[INTERVIEW] Soul and Style: Kim Junsu’s latest musical collaborators Automatic and Ebony
by Mai Nguyen
Automatic and Ebony. Photo courtesy of Bruce “Automatic” Vanderveer’s Facebook page.
On September 2, I found myself at the Hollywood Palladium for K-pop sensation Junsu Kim’s concert, invited by music producer Bruce “Automatic” Vanderveer and vocal director Ebony Rae Cunningham. When Kim performed “Uncommitted,” the track the duo produced for Junsu’s English debut single, the two immediately began jamming to the song and singing along.
As the song came to a close, Junsu thanked Automatic for writing and producing the single, and Automatic cheered back from the balcony: “You made it happen, man!”
Automatic is the president and CEO of InRage Entertainment, and Ebony Rae Cunningham is the vice president. She was the vocal stylist for “Uncommitted.”
In the midst of some small talk with the duo, Automatic suddenly bellowed a long, hearty note — and I knew there’d be an interesting interview to come. The two of them then delved deeper into their recording experience and musical relationship.
APA: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you get into music?
Ebony Rae Cunningham (ERC): I started off in church, like a lot of other musicians. I heard someone singing one day, and I was like, “I can do that.” I started singing at choir and then worked my way up to be the leader of the choir. Later, I went on to attend the University of South Florida and transferred to USC, graduating with a degree in Music.
Automatic (A): I started playing when I was 11 years old. When I was living in Brooklyn, there was a kid next door who had a guitar. He would never let me play, and I kept saying, “I would have tried. I would have tried.” So, I beat him up, and I took his guitar. And I started playing it. My mom ran outside, and she was like, “Oh my gosh, how did you just play that?” and I said, “I don’t know!” But I learned how to play a song in about 10-15 minutes, and she got on the phone and said, “My son, Automatic, can play the guitar!” She was amazed and started calling me “Little Automatic, Little Automatic.” And I guess I have this thing where I just pick up an instrument and just start playing it. I can play 11 instruments now.
APA: Did you ever give the kid back his guitar?
A: [laughs] Yeah, I gave it back to him… but I didn’t really want to. By the way, my mom never even cared that I kicked that kid’s butt, so that was interesting. [laughs]
APA: What are the 11 instruments you can play?
A: Drums, trombone, bass guitar, guitar, piano, tuba, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, panpipe, xylophone… and a little bit of accordion, but I’m working on it. Oh, and I can play the berimbau. It’s a Brazilian instrument.
APA: How did even get your hands on all these instruments?
A: After beating up the first kid — you know, that was my Brooklyn mentality [laughs] — I decided to go straight. Eventually, my mom bought me a guitar, and when I went to school, I would take it with me, and I’d ask the kids at school, “Can I trade my instrument for yours for a day or two?” So I’d trade my guitar for a tuba, and so on and so on. We bartered, and that’s how I learned how to play a whole bunch of different stuff. I can play them well enough to play on records, but I’m not a master of them or anything.
APA: How did you get into music professionally?
A: Well, I was in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and I had a band. We showcased and played for many different record labels, and I got turned down by 13 record labels, so it was crazy. One gentleman came out to the rough, rough streets of Brooklyn to come see us at our loft. We did a showcase, and they wanted to sign us. So, I was signed to Morgan Creek/Polygram Records and literally went from having no money to having $300,000 in the bank in about a month and a half. I came out to California to record my first album. I saw palm trees, and I thought I was in the tropics, so I said, “I’m staying!!” My first album was titled Auto & Cherokee, titled after me and the person I was working with at that time. We had a track called “Taste” featured in the film, The Crush.
I can play a lot of instruments, and I thought I could record really well. I had my own studio when I was 15 years old, so I was used to recording, but learning how to make records for the radio was on a whole other level. I met Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the guys who are responsible for Janet Jackson and New Edition. I did a production deal with them, and they kind of mentored me in producing records. So, I worked for Michael Jackson for a little while and developed two groups called Brown Stone and Quo. That was more working on vocals, but I was working on building their groups and became great friends with Michael Jackson. And then worked for the WB Television Network and eventually got to Sony, who love what I do. They wanted to sign me as a writer and producer, and I joined them at the end of ’99.
APA: [to Ebony] How about you?
ERC: After I graduated college, I had to figure out what direction I was going to take. I wanted to be an artist and not work for someone else. When I met Automatic and learned everything about what he had going on, I completely agreed with his vision of artistic freedom. I agreed to work with him, and he crowned me as the Vice president.
A: That’s the vision of InRage Entertainment: the fact that there are so many great artists out there who don’t get the chance to express themselves. Sometimes they just do what their record labels tell them to. Some of them can do many different genres and play so many types of music, but they just don’t get that opportunity. And so I was feeling “in rage” that we don’t have enough artistic freedom in this industry, and that’s how this all came about: InRage Entertainment.
APA: As a producer who can play so many instruments, do you have a genre of music you like making most?
A: It’s so funny you ask that. Because I play so many different instruments, I’m what you would call a “hybrid producer.” I produce a variety of different music. Actually, my first Top Ten record was a country song by Bettina Bush from American Idol. So there is no particular genre I would say I’m strongest in. I’m still going through the different phases of recording and producing different genres of music. I’ve done everything from gospel, to rock, to hip-hop and I’m open to more.
APA: Moving on to your latest production “Uncommitted,” how did you get in touch with C-JeS and start working with Junsu?
A: There was a C-JeS executive. His name is Niddy, and he knew a friend of mine, who introduced me as a Sony producer. So Niddy contacted me and said, “You know, we at C-JeS are looking for songs for the group JYJ.” I submitted some songs and actually “Uncommitted” was a song that I wasn’t sure I should submit because it was a little bit softer than the other things I submitted. The other things were stronger, more up-tempo, more hard-hitting, whereas “Uncommitted” was mid-tempo and more like a ballad. What’s amazing was they called me back saying they loved “Uncommitted” and wanted it. I thought to myself “Wow, I almost didn’t submit that song.” [laughs] So that was so crazy.
APA: What made you eventually submit “Uncommitted” after being unsure?
A: I thought it had a good enough storyline in the song. I thought, “Maybe they may want it.” Again, it’s about a man who had a past of being a player and then he meets the girl of his dreams. He decides he doesn’t want to be a player anymore, but the girl says, “I already know about you and your past, and I don’t believe you’re built for this kind of relationship, so let’s have fun and call it, just leave it.” The guy winds up having his heart broken for the first time. So I thought maybe this would be a good submission, and maybe they’ll get it.
APA: When you were working this deal out with C-JeS, did you know K-pop or Junsu?
A: Yeah, my daughter is a big fan of JYJ and she also was a big fan of the original group they were a part of. She was also into Big Bang and Super Junior and has been listening to them for many years. So she told me, “You gotta listen to this new K-pop group,” and I thought it was cool but didn’t understand the appeal at the time, because a lot of it just seemed like a lot of pop stuff, like American music to me. But as I started to get into it more, I realized that K-pop artists experiment a lot with different genres, whereas in America, we often stick to what’s happening now. By the time I heard that I was going to work with Junsu, my daughter was so excited: “Dad, do you know who that is??” I was just happy that my daughter was so excited. [laughs]
APA: “Uncommitted” was recorded here in the States, right?
A: Originally, we were supposed to go to Korea and record it there. We were trying to get everything together, coordinating the plane tickets and all of that. Junsu was doing quite a bit of work, touring and recording, so schedules were being switched around often. And at literally the last second, they called us saying, “We’re going to have him fly to America.” So we could go right to work when he arrived.
The greatest thing that happened was when we had a meeting with the C-JeS executives, and they sat us down and said, “Junsu is coming in, and he’s going to record the song. We want to make it a single, and we’re going to do a video for it.” We were so surprised! We just thought it was going to be a single on his record. We quickly got into the studio in a matter of days. And within three days after we finished in the studio, filming for the music video started. Everything moved so quickly. We were still mixing the song the day of the video shoot. [laughs] C-JeS is an incredible record label; they move fast and strong. We have never seen a label work that quickly.
Kim Junsu “Uncommitted.” Photo courtesy of C-JeS Entertainment.
APA: How was recording the track with Junsu?
A: I gotta tell you. Junsu is an amazing artist. I already liked his voice. That was the one thing that sold us. We knew he was going to do a great job. What we didn’t know was how disciplined he was, what kind of work ethic he had, which is ridiculously tremendous. We started early afternoon, and within a couple of hours, he had the song down. I wanted to give him breaks at times, but he didn’t even want them. He just wanted to keep going. He’s such a workaholic, a tremendously talented one at that. And we had a ball. It was fun. We laughed, we joked, we worked hard. It was one of the greatest experiences we had in the studio. The chemistry we had was instant. I can’t explain it. If you saw us, you wouldn’t think we were working. You heard the outcome; it was absolutely amazing. It was one of the easiest and most fun recording experiences that we’ve had.
ERC: When he first came in, I think he was ready to just get in the booth and sing, but we asked him to sit on the couch first, and he kind of looked around like “What’s going on? I’m ready to sing.” So we talked through Jun Dark (a C-JeS executive) to him: “We want to go over the English lyrics with you.” And he made this face like, “Oh no….” He kind of looked at the paper and did that little shy thing he does, where he covers his face and starts laughing. [laughs] He slowly started reading the lyrics line by line and looked up once a while and kept giggling. He was so embarrassed, and we kept telling him, “No you’re doing good!” He already sounded really good, but there are some English vowels and consonants that don’t exist in Korean, so we worked hard to work on those things with instructions like “Put your tongue here when you say this” or “Open your mouth like this to make this sound.”
A: We started working on all kinds of pronunciations and sounds. It was funny just watching him make some of the faces that he made and move his mouth in all kinds of ways to get the right pronunciation. We all just kept laughing about how certain things sounded in English. June Dark had translated the song in Korean for him, so he understood the meaning of the song and the emotional content it would take to sell the story. As we worked more and more in the studio, it seemed as if he got to a place and really got the feeling of the song right. So we got him into the booth, and he basically just closed his eyes and started recording.
ERC: He was practicing before we started recording, and he would sing it right into the mic, but he would keep singing one line, then look at me, sing another, and look at me again. He kept looking at me for reassurance. [laughs] Sometimes when he had a tough time, I’d sing it to him, and he’d sing it back. He just kept looking at me to make sure he got it right, so I’d give him a thumbs up. Even though I didn’t know any Korean, and he knew a little English, we developed a good method of communication through looks and thumbs ups. [laughs]
A: It was so easy for him, and after we ran through the song, it was just fantastic. I walked into the studio with him; we just sang back and forth and experimented a little bit with some of the adlibs you hear in the song. He just closed his eyes and took it to another place. It was incredible; it was like we were doing an American Idolbattle or something. [laughs] Every time I sang a note, he would out-sing what I was doing, and I was amazed, just blown away by the amount of talent he has.
ERC: He actually did this run [laughs] — the run that he does in the second verse on “be.” Automatic gave him the run, and he said okay. He did it, and it was way better than when Automatic did it. [laughs] I was in the booth with him, and I was like “Heyyy!” Automatic told me that everybody in the booth was laughing.
“Uncommitted” is a soulful ballad song, you know? So when Junsu would do these little runs that were just so soulful, Automatic once said, “Man, we’re making you black!” or “You’re turning black!” He understood that and said, “No, I’m not black. I am yellow.” [laughs] We just couldn’t help but crack up.
It was very fun working with him, especially when he did runs and scales that we didn’t expect from him. It was exciting that he could execute the song with so much soul and style. He works really hard and it’s obvious I think ‘cause it pays off.
A: He has a natural gift. I’m looking forward to working with him in the future. I’m looking at the relationship I’m developing with him as a Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson one. I hope this is the kind of relationship we’re going to have, and that we’ll continue working together. I think what we’ve done together is just the beginning, and I think we’re going to do some incredible things, just blow people’s minds!
APA: Did you think the music video represented your song well?
A: It’s the best feeling in the world seeing an artist as great as him singing a song you made from the heart. “Tarantallegra” is a great video for performance, but “Uncommitted” really showcases Junsu as a person, as a singer — and seeing himself evolve into a man. So I think that when people see the video, they’ll see him like they’ve never seen him before. I love the video, and I think it’s a really great platform for the song.
APA: After working with Junsu, how would you compare it to working with American artists?
A: The reason why I compare Junsu to Michael Jackson so often is that he grew up in music. He’s been doing this for a long time, so he has this natural artistry and this professionalism that’s in his soul that you don’t see from artists who’ve been in the industry just for a couple of years. It is a different level of experience. You really are getting to see the best of the best when you are working with Junsu.
When you say the difference between him and American artists: I don’t think there’s a difference in culture, but professionalism. I hope America accepts him; that would be fantastic. I think he is going to be a challenge, and he is going to be an artist that people look at and say he’s the in the highest of echelons.
People are singing our song in Mexico, Chile, Brazil. When he performs it, people are singing “Uncommitted” line by line; it is just amazing. Everyday it just keeps getting better and better!
I just did a backflip and ran up a wall. [laughs] I’m just so happy!
APA: Working with a K-pop artist as an American producer, where do you think K-pop is headed, and do you want to get more involved?
A: Yes. Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Well, first, I think K-pop is gonna be big, because it’s so experimental and fresh. And yes, I would like to work more in K-pop, because a lot of the artists are not afraid to experiment. We are “hybrid writers and producers,” and K-pop right now is such a great platform for writers and producers like Ebony and I. We don’t have to hold back, so we can really do our best and try to create something new and exciting. We really want to continue producing as many K-pop artists as possible and again obviously develop an incredible relationship with Junsu.
APA: Any artists you’d like to work with in particular?
A: I would love to work with G-Dragon.
ERC: B.A.P is definitely one.
A: We would love to work with Psy, G-Dragon, Big Bang, B.A.P and many more! There are so many, including J-pop artists as well. We’re trying to look into those ventures now.
APA: What are you currently working on and what can we expect in the future?
A: Trying to submit songs to Chris Brown, working on sending some songs to the Whitney Houston tribute, and working with Leona Lewis too. We’re also working on InRage’s first single, which will come out in the first quarter of next year. My band, Asphalt Messiah, is looking to release something in the same time as well. Next year is going to be incredible also, because we’re working on Ebony’s solo record as Evanrae.
ERC: We also want to give a huge shout out to all the fans who have been supportive of Junsu and Automatic, and all the InRagers who we have gotten to know through this experience. You all have been so kind to us, and we hope you continue to support Junsu, JYJ and InRage.
We’re working on revamping our website with a spot specifically for InRagers, so look out for that! Actually, we also have a surprise treat for our “Uncommitted” supporters coming up soon, so please stay tuned!