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Courtesy SOURCE music

LE SSERAFIM, the k-pop breakout act soaring to new heights

Despite being only one year into their career, the convention-shattering five-piece have attracted millions of fans and legendary collaborators

When LE SSERAFIM released the first set of concept photos for Unforgiven, their debut studio album, K-pop Twitter completely shut down. Titled “Bloody Rose”, the ethereal shots – captured by photographer Cho Giseok, whose work you might instantly recognise from Instagram and projects like Kali Uchi's “I Wish You Roses” – showed Kim Chaewon, Sakura, Huh Yunjin, Kazuha, and Hong Eunchae clad in Prada shirts and schoolgirl-like mini skirts, with angel wings and sacred hearts cresting their chests.

After “Bloody Rose”, LE SSERAFIM released two other sets of concept photos, “Dewy Sage” and “Dusty Amber”, depicting the members both in sportswear and as modern-day city cowgirls. The images are all starkly different, but there’s one thing that ties them together: LE SSERAFIM‘s unapologetic stance. This plucky, undaunted approach has been a defining feature of LE SSERAFIM since the release of their first single in 2022 (it’s even in their name, which is an anagram of “I’m fearless”). But with Unforgiven, the group ups the ante.

Officially released on May 1, Unforgiven features three re-recorded songs from LE SSERAFIM’s debut mini-album, Fearless, and three songs from their sophomore offering, Antifragile. The project is rounded off with seven new tracks, ranging from mellow ballads to high-octane Latin anthems, for a total of 13. Leading the bunch is the titular “Unforgiven”, a collaboration with Grammy-winning guitarist Nile Rodgers – a significant feat for anyone, let alone a group that’s only a year into their careers

“Unforgiven” is the first K-pop track in Rodgers’ extensive repertoire, which features collaborations with the likes of Diana Ross, David Bowie, Madonna, Grace Jones, and countless more. “When I heard the song, I thought it was amazing,” the famed musician told LE SSERAFIM over Zoom. “Even though I was working on another record, I just said, ‘Let me just play through this real quick. Just to see what I get, just to vibe off the feeling’.”

The result is a funky flair that layers Rodgers’ trademark chucking riffs over slappy percussion. However, the song also features another unmistakable melody: the iconic theme song for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, made possible after getting the OK directly from the late Ennio Morricone’s family.

Another standout track on the album is “Eve, Psyche & The Bluebeard's wife“, which Kazuha namechecks as her personal favourite. “When I first listened to the demo, I could just picture the performance [in my head],” the trained-ballerina-turned-idol explains. “I thought it’d be really cool, and it actually turned out [that way], so I’m looking forward to performing [it]... It’s a song that really hypes you up.”

Inspired by Jersey Club rhythms, the uptempo bouncy base and quasi-murmured vocals in “Eve, Psyche & The Bluebeard’s wife” are instantly grabbing. The song’s title draws inspiration from three fictional female characters to illustrate the allure of the forbidden. The album closes on a high note with “Fire in the belly”, a Latin-inspired track that sees the member trying their hand at Spanish. (The song was co-written by Mexican musician Paulina “PAU” Cerrilla, whom the quintet previously worked with on the reggaeton-tinged “Antifragile” and “Fearless”.)

“Since it’s our first full-length offering, it took longer than usual to prepare this album. We put a lot of effort, a lot of care, and thoughts into it,” Eunchae, the youngest, or maknae, of the group, says. “We [tried so many] new genres, and that was kind of a difficult process. But everyone worked really hard”.

The members of LE SSERAFIM have been working on Unforgiven for a while, recording most of it in Japan, but its release was held until the right moment: just one day shy of their official first anniversary, which has its pros and its cons. The members prepared videos in advance to commemorate the momentous occasion and even held a live stream for fans the day of. Privately, the celebrations are still TBC. “We’re going to be very, very busy [since we’ll be promoting during our anniversary],” leader Chaewon says. “But after our busy schedules, I hope that we can all gather around in our dorms and eat delicious food.” Yunjin, struggling to hold in laughter, can’t help but intervene: “Wishful thinking”.

We are thousands of miles away, but LE SSERAFIM’s camaraderie is palpable even through the screen, which is all the more admirable when you realise that, just a little over a year ago, most of them were strangers. The group’s formation is chronicled in their YouTube documentary The World Is My Oyster: during one of the episodes, when the final lineup is secured, Chaewon proclaims that the top priority for the members was to get to know each other and build rapport, something they now comfortably achieved. “I think we got too close to each other,” Chaewon quips. “Too much,” she adds in English for emphasis, making the rest of the members erupt in laughter. “We feel like a family now. We have such great chemistry and teamwork, and I think that really shows on the stage as well.”

“I think we got too close to each other... too much. We feel like family now” – Chaewon

With every new project, the members of LE SSERAFIM continue to expand their behind-the-scenes credits, dabbling in writing, composition, and now also production. Unforgiven's 11th track, “FEARNOT (Between you, me and the lamppost)”, LE SSERAFIM's first official fandom song, features the group’s first-ever production credit by way of Huh Yunjin. The guitar-led ballad is intended as an ode to their relationship with fans and is probably the most lyrically poignant offering. (The song features writing credits from all five members.)

In truth, she’s not all fearless. But you, you help her fear less,” Yunjin sings in the first verse. It’s a candid statement for a group that has based its own identity around the concept of fearlessness, and marching on without regrets. The song illustrates a snippet of what they go through when they lack confidence or have doubts. “I’m the type of a person who tries to deal with things on my own,” Sakura shily admits, when asked about her coping mechanisms. “I don’t tell anyone. I just write in my diary.” The revelation prompts a slight uproar from her fellow members, who immediately let her know they are there for her to lean on. “Rather than feeling fearful or anxious about things, I just tell myself, ‘Let’s just do it,’” she adds, using the Korean expression “해보자” to illustrate her point. 

This mentality is something the members of LE SSERAFIM hope their fanbase, known as FEARNOT, are also embracing. “Our biggest goal as a team is to become artists who can really be a motif for empowerment and strength,” Yunjin says in English. “We want to become a good influence for people. I know that’s a goal for every artist, but for us especially, it’s the foundation of our identity to talk about our own stories and then, through our stories, give strength and power to our listeners.”

They might have only been doing it for a year, but LE SSERAFIM's message is already resonating across the world – literally and figuratively. Just hours after our interview, I bumped into a girl playing "Antifragile" out loud on the streets of Madrid on my daily dog walk. The album also has broken the record for most first-day sales by a female artist in South Korea, accumulating over a million on its day of release.

Even if their music is reaching every corner of the world, LE SSERAFIM have barely left South Korea. In March, they held their Fearnada fan meeting in Seoul’s Olympic Hall, but their first concert is still on the vision board. In a video celebrating their anniversary, Chaewon, Yunjin, and Kazuha all share their hopes for a tour before 2023 comes to a close. Though nothing is confirmed, their hopes don't seem too farfetched –live performances after a full-length debut feel like the obvious next step.

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