Yuri does not dance around the subject: She wants to be a movie star.
“The image of myself doing the first scene was material that made my heart flutter,” she said, through a translator, on a recent afternoon in Gangnam, the ritzy business district south of the Han River in Seoul. “Your heart always pounds the first time.” The singer was not talking about her break into Korean cinema but her debut album as a solo artist, after more than a decade in the group Girls’ Generation, which has reigned sovereign over K-pop since the band’s breakout 2009 single “Gee.”
Released earlier this month, directly into number one on the Billboard World Albums chart, Yuri’s The First Scene makes her the fifth Girls’ Generation member to go solo (after Taeyeon, Tiffany, Seohyun, and Jessica). Across the album’s six songs, Yuri sets herself up as the star of her own film. “I wanted this to give the feeling of having seen a movie,” she said. Some of this, like the album’s title, is overt: The EP closes with the tracks “Chapter 2” and “Ending Credits.” Elsewhere, it’s more subtext: Tracks like “C’est La Vie,” according to Yuri, attempt to channel the experience she accumulated as a member of Girls’ Generation, a narrative arc worthy of screen treatment. (Though she didn’t write the lyrics, she identified with its central directive to “do it, experience it”—whatever it may be.)
Yuri was wearing a flocked-dot Isabel Marant dress that, she noticed when she stood up to greet me, had left bits of black fluff behind on the seat cushion. After releasing The First Scene, she had embarked on a flurry of promotions and performances: “I don’t even know where the time went, for two weeks,” she said. “I was really worried that I needed to fill the stage by myself, after filling it with other members,” she admitted. “But after doing it more, it was really fun to be able to naturally express onstage what I had been practicing.”
Seventeen years ago, Yuri—born Kwon Yu-ri, in Goyang, a city just northwest of Seoul—auditioned for SM Entertainment, a management company responsible for K-pop stars like EXO, TVXQ, Red Velvet, Shinee, and Girls’ Generation. (Even at the time, she told me, she wrestled with the balance between acting and music. “I think they benefit from each other,” she said. “When the two are combined, I feel there’s a synergistic effect.”) She was accepted as a trainee and embarked on a rigorous, nearly six-year-long program to mint her a K-pop star. In 2007, Girls’ Generation made their debut with a self-titled album; while it forecast the group’s potential, ending up the 12th-best-selling record of the year in Korea, it wasn’t until their follow-up, Gee, was released, in 2009, that they really embarked on a path to world domination.
But in recent years, the Girls’ Generation members have scattered in the wind, parlaying their considerable cultural capital into adjacent careers as solo musicians and film and television stars. (Though they went on hiatus in 2016, they came back the following year to top the Billboard World Albums chart with Holiday Night, a July release despite its name.) For Yuri, this has, until now, largely comprised a handful of acting gigs (beginning with the fashion-world TV drama Fashion King in 2012 and the sports film No Breathing the following year). In 2018, she has two major TV credits, in the MBC drama Dae Gang Jeum Is Watching, which premiered October 11, and the Netflix series Sound of Your Heart, a reboot of the beloved Korean webtoon of the same title that premiered October 29, as well as her solo album.
Could this be the year Yuri finally transcends the group that made her a star?
“This is Yuri, who is an extension of Girls’ Generation,” she said. As one of eight or nine women in the group, there were times when she found it “tremendously difficult” to stand out: “Living in a group, there will be competition that is known only among us,” she added. But the sum of these experiences, positive and challenging, forged the artist she is now. She has “more robust things to say about the self” now than when she was in her early 20s: “If I told a lot of stories before about some first love of a novice, now I have included stories that could be told by women in their early 30s, stories that are more enchanting and deeper,” she told me.
The Girls’ Generation members who had already embarked on solo musical careers “gave me a lot of support—monitoring my songs, looking at my music, really with a lot of devotion,” she told me, invoking the term of respect and endearment for older or more senior women, “unni.” Hyoyeon, for example, advised her on the photos and jacket art for The First Scene, while Sooyoung and Tiffany helped her out with song titles and the album title. Taeyeon played songs from the mini-album while live on Instagram, broadcasting them to her nearly 13 million followers.
“I really gained confidence because the members gave me praises, saying it really suits me well,” she added. The other girls, she said, likened the new music to “tailored clothing” in how well it fit her. (They have a thriving group text, she said, in which they discuss the serious things as well as their current beauty and style obsessions.)
Previously, on an episode of the radio show Lee Soo Ji’s Music Plaza, Yuri said that Yunho, one-half of TVXQ, had texted her his encouragement leading up to the release of The First Scene. They met, she told me, during their SM auditions 17 years ago; they entered the same class of trainees at the same time. “We’ve been cheering each other on since then,” she said. Her SM label-mate BoA, she said in the same radio interview, watched her dance rehearsals prior to her first performance.
Since Girls’ Generation—and TVXQ, and BoA, and Twice—made its debut, a whole new generation of K-pop stars has started to earn international recognition: BTS, the first K-pop band to top the Billboard 200 and the first to win a Billboard Music Award; Blackpink, who recorded a song with Dua Lipa; Red Velvet’s Wendy, who recently released a duet with John Legend. “I think it’s so amazing, and so fun,” Yuri told me of K-pop’s growing influence.
While Yuri’s management wouldn’t let her comment on the possibility of a Girls’ Generation reunion, she’s already looking ahead to potential collaborations of her own, either individually or as a group (even though she’s only just concluding promotions on The First Scene and filming two TV series). Her dream duet partner? Charlie Puth. Last year, the American musician slid into BTS’s DMs; next month, he’s playing in Seoul. Take note.