Crossing Cultural and Artistic Borders
Rose Jang is an award-winning New York-based Korean-America pop opera artist, crossing musical genres and bridging cultures. Known for her operatic arias as well as musical and classic pop songs, she has performed for world leaders including the inaugural ceremony of South Korean President Lee Myung Bak and an event celebrating U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Legendary R&B vocalist Patti Labelle said that Rose has, "an absolutely beautiful voice and is an amazing performer” after the two performed together. Jang’s recording of “You Raise Me Up” broke the record for the most weeks at #1 on the Korean classical chart, and her cover of “Memory” from the musical “Cats” topped versions by Barbara Streisand and Celine Dion on the domestic and international music charts. In addition to her spectacular musical career, she has served as a PR ambassador for many organizations, including the Korean Tourism Office, UNESCO of Korea, and for the National Committee for Jeju-do Island, being credited as one of the reasons why Jeju Island was voted to be a “New7Wonders of Nature.” Korea's Cosmopolitan Magazine featured Rose Jang as one of the “10 Most Powerful Korean Women in New York” in September 2012. Seoul Journal Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie spoke with Rose Jang about her remarkable rise in the music world.
SJ: Can you tell us about how you got started in your career?
JANG : Basically, I am a pop opera classical crossover singer. I got started in music when I was four years old. I entered the Manhattan School of Music when I was five for piano and voice training. I also play the violin, and I carried that through to university. I went to Smith College, and I studied in London as well. When I came out of university, I started going to auditions for Broadway shows and off-Broadway shows, so I've been in a few off-Broadway musicals. Then, when I was doing these off-Broadway musicals, I received a call from a Korean-American songwriter and composer. He's very prolific. He had composed all the music for the film “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring” directed by Kim Ki-Duk. It won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. He said, “Wow, you really have a great voice. Why don't you come to Korea and start singing in Korea?” So, that's what I did. He was going to write music for me and we started recording. Then, I started getting these phone calls for various events. I was invited to sing in “Urinetown” in South Korea. At the time, my Korean wasn't perfect, because I was born in the United States, but now it’s better. “Urinetown” was on Broadway for a long time and it won tons of Tony Awards, and the Koreans are really into musicals. Then I started getting phone calls from different event companies and management companies saying, "Oh, we'd like you to perform here and here and here as a soloist.” So I said, "Okay, I've never done that before. I’ve always been involved in musicals with cast members.” I ended up becoming a solo entertainer at first and then I moved up in Korea and I performed for the president at his inauguration. I started getting gigs to perform at the Seoul Arts Center and the Sejong Art Center, which is the biggest in Korea. The Seoul Art Center is the most prestigious. At first, I came in as a guest, but then as my popularity grew, I got really big sponsors to sponsor me for solo concerts at Seoul Arts Center. I was touring when Jung Mong Joon, the president of Hyundai Heavy Industries, who was a South Korean presidential candidate and the FIFA vice-president, heard me sing the Dutch National Anthem at one of the friendly games between the Netherlands and South Korea in the World Cup Stadium, and he invested in a tour for me. He’s probably the wealthiest man in Korea. So, I did a 15-city tour. I also performed in Tokyo at the CC Lemon Hall in Shibuya and a few more places. So, I just started doing solo concerts one after the other as well as recording. And then they made me an Ambassador for Korean Tourism, which was amazing.
SJ: Why have you had so much success?
JANG: It was my voice. Every time somebody saw me perform, they would become an instant fan, which was very flattering. The composer that I was working with, who told me to go to Korea, said, “You should go to Korea because you have that voice where you will become successful immediately." After Korea, I moved to London for four years and met with British record labels. I recorded and I performed. I got a few television spots there. Then I came back here and did a solo concert that was sold out at the Lincoln Center. I did that as I was an honorary ambassador for Jeju Island.
SJ: How did you like the experience of being an honorary ambassador for Jeju Island?
JANG: I thought it was a wonderful experience. The first time I was in Jeju, I fell in love with the island. I went there to perform and I've performed there a good number of times. It was just a wonderful experience all around because when you're completely passionate about a place, it makes it easier.
SJ: And what are you doing at this very moment?
JANG: Right now, I am preparing for a solo concert at Carnegie Hall. I performed at Carnegie Hall before, but I was very young. I was 16 and it was not as a solo performer.
SJ: Is this one of your biggest achievements?
JANG: Yeah, by far. Definitely. Lincoln Center was also very prestigious. It’s the hub of everything that is artistic or musical here in New York. I'm very enthusiastic about working at Carnegie Hall. I'm also planning on doing more recordings.
SJ: Do you visit Korea often?
JANG: Yes, I do visit Korea often. The last time I was in Korea was the end of October. It was for a performance at the Olympic Stadium for the female president. I was singing with a bunch of very big pop artists there, like the Yoon Do Hyun Band. For that concert they basically chose Koreans who grew up outside Korea.
SJ: How is your Korean?
JANG: It’s actually quite good and it’s getting better. I used to do all my TV interviews in Korean, but also, it’s very difficult because I was living in London for four years. When you don't speak the language for a long time you kind of lose it, but it’s good.
SJ: Why did Korea embrace you so much?
KYSON: They were intrigued by the fact that I was Korean but American, and I was singing folk songs. They wanted me to promote Korea as a Korean-American all over the world and through music.
SJ: Can you tell us about your academic background?
JANG: I went to Smith College in Massachusetts and I was actually an art history major, so I studied music and drama while majoring in art history.
SJ:I read that you grew up in Princeton, New Jersey?
JANG: I did. My father went to Princeton. He has a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Physics and he started a Nutraceutical company there. So, I was born in Princeton, New Jersey and then lived all over New Jersey.
SJ: Was getting involved in music a natural thing for you?
JANG: It was a natural thing. When I was four, my violin teacher gave me a fake violin, because when you're that little you can't play the real violin. So I started learning the violin, and eventually I got a real violin. Then, there was an opera singer who was Julliard-trained, and she said, “You should really train your daughter's voice because she has real talent.” I believe I was eight years old. I was already playing the violin and I was the concertmaster at my high school orchestra. I was playing the piano and my parents were saying, “Being a singer is a difficult life. Being a musician is difficult.” But at the end of the day . . . my father was my manager for a very long time. He's 73 now, but he's still very active and wonderful. He still oversees a lot of things. My brother does as well.
SJ: I understand you have been reworking traditional Korean music into English. How did that get started?
JANG: That got started back when I was an ambassador for Korean Tourism. I was the only female vocalist to be an ambassador for Korean Tourism. I knew it was going to be challenging, but I wanted to figure out a way to make Korea known to the world through music. So I translated songs with the help of a few people, because these folk songs are very old and some of the language is very difficult. We rearranged and rewrote all of the Korean folk songs as rearrangements for foreign listeners to be able to say, “Oh, this is pleasant.” I made it so it would be more like pop opera – something like Sarah Brightman, something very Western.
SJ: Do you see yourself going into any other genres of music in the future?
JANG: I do actually. I've been working on a benefit single at the moment. It’s a charity single and its called “Phoenix from the Ashes.” I would say it’s more pop. I'm very open-minded in terms of music and I definitely see myself going into other genres. I would definitely do straight-up pop music.
SJ: How was it to perform with Patti LaBelle?
JANG: That was amazing because she is such a phenomenal inspiration for me. I just couldn't believe my ears and my eyes. She goes above and beyond everyone, any artist. She's in my top five favorite artists in the world, and she's really sweet, too.
SJ: Who else do you admire as far as vocalists go?
JANG: I really love Maria Callas because I've always loved her voice. I also love Pavarotti’s voice as well. I'm a fan of all types of music from rock and alternative to pop and classical. I really liked Lou Reed – rest in peace, and I also really like Aretha Franklin.
SJ: Is there a Korean vocalist that you are inspired by?
JANG: I really like Sumi Jo as a Korean artist. I think she's wonderful. What she's done is really making her become a world-class star. She’s really done it, and she's still doing it.
SJ: Is there anyone else out of music who has inspired you?
JANG: You know who inspires me the most? My family – because they worked so hard for me and my career for such a long time. They inspire me to become a better singer, a better all-around artist and I can't praise them enough.
SJ: Which songs do you love to perform the most?
JANG: Well, I like the classics. I like to perform “Nella Fantasia,” which is on YouTube and went to No. 1 in Korea not too long ago. “Gabriel's Oboe” that was originally from a movie called, “The Mission,” is one of my favorite songs to perform. Also, “Don't Cry For Me Argentina” from “Evita” and “Memory” from “Cats.” I love performing my Korean folk songs. Every time I'm up on stage, I'll sing one – especially when I know there are going to be many Western people in the audience.
SJ: Is there someone you would like to collaborate with?
JANG: I would love to collaborate someday with someone like Roger Waters (laughs.)My friend is very good friends with him and his wife, Laurie Waters. I was at his recording studio here in New York a couple of years back. They were telling me that he's working with new artists and he wants to do operas and musicals now, and I'm like, “That's cool! I wanna work with him!”
SJ: What is your favorite thing about being a singer?
JANG: My favorite thing about being a singer is I love to be able to please my audience. I love to be able to share my music with my fans.
SJ: What has been the most important concert or event you have performed at?
JANG: I was invited to perform at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Argentina had just lost to the Netherlands and I sang “Don't Cry for Me, Argentina” twice for the President of the Argentina Football Association. He said, “I didn't want to cry for Argentina, but I cried."
SJ: Were you nervous before performing there?
JANG: I always get nervous. I think Pavarotti once said, “If I stop becoming nervous, I'll have to stop singing because that's when I know I've lost my art.” The nerves have to be there because they give you an edge. It means that you really care about proving to your audience that you're really inspired by them. They constantly inspire me because I love the response I get from them.
SJ: Does success get overwhelming?
JANG: I'm able to manage it. I'm able to stay focused. You know, there are people around you all the time, whether it be press or my fans or what have you. Sometimes it can be a little bit chaotic, but as an artist, as a professional, you really have to focus.
SJ: What do you think makes you a great singer?
JANG: (Laughs) That’s interesting. I've had really good teachers in my life. Every teacher was so different, so I took the best advice from every teacher that I've had and I utilized all of it for the good of my performances. It also comes very naturally for me because I get up on stage and I'm so excited. I just pour all of my energy out and this voice comes out. Sometimes even my mother says, “I don't know who drives you across that stage, whether it’s God or somebody else.” (Laughs) I can't believe it myself sometimes. Maybe that’s what makes me a great singer, I don't know...
SJ: What do you like to do outside of music?
JANG:I'm a food enthusiast. I love to cook. I’m a very big foodie. I love to cook Korean. I also love to cook French, because I've lived in France and speak French as well.
SJ: Could you ever imagine yourself having a second career?
JANG:(Laughs) Maybe managing a restaurant or cooking in a restaurant somewhere on a beach on a remote island.
SJ: How about future plans? What will you do as you get near retirement age?
JANG: Well, I don't think that far into the future. I think about the near future, obviously, but I hope I'll still be singing a lot. The passion is there. The love is there. I just love music; it’s made me the happiest person I could possibly be. I'm very lucky to do what I do.
SJ: Do you ever have any fun with your voice? Do you ever go to karaoke night or enter karaoke contests and just blow people away?
JANG: (laughs) No, but I went to Koreatown a couple of weeks ago with friends. We just sang for a couple of hours. We got a private room – very Korean style.
SJ: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about?
JANG:I've also done some modeling for LANCOME and they've sponsored one of my concerts. I'm very into fashion so that's another one of my passions (laughs) – that rhymes: I have a passion for fashion. In fact, I am starting a line of fine jewelry and semi-precious jewelry. It will be called Rose Jang Jewelry.
SJ: What are some of the biggest challenges you faced over the years?
JANG:Moving to Korea and being in a new environment – in London as well. Also, there's a lot of rejection – you're not always going to be happy 100 percent of the time. But you definitely have to embrace all of it. You have to embrace the good and the bad.
SJ: What advice would you give to someone wanting to do what you do?
JANG: Always be positive. The entertainment industry is a very difficult one. It doesn't always give back the way you want it to, but if you're really inspired to sing and if you're really inspired to work as an artist, then don't give up. Pursue your passion and stay focused.