CL: Rising in the East
by: Jerome Ison
photography by Stevie Mada
styling by Julian Jesus
December 15, 2014
CL, leader of K-pop girl group 2NE1, is a singer and rapper from Seoul, Korea with a rich, unique vocal tone and notable lyrical prowess. You may have heard her on Skrillex’s new album, rapping with such charisma and skill she makes the dubstep track “Dirty Vibe” sound fresh. The break out beauty has been seen cheek-to-cheek with fashion giants Karl Lagerfeld, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Jeremy Scott—when she isn’t touring across the globe as a pop star, that is. After an unyielding track record of hit singles in Asia, 2NE1 set records on the Billboard 200 for highest-charting and best- selling K-pop album with their sophomore release, Crush. Additionally, their song “I Am the Best” was featured in an ad for Microsoft, a campaign that launched the 3-year-old single into the number one spot on American Billboard’s World Digital Songs chart. The only other South Korean artist to accomplish this is the band’s record label mate PSY of “Gangam Style” fame.
Born Chaelin Lee, CL spent her childhood in France and Japan before returning to her native South Korea to train as a musician under one of the country’s largest talent and record companies, YG Entertainment. She’s proven herself a musical force fronting one of Asia’s most accomplished acts in the business. CL can be seen front row at fashion weeks in New York, Milan, and Paris and, at just 23 years old, has become a brand icon of female empowerment.
Musicians from Europe and Latin America have long held a place in the U.S. mainstream but, aside from a few one-hit wonders, Asian artists have yet to find a permanent spot amidst the canon of American pop culture. As a multilingual recording artist citing musical inspiration from the eclectic foundation of her upbringing, CL has the potential to set a place amongst her peers in the West. On the horizon for the bright star is a crossover onto the North American stage with an English album that will grant accessibility to audiences sheltered from (or unopen to) Korean lyrics. Guiding her to new markets is industry maverick Scooter Braun, manager to a line up of wildly popular top billing artists including Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Ariana Grande. With an already acute understanding of what it takes to be a musical icon, CL’s main priority now is infusing her unique voice and style into the world of Western pop.
You began training for your career at a young age. What inspired you to become a musician?
It was natural for me because my dad loves music. I grew up listening to a lot of English bands and Japanese rock from the 1980s when I was little and living in Japan. When I went to elementary school and middle school, I fell in love with hip hop. Listening to all different kinds of music, I think it was natural, but the root of it all was my father. He inspired me.
Did living in Japan and France have an affect on you as an artist?
I went to international schools my whole life where there were never more than 100 kids. It was always a smaller private school, and I was around all kinds of cultures. That helps me now too because I am so open to everyone and I feel like I can connect with more people.
You are known to have two personalities, CL and Chaelin. Who are they and how does each character influence you when you are writing or performing?
CL is the performer, and she is there when I record. She is the side that the public sees. It was special doing 2NE1TV [a reality show documenting her band’s early career] because people got to see Chaelin. They’re just different. I’m Chaelin when I am around my old friends or my family. I need that switch when I perform.
Hip hop is the foundation for most of your music. What draws you to hip hop and rapping?
I listened to a lot of hip hop growing up, so it is my main influence. Also, our main producer Teddy Park (also a former YG recording artist in the group 1TYM) has been making hip hop music since he was young. We like mixing it a lot with different sounds, like reggae or even rock. I am trying out new types of music right now for the new album, so we will see where it goes.
Would you consider yourself more of a hip hop artist than K-pop?
I don’t like to categorize myself or 2NE1. We are just 2NE1 and I am just CL, and I just want to have fun with what I do. Every time. 2NE1’s sound is very different from K-pop too, and when people want to listen to K-pop specifically, I am not sure that our music is the best representation of it. We aren’t the K-pop standard, except that we sing in Korean. It’s just different now, for me, because I am doing it in English. I love it, it’s new.
With Skrillex, you were rapping over dubstep on “Dirty Vibe.” More recently you performed with Diplo. What is it like working with musicians outside of South Korea?
You learn new things and you get to grow as an artist. Especially with “Dirty Vibe.” It happened really fast, and it was a lot of fun because Skrillex was actually in our studio in Korea. I love Diplo’s music and as a person he is so chill and so open. He used to live in Japan when he was younger too, so I feel we have a similar vibe where we are both understanding of mixed cultures.
What artists are you listening to right now?
I’m listening to my own songs [laughs]. To be honest, I am doing sessions right now and working on my album, and I try not to listen to other people’s music because I don’t want to copy anyone’s style. I can listen and be inspired by other artists, but not while I am doing sessions. I want to write my own story. I was in 2NE1 before, but going solo, it’s going to be a new sound.
What do you like most about solo projects versus being in a group?
It’s different being on stage by myself because I’m used to performing as a group with 2NE1, but both are fun. Solo projects are more challenging for me because I’ve been with the girls for almost 10 years. I’m going to continue doing both, but I like challenging myself with new things.
Who influences you musically?
Female rappers. I like Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim, Queen Latifah, Eve…I love that kind of rough vibe. I grew up listening to them. These days, you have YouTube and the Internet, but when I was younger you had to buy a CD. It was harder to listen to the music from [America] and even their style was more rare. They were from a different world, from their look to their voices to the music.
Each single and album you release is matched with a clearly defined look. How much is fashion a part of your process as an artist?
For me, fashion is part of everyday life now. I like dressing up. I don’t think I was really into “fashion” before becoming an artist, but I have always loved dressing up and looking like a character. Now I love it on stage when I am performing, and still in my normal life. Fashion is another way to express myself along with the music. I think that’s the connection.
You are often seen wearing Jeremy Scott’s designs, and you’ve been friends for years. How did you meet?
We wore his collection for Adidas in our first music video, “Fire.” He saw it on Youtube, then came all the way to Korea to do a photoshoot with us. That’s how I met him, and we’ve been friends ever since.
What are your thoughts on Jeremy Scott’s work for Moschino?
I missed his first show for Moschino because I was on tour, but I went to Milan to see the Barbie collection. I have seen [the shows for his own label] many times before, but I got goosebumps again at Moschino when the music came on. Fashion week in Milan is very different from New York, it’s a different vibe. In that moment, I was so proud of him, and so happy for him. He killed it!
Why does this feel like the right time to record an English album? Was it your plan from the beginning to debut in the U.S.?
We have been talking about this for a long time, so for me it feels more like, Finally! We’re doing it. And it’s about time. Everything just fell into place. I grew up listening to English bands and American pop, so it always felt natural for me to sing in English. Now that I have been an artist in Asia for 8 years, I feel like challenging a new crowd.
Do you feel any pressure representing contemporary music from Asia on a mainstream level in the U.S.?
I don’t feel pressured, and I don’t want to be. The thing is I have no example. There’s no one in front of me who has done this before. Maybe there were people who have tried, but I can’t really name anyone who was successful enough to be my mentor as an Asian woman. I definitely have a long way to go, but I’m just trying to do what I do and not make it too complicated. And I feel like I have the right people around me, a good team. YG has known me for a long time and they know my color, while Scooter Braun has very good taste.
There is a running theme of female empowerment in your music, which is impactful in a male-dominated genre like hip hop. Is this one of the main messages of your music?
I feel like Asian women are especially represented in a certain way all over the world. The image is very timid and obedient, and I’m the complete opposite of that. I want people to know we’re not always like that. When you look at the artists in J-pop or K-pop, there is a standard: 7 girls wearing the same clothes, very cute and shy. I just want to say there are stronger women like me. I like those groups too, but I want to let the world know that that’s not everything. Sending that message through music is what I do best. I want to lead by example.
What is your WILD Wish?
Hair Stylist: Owen Gould @ The Wall Group
Makeup Artist: Munemi Imai @ Brydges Mackinney
Nail Artist: Holly Falcone @ Kate Ryan Set Designer: Pili Weeber
Camera Crew:Carey Bower, Nick Ray McCann
Photo Assistants: Christopher Parente, Brendan Cain Set
Producer: Annie Henley
Stylist’s Assistant: Jerome Ison
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