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Youn Sun Nah: Off the Clock

For her latest album, the vocalist didn’t limit her studio time—or her ambition

Youn Sun Nah (photo: Seung Yıll Nah)
Youn Sun Nah (photo: Seung Yıll Nah)

“Jazz has no frontiers. You can be very free.” That’s the message that was imparted to vocalist Youn Sun Nah by her teachers when she was struggling to find herself as a twentysomething jazz student in Paris in the 1990s. “I really wanted to sing like Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, but it was impossible so I almost gave up,” she confesses. Fortunately that piece of encouragement—a verbal means to artistic liberation, as it turned out—strengthened her resolve to follow her own course.

Today, half a lifetime removed from that moment, Nah continues to uphold the ideal of borderless expression, walking a jazz path that fuses art song with art-pop, minimalism with virtuosity, and avant-expressionism with impressionistic allure. The one constant in her output remains her sui generis singing. With pointed diction, a mastery of slow-flow aesthetics, noted appreciation for space, and pitch-perfect clarity, Nah’s arresting vocals draw attention in every space they inhabit. The series of albums she released on the German ACT label from 2009 to 2017—a body of work that netted her a slew of awards and helped elevate her to jazz-star status in her native South Korea, France, and other parts of Europe—testifies to that fact, as does her latest release.  

Immersion, Nah’s 2019 debut for Warner Music Group’s Arts Music Division, marks her official entrance into the American music establishment. But a more notable first can be found in her modus operandi for the project. “My previous albums are all acoustic and made live. For this album I wanted to discover different ways of working,” Nah relates. “I’ve never spent more than two days [or so] in the studio [in the past], but this time I just wanted to take more time to try new things.”

Teaming up with producer and multi-instrumentalist Clément Ducol, she would come to appreciate that breathing room and the attention to specifics it afforded her. “We recorded every single detail beat by beat,” she notes. It was a two-week process that ultimately yielded some of the most moving work of her career. “In My Heart,” the opener, which arrived as a video single in early September, introduces the new direction: Stasis and progress come to an easy truce as looping vocal backgrounds and subtle yet firm rhythm support a spellbinding lead vocal that lean on the wisdom of Rumi. “The Wonder,” a more intense and menacing manifestation of the creative process, follows. It’s a new number shaped by collaboration in the studio, but it points directly to Nah’s sonic signatures.            

Those initial offerings, along with other originals like the dusky “Here Today” and the hypnotic “I’m Alright,” speak to Nah’s growing, Ducol-bolstered confidence in exploring the act of conceptualization. But her longstanding brilliance with the art of interpretation also carries a good deal of weight. George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity,” which Nah first encountered on Nina Simone’s 1972 album Emergency Ward!, is starkly intimate, with Pierre-François Dufour’s pizzicato cello serving as sparse scenery. Moody travels through Michel Legrand’s “Sans Toi” speak to a love of French chanson and an appreciation for the composer’s resonance. The layered voices of “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” lay bare Marvin Gaye’s messages about environmental woes, and an anger-fueled “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” inspired by Johnny Cash’s take, is a reminder that you can’t circumvent karma. Add to that the Zen-like, hum-infused arrangement of the Holland-Dozier-Holland classic “You Can’t Hurry Love” and the wordless intricacies of Isaac Albéniz’s “Asturias,” and you really start to see how Nah operates without limits.

With a milestone birthday and the American release of Immersion arriving several weeks apart, there’s serious cause for reflection on Nah’s part. Having never imagined a life in music, due in part to the stresses and strains that the field put on her father (a noted choir conductor) and her mother (a musical actress), this one-time literature student and fashion PR representative looks back across her unlikely success story with a sense of wonder and a touch of amusement. Nah’s path has been anything but predictable, yet her current course finds her right where she wants to be. “Sometimes I have 200 gigs a year, and I’m always on the road. But I feel good! I once heard somewhere that home is not a place; it’s people. And meeting different musicians and people everywhere I go, I feel alive.”

Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College.