Songwriter Candace Sosa On The Freedom Of Making K-Pop Music

Photo: Courtesy of Candace Sosa.
It’s easy to get lost in the expansive, hypnotic world that unfolds in “sage,” the newest single for rookie K-pop group OnlyOneOf. The song is set to a futuristic music video in which the seven members of OnlyOneOf (Nine, Love, Yoojung, KB, Mill, Rie and Junji)  move confidently and purposefully, despite being relatively new to the idol scene. Their debut single,  “savanna," was a viral YouTube hit, gaining more than 10 million views in five months. OnlyOneOf make it look easy, like the song simply flowed out of them one day. That’s due in part to the fact that the group is backed by an unlikely creative force: a twentysomething woman from Los Angeles with an ear for hits.
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Candace Sosa cut her teeth in the Korean music world writing and composing for recent BTS tracks "Euphoria," "Magic Shop," "I’m Fine," "Love Maze," "Love Myself," and "Mikrokosmos." Though she lives far away from the epicenter of K-pop, she’s helped shape hits beloved by fans both in Korea and worldwide. She also is a singer herself, and plans to release a song called "Slave" under her own artist project. Sosa is mainly to thank for the ferocity of “sage,” a track that flexes a more intense, dark side than we’re used to seeing from the composer.
Today, dressed in her signature black T-shirt and a backwards cap, Sosa chats with Refinery29 from her home studio to talk about “sage,” the difference between working with newer and more veteran groups, and the “vanilla” state of American pop music.
Refinery29: How did "sage" come to be?
Candace Sosa:  “I got a track sent to me that was supposed to be for [girl group sensation LOONA]. After I came up with those melodies, they thought it was more of a boy band style — I'm writing for BTS a lot, so that's where my head is for the most part. Basically, I get a track and come up with melodies on the spot. Sometimes I put lyrics to it and sometimes I don't, because the lyrics often get translated into Korean. When I'm improvising melodies, a lot of times I'm singing random words. Sometimes those because they sound cool as-is.
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“I sent the melody over and [OnlyOneOf’s management, 8D Creative] said that they were thinking of having OnlyOneOf do it. They sent the track with them singing and asked if I had any tweaks. Then, they tell me that they're doing a music video and it’ll be the lead single for their comeback, which was really awesome. ”
"sage" feels like a departure from your work with BTS; it's much darker and deals with temptation and redemption. 
“They sent me the track and it was super cool. I'm into cinematic music, film, and television scores. Being able to work on this song specifically was great because it had that dark side to it, which I don't get to explore that much in pop. 
“When it comes to BTS, I think [frequent collaborator DJ Swivel] and I really thrive off happy, uplifting, and hopeful vibes. When we write together, it's like we're of the same mind.”
In your experience has there been anything that you didn't think would make it in a song, but it did anyway?
“Yes. I wasn’t certain about my melodies in ‘Magic Shop.’ They liked a little bit of it and then they asked us to do something over the drop section. So then we did that, and surprisingly they really liked it, which worked out really well. Later on it ended up becoming a fan favorite.”
Because K-pop is so visual, when you’re composing a song, are you also thinking of it visually?
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“When I write music I sometimes ask myself how the song as a story is going to pan out. How are people are going to see this in their head? How is it going to be expressed through something like a video? The song ‘looks’ a certain way in my head, so I think about how I am going to make that possible for somebody to visualize that in their head, as well.”

"I think in K-pop, people are less afraid, and I love that.”

Candace Sosa
What are the differences between making music for an established group like BTS versus a strong rookie group like OnlyOneOf?
“For BTS, I know they send out tracks to a bunch of different vocal producers who topline. They'll take chunks of what they like from each version and piece it together, whereas for OnlyOneOf and ‘sage,’ they took the whole topline; there wasn’t another writer on it. It's pretty rare when BTS takes a full topline. We got lucky with ‘Euphoria.’ I love that song, but I felt like it was different from what they usually do, so I didn't think that they would take it. At the time, they had ‘DNA’, ‘Save Me’, ‘Fire’ and all these songs that seemed a little bit harder, dancier.”
Did you have any kind of exposure to K-pop and its tropes or more Eastern sounds when you started writing? 
“Before ‘Euphoria,’ I wasn't even aware of K-pop. I knew it was a thing, but I was not aware of how big it was or even what it was. After ‘Euphoria,’ I got into BTS and the ‘culture’ of K-pop. I didn't know much of what they were looking for sound-wise. I just looked up a couple of BTS songs once I got the cut with ‘Euphoria’ and they were asking for other toplines — I was doing whatever I thought sounded good. When I wrote for OnlyOneOf I was literally just doing, again, what I thought sounded good. I like to keep things fresh. If [Korean labels] are coming to me, they have a certain sound already, but they want something new that I can offer.” 
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You said recently that you feel the American pop landscape is vanilla. What makes you say that?
“There are a lot of restrictions [in American pop]. There's a structure you have to follow. If you don't, it's not going to be playable on the radio. With K-pop, the music can be all over the place, which I love. I used to be in a hardcore band, and the whole idea for creating that band was so that there was no structure. There was section A, section, B, chorus, section C, section D, chorus, section E. I kind of look at K-pop that way because sometimes there’s a switch from genre to genre within the same song, but it works well. But the hook has to be the catchiest thing in the world. It is hard to compose, actually. I think in K-pop, people are less afraid, and I love that.”
Do you have a theory about why that’s the case?
“Everybody believes there's this formula and that it works. If it works for that artist, then it's going to work for the next. Realistically, the people who make it big are the ones who fucking went against that. Those are the ones who stand out that you then become obsessed with because they created this whole different world. The way that a lot of people think in the music industry is ‘this worked for so and so, let's do it that way.’ I'm like, 'Okay, I'll just sit here and watch you do it that way then. Because I'm going to go home and do it my way later.'"
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Do you see things changing here?
“Right now, I don't see much happening. But I'm starting to see more and more people lean towards that Blink-182-type pop-rock, which is interesting. Like with Yungblud and Halsey.  I'm waiting. I really want something new and fresh to happen.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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