Music

Red Velvet’s Wendy on Healing and Creating Her Solo Album “Like Water”

“You don't need to work hard all of the time. Everyone needs time to rest.”

Imagine this: You're going through the motions of your busy life — shuffling from one thing to the next, mind on autopilot — and then suddenly, unexpectedly, that routine is upended. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. Just time. So much time. Time you've never really had before. Time to rest and feel restless, to find distractions, to process difficult feelings. Time to just… exist. "Time for me to reset," Wendy, one of K-pop's most recognizable voices, tells Teen Vogue with the clarity of someone who has spent the last year resting, processing, and waiting for this moment: the long-awaited release of her first solo album Like Water.

It's been awhile, nearly 16 months, since the 27-year-old Red Velvet vocalist has been in the spotlight like this, performing and promoting and laughing. In fact, she's currently laughing at herself because she forgot the exact phrasing of the words she wrote for her album artwork. "It says," she starts, already a little unsure, "new chapter begins, or something? It says something about a new chapter. Hold on!" The sparkling, dulcet tone of laughter floods the speakers of my laptop, as she looks at the muted blue packaging in front of her. "New chapter of our lives has begun! It's on my album. I wrote that!"

In the project's early planning stages, Wendy made a list of things she "wanted to tell her fans," a mix of feelings — consolation, empathy, gratitude — and personal stories. "I wrote, 'I just wanna thank you for believing in me,''' she says. Left in the care of songwriters Yoo Young-jin and Kenzie, two of SM Entertainment's staple creatives, Wendy's heartfelt words were incorporated into the lyrics of the album's title track, "Like Water." The tranquil pop ballad's message is clear: Thank you for waiting for me.

To fully grasp the appreciation Wendy has for her fans, you first need to understand the circumstances. At the end of 2019, on Christmas Day, she fell two-and-a-half meters off a platform while rehearsing for SBS's annual Gayo Daejeon special. She fractured her right wrist and pelvis and suffered injuries to her face. She spent three months recovering in the hospital and the rest of the year rehabilitating at her home in Seoul. "I feel like I shocked you and made you worry, I'm sorry," she wrote on Instagram in the weeks following the accident. "I’m not going anywhere and I’m going to be right here. Because I’m going to sing for all my life."

"I had a lot of time to rest last year," she tells Teen Vogue. The subtext goes unspoken. It's suspended somewhere in the space of this digital connection we've created between New York City and Seoul, where she's sitting in a room so bright that it makes the reddish hue of her strawberry blonde tresses blaze like fire. Still, she wants to focus on the positive. "It was great for me because it made me think about what I do," she says.

And what she does, as a member of Red Velvet and now as a solo artist, is sing. Oh does she sing. Known for her four-octave vocal range and adaptability, Wendy can belt ("shine on me!" she demands in Red Velvet's kaleidoscopic debut "Happiness"); she can give you riffs and runs and falsettos; and she can skillfully entertain any genre, from R&B to balladry to bubblegum pop. She's said that she has "eight voices" inside of her, each unique, and one of them even covered Taylor Swift's "Speak Now" in 2014, guitar in hand.

Wendy, born Shon Seung-wan in Seoul, spent her childhood in the inland city of Cheongju, where she discovered her love of music. She credits the discovery to her father, who absolutely did not want her to become a pop star but did want his daughter to love music the way that he loved music. "My dad loves jazz," she says. "He loves all kinds of genres. He was the one who led me into the music world and let me listen to all different types of music." He also encouraged her to study music. Wendy learned piano, flute, saxophone, and guitar. "Everything," she adds. "It was all my dad's influence."

When she was 12 years old she and her family moved to Ontario, Canada. She even spent two years at a boarding school in Minnesota. While attending high school in Ontario, she was a member of a show choir. In 2012, Wendy passed SM Entertainment's global audition in Canada. She sang Kim Gun-mo's jazzy "Moon of Seoul." (Her dad's influence.) Two years later, she debuted in Red Velvet, one of South Korea's most successful girl groups.

Life moves fast as an idol. There's an expectation for new music every few months, across multiple international markets. With an album rollout comes fresh concepts, a busy promotional schedule, and dozens of live performances on weekly music shows and at concerts and live events, the bedrock of South Korea's idol industry. At the time of her accident, Red Velvet had just premiered "Psycho," the lead single off their fifteenth release The ReVe Festival Finale. "[We] had a lot of new songs coming out, one after the other, and we didn't have any time to rest," Wendy recalls.

So when she was forced to halt her activities and to take time to heal, she reacted how most overworked young adults do: she panicked. "For the first few months, I was really nervous and kind of stressed out that I wasn't working," she says. But being with her parents, who flew back to Seoul to live with her temporarily while she recovered, helped ease her restlessness.

"It was my first time [living with them] in over 10 years," she says. "And I'm still spending time with my parents nowadays. That brought me a lot of comfort, too. Getting lots of love every day. Being with your family brings this feeling of comfort you've never felt." The things that brought her the most comfort? "My mom's food. Their words. Their hugs. Their everything. Just them. Just their love."

"[These days] my mom always says 'thank you' to me," she says. "'Thank you that you're well now. That you can sing now. That you can be on stage now. That you can do the things you love to do.' But I'm the one who should say 'thank you' to them."

After months of her mother's home-cooked meals and warm hugs, came a realization. "After a while, I got used to it," Wendy says. She pauses to find the right words. How do you articulate that the most difficult time in your life led you to a state of deeper enlightenment? That the aftermath was something that you needed? "I was able to think [about] myself, and I knew that it was okay to take some rest… That time was really precious to me because I learned a lot from that. I guess I kind of grew up."

"It's the same for everyone," she adds. "You work on and on and on. That's all you ever do, and you think it's normal. But once you take a step back you can see so many things out there that you haven't seen, that you haven't had the time or the energy to see… You don't need to work hard all of the time. Everyone needs time to rest. After taking that time, you'll be better."

That's one of the many messages she wanted to convey through Like Water, and it's most prominently featured on the tender piano ballad "When This Rain Stops." It's the most personal track on the album, and Wendy spent over 15 hours in the recording booth perfecting it. "It's okay to stop like this and take a break sometimes even if it rains in your heart," she sings. "When this rain stops you can just smile again."

Courtesy of SM Entertainment

The best art can often help us make sense of our own feelings. More than anything, Like Water is a work of catharsis. It's so earnest. On the springy and soulful "Why Can’t You Love Me?" she sings of a playful infatuation, how her cheeks flush when they look her way. "Best Friend" is a sweet duet with fellow Red Velvet member Seulgi. Originally conceived as a solo track, Wendy asked Seulgi to feature on it. "She was the first one who came to mind," she says. "Like, 'best friend?' Oh, that's Seulgi." They laid down the vocals together. And while it ultimately fortified their friendship, it was also a test of their closeness. "We were laughing too much," she laughs. "We've never had to sing to each other like that. Because the song is us singing to each other as best friends, right? It was too… lovely [intimate]."

Like Water is an apt name for her first solo effort — her voice, like water, is fluid and flexible. Plato believed that water, in its purest form, takes the shape of an icosahedron, a 20-sided polyhedron, evoking the complexities of human emotions. It's an esoteric idea, but Wendy chose blue, her signature color in Red Velvet, as the album's primary motif because she wanted to emphasize her many sides.

"Blue is complex," she says. "There are so many shades of blue. It can mean my bright vocal, or my strong vocal, and it can also be a really warm color. Because [the album] has healing songs, I wanted to show warmth, but I wanted my vocals to be bright and powerful."

The process of finding her own color — beyond blue — has also changed her relationship with music. It brought her closer to those days spent in Cheongju, tiny fingers on ivory keys, with her father by her side. "I just enjoy it a lot more," she says of performing. "I can be happy on the stage and send that energy to the fans."

If she's nervous standing up there by herself, she doesn't show it, not on stage or on this Zoom call. Instead, she seems to be relishing it. "I think I'm more comfortable singing now," she says. "If I sing with more power or put a lot of effort into the songs, it's because it's my story. It's for my fans and the people that I love. And I think that's the most important thing when you're singing, to be comfortable. Because if you're comfortable, you can deliver the message of the song more sincerely."

And that's what brought her here, in this room, in this moment in time, to talk about an album that, in retrospect, is so much more than an album. It healed her. It consoled her. It brought her closer to the people she loves most and to her dream — not to be a star, but to sing.

"I don't feel like singing is a job," she says. "It's just my thing. It's something that I love to do, and I'll be loving to do forever."

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