To H1-KEY, music is synonymous with healing. While intricate, universe-spanning lore has become a constant in K-pop, the quartet have their feet planted firmly in the real world, choosing to find beauty in the everyday. Be it in flowers that bloom between cracks in the concrete or a spellbinding skyline of a city that sometimes feels too busy to breathe in, the quartet only truly feel at home when things are rooted in reality.
It was with this approach, that helped the girl group grab the crowded K-pop spotlight with their viral January single ‘Rose Blossom’, touching weary hearts across the world with their earnest words and uplifting melodies. Riding this momentum, H1-KEY have had a whirlwind year of new experiences that they’ve now poured into their latest comeback.
It’s days ahead of the release of their second mini-album ‘Seoul Dreaming’, but the quartet are far from home. Having just landed in Jakarta, Indonesia to perform at this year’s Asian Sound Syndicate, the members of H1-KEY – Seoi, Riina, Hwiseo and Yel – are giddy with excitement for their set at the massive festival when they hop onto a video call with NME to share what they’ve been up to in the nine months since their breakthrough with ‘Rose Blossom’ and the future they envision for the group.
Riina’s one-sentence pitch for ‘Seoul Dreaming’ is simple: “You’ll be able to realise how great all of your dreams are.” In the visual for lead single ‘SEOUL (Such a Beautiful City)’, which Seoi describes as being “about all the people who are chasing their dreams in big cities”, the girl group reach out to the city with soundwaves, their message of hope lighting up the Seoul skyline as the sun fades into the night.
“Just like ‘Rose Blossom’, we hope our lyrics will be able to touch many people and allow them to find comfort and hope in this release,” youngest member Yel explains. Crediting the success of ‘Rose Blossom’ for their packed schedules of late, Riina notes that they had far less time than usual to prepare for the new record, which initially posed a challenge. “However, because we’ve gotten such an overwhelming amount of love and attention, we were able to prepare for this album with an abundance of energy,” the vocalist says.
Busy as they were, a nine-month gap between releases is rare for a K-pop act as new as H1-KEY. However, Seoi is proud to update us on the group’s endeavours over this time. “Riina and Hwiseo participated in Queendom Puzzle, where they did such a great job,” she says with a proud beam. “Yel and I also released a duet song together, so we all spent time working on different things.”
“I used to be someone who was always rushing to get things done quickly […] so looking back now, I just want to tell myself not to rush” – Yel
For Riina and Hwiseo, the last few months have been nothing short of hard, gruelling work. The pair had competed on the Mnet reality TV show alongside 26 other K-pop idols, who were largely more seasoned than the pair. “We learned how to prepare for performances really quickly [through the show],” Hwiseo shares, which Riina confirms with a laugh. With each episode, the singer explained, they went from having three weeks to as little as three days to prepare each performance.
On a more personal level, Hwiseo says, the experience of working with other idols across different generations also pushed her to become more of a social butterfly. Meanwhile, Riina shares that getting up close and personal with other artists as they took on each challenge together has allowed her to pick up on her own areas for improvement. “I could also feel how sincere everyone was, and felt really grateful to be on stage and perform with them.”
Having placed first on the Queendom Puzzle, Hwiseo will soon have to pull double duty as also a member of project girl group EL7Z UP, formed by the top seven contestants from the show. The septet will release their first mini-album in September, where they will “be trying new concepts and themes” beyond what she’s used to, but the singer is clear in her identity. “H1-KEY is a group that gives comfort and hope to people with our music, that’s really what we’re all about,” she said.
H1-KEY’s first taste of success – as the members repeatedly point out – only came a year after their debut, following a tumultuous beginning, a line-up change and a handful of releases that fell under the radar. After all that, it’s extraordinarily apt that ‘Rose Blossom’ (with lyrics like “I’m a rose among the concrete / Until this bleak city fills with colour / I’ll keep my head up until the very end”) ended up becoming their catalyst for their success.
From the first few minutes of our chat alone, it’s clear as day how the song is one H1-KEY hold the dearest to their hearts, not only for what it has done for them, but it’s very message of blooming in adversity. “I feel like a lot of people could empathise with its lyrics because they’re also striving hard to achieve their dreams and preparing for their futures,” Riina muses. “We personally also prepared really hard [for that album], and we’re glad that a lot of people have noticed our hard work.”
Looking back on their thorny early days, she confesses that she now wishes that she had allowed herself to relax a little more, eliciting a chorus of laughter from her bandmates. “I would also like to tell myself to enjoy it a little more, but I feel like that is something that is acquired over time through different experiences,” Riina adds. Yel harbours similar sentiments, sharing a message to her past self: “Time will solve all problems, so don’t rush through things.”
“The impact I want to leave in the K-pop industry is that anybody who listens to our music can let out all their tears” – Seoi
“I used to be someone who was always rushing to get things done quickly, and didn’t take enough time [to get through them],” explains H1-KEY’s youngest. “As time has gone by, we’ve been able to achieve what we wanted, so looking back now, I just want to tell myself not to rush.”
Setting their goals for ‘Seoul Dreaming’, Hwiseo shares her hopes of winning their first trophy on one of South Korea’s weekly music shows. “[We also want to] meet lots of M1-KEYs through fan meetings, have our own concert and even go on a world tour,” she says ambitiously. Later, she declares that H1-KEY will become world stars, before letting out an embarrassed laugh and apologising.
But that statement isn’t far-fetched – after all, 2023 has already been a year of tremendous growth for the group, and with a new album out, things can only go up from here. “All four of us really like acting, writing lyrics and songs, so we are all prepared to do everything that an idol can do,” Hwiseo deadpans, and a wave of laughter ripples through the group.
The future ahead of them is full of promise, but the members also know that H1-KEY’s magic lies in the solace their music offers. The idea of bringing comfort is one that comes up often throughout our conversation, with the girl group clearly proud at how much their music has resonated with listeners. “A lot of people are calling us ‘healing idols’, so idols who can give listeners that sense of healing. Even in the future, I wish to offer comfort and hope to everyone listening to our music,” says Seoi, who hopes that H1-KEY can become a sanctuary to all.
“The impact I want to leave in the K-pop industry is that anybody who listens to our music can let out all their tears. We want people to know that even K-pop can heal and cure your inner pain and hardships,” Seoi continues. “I want to keep sending positive energy and giving hope to people.”
Embracing this sentiment, Riina wraps things up, saying: “I hope that whenever people think of H1-KEY, that they can feel our message […] and get a synergistic effect of inner wellbeing and feelings of hope. And I hope H1-KEY can be a group that can really stand on the side of our listeners and empathise with their feelings.”
H1-KEY’s new mini-album ‘Seoul Dreaming’ is out now