Inhyeok Yeo finds fans on YouTube, but seeks glory at the Grammys

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

Armed with a good ear, a good voice and self-marketing tips that he picked up at school, singer Inhyeok Yeo is aiming for a Grammy. What sets him apart from Adele, Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars, though, is that he sings a cappella cover versions of pop songs — performing all the instruments with his own voice.

And he’s getting noticed — online at least. The 26-year-old Seoul native, who works at an IT firm in Tokyo during the day, has uploaded six a cappella recordings onto his YouTube channel since January. Together they have attracted more than a million views and thousands of congratulatory comments. Yeo released a seventh track today, a rendition of Alicia Key’s “Fallin’,” via iTunes.

“SNS is really powerful,” he tells The Japan Times. “Initially I was going to quit a cappella after uploading three songs. But my first clip (a cover of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’) became such a phenomenon I had no choice but to continue.”

Indeed, when Yeo released the “Thriller” cover, his video clip was featured on the official Facebook page for YouTube. His second video, a performance of “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder, was picked up by overseas news outlets such as CBS, Fox, BBC Radio and MBC News of South Korea, he says.

Then, when Yeo followed those two up with a cover of the Christopher Cross song “Sailing” in July, Cross himself commented through his official YouTube channel account: “I love your cover of my song. It’s a beautiful symphony of voice. I hope we can meet on my next tour.”

Yeo’s performances are impressive not only for the vocalist’s harmonic skills, but also for their visual impact. He films himself singing each part and shows them all together on one screen — as if a cluster of clones were singing in chorus. For his cover of “Sailing,” Yeo performed 16 parts by himself. The screen shows him snapping his fingers at first, which is then overlaid by a video of him singing the lead vocal in the center. He mimics percussive elements such as cymbals, snare drums and a shaker. Gradually, backing vocals are added and the viewer is left with, well, a “Yeo-rchestra.”

Yeo spent three years in Aichi Prefecture in his early teens after his father was transferred to Japan because of his job. He had belonged to a chorus group in high school, which is when he developed the desire to become a professional singer.

His parents wouldn’t allow him to go to music college, but he spoke native-level Japanese and so he attended Kyoto University instead. He belonged to that school’s a cappella singing club and taught himself how to sing by mimicking the work of groups such as The Real Group out of Sweden and Boyz Nite Out from the United States. Yeo says he would listen to their songs endlessly and write the scores out over and over. He became so fascinated with this extracurricular activity that he missed credits needed for his marketing major and ended up staying in college for six years. In the sixth year, he also took a year off from school and went back to South Korea to serve a mandatory two-year stint in the military.

Even in the military, Yeo says he worked hard to hone his musical talents and planned a detailed marketing strategy. He would sneak in practice whenever possible. During the army’s early morning “roaring” exercise, in which hundreds of soldiers on the base scream together to get into a combative state of mind, he says he would secretly belt out vocal scales.

“I practiced ad lib parts then,” he says, laughing. “I figured no one could hear me at those times.”

He also got in some singing practice during regular performances of the South Korean national anthem, and in his free time he read books on musical theory.

Yeo completed his military service on March 15, 2012, and returned to Kyoto University. He has been busy singing, as well as learning jazz piano, dance and country guitar, to further train his musical and rhythmic sensibilities.

“To win a Grammy, I’ve studied what kind of songs have won the award so far. My conclusion is that most winners are pop songs based on jazz and country music.”

How long will he keep trying? “I don’t know, but all but one of the winners in four major categories of the award are under 35,” he says. “So considering my age, I’m thinking I have eight or nine more years. But I don’t think it’s an award I can inch toward, little by little. If I were to take it, it would be within the next three years, riding on the momentum I have right now.”

Inhyeok Yeo’s video clips can be seen at www.youtube.com/channel/UCvt7PgawaY8UFGEiQKSPQwA.