Photo: Global Mgmt
Aespa Talk Debut Mini-Album 'Savage' And Fusing Artificial Intelligence With K-Pop
How many times have you wished for a companion, a friend who knew you inside out? Someone who knows your strengths and shortcomings, your failures and successes? If you feel like playing a game, they're ready to be Player 2. If you want to write a song, they're here to help you pull melodies out of thin air. If you want to show off on social media, they have all the right poses. What if instead of a friend, this other half was more literal—an extension of your inner self?
But this isn't the introduction to an Elon Musk-ian vision of the future. This is the alluring world of K-pop group aespa, where people exist side by side with their æs, or AI-based avatars fashioned out of the data they put on the internet. While the æs' physical traits might differ from their human counterpart, the bedrock of the avatar's personality is built from data drawn from the pictures we like, the things we post, and the hashtags we follow.
That technological advance alone would make aespa's upcoming debut a fascinating listen, but the mythology in which aespa's members interact and collaborate with their AI-driven æs adds an unprecedented layer of surreality. Though only the four flesh-and-bone members are typically seen on-screen, aespa is billed as an eight-member group. While Karina, Giselle, Winter, and Ningning capture the real world through songs and music videos, their æs (æ-Karina, æ-Giselle, æ-Winter, and æ-Ningning) hold the fort in the FLAT, the virtual world in aespa's lore.
The digital æs connect with the human members of the group, learn from them, and constantly evolve. Shortly after the act's debut, fans were introduced to this dynamic through a series of videos showing each member interacting with their æ in a process known as REKALL. The human half of aespa modeled the ins and outs of social cues and interactions for their digital other halves, directly giving them tips on how to appear more natural.
As might be expected from a group under the banner of K-pop mainstay SM Entertainment, a complex mythology powers aespa. In fact, the group stands on the first rung of what is known as the SM Culture Universe (SMCU), a dystopian tale spanning the entire SM Entertainment roster, wherein the members' connections with their æs are severed due to an entity known as the 'Black Mamba' that aims for control over both the digital and real worlds.
aespa's explosive debut single, also named "Black Mamba," traces the origins of the story, with genre-bending follow-up "Next Level" extending the narrative. With a tally of 21.4 million views within just 24 hours of its release, "Black Mamba" earned the highest number of views ever for a K-pop group's debut. "Next Level," meanwhile, reached number 97 on the Billboard Global 200 chart, making aespa only the third K-pop girl group in history to reach that chart more than once.
Less than a year since their debut, the group's debut mini-album, Savage, faces the unprecedented pressure of carrying an entire cultural universe. Just as in their larger-than-life, theatrical SMCU introduction, however, the members of aespa are more than up for the challenge.
"We worked really hard on [Savage] because we're showcasing a new genre of songs that we haven't tried before," Ningning says.
"We always released singles and they were all vocally–for me–kind of low or rap," Giselle adds. "This time we have an album where there's [more] actual singing involved. Vocally, I tried to make sure that I brought something [new] to the songs."
Following the release of Savage, aespa spoke to GRAMMY.com about their music, their lore, and how they wish to grow in the future.
This is your debut mini-album. What is Savage about?
Karina: Savage contains the story of the SMCU, continuing from "Next Level." We have six tracks which all showcase different genres of music and contain different colors of aespa.
Giselle: The title track has our main storyline–the continuation of "Black Mamba" and "Next Level." Our other songs also carry a bit of our story, but [they're] leaning towards us–more of the "real world" us. It's [not about] our AI members, not about the story, but more about us as real people. "Lucid Dream," for example, is actually a love song. We wanted to show both senses between the real world and the virtual world.
I'm glad you brought up "Lucid Dream," because it features Hayley Kiyoko. What was it like working with her?
Giselle: We actually didn't get to meet her and do an actual collaboration, but the song was made by her. Seeing that she wrote it for us, we were so surprised. We're so glad that we were able to sing it.
Let's talk a little bit about the æ-members. Who are they to you, and what purpose do they have in terms of your larger storyline?
Karina: The æs are AI characters based on the members' real, individual data. They live in a world called FLAT, and just like how we live and continue our daily lives in the real world, the æs also continue their own lives in the FLAT. They live separate lives, and connect with us via [a process called] SYNK.
Ningning: Even [though we have] the SMCU storyline, which tells a story about how we go on a journey together, [it's] not only that. On stage as well, we interact with the æ-characters–that's something that we've started with Savage. That's something new that we've tried.
You've said before that the æs bring a new dimension to your music. How so?
Karina: Our music tells the story of our journeys and our experiences with æs. In terms of the concept of the album and the songs as well, they contribute a lot. It helps develop our own "aespa" genre. The æs have a big role in that.
It's very hard sometimes to describe aespa's sound. You never limit yourself to one genre. How do you approach this diversity?
Giselle: When we were approached with the songs and the demos, we actually were very fond of it. We liked the songs, but [at the same time] we did have a lot of effort that we had to put in to make sure they actually sounded good and that we actually matched well with them.
For example, Winter has a very soft voice, but in order to sing "Black Mamba," [which is a] little more powerful, she worked to show her vocals in a different style. We really enjoy trying something new. "Savage" was also new to us.
How did you mentally prepare for this album? What were some things musically that you wanted to work on in the run up?
Giselle: We all gave each other a lot of honest feedback and kept updating each other while practicing. We were like, "We want this song to have this kind of vibe," or, "If this is your part, we think this would be good."
Karina: The title track has a bit of a heavier mood. So, in terms of musicality, I really tried to understand the song and the sound. [I tried to] really focus on the details and little things like facial expressions and gestures. That was how I tried to convey the music right.
Ningning: Before recording, it's very important to deliver the message and the mood of the song. I really get into the character. For example, if I'm recording a song, I'll think of various scenes in my head, like a movie. "What character am I portraying? What's happening? How am I feeling?" Little things like that. After I do that and prepare myself, then I go on [and] record the music.
Winter: I think that styling is also important in terms of figuring out the musical colors of the song. With "Savage," I thought about what would be the best way to visually represent the song, whether that's fashion or accessories or dance moves–how to visually bring that out and have that in harmony with the track. That was something that I really paid attention to for this particular album.