When Red Velvet exploded into the public consciousness in 2014, they were embarking on an intriguing dual concept that was uncommon for a female K-Pop group, pitching a slower, R&B-based sound (‘velvet’) against catchy pop music (‘red’). But it wasn’t just their music that set them apart: with the exception of acts like 2NE1 and Girls’ Generation, the target audience for K-Pop girl groups is generally men, with a tendency to box artists into the categories of either ‘sexy’ or ‘innocent’, existing (like most women in pop) to serve a fantasy as much as to entertain. Red Velvet, on the other hand, have a fanbase of predominantly young women, and they’re neither sexy nor innocent, with music videos that are often dark, trippy, sinister, or haunting, even when they’re flooded in pastel colours.
Though they’re still seen as newcomers as far as K-Pop’s hierarchy is concerned, two years on since they debuted with “Happiness” and Red Velvet’s Irene, Seulgi, Wendy, Joy, and Yeri are still messing with the rules. Initially forming as a four-piece (Yeri, their youngest member, joined in early 2015), Red Velvet demonstrated their competing sounds on double A-side singles like “Ice Cream Cake” and “Automatic”, further cementing the ‘red’/‘velvet’ divide with their full-length album Red in 2015, which was entirely dedicated to uptempo experiments in pop, electronica, and dance, including the indomitable “Dumb Dumb”. But with their new, third mini-album Russian Roulette, the group continue to do things on their own terms, effectively tossing out the very concept on which they were built by marrying both their ‘red’ and ‘velvet’ sides. Joy impulsively mentioned that they’d no longer be separate themes on the music show Show Champion, a rare moment of casualness in the usually very calculated world of K-Pop.
A ‘sisterhood’ is the clearest way to describe Red Velvet – only once has anyone outside of the group featured in one of their videos (a seconds-long crowd shot of faces and bodies – blurred, as if they couldn’t properly exist in the group’s complex and enigmatic world). Perhaps their pop haven, free of overt sexualisation or unrealistic stereotypes, is partly the reason the group has found a forcefully loyal following from their peers, one that gave “Russian Roulette” an impressive run on the multitude of South Korean charts. But it may also be attributed to Red Velvet’s relatability – the band are a sum of many parts, from feisty to deep thinking and introverted. We sat down to get to know them, their fanbase, their latest album – and what the past two years as one of K-Pop’s most successful young groups has taught them.
‘Russian Roulette’ feels like the most mature ‘red’ Red Velvet lead track so far. What did you each think when you first heard it?
Wendy: Maybe because I was used to previous songs like ‘Ice Cream Cake’ or ‘Dumb Dumb’, (but) when I heard the medium tempo I thought, ‘Shouldn’t it be a little faster?’ But although we listened to the song more than a hundred times a day when we practiced, I never got tired of it and started to like it more each time.
Irene: I thought that ‘Russian Roulette’ was going to be similar to ‘Ice Cream Cake’ or ‘Dumb Dumb’, since many people loved these. However, when I first listened to the song I felt the beat was a bit weaker compared to previous songs, which made me worried it wouldn’t have as much impact. But as we recorded the song I thought ‘Russian Roulette’ showed another great side of ‘red’, with different charms.
Its MV (music video) has a sinister combination of sweetness and threat – it’s hard to think of anyone else that could pull off those kinds of concepts. What idea would you like to try that no other female group has – maybe one usually given to a male group?
Wendy: Although it’s not a concept that hasn’t been done, I would like to do a charismatic stage, wearing tuxedos like ‘Mr. Mr.’ by Girls’ Generation. I think it’ll show another side of Red Velvet we haven’t revealed yet.
Seulgi: I’d like to do charismatic performances as well. I really like dance genres, such as BoA’s ‘No.1’ or ‘MOTO’, and like to see how Red Velvet would look like if we do a powerful performance on stage.
Joy: I think it’d be interesting to try an opposite concept like a boy group would do, which is powerful, wild, and even something that might seem out of order.
The new album is a mix of both the ‘red’ and ‘velvet’ sides of the group, so which song reflects you most?
Yeri: For me, it’s ‘Some Love’. I think it’s probably my favorite song of all Red Velvet’s songs, actually. The sound is really fresh, and the lyrics are really sweet and honest, which is why I think this song would reflect not only me but also many people of my age.
Irene: I would say ‘Some Love’ as well. It’s not too bright nor too calm, and has its own unique sound. When I listen to the song I feel comfortable, as if I were wearing my own clothes and finding myself unconsciously nodding to the beat and feeling the rhythm.
Joy: I think ‘My Dear’ shows the cuteness of the ‘red’ and the feminine side of ‘velvet’ at the same time, so this song reflects me the most. It’s a song that I can express well with my voice. I remember being really happy during the recording session as I connected with the overall emotion of the song and empathised with it.
“If I make a mistake on stage, I feel so sorry for the fans for not showing the perfect performance they were waiting for” – Wendy, Red Velvet
Red Velvet has a large female following, which is seen as unusual for a girl group. How do you feel knowing so many young women look up to you? Do you feel any burden as a role model?
Wendy: To be honest, I can’t say I don’t feel any pressure, but I have a bigger feeling of thankfulness. The fans are giving us more love as time goes by, which gives me the desire to do better and better performances. That’s why, if I make a mistake on stage, I feel so sorry for the fans for not showing the perfect performance they were waiting for. Knowing that, it gives me more strength to practice harder.
Seulgi: When I was young, I admired artists like BoA and TVXQ!, and being loved by fans like they were is just wonderful. So I want to say thank you to all the fans over the world! We think about what the fans would like to see from us and what we can do to be a good role model to them. That’s why I always try to show confidence in what I’m doing on and off-stage – and will continue to do so in the future.
Irene: I still think there is more to learn and improve on as it hasn’t been long since we debuted, and I still feel dazed and thankful from the love and support. I try to be careful with what I’m saying or doing as the fans are watching and following us, but I consider it as a good pressure since it actually guides me to develop better.
‘My Dear’ is a very sweet, touching love song. Which members were able to express this easily? And who isn’t the sentimental type at all?
Seulgi: It’s a bit embarrassing to say so, but I think the reason why we were able to express the song very well was because our vocal tones really suited it well and every member has their own sentimental side. I especially think that Joy’s tone and emotion fitted the song. The lovely and fluttering feelings you can catch from the song was really well expressed through Joy’s vocal.
Yeri: I agree with Seulgi. I actually thought of Joy when I heard the song for the first time!
Joy: I like this song a lot, so I’m happy the other members picked me! I personally really like songs such as ‘My Dear’ that have sweet, pure lyrics and melodies which reminds me of being fresh and young – although I’m still young… (laughs)
Having gotten great reactions from your web drama Game Development Girls, what kind of role would you like to play next?
Irene: The members imitated me a lot after watching that web drama. They had fun with it for quite a while! If I get an opportunity, I want to try a character like Pippi Longstocking. (I thought of that because) Yeri is really energetic and has a bright personality, and it suddenly came to me that I was different at her age. I enjoyed my teenage years in my own way, but I think it’d be interesting to show a side that I don’t have, or maybe I didn’t realize, through acting.
As the leader of Red Velvet, what kind of advice do you give to the members that come to you with troubles? And how do you deal with your own concerns?
Irene: Instead of giving advice or saying general things like ‘cheer up’ or ‘everything is going to be okay’, I try to listen carefully, sympathise, and share a similar situation or feeling I went through in the past. On the other hand, I pretty much try to overcome my concerns on my own. If my concern is related to the group, then I’ll discuss it together with the members – but if it’s personal, I try to solve it myself by fully thinking over it.
With your successful stint in the variety show We Got Married, which one would you like to do next?
Joy: I was actually really nervous since it was my first variety show, but it was a great experience! If I have a chance to do another, I’d really like to be in a reality show with the Red Velvet members, where we can show more of our natural sides to fans.
Over the past two years, we’ve been able to discover your bright, sometimes feisty, personality. But what’s something of Soo-young (Joy’s birth name) that we’re yet to experience? Is there a part you’d like people to understand better?
Joy: That’s a really difficult question, since I don’t even know all of myself yet! When monitoring (watching playbacks), I discover new expressions, behaviours, voices, and more of myself, which is very surprising for me too. I think there are many more sides of me to discover.
You trained for a very long period of time. As other trainees debuted before you, what did you tell yourself to maintain your spirits? Did you ever considered dropping out?
Seulgi: There were hard times and slumps, but I never avoided them. I believe that if I didn’t go through those periods, I wouldn’t be here right now. Also, if I didn’t go through the hard times when I was a trainee, I would have faced it anyway after debuting, which would have been even harder to overcome. Looking back, those hard times I went through were actually priceless moments that made me focus on my goals.
As a main dancer, you make Red Velvet’s routines look easy when they’re not. Which has been the hardest to master, and which do you think is the most memorable to fans?
Seulgi: Surprisingly, the choreography for ‘Russian Roulette’ was actually the most difficult for me. Although it looks easier compared to previous ones, the choreography required body and muscle movements that we don’t normally use, so it took me a while to get used to. Personally I think ‘Be Natural’ will be the most memorable dance piece to the fans, as the chair performances really showed a new side that was different from the image Red Velvet had at the time.
From watching the comeback performances, your confidence onstage seems to have grown so much. What do you attribute this too, apart from practicing?
Yeri: Really? Do I look more confident on stage? (laughs) Well, I do a lot a self-monitoring for not only the performance of the day, but for previous performances too. Also, before releasing a new album, I try to watch and check all the performances from the past to see the things I need to improve, which has been very helpful. Although I’m still lacking, the experience I gained over the years really helped me to perform more confidently.
Were there any fun moments while recording this album? What do you do when it’s not your turn to be in the booth?
Yeri: Although I usually play and joke around with the members, I become the opposite during the recording sessions. While waiting for my turn at the studio, I focus and listen to the music so I can fully understand and express the feeling of the song but, most importantly, I eat! I almost fainted once in a recording session without having any food beforehand, and had to switch turns with another member. Since a lot of energy and stamina is needed during the session, having a good meal is the number one thing I do to prepare.
It’s been two years since your debut. When thinking about the group, what worries you more than it used to, and what have you learned to worry about less?
Wendy: I feel more responsibility to present better and improved images of Red Velvet as we gain greater support. I worry about what the fans think of a new album and hope not to disappoint them. However, I definitely worry less about the teamwork. Even though we get really busy and tired preparing a new album or performing, I feel our teamwork has become much stronger – we have each others’ back without saying anything.
Your family still lives in Canada – how much do they keep up with your work? And what kind of feedback do they give you? Is it helpful, loving or the weird stuff that parents can end up saying?
Wendy: My family does a lot of monitoring – maybe even every day! We normally message each other in the morning and at night, and there is always some kind of feedback from them whenever I perform on stage. They even stay up and listen to radio programs overnight if I appear. My dad and sister usually send short messages of support, whereas my mum always asks about my condition and vocal. Sometimes she’s more meticulous than I am!