“It has always been my dream to debut in America!” BoA announces gleefully. “Every Asian artist has that dream of Hollywood or the Billboard chart, and this is the perfect time to go to America.”
This week, South Korean singer BoA becomes the latest Asian star to attempt to make it in the West with the release of her self-titled all-English language album. Having debuted in her homeland aged just 13, the 22-year-old has already come far, becoming the first Korean to hit No. 1 in Japan, where her first six albums reached the top spot, as well as recording in Mandarin Chinese.
Her brand of R&B-tinged pop and impressive dance skills has resonated across borders, but there is no doubt that switching to English is the biggest test yet.
“I’m eager to learn English right now,” an enthusiastic BoA proclaims, bouncing on a Marunouchi hotel-room sofa. “I have a tutor right now in Los Angeles, but it’s so hard — harder than Japanese!”
Despite her protestations, she will go on to prove herself admirably proficient over the next hour.
BoA’s assault on the United States officially began Oct. 21 last year when her single “Eat You Up” was released in digital format, peaking at No. 8 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart. The eponymous English-language album is stacked with some of the best producers in the business, including renowned Swedish team Bloodshy and Avant (Britney Spears, Madonna, Kylie) and a collaboration with R&B producer Sean Garrett, known for his work with Usher, Chris Brown and Beyonce. BoA certainly seems have stepped comfortably into her new L.A. life.
“I usually stay with my staff so I don’t know many ordinary people, just dancers and choreographers” she claims. “I’m getting used to my home [in West Beverley Hills]. . . . Everything’s so new, and I really need friends right now.”
Her current stop in Japan to promote the “Best & USA” package that contains her second greatest hits album along with the new album is part of a punishing schedule.
“It’s been seven years, back and forth. I have to do it between Korea, Japan and America right now,” she explains, exasperated. “I have a home here because hotels are so uncomfortable to live in, and I have to stay for such a long time, around six months.”
BoA’s move to the U.S. is, unsurprisingly, being watched carefully by the industry and public alike, due to the failure of many Asian artists who have risked their eminent star status in their home territories to try to reach out across the Pacific.
Inspired by Michael Jackson from a young age (“I tried to do the moonwalk but I couldn’t make it!”), BoA is keen to avoid the pressure.
“My goal isn’t to take over. Charts are important but I really want to learn more about the music industry in America, and I really want to work with high-class producers and good choreographers. So it will be a lot of study for me to find new inspiration.”
The strategy so far has been modest but well-received by media and fans alike and has included events for MTV and KISS FM.
Despite nine years of success, BoA still has time on her side. “I debuted when I was really young, so when I say my age, people are always surprised.”
The road to the U.S. began for an 11-year-old Boa Kwon when she attended an audition for South Korean management company SM Entertainment alongside her break-dancer brother. When a scout suggested she try out, she gave it her best shot, and ended up with a contract.
“When I was young I always listened to music like (South Korean singer) Seo Taiji and I really wanted to be a singer but I didn’t know how. I was scared [at the audition] but I tried, and the same night they called me and offered me a contract.”
Almost immediately the company began giving BoA Japanese lessons, which she embraced.
“I didn’t know they were planning to bring me to Japan but they wanted me to do lessons and I thought, ‘What a good opportunity, why would I not do it!’ I trained for two years, then when I turned 13 I debuted in Korea, then the next year in Japan.”
Understandably, the hectic schedule soon affected her regular education so she quit school to concentrate on breaking through in South Korea and Japan at the same time.
“SM were looking for someone who is young and who could be a solo singer. They wanted to globalize someone,” she reflects.
Having left her family behind so young to move to a foreign country might have phased most, but BoA admits she was too young for culture shock, and instead suffered from missed teenage years.
“I wanted friends because I didn’t go to school and adults were everywhere.”
At 15, the song “Listen To My Heart” was her first big hit, and her debut Japanese album of the same name hit the top spot, the first by a Korean artist ever to do so.
“It was a real honor. I was really happy because these days many Asian artists go to other Asian countries. It was a really good shock! We didn’t expect it to be a hit. I was in Korea so I didn’t know what was going on, but everyone called me saying my face was everywhere and they could hear my song everywhere, everyday. I thought, ‘Oh my God. My dreams came true!’ ”
BoA’s success came right at the time that South Korea lifted its restrictions on Japanese cultural imports, a hangover from World War II that had prevented Japanese films, music, cartoons and computer games from reaching South Korean shores. By the end of 2003 all barriers had come down and a Korean “boom” swept Japan. Seeing her face emblazoned across innumerable glossies didn’t faze the emerging star though, but it did make her a little self-conscious.
“It gave me power, because when I came there were no Korean artists here. Nobody had broken through. I didn’t believe it, is it really me?”
The success brought with it even more demands on her schedule, and she admits her teenage years were far from average. “[Regular people] didn’t have my teenage single life, but I didn’t have their ordinary life. I missed my family and parents because I didn’t have much time with them. After I turned 20, I could drink and enjoy more of a personal life.”
Discussing her private life she declares: “It’s hard, and Japan has scary paparazzi, so it’s hard to meet a guy, but then no one is asking me out right now.”
BoA’s attempt to straddle three countries at once is undoubtedly a challenge — personally and professionally. At her performance for the Dreams Come True 20th anniversary tribute event in Tokyo’s National Stadium in Yoyogi on March 10, she appeared to be more than under the weather. Nevertheless, the future looks bright. On April 4, BoA will join Tokyo’s Spring Groove festival alongside TLC, John Legend and T-Pain, artists whose success she no doubt hopes to emulate. And with her second single. “I Did It For Love,” featuring Sean Garrett, already lined up, no one would put it past her.
‘BoA’ was released March 17 in the United States. “Best & USA” is on the shelves in Japan from March 18.