Consider the career of 60-year-old Korean singing sensation Jang Sa-ik, who worked as an electronics salesman, car shop manager, insurance clerk, and furniture manager before deciding in his mid-40s to scrap it all and jump headfirst into the youth-rules-all Korean music biz. Barely over five feet tall, Jang Sa-ik is a little man with a colossal voice. Accompanied by an ensemble of nine instrumentalists and six vocalists, Jang sings about the hardships of the humble, the paradoxical lessons in nature, and the ephemerality of life and heartbreak of death–all with an emotional complexity that far surpasses any Korean soap opera (and that’s saying a lot).
To put it mildly, Jang’s story was an unlikely one–trying to sell traditional Korean folk music (albeit with a contemporary twist) is no easy feat in an industry that basically resembles an ice cream factory, churning and scooping out bubble gum boy bands, flirty (but innocuous) soft-spoken she-babes, and pasteurized hip hop. We caught up with him via email to ask a few questions about his very interesting life and career.
Why do you think it took you until your mid-40s to decide that you
wanted to become a professional singer?
The realization of becoming a professional singer was both gradual and sudden. I started to sing because I received strong recommendations from fellow musicians around me. However, I studied and trained as a singer from my childhood. I think it was not my decision to become a professional singer but [that] it was my destiny. I feel it is all meant to be. The way I look at the situation now is that there are many different kinds of flowers blooming in the world. Some of them bloom in early springtime, but some bloom in late
autumn. I am one of the late-bloomers.
With a music culture primarily focused on Korean youth and heavily influenced by American pop and hip-hop, why do you think your music has become so popular with Korean people of all ages?
Because the music itself contains a range of elements. My music has a traditional Korean background, but it includes reinterpretations of old Korean pop and the freedom of Western music. Most of all, young and old respond to my wild, shouting and screaming singing style.
Which song is the closest to your heart? Why?
There are two major songs that are close to my heart when I sing them. They are “The Way to Heaven” and “Wild Rose.” Singers try to express various emotions such as happiness, anger, sadness, and love throughout the songs they sing. I like the emotion of sadness the most. These two songs have deep sadness in both their lyrics and their melody–they express an awareness of death and the sadness of human life.