'Complete Freedom': An Interview with Samuel Seo
Samuel Seo is like musical dessert. When one gets a chance to really dig into his music, it’s like being given the keys to Candyland. All this and he still manages to be himself. There's this air of self-importance among some artists. An arrogance bred from being told how amazing, talented, good-looking they are. They wear these overblown superlatives like a second skin. In Seo, you have an artist who honestly is just trying to become a better artist and pay the bills. The man's good at what he does. He knows he's good at what he does. He also knows he could be better. (The man who knows something knows that he knows nothing at all.)
Conversations with him are honest, oftentimes brutally so. However, he's not in the habit of slinging mud. He's blunt, but jovial. Unabashed (when in the right mood), but generally humble. It's because of this that he can bypass much of the gold plating of the music industry to get to the gritty stuff underneath. The raw material that makes the industry actually run: the music.
“If you want me to pretend to be something special, then you can go f*** yourself.”
It’s 6:00 p.m. KST, and he’s just gotten off work. His latest endeavor, a two-hour radio show on TBS eFM called K-Ride that he co-hosts with Alexander Lee, former member of U-KISS. “Having my own radio show has been a dream of mine since I started making music,” Seo admits. “So this is just fun for me.”
Walking in the early dusk, he’s unhurried. An extroverted introvert, he’s learned how to balance his energy when around many people or when it’s time to perform. But he’s noticeably more comfortable when roaming around Seoul and its outskirts alone, just as he is now. So when he speaks, it’s with fearless conviction. He’s at his most effervescent, however, when speaking about a new project. Each entry into his discography is his favorite. For good reason. Seo is a student of music. With every release one witnesses the depth of his investment into his musical education. His evolution is so jarring, just from one year to the next, that when he delivers a song like “Vulture,” it’s not surprising, but it sure as hell grabs your attention.
One thing that should never surprise anyone who’s even casually listened to Samuel Seo is his ability to connect with likeminded artists. Kindred spirits in music. You see it in his relationship with Greg Priester (Men On Air), the conversations about soul music and music history they’ve shared. It’s apparent in his adoration of artists like D’angelo and Erykah Badu. The obvious influence they have on his musical trajectory.
In “Vulture,” he finds that same kindredness with DeAndre, a soul singer from California who found fame as a contestant on seasons 10 and 11 of American Idol and broke out with an album of his own, Black Denim, in 2018. His is a voice so wrapped in soul and deep grooves, any lover of music would find it impossible to resist falling for him. Seo’s ability to attract music lovers made this unlikely collaboration a reality.
“Heejun is a second-generation Korean who used to live in America,” he explains. “He now co-hosts Men on Air with Greg. He happened to be on American Idol a couple seasons back, and there he got to know DeAndre. That’s how their relationship began. A few years later I got to meet Heejun. He was like, ‘Yo, I’ve got a great friend of mine who’s really good at singing and writing songs.’ Then he hooked me up with [DeAndre].”
DeAndre’s addition to “Vulture” awoke a dimension in Seo’s music that he might not have even been privy to. An ability to build music to accommodate raw soul and vocal technicality. While he might not possess it in the same way himself, he certainly has an ear attuned to pick it up.
“At first when I was giving my details to DeAndre, I thought he would refuse it,” Seo admits. “But all of a sudden, he came back with a reply, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ Thanks to him, the song sounds like it’s his.”
DeAndre’s contribution is something new. An artist born in the soul-shattering earthquake of gospel and brought up in the raw openness of soul music, he not only presents a new musical dimension. He acts as another weapon in Seo’s arsenal: manifesting musical landscapes made for those who sing from the gut and share their musical testimony without waiting for permission. DeAndre cracked Seo’s musical vision wide-open and allowed him to imagine the shape, form and function his music could really take.
While his humility in the presence of artists he admires won’t allow him to admit it, Seo is a formidable composer. He understands how to arrange the elements to create unique sound profiles with each composition. He’s a fan of playing with the layers of a track, being able to create full landscapes with sparse layering (“Clouds,” “Gone,” “Keep It Simple”), and at the same time grand musical statements with a cascade of sound (“Notting Hill,” “D O W E,” “Jazz In My”).
“Vulture” is a grand piece of music (the type that begs for headphones). The musical composition drips like chocolate on velvet. It’s lush, sweeping. Yet the sounds never seem to compete with one another. Each instrument and layer serves a purpose, to give greater weight to the sound that came before it. It speaks to his continued journey to strike the perfect balance between simplicity (the verses and pre-chorus) and complexity (the swell of the instruments introduced at the song’s opening as they meet once again in the chorus).
But he didn’t come by it easily. “It took me five months to work on this,” he reveals. “It’s just a personal thing, I guess. I didn’t like the groove of it, the rough version. So I had to adjust the timing and drum sources, the key source and the bass source until I got the right groove out of it. That’s the whole process, I guess. The melodies or the lyrics, they didn’t really matter to me. All I cared about was the groove of it.
“I [think] people are losing their appreciation toward the instrument players, which I’m trying to focus more on and give life to,” he continues. “Whenever I work on music, especially when I’m recording an instrument, I try to focus more on their way of playing. It’s gotta have differences in every structure of the song. For example, if you played a simple riff for the intro, then the verse has to be different, Chorus A has to be different and the last chorus has to be different. The outro, of course, has to be different. Every structure from the song has to be different when I’m recording an instrument.”
The clear purpose of “Vulture” was to incorporate his understanding of layering with his newfound appreciation for the intricacy of a stripped-down construction. He again enlists one of his “Seo-isms” at the end of the song to tie everything together. Namely a single guitar, depacing the song with a more contemplative twang than the energetic plucking throughout.
“By doing that, I think people actually appreciate it more.” A bit of hope and perhaps relief colors his tone. This is a far cry from last year’s lament about the narrow-mindedness of those who casually listen to music. “Instead of just listening to my voice, they started to listen to how the guitar’s played, how the bass is played. I’m just glad that people are actually following my first intention [for] doing such things.”
Connecting. That’s what it always comes back to. Relationships. Though his connection with Magic Strawberry Sound was built on mutual trust and respect, once his contract came to an end, Seo found he was able to really dig into his craft as never before. “When you have a label, you can’t do what you truly want with your music,” he says. “I mean, I’ve been releasing music based 100% on my own opinion. But the label kept telling me what to do, what I should do with the music. I didn’t really want those ‘cares,’ as they call. All I wanted to do was whatever the heck I wanted and do nothing more than what I originally thought of. I think it’s just the right position for me.
“It really feels like I own every process of making my music,” he continues. “I call it complete freedom.”
He has created a musical habitat for himself. A place where he can truly play around, get dirty, discover and rediscover. A paradise of his own making whose doors he holds open for his soul siblings. It shows in the sheer bravado he has to approach people he’s always wanted to work with.
“I began a little project, which I think is going to take about the next couple of years,” he reveals, a bit of slyness in his voice. “I recently got in touch with my favorite engineer, but I can’t reveal his name yet.” While he’s not exactly forthcoming with the details, Seo’s reach in the music industry has rapidly expanded. His first release away from Magic Strawberry Sound, “They Don’t Care,” saw him collaborate with the legendary Dave Collins, the engineer who worked on D’angelo’s iconic Black Messiah.
“I just contacted him, and he said, ‘Yes,’ and followed me back.” The almost nonchalance of the story is a stark contrast to the obvious elation in his voice. The degrees of separation between him and D’angelo continue to dwindle. “Okay, let’s stop it right here,” he says with a laugh. A rare moment when a prospect seems too big even for Samuel Seo. “If I ever get to work with [D’angelo], that would be a lucky thing.”
It’s almost cruel how underrated Seo is. Even more so that a talent like his goes neglected in favor of the flash-bang redundancy of what’s considered mainstream. It makes the heart ache for younger, greener artists who have yet to find a way to navigate the politics of being in the entertainment industry.
“I actually feel really blessed about that,” Seo says. The softness in his voice underscores his sincerity. Time and again we’ve both seen kids trudging up and down Hongdae trying to fill their pockets while also attempting to fill the gaps of their sanity with their passion. Seo is lucky at least in the way that he can draw on a seemingly endless well of other artists and talents to give his work deeper breadth. He’s worked with labels and has a handle on at least some of the minutiae of the business side of music.
“I'm an independent artist now, which means I’ve got tons of paperwork to do, not just music.” There’s a soft chuckle in the admission, but it doesn’t mask the tired that comes with truly managing one’s own career. “I thought about hiring some people, but the thing is if I don’t even know what’s going on around the system, what’s the point of hiring someone? I thought it might be a great idea to actually get to know what’s happening in the music industry first, then hire someone. This is the path I’ve chosen, and there’s a certain responsibility with that.”
Of course, as with everything in Seo’s life, if he wasn’t having fun doing it, he simply wouldn’t. That much hasn’t changed since the first conversation three years ago.
But what’s even more criminal is the fact that there are only a handful of artists who are genuinely attempting to give South Korea’s music industry some scope and depth. Taking the borrowed culture of Black artists from the States and trying to really understand it. Learn from it. Respect the roots while figuring out how to truly connect themselves with a culture that isn’t their own.
“I want to keep the aesthetics of old-school hip hop or old-school R&B or old-school neo soul,” he says. “I really want people in South Korea to appreciate that culture. Korea is a country that’s media dominated, so nobody really gives a crap about the aesthetics of a certain genre or its history. I thought, someone has to do it. I really want that to be me. That’s my only goal in life. But the most important part is I don’t want it to just end as a Korean guy or group of Koreans who try to mimic your culture. But to reinterpret it into our own ways and make it more Asian. I think that's the most important thing that I should be focusing on.”
There are only a few who really understand this concept. At the mention of another Korean musician who delves deeper into the cultural significance of the music he’s making, Crush comes up. His album From Midnight to Sunrise was a standout from South Korea in 2019. With it, Crush really embraced all the influences that combined to make him the artist he is today.
“The entire album was just so authentic,” Seo says emphatically. But then he admits, “When he released his album I was really envious of the production. When I listened to the entire album I just thought, wow if I had that kind of money and the team that backs him up...I just really admire that production team.” There’s obvious admiration, but he’s very quick to emphasize, “[I’m very happy] with the production team I have right now. But with the right amount of money...I wouldn’t say ‘better,’ but I could have hit the same level with [Crush].
While loath to agree with him about quality (my second favorite album out of Korea in 2019 was Seo’s The Misfit, after all), it’s hard to disagree with the logic. A bigger budget does offer wider accessibility to various levels of experience. But it’s the growth, the ever-present desire to really push for more that solidifies the commonalities between Seo and his peer in R&B and soul. ”It's really amazing to see him grow as a musician," he says. "Compared to his first release, his vocal work seriously got better. And other sides: the production, of course, the sound of it. His stage presence compared to when he made his debut with a group, it is incomparable, I think."
And that’s the point, really. It always is. Growth, Evolution. Knowing the path and walking it, as it were. Samuel Seo sets himself apart because he is fully aware of his strengths (“I didn't say my music sucks. I actually think it's pretty great…”). But he also understands, in at least some small part, his weaknesses. Or rather where he can improve. And knowing, as they say, is half the battle. The other half is execution, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone better at applying everything he learns as quickly and effectively as Samuel Seo.
It’s rare to find musicians who truly give themselves over to the craft no matter if what they produce becomes mainstream. While he shows no fear when he ventures into something new, Seo is incredibly smart. Frighteningly so. He’s able to read the industry for filth without alerting it to the shade. A man like him has the potential to really cause a scene. But he bides his time, continues to build a solid body of work and make noteworthy connections that will solidify his musical legacy.
This is a man who’s given his life to this thing. The music is always there. And with it, true freedom.
Stream and download "Vulture."
Find out more about K-Ride, airing on TBS eFM everyday from 12:05 - 14:00 KST.
Follow Samuel Seo on Instagram.