Although Kevin Woo was a member of a k-pop band and now lives in Seoul, he was actually born and raised in California. As a teenager, the idea of working in Asia intrigued him, so he auditioned at a South Korean talent agency, where he was taken on as a trainee, first joining a group known as Xing and then spending almost a decade performing with the group U-Kiss.
While performing with U-Kiss, he watched k-pop became a global phenomenon.
“I’ve been in the industry for 12 years now, but it’s amazing to see how much k-pop has grown in the past few years,” he said. “I’ve seen it all grow from the inside.”
Woo says his fluency in English actually gave him an edge in the k-pop world, where singers often receive language lessons to help them better communicate with international audiences.
“At that time there weren’t that many English speakers in k-pop but as more members were English speakers, that’s how k-pop became more globalized. I was proud to be that bridge between Korea and America.”
As a Korean American, Woo feels he has a unique k-pop story to tell and, now, as a solo artist, he’s finding new ways to bridge the two countries he knows so well.
“I know how the system works in Korea, with k-pop, but I also do know how the fans are in America, so I think I have the best of both worlds. As a solo artist I can bring the k-pop aspect but also cater to the American fans.”
During his time with U-Kiss, the group released three full-length albums, twelve mini-albums/EPs, one special mini-album and a few singles. Originally a six-member group, they also released seven Japanese full-length albums, one Japanese compilation album, and five Japanese mini-albums/EPs. Not only was U-Kiss prolific but Woo also worked as an actor in television dramas and musicals and served as a host of the Internet-based live-music request talk show, After School Club.
Since leaving U-Kiss in 2017, when his contract expired, Woo has been actively launching a solo singing career that so far includes musical releases in Japanese and English.
“It’s been a very exciting journey for me to venture out into solo activities after being in a group for 10 years,” said Woo.
Although the transition to solo artist did at times seem “overwhelming,” Woo is happy to have more creative control.
“In a group you don’t really have a lot of creative input into music or your content, but as a solo artist you are free to express yourself to your listeners and your fans. I think that’s the most exciting part about being a solo artist.”
Woo is not only singing, he’s writing some of his songs.
“I co-write with producers and started to write lyrics and write melodies for the songs, so I don’t produce the whole song 100 percent but I do have a lot of say into what content comes out.”
Woo recently performed at and served as MC/host for KCON NY, fulfilling his longtime dream of playing Madison Square Garden. The k-pop and Korean cultural convention is known for showcasing Korean talent at various locations around the world.
“That was a very historic moment for me and it’s so great to have that opportunity. The crowd was wild. So much energy”
Woo sees no limit to k-pop’s potential growth and occasionally, especially when he’s watching other performers, he gets nostalgic for belonging to a group.
“What I love about groups is that the members really help balance each other out. When there’s several members, one is singing, one is the main performer, one person speaks well, one member is funny. That whole teamwork, that synergy makes everything ten times more appealing. As a solo artist there’s only so many things you can do on your own on stage. I just love the energy they get from each other. That’s what I miss.”
Although he stays in touch with fellow U-Kiss members and doesn’t rule out a reunion, he’s busy. He left his hosting duties at After School Club in 2018 to focus on his solo career, but also had time to appear in a musical and recently did a collaboration with Hollaphonic, the British DJ and production duo based in Dubai. The duo, composed of Greg Stainer and Olly Wood, had never worked with a k-pop artist before. Their recently released collaboration, Over You, is an electro pop track in which Woo’s vocals are balanced with the duo’s signature beats. It was produced by the record label Tokyo Monsters.
“They were very eager to work with me and I was excited to work with them too,” said Woo. “What they wanted was a sound that was geared to the international market, but with a k-pop backbone to it. Check it out. Its a very good balance between k-pop and pop. I’m hoping to release more singles like this.”
In 2019 he also completed a stint in the musical Altar Boyz, playing Mark, an altar boy who sees his divine calling in making music. Woo really enjoys acting, having starred in a web drama and played roles in full-length dramas.
“Whether it’s singing, acting, modeling or anything related to the arts I see it as one,” he said. “I’ve been singing my whole life but that’s also acting. Acting came pretty naturally to me and I had so much fun working with actors and just being on set.”
While he hopes to one day appear in more dramas, and continues to audition for both TV and film, he has a special fondness for musicals.
“It’s so different because when you’re on stage in a musical. You’re singing, but also the story connects. It’s a two or three-hour show and you have that emotion that you bring along to the climax, but in dramas you’re shooting scene by scene and it just jumps around everywhere. I just like how the audience is with you throughout the whole story. You connect with the audience.”
Musicals employ several of his talents—singing, dancing and acting—at the same time.
“All on one stage,” he said.
Woo has a tour coming up with solo singing performances planned in Los Angeles and San Francisco, in a way bringing his musical career full circle.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “I’ve never toured in the U.S. before.”
This story was originally published on forbes.com.