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Jihoon “Paul” Baek ’08 is composed, polite, and impressively good at putting on a Southern accent. It would be hard for anyone to infer from his quiet and modest exterior that Baek recently launched a music career on the other side of the world. His first single, “Because of the Memories,” has circulated on Korean Web sites since November.
Growing up in Tallahassee, Fla., Baek only ever heard hip-hop and Western music. He first took a serious interest in Asian pop music during high school.
“That’s when I started reading and writing in Korean, trying to decipher the language, and I ended up learning the many words for heartbreak,” Baek says.
He began sending demo tapes to Korean labels during his freshman year at Harvard. According to Baek, producing music provided him a unique cultural experience.
“For me it was a way to connect with Korea, and I’ve only ever thought of becoming a singer in the context of Korea.”
In the summer before his senior year, Korean label Trifecta Entertainment picked up his demo, and he recorded his first single over three weeks in August.
Just over a week ago, the music video of the ballad, “Because of the Memories,” was officially released on the Internet. The music video is a patchwork montage of photographs spanning Baek’s life, providing glimpses into his childhood, his admission into Harvard, and his life as a musician.
In response to the admission letter’s appearance in the video, Baek laughs, saying, “I was uncomfortable with it because it’s kind of beating a dead horse, what with all of the Korean students who have already written books about getting into Harvard...It wasn’t my intention to use the Harvard name to launch my career.”
His producers were acutely aware of the fact that he would not be able to actively promote his album, since he is continuing his studies this year. As a result, they leaned on the Harvard name to turn heads, and Baek had little control over how the music video was put together. “The music video is what these middle aged men think of me and like about me, but, the question is, is this going to cross over to the younger audience? That’s the part I was worried about.”
The Harvard name has certainly turned heads in Korea, but not always in positive ways. According to Baek, many of the initial reactions to his music have been based on his American identity, and, even more predictably, on his status as a Harvard student, instead of the music itself. Since the video’s release, Baek has come across several blog sites saying that he should just stick to being a student, while others complain about the fact that he will probably never serve in the South Korean army.
Baek too had his doubts earlier this year when he had signed the three-year contract with Trifecta Entertainment. Under the deal, he is slated to record three full-length albums, the first of which will be entitled “Paul’s Passion.”
“The day I signed the contract in downtown Seoul, I was traveling back to my grandmother’s on the train afterwards,” he explains. “Suddenly, we went into a tunnel and I saw my reflection in the window, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, did I just make a mistake?’”
Nevertheless, buoyed by the positive feedback he has found on the Internet and his relative anonymity on the Harvard campus, Baek doesn’t regret his decision. His roommate since sophomore year, Daniel E. Disario ’08, says that the recent release of his single hasn’t really changed anything for Baek and his day to day life at Harvard. “He doesn’t seem like the diva-ish pop star type and he doesn’t want anything to change...We make fun of him from time to time about being a pop star,” Disario says.
Christopher M. Pak ’08, co-president of the Harvard Korean Association (KA), heard about the release of the single over the KA emailing list, after the video was discovered by a KA member on a Korean search engine.
“Amongst the Korean community on campus, people already know about Paul, and it’s going over lists...but I’m not sure that people outside the Korean communities know,” Pak says.
Baek predicts that he will probably record more ballads similar to the single he has just released, though he does enjoy listening to indie rock from time to time.
“There’s something really cathartic about ballads, and I won’t have any qualms about singing them,” he says.
In the meantime, Baek relishes the fact that he’ll remain inconspicuous in class and around campus. “Around here, no one really suspects that I’ve launched a music career in Korea.”
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