How South Korean innovator Youn Sun Nah fell in love with jazz by accident

Heather Bambrick is a musician and the host of The Heather Bambrick Show and Jazzology on JAZZ.FM91

South Korean vocalist Youn Sun Nah is an artist with a truly distinct story and a wholly innovative approach to music.

Her refreshingly rich voice, which All About Jazz describes as “dramatic, sensual and bluesy,” is a reflection of her very musical background. Renowned throughout Europe and Asia, Youn Sun Nah has built an impressive mainstream following, performing on some of the world’s greatest stages, including at the Sochi Winter Olympics, the Montreal International Jazz Festival, the Monterey Jazz Festival and International Jazz Day in Havana, having shared the stage with such artists as Esperanza Spalding, Regina Carter, Ulf Wakenius, the Berlin Philharmonic and others.

Le Monde says Youn Sun Nah is “a UFO touching the universe of music with a magnificent voice and passionate originality,” and her musical ship touches down in Toronto at the Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday, June 29. She joined us this week to tell us more about her innovative musical style — and how she fell in love with jazz by accident.

You can also scroll down to listen to audio of the interview.

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You cover so much ground, and you have such a diverse musical background. Your mother was an opera singer and then did musical theatre; your father was a conductor working with choirs, traditional choral repertoire and folk music — such a broad spectrum. How does that musical diversity from your background influence what you do as a performer today?

My parents are musicians, [so] I was exposed to a variety of music since my childhood, and they gave me this desire to discover new music every day. I’m trying to listen to as much music as possible and involve it in the music I’m doing now.

What first drew you to jazz?

I discovered jazz by accident. I never thought one day I could be a jazz singer, because I started French literature in university and then worked at a fashion company. After quitting my job, I had an opportunity to participate in a comedy musical in Korea, and after that experience I decided to study music — but what kind? So I asked a musician friend about it and he suggested jazz. I asked him, what is jazz? He said, “This is the root of all popular music.” I thought I’d give it a try, and I’m very happy I decided to study it.

You never wanted to be a professional musician, but obviously that’s what you’re pursuing now. You’re travelling all over the world playing with some really amazing names on fabulous stages, you’re being embraced by your fans and by your fellow musicians. So what changed it for you to make you want to pursue this as a career?

I think it’s from jazz. It’s a music of freedom. I’m very happy to be onstage, to play with musicians with such interaction and interplay every night, with the musicians and with the audience. I feel such an energy from all over the place where I’ve been playing. The love from the audience and the musicians keeps me doing what I’m doing now.

We have to remember, as your fans, to keep telling you how much we love you so you’ll keep doing it.

Yes, I love that so much.

I’ve watched some of your performances online and there’s a genuine connection you have with your audiences, as well as the connection you have with your fellow musicians. A lot of that is based on improvisation, and of course jazz is based on improvisation. Did that come naturally to you?

I had to study very hard. I had to listen to a lot of musicians and try to imitate them, because I had never tried scatting or improvisation before I studied jazz. So I had to work very hard, and the musicians gave me the opportunity to do it — and at the beginning … I was so afraid of trying different things every night, and it became more natural. I really love these free, instantaneous things on stage with musicians. I don’t know if I do well, but at least I try.

You do very well. You have a very inventive sound, people comment about that. But your repertoire is really varied — everything from the music of Tom Waits to folk songs like A Sailor’s Life, and you even do Nine Inch Nails, along with more traditional repertoire. Is that a conscious decision you make to try to do really varied stuff, or is just what you’re drawn to?

When I record an album, I don’t have any concept or plan. I just choose the songs at the moment of recording. There’s just music I’ve always wanted to try.