Sunmi 2021
Photo: Courtesy of Tell All Your Friends PR

K-Pop’s Sunmi on the Joy of Collaboration with Ed Sheeran and Jessi for “Shivers”

At the top of her career since debuting in Korea 14 years ago, K-pop star Sunmi chats with PopMatters about her collaborative work on “Shivers” and what’s next.

K-pop singer and songwriter Sunmi joined South Korean rapper Jessi and British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran in a new mix of his hit song “Shivers”. Released on 24 November 24 is has Sunmi singing in Korean and English, bringing a female perspective to Sheeran’s original lyrics, which describe the feeling of infatuation between two people. Sunmi’s alluring vocals and Jessi’s energy add a refreshing touch to Sheeran’s songwriting. The two women make the new mix even better than the original.

Sunmi tells PopMatters that “Shivers” had been on her playlist long before her chance to collaborate came along. “It’s like a dream for me to collaborate with my beloved artists,” she says. 

Jessi and Sunmi together is not exactly a surprising combination. Earlier this year, Sunmi was a guest on Jessi’s Show!Terview, where they displayed a great dynamic together. However, this is the first time both artists recorded together and with Sheeran.

“Shivers” is yet another intersection of K-pop and Western pop, and it goes both ways. The collaboration adds to Sunmi’s credentials as being among the most experienced K-pop artists overseas. “When I visited the United States ten years ago, people knew very little about K-pop,” she says, referring to her time as a member of the K-pop group Wonder Girls. “I am proud of Korean artists who have constantly worked hard to introduce K-pop to the world, and it’s a great honour for me to be part of it.”

In 2009, Wonder Girls became the first South Korean act to chart on USA Billboard Hot 100, with the song “Nobody”. Since then, the Wonder Girls have played concerts in the USA (including opening for the Jonas Brothers), while also keeping a successful career in South Korea. They became known as “retro queens”, and influenced several K-pop acts. Following the end of the group, Sunmi released the single “Gashina” (2017). It was a smash hit in South Korea.

As for Sheeran, his first songwriting credit for a Korean act dates back to 2019, when he co-wrote BTS‘ “Make it right”. “Permission to Dance”, which he co-penned for BTS, debuted at #1 at the USA’s Billboard Hot 100 and #16 at the United Kingdom’s Official Singles Chart. “I think all these phenomena are just remarkable,” Sunmi says. She is excited that foreign songwriters and producers are getting more interested in Korean music.

The creative merit for “Shivers” is not all just Sheeran’s, though. It features a vibrant rap verse in English by Jessi. And Sunmi (who holds songwriting credits in songs for the Wonder Girls, as well as for her solo career) wrote her own verse in Korean for the remix. “Ed Sheeran suggested it would be nice to write lyrics in Korean,” Sunmi tells PopMatters. “I thought it would be fun to express a woman’s perspective while maintaining the original lyrics’ flow.”

Sunmi, who also wrote all the lyrics of her third solo EP, 1/6 (2021), says she’d happily write songs for other artists and collaborate with them if an opportunity presents itself. “The happiest part of writing songs is that I can talk about my own story,” she says. “In each album, I express a variety of feelings with my style.” 

Variety is, indeed, something Sunmi seeks in her art. In her first online concert, held in 2021, she managed to incorporate XR technologies and a metaverse to the visual elements of the performances. “That helped me to convey the meaning of the title of the concert, ‘GOOD GIRL GONE MAD’,” she says.

She hopes to bring the show to her fans in person. “Getting energy from fans on the stage is important for singers,” she says. “It’s a pity that I couldn’t communicate with my fans directly and exchange energy with them at the concert hall. I hope someday in the future, with technological advancement, I’ll be able to do all of this at the same time.”

As the pandemic slows down in many parts of the world, the moment to meet her fans in person may be coming soon. “I am planning my second world tour next year. Probably I can meet my fans in more cities.”