It begins with the ocean, as waves rush back and forth over the sand. Singer Tiffany Young comes into focus, her frothy white gown and long blonde hair splayed out on a rock, as if she has been washed up by the sea. This is how the Korean-American artist has chosen to reintroduce herself to the world: through the video for her new single “Born Again.” And now, the release of her debut EP, Lips on Lips, truly heralds Young’s rebirth, as she goes from K-pop girl band star to U.S. solo artist on her own terms.
At 15, Stephanie Young Hwang was scouted to join one of South Korea’s biggest management companies, SM Entertainment, known for launching K-pop stars such as BoA, Super Junior, SHINee, and later EXO and Red Velvet. Despite not knowing anyone or the language, the California native moved across the world to train to become a K-pop star. For about a decade, Young was part of one of the most successful girl groups in the world, Girls’ Generation, effectively becoming a household name in South Korea. But in 2017, despite not technically leaving the group, Young decided to not renew her contract with SM and to pursue a solo career — but not in South Korea, where she had a built up a massive core fanbase. Young chose to move her entire life back to the U.S., a completely new market. It’s one thing to simply go solo; it’s another entirely to leave a country in which you’ve already found success.
But Young’s newest chapter in her career is about more than just releasing new songs under her name alone. The 29-year-old has been clear that this is a chance for her to use her music as a way to communicate directly to her fans, and to open up about both the moments of joy and strife during her journey thus far. Young’s mother died when she was only 12, and late last year, it was revealed that Young’s father, whom she hadn’t spoken to for around seven years, had been hit with fraud allegations. On top of that, she had been harassed to repay his debts. And what’s more, Young is faced with the unique challenge of making a name for herself in the U.S. music industry — a place where Asian representation is largely non-existent.
As she speaks to Refinery29 on the phone from her West Hollywood apartment, her voice carries a palpable warmth and excitement. She’ll soon be able to finally share her debut body of work with her fans, and she’s preparing for a North American mini-showcase tour next month. Her self-assuredness seems cultivated from years of being in the spotlight, though she is sometimes revisiting the most difficult parts of her life. But candor flows naturally from her, as it truly seems that it’s been something she’s been wanting to do for a long time.
Refinery29 spoke to Young about the highs and lows of K-pop stardom, her lifelong battle with scoliosis, and channeling her innermost feelings into her most intimate body of work to date.
Refinery29: Your first EP as a solo artist, Lips on Lips, is finally out. What’s the significance of the title?
Tiffany Young: “It’s such an exciting time! I chose to title it Lips on Lips because this EP is basically about the intimate moments of passion, pleasure, and pain in my life. ‘Lips on Lips’ represents the pleasant and romantic moments, but there are also other heavy concepts and situations that you’ll find throughout the album.”
How did you find your sound as a solo artist after being in a group for so long?
“[It was] that much more challenging and difficult. Songwriting is not easy. I feel like you imagine yourself and hear yourself a certain way, and it takes years to get there. I’m thankful that it came faster with the help of some brilliant collaborators. I’m still blown away by the fact that the EP has some legends on it, and I’m so lucky that it happened on my first project. It feels like a fairytale — it really does!”
You said of the EP that it’s about your truth, and it’s only now that you can talk about it openly. Why?
“I think I’ve been as honest as I can, to the extent that I could every single time I’ve put out an album. Your art has to be truthful and honest, or I don’t think it speaks to people. But being at home has really opened me up. Now I’m more expressive, and talking about all the things that I haven’t been able to talk about — from family turbulence, to feeling confined, in a sense, throughout my career, and only now being able to say, ‘I’m glad I went through it, but that isn’t for me now anymore.’ The theme and the sound of this EP is very much rooted in fairytale and fantasy, because in every fairytale, there’s always a fight and a struggle and pain before that moment of triumph or that happily ever after — or that kiss, for instance, in ‘Lips on Lips.’”
In “The Flower,” you sing about “being the flower to your pain.” What led you to write that?
“Flowers have been very significant throughout my life. From sad and painful experiences and moments of loss, to joy and celebration. Specifically, I wrote this song because I wanted to comfort others who are struggling or need help. And the specific memory that inspired the song was that I remember putting a flower on my mom’s coffin at her funeral. I know it’s a little heavy. I wanted to write an uplifting song, but one that acknowledges both sides of the beauty and pain in a flower, or what the flower represents. That definitely is a special song for me.”
In not “Not Barbie,” what do you mean by “flipping through these magazines, page after page, and nobody looks like me?”
“When I was growing up, I wanted to see more women who looked like me, and hopefully I can live up to being somebody that can inspire other little Asian girls. Because I believe that change starts with you. That’s what I felt when I wrote that.
“Also that song is written from my experiences from the pressures of being perfect, which stem from my K-pop background. All these pressures to modify yourself to whatever you’re told to or is [trendy] takes such a huge emotional toll. This song is a positive way of talking about my journey of getting lost in that. Because we are now at a time where what makes you different is beautiful. Mental and emotional health and awareness definitely plays a role in this song.”
Was there something specifically you were dealing with during your time with Girls’ Generation that led you to write this?
“I had a case of severe scoliosis that I never got to talk about growing up, and I think isn’t talked about enough in Asian culture. It’s always made me worry about whether or not I’d ever be good enough. I did ballet when I was younger, and I remember my arabesque stopped being even after 12, and I didn’t realize it was because I was physically changing. I was 16 when I found out [I had scoliosis], and it affected everything. I had already passed my growth spurt, and they were telling me I’d need surgery — I didn’t have parental guidance to help me decide what to do. The board was deciding if they should even let me stay at SM Entertainment because they worried it would affect my work.
“But I wasn’t going to quit, so it became something I had to overcome. I danced twice, 20 times, 200 times harder than everybody because I am just physically not balanced the way a normal person is. Some of the greatest prima ballerinas and athletes have it, and they overcome it with such grace that I didn’t let it beat me. It affects me all the time, and has changed me, from the way I sit to the way I stretch, and to the way I fill air into my lungs when I sing. Over time it’s become the reason why I am the way I am. But everybody has things that they struggle and deal with on their own, and you can choose to make that a positive thing to make you want to be greater, above what your limitations are.”
You were in the K-pop industry, where the notion of femininity was defined in a certain way, at such a young and impressionable age. Now you’re back in the U.S. How has your view of femininity changed, if at all?
“To me, femininity and being a woman has always meant owning up to and finding the strength in your vulnerability. That is the most appealing thing to me in any female artist. And as much as there were restrictions in K-pop, I’d always try to find a way to stick to what I believe in. That’s what’s so special about Girls’ Generation, and probably the reason why we’re still together to this day. We really thought out of the box, and when we were told to conform, we’d say, ‘No, we did that one thing for the first few years, now we’re going to try something new.’”
“I stan strong female artists! As long as you’re true to what you believe in, your heart is in a good place, and you have good intentions, you will stand the test of time. And for me, right now, my ultimate rule and theme is that I believe in divas and queens. That means that being a diva or being a queen is being strong and fearless, but also being loving and being able to uplift others. That’s what I think these strong ladies are doing. I’m all for it. I can only hope that I can be a part of that.”
You’ve said you love Britney and BoA, but who are the other women you’re listening to?
“I love Madonna and Annie Lennox, but also right now I love Rosalía and Billie Eilish. I love what all these female soloists and artists all around the world are doing.”
When you’re not eating, breathing, and sleeping this EP, what are you doing for fun?
“I love ASMR videos. I’m watching reaction videos, I am going to the movies, talking to my sister, hanging out with girlfriends. And I’m always usually writing. I haven’t had a lot of time off yet. It was always school, studio, promo, and then pilot season, and then back in the studio.”
You watch fan reaction videos?
“I watch them! I waited two weeks, and then I binge-watched my fans’ reactions to my new music videos. I cry with them!”
That is so the definition of being an artist in 2019. What a new and insane concept. How does it make you feel when you see your fans reacting to your work in real-time?
“I’m so blessed! So, so blessed. It makes me so much more excited to be on tour. Honestly, I would find – oh I don’t know — a corner, a street and sing live to them if I could. If I see a fan and they’re like, can you sing for me? I’ll say yes in a heartbeat.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.