pressure, restrictions or anything. I just make music as I think about it and as I envisage it. And I hope that people hear it simply as music as well, and it’s obviously better if they think it’s good music.

The near future will see Park Jiha coming back to London in January, but before

I’ll be back in London on the 31st of January for a show at the Barbican [with Polish clarinet player Wacław Zimpel], but before that, in November, I’ll be back home, and then I have a couple more international gigs that I’m booked for during festivals in Australia and Germany.

Since it was almost stage time, we wrapped up our third interview in five years with our canonical final question… How would she introduce her music to someone who has never listened to it before?

It’s music that reflects Park Jiha as a human being, and it is music that has a story. And I hope it can be experienced as being beautiful music.