Talking retro-pop with The Barberettes

The Barberettes
The Barberettes

While it’s almost impossible to stay truly unique in today’s musical landscape, Barberettes a doo-wop-infused retro-pop band from South Korea is definitely going to stand out, both at home and across the sea. Moving from trained session musicians to YouTube sensations, they soon became one of the hottest projects out of South Korea, especially considering the pop monopoly in their country. Catching up Barberettes before their set at Lee’s Palace for CMW, we asked them about going old-school, evolving and just how they got involved with Megadeth.

Northern Transmissions:How did you first come across this prominently old-school American style and what drew you to it as a voice?

Shinae An Wheeler: We’re huge fans of retro culture: the movies, music and fashion of the 60s and 70s. Being a singer since high school, I never had the chance to do it myself. One day I was listening to retro station and I thought “I really want to do this,” and so I called up my friends, including Grace who isn’t in the band anymore, and we’ve just been singing since then.

NT: What made you guys to decide to move the group forward from a project that was just for fun to something more professional?

SAW: Obviously when we started we didn’t expect it to be a professional kind of thing, and we didn’t want the pressure. But it’s very exciting now because we never know what’s going to happen next and it’s fun to watch how our imagination has become reality. We formed a band and we’d play bars making 50$ for playing two sets. We talked at the bar and said “Let’s play overseas,” because we had no connections, no base whatsoever, and decided to save money for that. Two years later we’re doing that and we’re still excited for what’s happening next.

NT: What’s been your biggest challenge career-wise both with Korean and international audiences?

SAW: We’re gaining experience as we go, from small stages to bigger stages throughout the year, and more people come to see us. But we know it’s going to take a long time and a lot of effort to get anywhere. We’re trying to see what we can do to shorten that time and where we should invest our time to get to a certain level. We’re also three Korean women, which is a huge charming point for getting audiences, but it also serves as potential bias point which is definitely a challenge. We’re proud of ourselves for what we do, and we want to continue just being ourselves while being professionals.
It’s hard to say what’s easier and harder between countries, as there’s harder and easier points in either. In Korea obviously we speak the language and it’s our people, we know how the scene goes because we’ve lived there for so long. But it’s also biased there for a female musician in South Korea because people expect certain things young, female singers. It’s easier to get attention overseas because of we’re Asian people singing Western music in a Western style, which is proving quite interesting because the audience reacts quite actively. In Korea we’re also very different from what people are used to. It’s exciting to play overseas but the cost and time of travel takes a lot, but we’d love to keep doing this.

NT: How did you guys start working with Marty Friedman (Megadeth) and what was it like having him produce and help write the album?

SAW: It’s a very interesting story. When we posted the “Be My Baby” cover on YouTube, two months later I got a notification of a follow. I thought “Marty Friedman, I’ve heard his name before.” I mentioned it to my friends who are rock fans and they just said “Why?!What are you talking about?” Shortly after that Marty emails us, says he loves our video and said he’s always loved doo wop. We emailed back and forth and he said one day “What if I come down to South Korea to work with you?” and he really came for three days. We had all these plans to show him around but the second he got off the plane he said “Where’s your studio? Let’s go.” Up until the moment he left we were in the studio working on cover songs and stuff like that, he gave us so many ideas. He’s known as a rock performer but he’s a huge doo wop fan. I think while he was working with us he was bringing his image of this music he admired to life. We could see how excited he was and we were excited to be working with a rock god, but he was more excited being able to project what he was thinking on us, harmonizing vocals in from his mind. It was very cool and we also collaborated with him on his upcoming album too.

NT: Some of your newer music has infused a lot more pop into your retro style, was this always where you wanted to go or was it more of an experiment?

SAW: It’s not because we tried to fit in a scene, we started with 50s and 60s stuff but that’s not all we want to do. We’re more focused on harmonizing than the era, as long there’s a harmonizing bass we’re willing to try different styles.

NT: Do you think part of your success is a rejection of how electronic-heavy modern music has become?

SAW: It’s not that people have moved away from the older stuff necessarily, people are always doing these different styles but depending on the trend and what’s going on the music that gets attention changes. We’ll always do our stuff and sometimes we’ll get attention and other times it will be off. The base of what we’re doing won’t change though.

NT: What’s on the horizon for you guys?
SAW: Well we have the show tonight and we’re pretty excited about that. We’re going back to Seoul in two days for a female musician festival (Muse inCity), and two sets after us is Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey Rae, so we’re pretty happy about that. In May we’re going on a tour in Europe through England, France, German, Switzerland and Spain. Our biggest goal this year is releasing seasonal albums, we just released a spring EP, and we’re going to do this for each season, writing carols for each one. By the end of the year we’ll have a full album of these carols.
Interview by Owen Maxwell