“It’s always been at the back of our minds”

When SISTAR announced their disbandment in 2017, K-pop fans across the world were heartbroken over the break-up of the iconic second-generation girl group. Over the course of their seven-year career, the quartet earned themselves the title of South Korea’s “summer queens” with a string of nine number one hits. Every summer season, scores of eager listeners awaited their next big hit, from 2012’s ‘Loving U’ to their iconic 2015 smash ‘Shake It’.

Early during their run, the group also launched one of the industry’s most successful sub-units. Formed by rapper Bora and vocalist Hyolyn, SISTAR19 traded the main act’s more upbeat hits for songs that dealt with the desires and heartbreak that so often experienced by a girl on the cusp of womanhood. First debuting in 2011 with the addictive ‘Ma Boy’, the duo quickly proved themselves just as capable of dominating the charts as their parent group.

In the years between their breakup, SISTAR have proven that their story isn’t quite over yet. The four members have collaborated on many occasions, though few had expected an official return. But here we are, 11 years later, and SISTAR19 are back with brand-new music. A week ahead of their return with ‘No More (Ma Boy)’, NME caught up with Bora and Hyolyn over Zoom to discuss their long-awaited new release, the K-pop industry and more.

While fans have been pleasantly surprised by the return of dearly missed friends, according to Bora and Hyolyn, it was always in the cards. “Between the two of us, it’s always been at the back of our minds to make a comeback together,” Bora shares, “the timing happened to fit both us and our agencies, so we decided to start working on this project together.” Meanwhile, Hyolyn says that they see the sub-unit as “completely different” from SISTAR as a whole, and felt that this was the perfect time for the pair to make a return.

Despite the enthusiasm for their new release, the duo admit that it hasn’t been smooth sailing. When asked about the process of planning the release, they share a knowing smile and burst into a bout of hearty laughter. Bora quickly clarifies that communication between them had not been an issue, but being from separate agencies had complicated things. “There were many obstacles and it wasn’t easy,” Hyolyn adds, “but we’re in the process of working things out together. Honestly, we were just practicing together earlier and I told Bora unnie, why don’t you just come and be a singer under my agency?’”

“Over the time that has passed, we’ve grown and matured a lot as both people and artists” – Bora

When SISTAR19 debuted in 2011, Bora and Hyolyn were just 21 and 20 years old. The “19” in their name represented the uneasiness and anxieties of falling in love as a young woman on the verge of adulthood. This much was clear in first single ‘Ma Boy’, a surprisingly heart-breaking pop earworm in which they plead with a lover to treat them right (“Is it that hard to say ‘I love you’? / All I need is that one word / You keep changing / I’m getting tired now, oh oh”).

“Over the time that has passed, we’ve grown and matured a lot as both people and artists,” Bora says. That much is clear through the music alone. The sleek and confident dance-pop single ‘No More (Ma Boy)’ is a grown-up continuation of their debut single, this time far more assertive about their lover’s failings. On the song, the duo shed their insecurities, now knowing full well what they want and deserve out of love. “I would say that the identity of today’s SISTAR19 is one of maturity and confidence,” she adds.

It’s not just the message that has changed, though. Early in their careers, the duo had been ambitious to prove their mettle, chasing success through chart achievements and music show trophies. Now that they’ve achieved K-pop legend status – a statement they seem almost embarrassed by when their interpreter translates it – this comeback was a passion project more than anything. Hyolyn points out that over the years, she’s learned to see the bigger picture, while Bora said that this new release was “more of a way to have as much fun as we can together, and as a gift to our fans who have waited for us all this time”.

SISTAR19 SISTAR interview hyolyn bora

Beyond SISTAR, the duo also touch on the changes they see around them in the K-pop industry. Hyolyn, in particular, is keen to share her observations, especially as someone who has stayed active as a popular soloist in her own right. “I think there have been a lot of changes in the last few years, especially in terms of what is trending in music, so I’ve just been going with the flow,” she says. “Coincidentally, a lot of the changes in terms of sound have been in line with my personal preferences. So, as a soloist, I think I’ve been able to showcase more in my solo career, be it through the music, choreography or visuals.”

Meanwhile, Bora swells with pride discussing how popular K-pop has become overseas in the few years since she’s been active in music: “There are a lot more people all over the world who listen to K-pop now, and the general interest in the genre has spiked a lot. From the seniors before us, to SISTAR and to our juniors in the industry, it really feels like there were a lot of pioneers over the generations who have made this international expansion of K-pop possible.”

“It’ll be even harder gathering four agencies together [for a full SISTAR reunion], but we’re up for the challenge” – Hyolyn

Even so, they continue to hope for K-pop to soar to even greater heights. “K-pop has become really popular overseas, but there are certainly countries out there that haven’t heard much of it, or have very little access to K-pop,” says Hyolyn. “In the future, we’d love for more opportunities to go out there and spread good music.”

As for the fans they have reached, the duo express their gratitude to those who have patiently awaited their return. “Just the fact that they’ve waited for this long is not an easy thing to do, so we really want to thank them for that. We were so amazed to see our fans all band together as soon as we announced the comeback,” Bora says, clearly thrilled by the outpour of support their return has received. “I want to meet them as soon as possible!,” Hyolyn chimes in.

SISTAR19 SISTAR interview hyolyn bora

With the return of SISTAR19, hopes of a full SISITAR reunion are running higher than ever. The members have remained close, often spotted hanging out on social media, and have voiced their desire to perform together again. “I think the most crucial thing [to maintaining our friendship] is to communicate consistently, because each of our time is precious. It’s important to us to make that time to talk, meet up and catch up,” Hyolyn shares, adding that the bond between the band has only grown stronger since going their separate ways.

“I think after branching out to more of our solo work, we’ve been able to be more genuine and honest in our conversations with each other,” she explains, as Bora nods in agreement. “In that sense, I suppose our friendship has changed, since that has helped us understand each other better and grow even closer.”

Hyolyn and Bora are clearly excited to make music again, though they point out that their comeback has unearthed more difficulties than they had expected. “I think [a SISTAR runion] is going to be even more challenging,” the latter says, and Hyolyn lets out a surprised laugh at her honesty.

“We’re going through a lot as the two companies have come together and had to work together for this comeback,” Hyolyn elaborates, and it’s Bora’s turn to burst into hysterics. “It’ll be even harder gathering four agencies together [laughs], but we’re up for the challenge.”

SISTAR19’s new single ‘No More (Ma Boy)’ is out now on all major streaming platforms.

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