Alumni Profile: KENZIE '99

This composer is a global hit-maker for the K-pop industry, the glittering, electro-dance genre produced in Korea but popular all over the world.

July 20, 2012

2011 was a banner year for K-pop. The pulsing, electronic Korean pop music phenomenon with million of fans all over Asia made major inroads in the U.S. The band Girls' Generation sold out Madison Square Garden and rapper of the Black Eyed Peas began work with the group 2NE1 (which includes alumna Bom Park) on the first English language K-pop album.

The glittering, synthesized genre is characterized by bubble gum colors and boy and girl bands in lock-step choreography. It inspires a Beatle-mania type of fan response.

KENZIE (Yeonjung Kim ’99) is a powerhouse composer for SM Entertainment in her native South Korea. She writes hits for global K-pop acts like Girls' Generation, f(x), KangTa, BoA, and Super Junior.  Her song "Oh!" For Girls' Generation has 52 million views on YouTube.

KENZIE spoke with us about the rigorous preparation needed for a career as a songwriter, the key to a successful K-pop hit, and her decision to study at Berklee.

The following is a condensed and edited version of that conversation.

Why did you decide to come to Berklee?

I wanted to be a composer and album producer in South Korea. After sufficient research on the music production and engineering (MP&E) major at Berklee, I chose Berklee and my choice was right.

How does what you learned at Berklee help you now?

I had some basic musical knowledge because I played in a band before Berklee and have a classical piano background. However, I knew I needed more specific education if I wanted to be professional and be ready for the real music field.

I think the harmony, arranging, and ear training classes, which are required classes at Berklee, are the world's best curriculum.

I'd add that I gained a lot from analysis and mixing courses, plus producing courses, which helped me to put things in perspective with various artists in many different ways. So did lab time—which I always had to give away a good morning of sleep for. But all these courses helped me to discover myself and are my sources now. Taking music synthesis (now, electronic production and design) courses at the same time also helped me to find the basic root of my current sound.

How did you become a composer for SM Entertainment?

Groups such as H.O.T and S.E.S of SM Entertainment had achieved success in Asia in late 1990s. Watching their process as a student in the states impressed me. When I was studying at Berklee, I set a goal that I wanted to work with SM Entertainment, and I was given the golden opportunity to work with Soo-Man Lee (chairman of SM Entertainment) right after returning home from graduation. Lee taught me a lot of foundational elements of good music from the early days of my career as a composer. I will always appreciate his support.

What performers do you write for?

All SM Artists (KangTa, BoA, TVXQ, Super Junior, Girls' Generation, SHINee, f(x) etc.)

What are some of your most popular songs? What is your favorite that you've written?

"Oh!" by Girls' Generation, "My Name" by BoA, and "Lachata" by F(x).

Do you write in teams? If so, describe how that works.

I've been working all by myself until recently—from making tracks, top lines, and even the lyrics. However, out of curiosity, I started to cooperate with others in doing the work recently. It's very interesting. Good songs are coming out.

What advice would you have for aspiring Korean pop musicians?

Stick to the fundamentals, and prepare yourself to be a musician.

The word "prepared" has a lot of meanings. It means knowing music theory, following trends but keeping your own style with endless self-improvement...maybe preparatory work has no end.

What are the characteristics of a successful K-pop song?

SM Entertainment's approach to K-pop combines a global mindset with musical capability. There is a bond of sympathy developed between the East and the West. But in addition to musicality, the songs need singers that look perfect, like they just popped out from cartoons, thereby maximizing their "visual point" and performance. To further maximize the "visible point," the beat and sound are oriented to help create good choreography.

What other songwriting and music-related work have you done?

I play trumpet in a classical orchestra as a hobby. My other positions are composer and producer so far.

How does the music industry in Korea compare to the U.S. music business?

Revenue source has remained a problem in distribution structure. iTunes service has not started yet. There are plenty of talented composers, producers, and singers, but the market system is an absurd reality.

Nevertheless, South Korea has a great love for music. In particular, the power of K-pop fans is strong. They have a lot of support for singers and they have a pretty big influence on the K-pop music market. If we overcome some of the issues well, South Korea would be at the center of the world music market, I suppose.

What are your plans for the future?

Outside of Asian countries, I want to work with various artists in the mainstream of the U.S. or Europe. I want to reflect the creative energy and know-how of K-pop to the Western markets successfully and I'm sure it is a new opportunity for them, also. At present, China mainly is regarded as a very important music market. We have plans to actively expand into Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and other Asian music markets.