Meet Heesu Yu: Boston’s Latest Neo-Soul Artist

It's midnight at the Berklee College of Music. A band plays an R&B song in a rehearsal room that seems almost too extravagant for a college campus. There’s piano, guitar, bass, synths, and drums, but the main act is Heesu Yu, the vocalist and songwriter behind the track. 

Heesu, a junior at Berklee studying contemporary writing and production, rehearses her unreleased song for her upcoming December concert. Her soulful, husky voice matches the alternative R&B sound of the track, dipping down even into the low third octave. It’s different from what someone may expect from a young Korean woman, especially given the recent rise of K-Pop in the West. From her sound to her appearance to her personality, she defies cultural expectations and carves her own path.

Source: Heesu Yu

“In Korea, I’m very 'nadaenda' — you know, they’re like she’s loud, she’s extra, but in America, it’s just being friendly; I just fit into this kind of society,” she says. But she still loves her culture and claims Seoul as her home. After all, she goes back every summer. And on a musical level, she’s also a fan of K-R&B and K-hip hop, indie and underground genres birthed by inspiration from western sounds. She cites Korean artists like Dean and American artists like H.E.R. and Jorja Smith as her influences. 

Although Heesu was born in London, she quickly moved back to Korea and grew up there. While growing up in Seoul, she spent all her time in karaoke rooms, the birthplace of her dream of becoming a singer. But she wanted to pursue a music career abroad in the United States, a path that she officially started with the release of her debut single “Keep Drowning” this past March. 

“Keep Drowning” initially sounds like a pretty standard alternative R&B track, but Heesu includes the gayageum, a traditional Korean string instrument, to add a unique spin. As arguably the most well-known traditional Korean instrument, the gayageum should seem out of place on such a contemporary song, but it blends in with the electronic sounds. 

In some sense, this addition of an archaic yet culturally significant instrument on a modern song reads like an allegory of Heesu’s own self. If the gayageum is the connection to her home culture that she refuses to let go, then the modern R&B track is her Americanized identity. And since “Keep Drowning” has both a Korean version and an English version, the song has a dual-sided component that’s reminiscent of Heesu’s own identity.

Source: Heesu Yu

“I’m really extroverted. I love hearing people’s stories. I get ideas from that,” she says while explaining where she gets her ideas for songs. And she’s not wrong. While walking through the winding hallways of Berklee, every passing student seems to be friends with Heesu, who always stops to make light conversation.

Behind the bold personality and the powerful voice, however, are very human doubts. “I doubt myself a lot, too, and that’s what ‘Keep Drowning’ is about. The lyrics are about doubting myself,” she says. Despite this, she still works tirelessly to perfect her craft. Her daily schedule revolves around music; she goes to class, rehearses, practices her singing, writes songs, and more. For her, “it’s hard being an artist because you have to really know yourself. That’s why I read a lot of self-help books.”

As for the actual process of writing a song, it’s quite long. She starts with her MIDI keyboard and the Voice Memos app on her iPhone, singing over randomly played chords until she finds something that sticks. This can take hours, and that’s only the beginning. 

But she doesn’t always have to do it alone. Heesu’s a founding member of Blu Soju, a female-founded creative collective of Berklee students. The group consists of 14 members, all from different ethnic backgrounds. Some are singer-songwriters, some are producers, and some are managers. While they all have their own personal careers, they often work together on the same projects.

Source: Blu Soju

Heesu’s hard work and determination have led her to study music in the United States, but the drawback to pursuing her dream here is, of course, experiencing racism. After all, she’s part of a demographic hugely underrepresented in the American music industry. “It’s hard. I’m Asian, I’m female, I’m a person of color, so of course, it’s gonna be tough; people are racist,” she says. She’s been stereotyped as a K-Pop wannabe and written off due to her background, but she persists. 

“They look down on me and say, ‘you’re like a little Asian girl, what can you do?’ But I really want to prove myself.” 

If you’re interested in Heesu’s music, check out her Spotify page and follow her on Instagram!

 

Want to keep up with HCBU? Make sure to like us on Facebook, follow us on Instagram, check out our Pinterest board, and read our latest Tweets!