Jihyo is halfway through her nine-month, sold-out world tour, but the 26-year-old K-pop singer isn’t exhausted at all—or at least, she doesn’t show it. As leader of the nine-member girl group Twice for the past eight years, Jihyo has become acclimated to the hustle that is being a global musician. She and her bandmates’ endless determination and perseverance came from years of fighting their way up through the music industry, starting in their early days on Sixteen, a 2015 survival reality show on which they worked tirelessly to earn their spots in the group. But as Twice now approaches a decade since then, Jihyo is quite different from the teenage version of herself. And her highly anticipated solo debut has come just in time: She’s at a moment when she’s taking control of her own artistry.
The seven-track EP, Zone, hatches the vocalist out of her shell and into a budding, versatile pop sensation. Featuring acclaimed producers—like South Korean superstar J.Y. Park, Melanie Fontana and Lindgren (who made Dua Lipa’s “Good in Bed”), MarcLo of the Monsters & Strangerz (known for Zedd’s “The Middle”), and 24kGoldn—the mini album is a R&B-forward curation with cues from Latin-inspired sounds and melodic ballads.
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Jihyo tells Harper’s Bazaar that unlike on previous projects, she had the freedom to experiment with the story and the vision she wanted to share on Zone. “In the the initial stage of creating this album, the company told me I could do what I want, so I participated in creating most of the songs,” she says. “I also selected which songs would end up on the album—so with that, I focused on showcasing a new range of vocal styles for it.”
The singer’s leap into solo territory allows her to try on a more authentic sound. Zone unveils a side we don’t usually see of Jihyo, and she knows it. That’s exactly what she aimed for: a stark contrast from what we know or expect of her. “The concept for [Zone] is me, showing different sides of me,” she says. “I particularly chose the order of the tracks because I wanted it to tell a story of emotions, like an emotional journey throughout the day.”
She adds: “Each track shows different vocal styles, and yes, it’s very different from Twice, but I wanted to focus on that. While the image that I built through the group really helped me identify who I am, I want to show different sides of me.” Ahead of Zone’s release, we caught up with Jihyo to talk about the making of the album and more.
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I listened to “Killin’ Me Good” and “Talkin’ About It,” and love how you experimented with R&B. What do the album and these songs mean to you overall? What message are you trying to convey?
Rather than trying to convey a certain message through these songs, I wanted to focus on delivering diversity musically. Each song is different and has its own charms. I wanted to express that, and also, I wanted to show myself as someone who’s able to express different genres and express myself in new ways.
“Talkin’ About It” is an all-English track. Why did you opt for that?
Actually, we tried to throw a little bit of Korean lyrics into the song at first, but we decided in the end, English lyrics were much more suitable for this, because of the mood of the song. 24kGoldn is also featured on the track, and so going with all-English lyrics made the most sense to me.
Do you have any favorite lyrics from the album?
I would say the song “Room” because, first off, I wrote the lyrics in such a short amount of time. I was in love with the image that it brought me to, and the theme was really what I’m into. The lyrics came really naturally for me—it’s about a room that has all my memories, but I’m leaving that behind to embark on a new path. That’s the storyline, and as for lyrics, there’s a phrase I say which translates to “This time has passed, but I hope the past time will remain as beautiful as it was before.” I think that line pretty much sums up the whole song.
What did the other members of Twice and your family first think when you showed them the album?
I showed my music video to the Twice members and my family, and of course, they all loved it. They told me the main song, “Killin’ Me Good,” was very suitable for the end of summer, so I was happy to hear that. Also, I do a bit of acting in the music video, and the members have rarely seen that side of me.
Your bandmate Nayeon already had her solo debut before you, and Mina, Sana, and Momo just came out in a trio sub-unit, MiSaMo, dedicated to their Japanese roots. Did the members give you any advice while you were prepping for your solo release?
Rather than advice, they really gave me a lot of encouraging words that gave me so much strength to carry on. It made me feel that even though we are not physically together at the moment—with everyone doing their own thing, and I’ll be promoting my solo—we’ll always be together in spirit.
Rather than asking about your future endeavors after your solo release, I want to know something else. You were a trainee for 10 years before joining Sixteen and, shortly after that, debuting with Twice, and I can only imagine the hard work that went into that. If you could go back in time, what advice would you give little Jihyo?
Now that I’ve had my debut and am now a successful artist, I think I would tell my younger self not to be anxious and instead, to just enjoy every moment being a trainee. Even then, I knew it’d be a very long haul, but I would tell little Jihyo to enjoy the ride.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This article originally appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR US.