[Hallyu power] Getting to know Dean: Musician, storyteller, rebel at heart

When asked what kind of music he wants to make, instead of naming a genre, Dean described how he hopes people feel when they hear his songs.

쏻hen you listen to Amy Winehouse, you feel like you셱e getting to know her, he said, referring to the late British soul singer who lived an infamously turbulent life before her early death혻in 2011.혻

Dean talks to reporters before the showcase for his album 130 mood: TRBL on March 23 in Gangnam-gu, Seoul. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)

쏦er life, that dissident image, the lyrics, and melody, the sound … everything comes together. It셲 the perfect combination of words, music and the person, and you believe it. At that moment, you셱e not listening to music anymore, you셱e listening to her story.

A producer, songwriter and performing artist whose music is described as a hybrid of hip-hop, rhythm and blues, jazz, punk and electronic, Dean does not 쐍ecessarily want to be limited to one style, he told The Korea Herald last week.

When he sat down for a chat last Tuesday at the headquarters of Universal Music Korea, his record label, Dean had just returned from this year셲 South by South West (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, where he was the first Asian artist to be invited to perform at the much-coveted Spotify House stage, alongside world-class acts like Kendrick Lamar and Odesza.혻

Dean performs at the Hypetrak stage at this year셲 South by Southwest music festival on March 17 in Austin, Texas. (Universal Music Korea)

It셲 a testament to Dean셲 growing popularity abroad after his English-language singles, including 쏧셫 Not Sorry, a collaboration with Grammy Award-winning musician Eric Bellinger, and 쏱ut My Hands on You, which featured rapper Anderson Paak, reached international audiences in 2014 and 2015, respectively. On Thursday, he released his first full-length album 130 mood: TRBL in Korea.

Though the 24-year-old musician has lived in Korea his entire life and is not fluent in English, he said the language barrier doesn셳 pose a major obstacle when singing.

쏛s long as I understand the emotion behind the lyrics, I think people will be able to relate to it.

He also said his 쐂istinctly Korean sentimentality mashed up with his pop-influenced music appeals to international audiences in a new way.

Dean was still surprised at the warm welcome he received in the U.S. at SXSW it being his first time performing at a major international music festival, he had not known what to expect.

Dean performs at the K-pop Night Out stage at this year셲 South by Southwest music festival on March 16 in Austin, Texas. (Universal Music Korea)

쏝ut there were underage girls who were too young to get in, hanging around in the parking lot next to the stage area, he said. 쏷hey said they wanted to hear my music from there even though they couldn셳 see the stage. I felt like Justin Bieber.

Foreign blog reviews have been heaping praise on the up-and-coming musician, calling him an 쏳&B giant and 쏫-pop셲 best chance of breaking through the American market.

Dean said he first fell into music listening to American hip-hop and rap while in middle school.

쏧 loved rap. I wanted to become an underground rapper, he said. 쏻hen other kids were playing computer games, I wrote rap lyrics. It was like a form of play for me. And the music moved me. And it was an escape from studying.

Dean then started dabbling in making his own beats, which opened the door to songwriting. He started out like most young amateur producers these days, he says, logging onto Internet forums to learn the basics of computer-based music making. Years later, a track he had produced reached the ears of Joombas Music CEO Shin Wook, who decided to hire the then 20-year-old as a member of the music company셲 songwriting team.

Dean talks to reporters before the showcase for his album 130 mood: TRBL on March 23 in Gangnam-gu, Seoul. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)

Since then, Dean has written several songs, including 쏝lack Pearl and 쏺oodoo Doll for K-pop boy bands EXO and VIXX, respectively. Most recently, he wrote the track 쏻orld Tour on Lee Hi셲 new album.

When writing for other artists, Dean says he immerses himself deeply into their persona, questioning who they are.

쏦i has this beautiful, deep voice that makes her sound like she셲 lived a lifetime, even though she셲 so young, he said of the 20-year-old female soloist. For her song, which he wrote on his way to the airport, he imagined a speaker wandering, weary of life. The result was 쏻orld Tour, a moody but spunky track on taking flight and escaping the everyday.

Visual imagery is a big part of his music, Dean said. He is frequently inspired by works of art, films and photographs, probing into the characters emotions. More than anything, he described himself as a storyteller.

쏻hen you look at a photograph of, say, a woman sitting alone on a bench, you think, 쁓he looks kind of sad. I want to express that through music.

So what story did he want to tell in his own album? Who is Dean, as a person and an artist?

쏛 rebellious spirit is something that I want to keep with me, he said, explaining that his pseudonym came from American actor James Dean,혻the icon of wild youth.혻

His new album traces the story of a relationship from beginning to end in reverse chronological order. It begins with the outro and works its way backward through 쏝onnie & Clyde, on the destructive stage of a relationship, and 쏡 (half moon), where lovers feel like half of a whole without the other person — finally arriving at 21, the start of a young, powerful crush.

쏧 imagined the whole process taking place inside one room. You can hear the sound of a TV being turned on or a knock on the door if you listen closely in between songs. I put in a lot of sound effects like that. I wanted listeners to feel, at the end of it, as if they had been watching a gloomy European movie, said Dean.

By Rumy Doo (doo@heraldcorp.com)

This is the혻10th article in a series that explores the driving forces behind hallyu and the global rise of Korean pop culture. — Ed