Profile: Sue Son gears up for her debut album
It's been two years since pop music guru Simon Cowell described her as "phenomenal" following her striking audition on "Britain's Got Talent." And for the most recognisable East-Asian to have appeared on the ratings juggernaut, it's also been a long wait tinged with regret.
But now Sue Son, back in Seoul and working on her own terms, is ready to step back into the limelight and prove that Korea isn't only producing idol pop music, but that it's a country offering genuine musical talent too.
"I couldn't really be myself," she says of her time on the British talent show, for which she was attacked in tabloids for separating from her initial audition partner, Janine Khalil, following encouragement from Cowell. Vindicated by her breathtaking solo audition days later, fellow judge Amanda Holden predicted, "it must have been tough decision but it's going to be the best decision you ever made."
"I was shocked by what happened," says Son, "but I was still honoured to be a part of it and I did it because I wanted to be noticed as a true musician in semi-classical crossover music."
Now 26, Son is keen to distance herself somewhat from the Hallyu wave and stake her own ground as a successor to techno-acoustic fusion violinist Vanessa Mae. "[K-Pop] is good catchy music, but I wouldn't call it an artist's music," says Son.
She made headlines domestically when she appeared on variety talent show "I am a Singer" in July, and Seoul's Tourism Organization also recently hired Sue Son for performances abroad, noting her international appeal.
Born in Seoul, Son moved to the Colchester in England with her family when she was nine, allowing her not only to study at the prestigious Purcell School and Royal College of Music, but also affording her a curious British-Korean accent, part Queen's English, part urban Essex.
Having taken up the violin age six to be different to her piano-playing elder sister Hee Kyung -- "so my mum tells me but I can't recall," says Son -- she soon began winning prizes at her school. "I like achieving things and I realised I was good at it so I thought I should continue," explains Son, whose father was a visiting professor in media and communication.
"I listened to a variety of music growing up, so I adopted international pop, Korean pop and started singing," she reveals.
Once in England, her parents thought she could pursue the violin seriously and so with Saturday classes at the Royal Academy of Music Junior School she soon found herself with little time to spend with friends.
The hard work and experience opened up her ambitions to play in groups, orchestras and tackle crossover material, eventually leading to her ditching the strictly classical Royal College of Music after just a year.
"I am more outgoing and wanted to explore other kinds of music, so I transferred to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama," says Son.
"I always wanted to do what Vanessa Mae did and explore classical music into pop and I love to perform with DJs, and I was fascinated with how Tiësto worked on 'Adagio with Strings'," she adds.
Composing for the Queen
Son was inspired to try her luck on "Britain's Got Talent" after seeing four-piece violin act Escala on the second series. "They went to the same school as us but we didn't know that Simon had scouted them and they were already prepared," says Son.
"But me and Janine (Khalil) thought it was great timing and as Janine was a composer, the prize of performing for the Queen [was enticing]. She wrote an original piece and we thought that being classically trained, surely we wouldn't get eliminated, but we didn't think to do something popular that the audience would react to. That's where we went wrong," she explains.
A simple search for her name on Google still reveals the level of coverage the audition received. In a drama-inducing plotline, the judges dismissed the duo only to ask Son to return to audition alone.
"Janine was one of my best friends but it was presented to be more drastic, that I broke her heart," says Son, who says that despite her attempts to reach out, she still has not heard from her old friend more than two years on.
"It does still hurt, some people say they fixed it or Simon created it, but what happened was real," says Son.
"I think she wants to delete this, and as classically-trained musicians it is quite embarrassing to be eliminated," she adds.
Surprisingly, Son reveals that not only had she bought her first electric violin just six days before the show, but despite her impressive solo audition, she was not initially invited back to the semi-finals.
"I had never played the electric violin before, it's not such a beautiful instrument, it's rough and that's the sexiness of it, it has a rock sound like a bass guitar," says Son.
"I didn't actually get to the semifinals, but the director called me up to say he didn't understand why and said he wanted me to do the show, so I got the last spot from 39 which I was thrilled with, but I didn't have time to prepare."
Son's appearance in the semifinal saw her presented as a violin vixen dressed in a hot red dress and surrounded by flames, at the end of which Cowell blurted out one of his sharpest put-downs, describing her as "not very likable," before both he and Holden attempted to recalibrate the comment.
"It's because of Simon I was on the stage so I didn't want to answer back to the criticism," says Son.
"But they put me in those shoes, dress, hair with extensions, they told me what to play and what to do. I wanted a rock image with a motorcycle on the stage, but they gave me the same image as Escala," she explains.
The show's agency then signed her up but after a year, Son admits she became tired of the questions of her split with Khalil and following offers to appear on entertainment shows in her home country, she decided to make a change.
"There aren't many artists for semi-classical, there is Vanessa Mae, then Bond, then Escala, maybe there'll be another and I could wait, but the wait was tough. I really wanted to release some music," she says.
Her next challenge was finding the right agency in a Korean entertainment world notorious for signing girls in their early teens and tying them to oppressive and demanding contracts, about which Son is particularly critical.
"These idols are really pretty, they can sing, dance, they are incredible, but I wouldn't call them artists, so all the offers from big agencies are great, but I wanted to be noticed as a true musician. I'm 26 so I also know you need to get a bit of money from what you do … and with their contract departments it's just not for me."
Her first solo single, "I Wish" came out last month and topped the classical crossover charts on Mnet and Daum with its mixture of jazz and rock, which she describes as "just a hint to show people" before her album drops in December.
"It'll have a variety," she says, "it could be rock, pop or hip-hop and some of the parts I'll write myself."
Clearly on a mission to prove that Korea's talent isn't limited to slickly produced teen groups, Son explains that even the classical crossover acts before her have seen nothing yet. "Those acts largely remix what has already been done but I want to try new things, and in Korea, I can do that without limits."
Sue Son's debut single is available on www.melon.com.
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