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Seoul, Seoul, South Korea

Seoul, Seoul, South Korea
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"The Barberettes: Korea’s One and Only Doo-Wop Trio"

The "time-traveling girl group" talk touring the U.S. for the first time, how they learned English watching Christina Aguilera videos, and their obsession with barbershop, doo-wop, and Motown music

Tuesday afternoon at the South By Southwest (SXSW) music conference and festival is a lazy affair. The Interactive portion of the week is ending, while the music segment hasn’t technically started yet. It’s limbo in Austin, Texas this year, and many wandered through the city’s convention center looking for something to entertain them. A fair amount ended up at a stage tucked away on the first floor of the building, where one of the week’s most interesting international acts was about to take the stage.

The Barberettes stroll out on stage at 5 PM, the Seoul trio clad in traditional Korean hanbok. What follows features plenty of traditional touches—songs sung in Korean, covers of decade-old folk songs—but with a blur of retro touchstones. Dubbing themselves a “time-traveling girl group,” The Barberettes performs 50s and 60s-style songs, full of overlapping vocal harmonies and doo-wop touches. They close their show out with a cover by The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” seemingly brightening up many people’s otherwise boring Tuesday.

“It was our first show in the United States ever,” singer So Hee Park said the next day. “I was really nervous before, but once we finished I was so happy and excited.” That convention center gig was just the start of The Barberettes week, as they would play several more shows in Austin, including a band-backed set at the third annual K-Pop Night Out showcase, a big milestone for the young group.

Photo Credit: Welkinlight Photography

The group features Park, Grace Kim, and Shinae An Wheeler, who produces the songs and plays the guitar while as serving as a vocalist. It took some time for the eventual members of The Barberettes to find American girl group sounds, however. “I was born and raised in Korea; I never lived in America or Canada. I learned English from watching Christina Aguilera, Backstreet Boys… artists like that,” Wheeler says during our in-person interview. “I also liked Alicia Keyes and R&B singers in the early 2000s, and I watched a lot of their interviews.”

“I started learning about their influences, and began searching out Motown stuff, and eventually found doo-wop and barbershop music,” she adds.

During this time, Wheeler did some work as a singing teacher at a university, and taught Park. She later met Kim through a mutual friend, and Wheeler realized all three had the vocal chops to form a group. “[Wheeler] introduced us to that style of music,” Kim says, as Wheeler adds that she sent the two a list of songs she wanted them to listen to.

“In Korea, there are famous songs from that genre like The Temptation’s ‘My Girl,’ everyone knows that song,” Wheeler says. “But not many people know it’s a genre. Here, in America, people recognize our clothes and our sound and pick up that it’s vintage, but it’s all fresh in Korea.”

Which isn’t to say The Barberettes were the first to try it out in recent years. Throwback girl group imagery has appeared in K-pop numerous times, with groups such as Wonder Girls and Girls’ Generation giving it a whirl. The difference, though, is that these are just stylistic dips utilized for a single or an album, eventually swapped out for some other concept. The Barberettes, meanwhile, are committed to this genre. “We are more focused on the music,” Wheeler says. “This type of music we make is really hard to produce, if you don’t get really in to it.”

This commitment paid off. Wheeler says The Barberettes’ unique look garnered attention quickly. Initially, the trio decided to record cover versions of classic girl group songs and post them to YouTube, although the decision to do it was a bit more spontaneous than that. “It was random, we got together one afternoon and just decided, ‘OK, let’s do it today,’” Wheeler says. “We got together at 2 PM that day, and it was over at 2 AM. But we had so much fun filming it, goofing around.” That clip, for “Be My Baby,” attracted attention, and currently counts 900,000 plus views on YouTube.

As their take on “Be My Baby” racked up views, the trio decided to upload more covers, with The Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” following. “That one was guided by a guitarist named Marty Friedman,” Wheeler says, referring to the former guitarist of American metal band Megadeth, who currently lives in Tokyo and works with artists in Asia. She says he wanted to work with them, and sent them a list of songs, one of which was “Barbara Ann.” “As soon as we heard it, Park started singing ‘ba ba ba, ba Barberettes,’ and we knew we would be going with that one.”

The Barberettes videos continued to do well, and soon the trio began work on an album of original material, drawing influences from many sources. “I listen to a lot of songs in my car,” Wheeler says. “There is a radio station in Korea I always listen to, US Military radio. One of the commercial theme songs was done in a barbershop style…like ‘car wash, car wash…..carrrrr wash!’ That inspired me to write something in my car, recorded on my phone.”

Their first album, The Barberettes Volume 1, came out at the start of summer last year (it was originally slated to come out in the spring, but was delayed, like many Korean albums at that time, due to the Sewol ferry accident), a collection of new material leaning heavily on the ‘50s and ‘60s style they had embraced. From there, they played many shows in their home country and have begun performing internationally. This latter moves puts them in the same company as two of their biggest inspirations—‘60s Korean girl groups Korean Kittens and The Kim Sisters, who performed on nationally televised programs in Britain and England, respectively.

“The first time we saw The Kim Sisters, it was really rare for us. Who are these people?” Wheeler says. “We found them on YouTube and watched it together. It was so awesome.” This discovery inspired the trio to save up their money to visit Europe. “But the record label said ‘let’s spend all the money on clothes!’ But here we are, the dream came true.”

Moving forward, The Barberrettes will focus on recording their second album after wrapping up their international dates. They took a lot of memories from this trip, including one where their time-traveling premise connected with an older generation.

“We played a show in Toronto, and we sang a song called ‘Kimchi,’ about people coming to America from Korea and really missing Korean food,” Wheeler shares. “We saw a lot of older Korean ladies singing along so happily. I’m assuming they moved from Korean a long time a go, when there weren’t very many Korean restaurants in Toronto. I was really happy to sing for them.” - MTV

"Review: The Barberettes in Toronto"

The Barberettes in Toronto

This past weekend was a super fun one if you’re a Korean music lover in Toronto. The Barberettes, a Korean girl trio who sing 50s and 60s do wop style music – both their own music and some covers of classics I’m sure you’re familiar with – were in Toronto for two concerts plus a free coffee house open mic gig at a Starbucks near Ryerson University. So, of course, I had to go to all three.

Okay, that may sound a little crazy but the two concert venues were so very different that I just knew that their performances/shows would also be different… and how can I write about them without the complete picture. Plus, who doesn’t love great music – and from their YouTube videos, they have a fabulous sound and I couldn’t wait to see them live. And they didn’t disappoint.

So let’s break it down by show.

- The Barberettes at the Toronto Centre for the Arts -
The Barberettes came on the stage – after the cute fake audition – in beautiful blue gowns and quickly captured the audience. The crowd was a mix of young and mature, Korean and non-Korean, and everyone loved them. It was easy to see the love with the audience actually getting up out of their seats and dancing (it was a seated venue). In fact, The Barberettes even got a few audience members to come dance on stage with them. Speaking of which, that even led to a proposal – one male member of the audience proposed on stage to his girlfriend (and she accepted) after dancing on stage with them. So much positive vibes!

And of course, the music rocked! While they each have beautiful, distinctive voices on their own; together, the harmony of their voices together is fabulous! I liked hearing them on YouTube but live they are so much better. I know I’m a sucker for live music – I could go to concerts 24/7 – but The Barberettes really are worth seeing live. I can’t stress how much fun you’ll have if you catch one of their shows – great music, fun performances and such a positive vibe you’ll be smiling for hours afterwards.

- The Barberettes at Lee’s Palace-
Remember I said at the beginning of the article that the two venues were quite different? Well, while the Toronto Centre for the Arts is a more formal, seated venue… Lee’s Palace is one of the venues in Toronto that is synonymous with live music, totally laid back and ready to rock. That’s why I knew the shows would be different.

Rookie again opened for The Barberettes and got the crowd pumping. I was left again with the thought that this was a band I’d like to hear more from.

And then The Barberettes came on. As you can see from the photos, their look and vibe was completely different and while I really liked Saturday’s show, I loved Sunday’s! They brought so much energy to the stage and were so fun to watch, and that’s not even mentioning how much I liked their music live. I can’t stress how much I recommend catching one of their shows, they are just so much fun (yeah, I know I just said that but I’m stressing it because it’s true) and their voices are so amazing – distinctive yet able to harmonize so well. You can’t help but want to dance with them. But don’t just listen to me, check out the pics. Plus there were a lot of people dancing… at both shows so I wasn’t the only one feeling their vibe.

Beyond the fact that it was so much fun to see The Barberettes perform live, and that I highly recommend catching one of their shows if you ever get the chance (go see them!), it was super cool to get the chance to see them three times, and in three very different shows. Huge props to Hypr Creative and Peter, for bringing The Barberettes to Toronto. I enjoyed all the shows and from the reactions from the audiences, so did they. The coffee house show was sweet and acoustic, the Saturday show was a fabulous performance, and the Sunday show was just plain rocking! Seriously, check them out! - ATK


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