There come moments where the tides of life arrive to wash away the footprints we have left in the sand, taking with it all proof of the journey we’ve walked, no matter how long or arduous. For 23-year-old Jeon HeeJin, the beginning of her journey was more than her own: With the release of her single ‘Vivid’ in 2016, she also became the face of LOONA as the first of the group to be unveiled.
The act would go on to introduce 11 more members in the coming months and, in the years to come, amass one of the largest, most passionate fanbases the realm of K-pop has seen. But all this came to a screeching halt nearly a year ago, when their former agency’s decision to expel one member set in motion a full-fledged legal battle for independence.
Among the first of the group to win back their freedom were HeeJin and fan-favourite sub-unit Odd Eye Circle – aka Kim Lip, Jinsoul and Choerry – all of whom found themselves planting new roots as ARTMS at Modhaus, headed by Jaden Jeong, the creative director from LOONA’s early days. Months after Odd Eye Circle’s triumphant return, they’ve now passed the baton to HeeJin – the member who started it all – to write her own new beginning.
“It’s been around a year since I’ve made a comeback and performed, and it does feel a little intense. But in a way, this pressure definitely motivated me to work hard on this album,” she says of ‘K’ over a video call with NME from Seoul. Carefully curated, each song on the six-track record – four of which HeeJin co-wrote – showcases a different facet of the singer, from the upbeat disco-inspired pop of lead single ‘Algorithm’, surprising sensuality of ‘Video Games’ and the melancholy of ‘Nokia’.
“With [‘Vivid’], my previous company already had an image they wanted me to portray, so I did my best to bring that out. But now, I’ve been trying to find my own style. I can’t ignore the image that fans already have of me, so it was a mix of that, along with my own experimentation,” HeeJin shares, adding that her new record was shaped from “continuous, constant” discussions with her new home. “I considered it a study, and it makes me feel like I’ve grown as an artist.”
“There’s definitely potential for us to come back as a full group, I’m sure the fans feel similarly too”
“When we were talking about the [‘Algorithm’] music video, I really wanted to express Korean beauty,” she adds. In more ways than one, ‘Algorithm’ and its accompanying music video are about bridging the gap between the old and new. Set in a historical Korean palace and on the streets of Seoul, HeeJin plays both the traditional beauty and the carefree modern woman, dancing from photobooths to karaoke rooms with her best friends (featuring a special ARTMS cameo) in tow. “It showcases a lot of Korean traditional beauty and past [historical] periods, for example, and I’m very humbled that we got to film it in a traditional Korean palace.”
Detailing her experience putting together the record, HeeJin admits that her hands-on approach to ‘K’ was difficult at times, just from the sheer number of decisions that she had to make. Still, it’s clear that she takes great pride in her work, beaming as she shares how she brought her ideas to life. “Looking back on the whole process, it was such a rewarding time, and truly a golden experience.”
When the conversation shifts to her more personal goals, HeeJin declares that she is more than ready to dive headfirst into uncharted waters. To her, the future is boundless. “I feel like you can look forward to endless possibilities,” HeeJin says, sharing her ambitions to release more solo work and venture into acting. “I’m actually taking acting classes right now, so I wouldn’t mind taking on that challenge.”
“I would like to try playing a bad girl, or a villain type of role that you wouldn’t expect from an idol and really express it all,” she says with a shy laugh, pausing to ponder on the villainous role of her dreams. “I’d like to try a role like Park Yeon-jin from The Glory, who is basically a school bully and perpetrator of violence, that’s something I would be really interested in trying out.”
“My previous company already had an image they wanted me to portray, but now, I’ve been trying to find my own style”
Despite her ambitions, HeeJin is also keen to return to the stage with her fellow ARTMS members, adding that their relationship is “still going strong”. She also voices her hope for them to release music as a quintet, and to meet their fans overseas. “I believe that the members as well as the company really keep that in mind and keep the idea open,” she says. “I do think one day, not so far into the future, it could happen. And if there is an ARTMS album, then there will definitely be an ARTMS tour.”
As for the beloved LOONA? According to HeeJin, all 12 members continue to hope for a reunion, come hell or high water. “There’s definitely potential for us to come back as a full group,” HeeJin says. “So many things have happened, but all of our members do want [a reunion]. Sometimes when we meet up, we’ll talk about the times we performed together, and what we should do, and so on. There’s stuff we still want to show to fans as a group. I’m sure the fans feel similarly too,” she says, a tinge of regret in her voice.
As our time together comes to an end, HeeJin shares messages to both her fans and bandmates: “I want to tell the fans both thank you, and I’m sorry. We had this turbulent situation, which wasn’t ideal for them, but they were always there by our sides, cheering us on and giving us love. I think that helped us survive and come this far, so we’re more grateful than ever to the fans.”
“To the members, I want to say that no decision is wrong. I want to tell them, ‘let’s keep relying on each other, let’s keep going and progressing well’,” she says. In starting over, the group took a gamble and cast beyond the moon, throwing their lives into limbo. But if the past few months have proven anything, it’s that they’ve hit the ground running with a renewed sense of confidence. HeeJin’s journey with LOONA journeys may not have been as smooth-sailing as she expected, but each member of the beloved group has found their own way to shine brighter than ever – but this shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, it is the moon that controls the tides.
HeeJin’s new mini-album ‘K’ is out now
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