Tiffany Young on Bridging K-Pop and U.S. Music Worlds, Making Her New "Runaway" Video

Courtesy of Transparent Arts Agency
Tiffany Young

The Girls' Generation singer opens up to The Hollywood Reporter about the challenge of pursuing an American crossover, while maintaining a formidable presence in Asia — and choosing to sing in Korean again on her latest single: "I never want to forget where I came from."

Following an eight-stop North American tour in March, Tiffany Young made a triumphant return to Seoul, where the K-pop idol touched down to perform an acoustic concert featuring songs from her English-language EP, Lips on Lips, released internationally on Feb. 22 and certified platinum in South Korea within the span of just one week. As the Los Angeles-based artist, 29, recounts to The Hollywood Reporter, it was at her sold-out, stripped-down show in the Asian country's capital — and her former home — where she had an epiphany of sorts. 

"Seeing my Asian fans sing my songs so passionately, even after I had spent some time focusing on my career here in America, I suddenly felt a need to get back to my roots," says Young, who is of Korean descent but only spoke English when she relocated from the U.S. to Seoul as a teen to pursue music. "During that acoustic set, I decided I needed to do a Korean version of my song 'Runaway.' Of all the songs from my EP, [my fans in Seoul] seemed to really connect with that one. It's one of my favorites, too." 

"Runaway," Young's duet with R&B powerhouse Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, is one of the first tracks she recorded for Lips on Lips, her debut solo project since cutting ties with South Korea's SM Entertainment Co. in late 2017 and then signing with L.A.'s Transparent Arts Agency last year. The singer's bold decision to leave SM and move back to the States — she originally hails from Diamond Bar, California — came after a decade as one eighth of the K-pop label's immensely successful girl group Girls' Generation. To this day, Young and her fellow members, whom she considers "lifelong sisters," are collectively revered in South Korea as The Nation's Girl Group.

But during her recent whirlwind trip to Seoul, Young realized that her star still burns brightly across the Pacific even as a solo artist. Inspired by the "insane amount of love and support" she encountered amid her busy schedule — full of work commitments, press and face time with fans — Young soon linked up with her Girls' Generation bandmate Sooyoung Choi to collaborate on translating the English lyrics of "Runaway" to Choi's native Korean. According to Young, her new version of the romantic ballad, which also includes a sparkling composition from Asian-American pianist Chloe Flower, is one way in which she is attempting to "bridge the two worlds" of K-pop and American music. 

"As an artist, whether I'm releasing music here in the U.S. or in Asia, I never want to forget where I came from," says Young, who often cites Madonna, Annie Lennox and K-pop superstar BoA as main influences. "Plus, I'm always thinking about how I can move the needle forward — and I will forever be in love with the presentation of K-pop and its production value. So, my music will always have that element no matter what in some way, shape or form." 

Young's enthusiasm for K-pop's extravagant aesthetics is evident in her accompanying video for "Runaway," which she dropped on Thursday night. The dreamy visual — co-directed by Nikko Lamere and DPD of Transparent Arts — sees Young channeling aviation heroine Amelia Earhart as she traverses across breathtaking landscapes in a colorful hot air balloon, dressed in an array of designer looks comprised of pieces from the likes of Phillip Lim, The Row and Jimmy Choo.

"I really wanted the hot air balloon to symbolize this new journey that I've been on in my career," she explains. "I've been able to see things from a totally new perspective and I've realized that there are no borders when it comes to my art. I literally feel like I'm flying and, creatively, I've never felt more free. The future is limitless, we can be anything we want and I hope my fans, in Asia and everywhere across the world, also feel like that when they listen to this song and watch the video."

Below, Young opens up more to THR about crafting "Runaway's" Korean counterpart, orchestrating its two-day video shoot and the challenge of juggling her career across multiple continents.  

How did you land on the concept for the "Runaway" music video?

Starting from my first single from Lips on Lips, "Born Again," and going on the whole journey of the EP, my main focus was melding K-pop and American pop music — because I love both equally. Centering it around the concept of flying in a hot air balloon, I wanted to portray this idea of freedom and going on a journey to unexpected places. That's what this whole year has been like for me, so this video feels like an extension of myself. It's very personal.

Was this your first time flying in a hot air balloon?

Yes, it was my first time! The basket is so much smaller in person. I felt like I was going to fall out for a second. [Laughs.] But it felt good the moment I started flying. You have to turn off the flames every few seconds. The moment you feel like you're dropping to the ground, that's when you have to turn on the flames again. What's amazing is that I was afraid as I was going up, but by the time I was flying, my instincts kicked in and I just let my feelings take control. And that's very much how I feel about my music right now. Again, I'm so glad I got to relay those feelings in this video. 

In what ways were you most involved in making the video?

I was orchestrating every aspect of this video, which took two days to shoot in early April. We shot it at Lake Elsinore and Chatsworth here in California. I was involved in all categories. But I think you can definitely tell that I obviously had a hand in the styling. I loved exploring new looks that I never thought I could pull off. For style inspiration, I looked to Naomi Watts and Cate Blanchett. I also wanted to channel Amelia Earhart, someone who lived a life full of action and led by example. And I was very involved in the editing process, overseeing how the video flows. Storytelling was a big focus for me. I was in the editing room multiple times with my partners and there were a few versions. Making this video really taught me what it takes to be a producer. It was tough, but it was also incredibly rewarding. 

Your Girls' Generation bandmate, Sooyoung Choi, helped you write the Korean verses for "Runaway" and pianist Chloe Flower offered her skills to the new version of the song as well. How would you describe the significance of collaborating with other female artists in today's social climate, marked by movements for women's empowerment like #MeToo and Time's Up?

It's amazing. I love working with other women. But, also, I released this song and video just in time for the last day of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. I have taken the month of May researching and embracing different Asian artists around the world, and that includes both Chloe and Sooyoung, who I've obviously known forever. So, this new version of "Runaway" is the perfect way for me to celebrate both our heritage as Asian artists — which I'm so proud of — and, of course, girl power.

What was it like translating the English lyrics of "Runaway" to Korean with Sooyoung? Does this new version carry the same message?

Sooyoung and I have collaborated multiple times with her being my lyricist since my Korean EP project in 2016, I Just Wanna Dance. But she's had a number of amazing lyrics on the Girls' Generation singles and albums since around 2011. She's been one of the earlier lyricists in the group and I really love her style, her point of view and her way of writing. I am so lucky to have such a talented lyricist in my tribe, but also to have such an amazing sister and friend. She's definitely somebody I always want to go back to. I'm so proud of her. And she's like, "Wow. Wait, those are my lyrics!" The song is about how nothing matters when you love something so much, how you're ready to run away, risk it all and put it all on the line. Sooyoung did really capture the romance and the sweetness in Babyface's parts in Korean very well. After so many years in a girl group, we are starting to become more and more comfortable with the fact that we are now really taking a lot more creative control.

You wrote the English lyrics for a handful of Girls' Generation singles. How did those experiences compare to translating "Runaway" to Korean?

I helped out multiple times during my time with the group. Every time was such a process. I didn't know that I had to be exactly in the creative context. I was like, "I just want to make it its own thing." I wanted to sprinkle some creativity here and there. I didn't know how to translate word for word and that was a learning experience. That was years ago and I was so young. But I'm glad that I had a few times where I attempted to write the English lyrics for a song that was already recorded in Korean. I have that understanding down, so it was easy for me to flow with Sooyoung when we were working on the Korean lyrics for "Runaway."

Though Babyface doesn’t sing in Korean on this new version of "Runaway" and he doesn't appear in the video, his vocals are still included on the track. Why was it imperative for you to keep his voice on the song?

His voice is timeless and magical. He also wrote it, so it's that fairy tale love song that he's known for. That's exactly what I wanted to create when we first linked up. I love that we can easily identify his signature sound and I'm so honored to have that on my record and be able to learn from him and work with him. For me, keeping his voice on there was non-negotiable.

Now that you're involved in every aspect of your career as a solo artist, what is it like creating a music video these days, as opposed to when you were part of an eight-piece girl group at a major K-pop label?

It's been a big learning curve for me. But after doing several music videos as a solo artist here in the U.S., I've learned that the most important part for me is thinking about how the visual is going to expand the song and take it to another level or give it a deeper meaning. Before, it was all about just looking good. When I was younger, I didn't have the space or time to think on my own about what I wanted creatively. There was a big team that was guiding me through it, so now on my own it's a little scary but also very, very rewarding to be able to take "Runaway" and turn it into a Korean version and try to be as innovative with it as possible with the video. And then having both Babyface and Chloe Flower on the song, having one of my bandmates write the Korean lyrics, it took a lot of heart and thought to really handcraft and tailor this project to me and the fans.

How have you evolved as an artist since leaving SM Entertainment Co. in South Korea and signing with Transparent Arts Agency here in the States?

I'm not a girl anymore. I'm a woman. Throughout my career, I didn't feel like I could really be outspoken or expressive about who I am personally. Coming here [to L.A.] and doing a little soul-searching, going to therapy and life-coaching — things I would have never thought about before in Korea — and being more involved in the creative process of my music, versus just being in front of the camera all the time, has definitely opened up my eyes. Sometimes I think being from K-pop, there were a lot of things I couldn't see until I decided to take a step back. Now I see it from another perspective. There's value in sharing your truth. By being more vulnerable and open, not so guarded both as a person and as an artist, I hope to empower others.

What is the most challenging part about pursuing a solo career in the U.S., while maintaining a formidable presence in Asia?

Of course, not being able to be in two places at once is a challenge. But seeing my fans in any part of the world is so rewarding for me — their smiles, the way they light up when they hear my music and the way I light up when I get to see them. That's what makes it worth it. Asia is where my career started and it's because of my fans there, their love and support, that I'm able to do what I love here in the U.S. and on a global scale. So, it's always going to be a juggle and I'm still trying to find a balance, but I'm very grateful for it.

You have another Seoul concert scheduled in August. After that, what can your fans — or, as you like to call them, your "Young Ones" — expect from you next on the music front? 

There is absolutely more to come. I'm always working on what's next. There might be some clues mixed into the "Runaway" music video, so expect the unexpected. Expect nothing but the best and be ready to fly and run away with me. The title of this song hints at the next direction I'm taking with my music. This first half of the year has been incredible and so inspiring. I can't wait for everyone to hear the next batch of music. It's really exciting, I can promise you that. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.