Shinae An Wheeler is a Korean musician from a different era who is driven by her love for music. She believes in its ability to make things better and bring people together. Her amazing voice sounds at home performing jazz, doo-wop, and everything in-between. Chincha talked with Shinae all the way in New Zealand to see what she has been up to and what her plans for the future hold. Warning: her positive outlook and love for music is contagious.

Chincha: How old were you when you realised that you wanted to pursue music as more than a hobby? 

Shinae:  I can’t remember when exactly I decided to do music as my profession. I always liked performing in public since I was very young. It officially happened when I chose my high school, which specialised in performing arts. At first, I wanted to be a dancer, but I changed to singing because back then it seemed like singers got more attention!

Chincha: What’s the earliest memory of music in your life that struck a chord?

Shinae:  Music has been a constant provider of positive images for me for as long as I can remember. I was mostly raised by my grandmother until I was about 6 years old and have strong memories of how she used to always sing to me. She passed away last year. In my last moment with her, I realised that I never sang just for her. I jumped into my car with my ukulele and sang a song for her that she used to sing to me. She was half-conscious at the time, but all of a sudden she sang along with me in her oxygen mask.

For me, singing is for people who I love so that I can give back the love I’ve received from them.

Chincha: You previously lived in the Haebangchon area (near Itawon, the notorious ‘foreigner’ district of Seoul) and are married to a Canadian. Do you think this has influenced your progress as an artist? 

Shinae:  I was 21 years old when I moved into Haebangchon. It was like a totally new world to me. Since I’ve never lived anywhere other than Seoul, living in Haebangchon always felt like a free trip to other countries. But most of all, living in Haebangchon meant I got to meet people who are the most important in my life now. I was super lucky.

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My husband and I have so many good memories of living there. My best friends and I are still very close, even after living away from the area for over 5 years now. Since I was a music student in college, I forgot a lot about just enjoying the freedom of playing and singing. Through getting to know many great foreign musicians in the neighbourhood I learned how not being limited by methods is important to being a musician. The more professional you are, the more you get the freedom to forget to be professional. That’s a big influence I got from foreign musicians in Korea.

Chincha: You’ve collaborated with jazz group Lee Myung Gun Trio and have performed 1950’s Korean and American music with The Barberettes. What pulls you towards those genres of music as opposed to others that are more mainstream in today’s media?

Shinae:  Like many music fans, I don’t believe in the boundaries of genres. I never meant to be opposed to the mainstream, I just think that I was born in the wrong time. Jazz and doo-wop were some of the very first mainstream genres; they were probably a way bigger influence on people at the time than mainstream music is now. If playing those sweet, deep music numbers stops me from having good money or fame, I wouldn’t mind starving. Maybe not my band members, though, so support good music, people! 

Chincha: I’ve seen videos of you performing with Lee Myung Gun Trio, including one filmed by Ollie Walker for AWEH and Loose Union. What is it about your collaborations with them that keep you coming back together?

Shinae:  Well, Lee Myung Gun has been a very good friend of mine since freshman year in college. We’ve been through a lot of stuff together and we have a very good musical connection. The guys of LMGT suggested making a music video with me, and I instantly knew the only person who could make the perfect video for us was Ollie. I’ve been watching Loose Union’s work very intently. I think they’re raising Seoul’s level as one of the cool spots for indie culture around the world.

Lee Myung

Chincha: The Barberettes have been doing very well lately, including opening for Dirty Beaches and performing at the Used Cassettes record release party. What brought you guys together and influenced your decision to perform the music you do?

Shinae:  Talking to many musicians and fans made me realise that at some point everybody was influenced by 50-60’s doo-wop and Motown music. I’ve been a huge doo-wop fan, not only the music, but the culture and fashion from that era too. We just started The Barberettes for fun at first, and then the gigs started coming in. The more shows we play, the more we feel people love that kind of music and have been missing it a lot. It’s just so much fun to put on 50’s style clothes, big smiles on our faces and sing like we are looking for someone to marry in the audience. 

Chincha: What other projects are you currently involved with?

Shinae:  At the moment I am answering this interview in Auckland, New Zealand. I am planning on staying here for a month and am also planning on busking and playing gigs in Auckland while I’m here. I’m trying to experience the music scene in different cultures, which I’m quite excited about it. Before coming here I burned 100 solo CDs by myself with my laptop and packed and designed them all by myself. My husband and I produced and recorded the EP just to bring to Auckland. It’s called “Travel Kit.” But in the two last gigs I had in Seoul, I sold 80 of them already. There is no pressure to do well here, but I’m super excited regardless.

Chincha: In addition to performing you also work as a voice coach to some prominent celebrities. Many artists have a strong opinion and reaction to commercial success. Do you find working with someone of that level of notoriety inspiring or disheartening?

Shinae:  It all depends on the personality of who you’re working with. Just like any job, you know? I prefer someone who is not disheartening, but inspiring. But sometimes inspiration comes with criticism. If needed, I don’t mind criticism, but I find a nervous environment doesn’t help the creativity much. I see both sides. I’m pretty lucky to have some inspiring mentors and musicians around me though. I mostly learn from how they behave more than their critical words. 

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Chincha: Where do you hope to take your career in the foreseeable future?

Shinae:  Being a musician for me is more for my own happiness. Just like anyone else, but maybe for different reasons. I believe in the healing process of playing music, singing, and also listening. When I’m singing, I feel like all the negative things inside me come out of my mouth, take the good energy in the air and bring it inside me. I believe that being a good musician is like being a good person. I want to meet all the good people that music will bring to me. I’ll be glad if my own experience of healing can help other people too. I am a person who just loves singing. Wherever the music takes me to I want to keep the same opinion of my career that I have now. 

Chincha: Are there any artists or organizations that you hope to work with in the future?

Shinae:  My living dreams include 강승원 (Kang Seung Won; songwriter of the 90’s Korean hit ‘서른즈음에’), 노영심(Roh Young Shim; pianist), and 전인권(Jeon In Kwon; vocalist of 1980’s Korean legendary rock band ‘들국화’). I like to work with anyone who has passion for the kind of music I’m into. Also, if possible, with The Barberettes I’d like to meet any musicians who created music in the 1950-60s. Maybe Motown? That would be awesome. There’s also a young Korean blues singer-songwriter,하헌진(Ha Heon Jin),who I’d really like to collaborate with. Right now I’m just one of his fans. 

Chincha: And finally, what are your favorite environments to perform in and your favorite songs to perform?

Shinae:  There’s a bar called “Studio 70’s (Sunny Mars)” in between Sinchon Station and Hongik University. I got to meet some great musicians, poets and writers in that bar. I love the place and I love singing for the people that come there. It’s a very dark, old bar with an out of tune piano. The owner lets me sing whenever I want (mostly when drunk). I think the best environment to have a gig is in front of great people who appreciate music. My favourite songs to perform these days are old Korean folk songs like ‘고향의봄 (The Spring in Hometown). I like to take old, well-known songs and create a new rendition. Of course, I love to sing 1950-60’s tunes with my girls ‘The Barberettes’.

Follow  to keep up with her music. 

Interview by Colleen Whately
Videos by Ollie Walker