Electronic musician CIFIKA is the Korean Arca
“I’ve always wanted to look like a future person,” CIFIKA—real name Yousun Cho—muses fondly. True to her statement, the rising Korean electronic producer and singer’s wardrobe includes metallic ski pants and candy colored PVC bomber jacket, accentuated by her silvery blonde locks. This “future person” regalia is an unmissable companion to her highly polished music, a confluence of electronic, techno, and synth pop, with a hint of R&B. But cutting through the machine-like sound is her voice, ample with depth and sonic warmth, projecting a cavern-like echo that humanizes her music.
It is the second to last day of her much anticipated month-long U.S. tour when I catch up with CIFIKA over the phone. It was merely a year and a half ago when the 27-year-old musician released her debut song “Ritual.” Yet, in addition to successfully finishing up what was billed as “the longest American tour taken up by a Korean act,” CIFIKA has already stacked many accomplishments under her belt to legitimize the hype. This includes releasing two EPs; dropping “MOMOM,” a highly praised collaboration with Hyuk Oh, the lead singer of the famous Korean indie rock band HYUKOH; performing on the K-pop stage at SXSW last month; and scoring her first solo concert in Korea, happening at the end of the month.
The ambitious musician is constantly on the prowl, hungry for experience. Case in point: when I ask her about the tour, she replies, “I matured a lot. I gained a new perspective on ways to understand other human beings. This is going to help me a lot when I’m writing lyrics in the future. In fact, I already have four to five sketches that are ready to be polished.”
Such propensity for looking forward makes up the core of CIFIKA’s persona. But even by her standard, the fact that she didn’t know anything about electronic music or music production until merely three years ago is quite astonishing. “In fact, I had no interest in music growing up,” she quips. In the pre-CIFIKA era, the Korea-born Cho was pursuing a career as an art director in L.A. after getting a degree in graphic design. But she quickly realized that she had no prospect nor talent in art direction, leading her to quit her job. It was around this period when she started teaching herself music theory and eventually discovered London Grammar, Flume, Aphex Twin … “All the big names,” she says. “I wanted to learn how to make that kind of music and after finding out everything could be done on the computer, I got really hooked.”
The accessibility and versatility of a virtual instrument like Ableton, and the fact that all the production could be done within a digital sphere, fascinated her (“We live in a digital world after all”), propelling her to start forging a new identity as a musician. The career shift from an art director to an electronic musician wasn’t as drastic as one might have expected, though: “Ableton works essentially the same as Photoshop and Illustrator. There are layers and layers of different elements and you combine them together, polish and revise. Like each instrument is a color and composition.”
In the Korean music landscape, dominated by K-pop and, more recently, hip-hop, genres traditionally found in the periphery—like EDM, indie rock and techno—have been slowly gaining momentum. But despite the surge in interest, the scene is still small and insular, making it nearly impossible for these emerging talents to make a living out of their music. So her decision to perform at underground clubs in Seoul like Cakeshop and Henz, which primarily feature DJs and sometimes rappers, may have been a blessing in disguise: “I’m usually the only one singing live at these venues. And that has made me stand out amongst a pool of DJs.” And it definitely has—it was her performance at one of these clubs last December that captivated my attention, after all.
CIFIKA is still relatively unknown within the mainstream music circuit in Korea. And because there is no precedence for a Korean electronic musician going global, she has odds stacked against her. But for now, she is enjoying the newfound second act. “I love being a musician,” she tells me excitedly, “It’s a new life for me. Even now, I’m not used to being a musician.” And if her track record up till this point and pure ambition are any indication of what is to come, CIFIKA is poised to take over your playlists in the near future, including in movie soundtracks: “One of my goals is to compose a film score for a sci-fi movie.”
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