With their new English-language single ‘Better Things’ imminent, aespa are set to take over the world – both real and virtual.
Words: Abigail Firth
Hair: Seo-Ha Yoon
Make-up: Eun-Bee Jo
here’s trouble in KWANGYA. Under attack from the BLACK MAMBA who’s hacked into SYNK, the platform where REAL WORLD citizens connect with their ae selves, disconnecting aespa from their virtual counterparts. With the help of Naevis, they must band together to defeat the BLACK MAMBA and reconnect with ae-aespa before returning to the REAL WORLD. Does this sound like gibberish?
It’s the complex storyline with which aespa, the K-pop girl group who’ve rocketed to the top in just a few short years, were introduced to the world. Made up of four members, KARINA, GISELLE, WINTER and NINGNING, aespa made their debut in late 2020 amidst a global pandemic and have since hit endless milestones in record time, both in the online realm and when they broke out into the real world.
It makes sense then that today we meet the girls in the virtual world (read: online) where they’re filming some sitcom-style promo videos to go with their latest single ‘Better Things’ over in Seoul, a shoot scheduled in-between rehearsals for their first world tour.
“Lately, I’ve been very busy recording new songs, shooting music videos, and practising choreography, all while eagerly anticipating meeting our fans!” Usually the most introverted member, WINTER is the first to talk. “As this is our first global tour, I feel both nervous and excited at the same time, and I’m putting all my effort into preparing a flawless performance.”
Leader of the group KARINA echoes those sentiments, noting she’s excited to meet US, South American and European fans for the first time, while youngest NINGNING adds, “Even though we’ve met our fans through many shows before, I’m so thrilled to have the opportunity to perform in front of even more on this tour. We’ll be able to show new sides of ourselves and performances that they haven’t seen before.”
It’s clear from the word go that their ‘SYNK: HYPER LINE’ tour is at the front of their minds. Currently wrapping up a lengthy Asian leg, impressing their fans – or MYs as the official name – is paramount.
“I think many fans may have high expectations, so we’ve been preparing a lot to live up to them,” says GISELLE, the most fluent English speaker of the four. “I hope they look forward to what we’ve been working on! It’s nerve-wracking and worrying as we plan to show new stages during our tour. It’ll be a special time spent solely with MYs, so I want to enjoy our moment together. If there is anyone in the audience who is listening to our songs for the first time, I hope they become our fans after the concert and leave the show with aespa in their hearts.”
“I’m putting all my effort into preparing a flawless performance”WINTER
For most K-pop groups, their global tours are years in the making. Of course, the growing popularity of the genre in the West has helped newer groups tick off their bucket lists faster than ever before, but few have achieved what aespa have in such a short space of time. Their knockout debut, ‘Black Mamba’, put them on the map, garnering 21 million views in just 24 hours, hitting the highest view count in the shortest amount of time for a group’s debut. They’ve since gone on to become the first K-pop girl group to perform on Coachella’s main stage at Governors Ball and Outside Lands festival; come September, they’ll be the third K-pop girl group to headline London’s O2 Arena, following superstars BLACKPINK and TWICE.
“It’s been about three years since our debut, and although it has felt like a busy journey, we’ve been lucky to have had so many people love and enjoy our music,” says NINGNING.
WINTER adds, “There was a time after our debut when we could only meet our fans online, but even then, we were grateful for their interest and support. There are aespa’s milestones that still feel surreal to me, and I believe it’s a result we’ve achieved together with our fans.”
aespa aren’t taking any of their success for granted, though. Throughout our chat, they consistently express their gratitude towards the fanbase that has helped them grow. Only in their early twenties – KARINA the eldest at 23, NINGNING the youngest at 20, GISELLE and WINTER both 22 – they aren’t much older than most of their supporters and have achieved a hell of a lot.
“Many moments come to my mind, but personally, I’m so proud that we’ve become the first international artist to perform at Tokyo Dome in the shortest period soon after debut,” says GISELLE, who’s half-Japanese, and playing the enormous venue in her birth country has clearly struck a chord with her.
“It feels like we’re creating a world of our own through our tours and concerts”KARINA
“The moment we were invited to the Cannes Film Festival and walked the red carpet as the first-ever K-pop group was the proudest moment for me,” says NINGNING. “It was like a dream because I could not believe that we were attending such a prestigious international film festival. Being with world-renowned stars was truly an honour.”
“I also have many memorable moments, but breaking the first-week sales record among K-pop girl groups with ‘MY WORLD’ makes me proud,” says WINTER, flexing their fan devotion. “I think repaying fans with great performances and music is most important because I know that these achievements did not come easy, so we’ll continue to work hard to make more proud moments.”
The elaborate group concept, accompanied by a Marvel-esque YouTube series that expands on the stories told in the songs, follows fictionalised versions of the girls as they battle with a virus named BLACK MAMBA that’s threatening the online platform they use to connect with their aes (idealised avatars of the members), immediately set them apart from their peers. It’s quite a lot to grasp, even for the most diligent K-pop followers, but thankfully you won’t need a degree in it to enjoy the bangers, which have so far been quite the standout on their own.
“When I first heard about the concept, I was curious and intrigued by the idea of trying something that no one had attempted before,” says KARINA. “I wondered how it would unfold and develop in the long run. It was unfamiliar at the time, but we’ve since worked together to build the concepts into aespa’s distinct image and concept.”
aespa were the first K-pop group to properly embrace the hyperpop genre too. Although their company, SM Entertainment, is no stranger to experimental soundscapes and concepts, having played host to boy group NCT’s polarising signature sound and the iconic Girls Generation’s K-pop ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ of ‘I Got A Boy’, but with aespa, it was quite literally next level.
Their second single, ‘Next Level’ divided opinions over its mid-track beat switch-up but ultimately came out on top when it went viral. ‘Savage’, the lead track from their debut EP, brought in SOPHIE-lite thwacks, clanks and wobbles in place of drums; it took a little convincing, even for the girls themselves.
“At first, it wasn’t a genre I enjoyed listening to!” says NINGNING, surprisingly, as her playlist includes experimental artists like Grimes and Shygirl. “Although I was not a fan of hyperpop, I think the genre blends with aespa’s style extremely well, and it has now become one of my favourites. I believe our own take on hyperpop has evolved naturally along the way as the sound was able to really harmoniously mould with our identity and complement our concept.”
KARINA agrees, adding, “I feel the same way. While I wasn’t initially a big fan of this genre, witnessing the love from the fans who embraced it filled me with pride and joy, so in time, it naturally has grown on me as well. As we mature and delve deeper into the genre, it feels like hyperpop has now become seamlessly integrated into aespa’s style.”
Their story begins at ‘Black Mamba’, which introduces the girls and the titular villain, and follows their battle through follow-up singles ‘Next Level’ and ‘Savage’, before defeating the villain in ‘Girls’. The first phase of their story was sonically striking thanks to its heavy electronic instrumentals and the girls’ powerhouse vocals and attitude-laden talk-rap verses.
“We anticipated that it would take some time for the public to fully grasp our concept as we were the first group to combine idols and AI avatars,” GISELLE says. “It was personally very challenging yet exciting to deliver our unique visual elements and music to the audience in an unprecedented way.”
NINGNING adds, “I think the concept is at the core of aespa’s identity. I think it’s good to have a clear identity that makes us stand out and be distinctive. Although it was something different, that freshness has allowed us to differentiate ourselves.”
The concept naturally thrived online. Where the pandemic and inability to connect with an audience in person may have hindered some artists, aespa leaned into it. An online debut performance meant the ae-aespa avatars could appear on stage with the real girls, intricate camera work enhanced ‘Savage’’s already swirling dynamism, some choreography, like the ‘Girls’ chorus, worked perfectly with TikTok’s zoom filter. When it came to bringing it to life in person, the audiences were big, and expectations high.
“I was curious and intrigued by the idea of trying something that no one had attempted before”KARINA
“I was so nervous that I couldn’t sleep well the night before our first Seoul concert,” says KARINA. “It was a rollercoaster since I’d be worried about whether we’d be able to meet the fans’ expectations one minute and get excited about performing for our fans the next. Nevertheless, I was happy that we were able to show what we have prepared and planned, and we were so thrilled that the fans enjoyed it as much as we did.”
“The expectations that we had of ourselves were naturally high,” says GISELLE. “I believe that the more we performed, the more we gained more experience to show more presence on stage. Since it was our first Seoul concert, there might have been things we felt could have been better, but we will always continue to bring better performances and music than our last.”
Despite the nervousness, the girls were still excited to finally perform in front of fans live, with each of them describing the experience as a dream come true, WINTER particularly wishing it could’ve been this way all along.
“I worked hard to learn how to play the electric guitar for the concert, and I just couldn’t wait to show a new side of me,” she says, referring to the solo she performs in opener ‘Girls’. “It was such a thrill that I got to play an instrument on stage, which is why the concerts during the tour can be so nerve-racking and fun at the same time for me!”
“We showcased our solo performances and performed b-sides from ‘MY WORLD’ for the first time at the concert,” adds NINGNING. “We thought about how we could surprise our fans and also wondered how many fans would be waiting for us. Once we saw the actual audience, we were so surprised and really grateful that so many people came to see us.”
The transition from online to offline was made easier thanks to the second chapter of aespa’s story centring on their move from the virtual world to the real one. Their third EP ‘MY WORLD’ introduced ‘a strange phenomena’, where the girls have returned to their everyday lives, but something isn’t quite right. The single ‘Welcome to MY World’ featured Naevis, the AI they’d worshipped in ‘Savage’, while the overall sound became less intense.
Their latest single, ‘Better Things’, follows suit as a breezy summer bop about shaking off an ex. Where aespa’s music was once grounded in its aggression, it isn’t tied down by its storyline. ‘Better Things’ brings out the best of aespa’s vocals and harmonies, which up until now, have been sprinkled throughout their discography in tracks like B-side ‘Thirsty’ and their first English single ‘Life’s Too Short’.
“We’ve been lucky to have had so many people love and enjoy our music”NINGNING
The girls say, “Our music and style are continuously evolving, and in that sense, many might have felt that we have taken a different approach in style compared to the ones we have explored before. However, we believe that aespa’s unique identity is still embedded in the music. We hope fans could discover and enjoy having aespa interpreting and presenting new music styles that are unique to aespa rather than having us confined to a single style.”
The diversity in the group’s sound is reflected in the girls’ personal tastes, which vary from pop superstars like Ariana Grande and Sabrina Carpenter to indie legends Oasis and the Northern pop-punk of YUNGBLUD, left-field pop stars like Charli XCX and ROSALÍA and the modern R&B of H.E.R..
“Between all of us members, we have quite an eclectic taste in music, and it also really depends on the mood we’re in,” the girls say. “We’re inspired by not only the artists’ concepts and sounds but also how nostalgic sounds from different genres can be mixed together to create something new and interesting. We are constantly inspired by the artists we come across, and it motivates us to keep pushing forward.”
When it comes to the artists they’d like to work with, there’s a clear indication they’re pursuing something more organic.
“I’ve been a devoted fan of Harry Styles and Jason Mraz for a long time, and I hope to collaborate with them someday,” says WINTER. “Their vocals and performances leave me completely mesmerised, and their stage presence truly blows me away.”
“Ever since I was young, I’ve always been a big fan of Travis Barker, and I hold tremendous respect for his drumming skills,” GISELLE says, praising the Blink-182 drummer. “His on-stage performances are just incredible, and I’m speechless watching him on stage. It’s truly inspiring to see how he has this unique ability to interpret songs in his distinct style. There’s so much to learn from him, and I hope that I could have that opportunity to work with him to learn.”
“We will always continue to bring better performances and music than our last”GISELLE
‘Better Things’ marks aespa’s third English-language single (the second being ‘Hold On Tight’ featured on the Tetris soundtrack) and was written by British hitmaker Raye (also not their first time working with a Brit, as ‘Life’s Too Short’ was penned by dance legend Becky Hill). The decision to record in English again was prompted by a successful run of festival and TV appearances in the US and will land just in time for the second leg of their global tour, planning to preview it at their LA show on the 13th August.
“It’s definitely meaningful that we are able to perform at festivals because we’re introducing our music to audiences who may not be familiar with aespa and our music,” says NINGNING. “In comparison to festivals, concerts feel more like a party, and they feel more intimate because there are MYs who are coming specifically to see us.”
“It feels like we’re creating a world of our own through our tours and concerts,” adds KARINA. “It becomes a place where we can perform and showcase our songs directly in front of our fans’ eyes. I hope that we create a memorable concert for our fans since we feel that it’ll become one of the moments that we all will cherish together as we connect with our fans on a deeper level.”
UK MYs – 20,000 of them at that – will have the chance to experience the show this September as aespa perform at the O2 Arena in London. One of the final stops on the tour, it’s also one of the biggest.
“It’ll only hit us once we’re actually on stage at The O2,” the girls say. “This will be our first time performing in London, so we’re incredibly excited! We still can’t believe that we’ll be taking the stage at such a large venue in the UK.”
It’s quite the journey aespa have been on so far. With an ever-evolving discography that can be enjoyed from a distance or pored over if you fancy getting into the lore, they strike the right balance between all levels of the fandom. Embracing change and fearlessly exploring new musical territories has paid off, and then some, aespa are doing everything right as the modern girl group. The futuristic outlook they debuted with has never wavered; literally and sonically, the future of aespa is bright.
“We had confidence in our debut album, but we never in a million years expected to receive so much love and attention so fast this early on,” WINTER says. “It has indeed been like a whirlwind, and we can’t believe how fast time has flown by. We’re still processing everything; we know there’s still a lot of room for us to grow. There’s so much more we could do, so please look forward to what’s to come!” ■
Taken from the August 2023 edition of Dork. aespa’s single ‘Better Things’ is out 18th August.
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