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INTERVIEWK-pop fan turned songwriter shares how she wrote ITZY, NMIXX's hits

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Songwriter Charlotte Wilson / Courtesy of Charlotte Wilson
Songwriter Charlotte Wilson / Courtesy of Charlotte Wilson

UK-born Charlotte Wilson talks about her life as K-pop songwriter

By Dong Sun-hwa

On Sept. 19, songwriter Charlotte Wilson shed tears as she watched the performance of "DICE" by rookie K-pop girl group NMIXX at YES24 Live Hall in eastern Seoul. Seeing the septet take the stage with the new song that she composed made her feel extremely emotional, although it was not the first time that a popular K-pop act performed her song.

"NMIXX members are like my little sisters, and it was a dream-come-true for me to see them perform my song," Wilson told The Korea Times at the newspaper's office in central Seoul, Sept. 20. "Many people think I am really tough, but I am actually very emotional."

For Wilson who began composing her own songs at the age of 12, becoming a K-pop songwriter was her lifelong dream. She fell under the spell of Korean music when she was 16, after watching by chance the "I'm Coming" (2006) music video by Korean singer-actor Rain, who is best known for his mega-hits like "Rainism" (2008).

"Although I could not understand what he was singing about, I still loved the sound of his music," Wilson recalled. "He was handsome and danced very well too. So I wanted to make songs for artists like him and began listening to more K-pop tracks sung by groups like Super Junior and Miss A."

The 32-year-old, who grew up listening to the music of Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, found K-pop compelling because it had a different feel.

"K-pop tunes were never boring," she stressed. "They were so random and exciting. I was also mesmerized by the visual aspects of music videos and fashion styles of K-pop singers. Even back then, I felt that K-pop was going to be a huge thing and that the whole world will love it, although I did not know why I felt like that."

Songwriter Charlotte Wilson / Courtesy of Charlotte Wilson
Songwriter Charlotte Wilson / Courtesy of Charlotte Wilson

However, the path to the K-pop universe was bumpier than she had expected.

Two decades ago, when K-pop was not as hot as it is today, a young girl from the U.K. could hardly get any information about the industry on the opposite side of the planet. Frustrated by the reality she faced, Wilson ended up ditching her dream and went to university to study music and entertainment industry management.

But her passion for K-pop continued. After graduating from school, Wilson decided to throw her hat in the ring again and started to find more publishers to pitch as many songs as possible. She also did not stop training to improve her songwriting and recording skills.

After several years of hard work, she finally made a breakthrough in her career in 2019. Her tune, "Not Shy" (2020), was picked as the lead single for the third mini-album of ITZY, a popular girl group formed by K-pop powerhouse JYP Entertainment. "Not Shy" ― a tune fusing the elements of pop rock and hip-hop, which was co-written by JYP's founder Park Jin-young among others ― created a splash on numerous music streaming charts in Korea and beyond, with its music video garnering more than 190 million views on YouTube.

Thanks to its success, Wilson got to work with more K-pop hotshots such as Kai of boy group EXO, ENHYPEN and THE BOYZ. She used to work as an IT project manager in the daytime, but now, the talented songwriter is too busy to juggle multiple roles. Wilson is a full-time composer now.

K-pop girl group ITZY / Courtesy of JYP Entertainment
K-pop girl group ITZY / Courtesy of JYP Entertainment

"'Not Shy' opened the door for me," she said with a radiant smile. "It showed people who I am, how I write and how I sound. When I first received the instrumental version of the song from a publisher, I knew it could be for ITZY. So I decided to put its name in the chorus so that my song can catch the attention of JYP officials. I did not hear anything from the company for two years (after submitting it), but in 2019, I finally heard that my song was chosen as ITZY's new lead single. I just could not believe this and literally cried … JYP gave me the first chance, believing in something that I had done."

Asked about the possible reason that JYP picked her song, Wilson was initially bashful. But she said it seemed like her Caribbean background helped her make a unique sound.

"I was born in the U.K., but I moved to Trinidad and Tobago when I was nine years old, spending several years there," Wilson said. "Trinidad and Tobago's local music is called Calypso ― a genre that emerged there in the mid-19th century. It is very vibrant and fun, so when people listen to 'Not Shy,' they can easily notice my Caribbean influence. I also gave it a reggae feel. It is so hard to tell, but maybe that is why JYP was fond of the track. Some companies like to stay in only one box and just try one sound, but JYP is brave and it likes to play with different sounds and genres."

Songwriter Charlotte Wilson / Courtesy of Charlotte Wilson
Songwriter Charlotte Wilson / Courtesy of Charlotte Wilson

As can be seen from NMIXX's "DICE" and "O.O," Wilson excels in bringing together various musical genres ranging from jazz to trap and hip-hop. Many people speak highly of her genre-busting style, but some critics claim that her tracks sound too "confusing and convoluted."

Wilson knows that her tunes are drawing mixed reactions, but she does not worry about this too much.

"Music is so subjective and everyone has their own taste," she said after a moment of thought. "Even if people do not really understand my style right now, I will just need to let it grow on them. I would say just give it a chance so that it can grow. It can be confusing at first, but if people can envision what the song is trying to show, then it will hopefully grow on them."

The songwriter then moved on to explain how she brings life to her songs.

"What I do is just to vibe on the instrumental version of a track after picking out the best beats," she said. "I listen to the track a couple of times and then start putting down melodies. I usually use my first melodies that just come from my heart. Then, I step back and analyze the song to make them better suit my singers. It usually takes two to three hours to get a 'melody draft,' which has all melodies for a song. The whole process of making a K-pop track takes about five to six hours. The competition among composers is so stiff these days because everybody around the world wants to write for K-pop. So, I have to be quick. I sometimes only have eight hours to complete everything."

K-pop boy band ENHYPEN / Courtesy of Belift Lab
K-pop boy band ENHYPEN / Courtesy of Belift Lab

As Wilson said, the life of a K-pop songwriter is not stress free, but she still loves her job.

"I think the best thing about my job is that I can create the things I love every day and see so many people who love my works. When I saw a video featuring millions of ENHYPEN fans singing together my song, 'Blessed-Curse' (2022) at the group's recent concert, I was truly happy."

Wilson wrapped up the interview by disclosing who she wants to work with in the days ahead.

"In the future, I hope I get the chance to make songs for BTS, IVE, Kep1er and NCT," she said. "I also want to expand my career to the Western market."

Dong Sun-hwa

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