'Professional listener' Jung Jae-il releases new labor of love album

Composer and musician Jung Jae-il plays his new track ″Listen″ during a press conference held Friday at the JCC Art Center in central Seoul for his latest album of the same title. [UNIVERSAL MUSIC]

For Jung Jae-il, the music director of “Parasite” (2019) and “Squid Game” (2021), music means both love and labor.

Having started his career as a young middle-school student three decades ago, Jung has been making a mark as a composer, musician, singer and music director in genres transcending jazz, pop and even gugak, or traditional Korean music.

With a discography befitting the word versatile more than any other, Jung has stepped forward with his new album titled “Listen.” It is comprised of six new piano tracks he composed — “The River,” “Listen,” “Ocean Meets The Land,” “Incendies,” “Anesthesia” and “Esthesia” — and a string version of “Ocean Meets The Land.”

“I loved music, but it started out as labor,” Jung said in a press conference held Friday to celebrate his first new solo album.

“I still view art as one of many different labors. That’s also why I think diligence and responsibility are crucial but many artists lack them.”

Jung, born in 1982, joined the Seoul Jazz Academy and started learning the art of composition and rearrangement. Just two years later, he had his name included on the list of credits for original soundtracks of films “Bad Movie” (1997) and “The Power of Gangwon Province” (1998).

“I never actually dreamed of becoming a musician,” he said. “There just weren’t many ways a middle-school student could make money but I was given a chance and I took it because it was the only way I could make money. I was desperate.”

His desperation paid off.

He joined a project band named Gigs at the age of 17 and soon started working as a music producer and composer for some of the biggest names in Korean pop music industry, including singers IU and Park Hyo-shin. He also worked as the music director for some of Korea's most-popular work including “Parasite" and “Squid Game,” as well as “Okja” (2017) and “Broker” (2022).

In 2021, he became the first Korean to be recognized by the Hollywood Music in Media Awards for his contribution to “Squid Game."

Composer and musician Jung Jae-il answers questions from reporters at a press conference held Friday at the JCC Art Center in central Seoul for his latest album ″Listen.″ [UNIVERSAL MUSIC]

“My job has been, for the past 25 years, to be at the back of the stage to support another work,” he said. “I consider myself an interpreter who works with music. ‘Parasite’ and ‘Squid Game’ have given me global recognition, but I still don’t see a big change in the way I work behind the scenes. It’s more about the fact that I’ve been able to work with some of the greatest minds in the world and I’m grateful for that.”

Working without a director over his head meant maximum liberty and happiness, but it also meant that there was no one else to fall back on, said Jung.

“It definitely takes longer having to start from scratch with everything and you have nowhere to hide,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s the chance to really sharpen your craftsmanship. It’s difficult to take the time just to concentrate, but that’s also the best part.”

“Listen” is Jung’s first new work since signing a contract with Decca, one of the largest classical music labels in the world under Universal Music Group. He is proficient in more than 10 instruments, but piano is the best language he uses to express his deepest thoughts, especially about nature.

“The piano is my native language; it’s easier to play the piano than for me to speak,” Jung said.

“For the title track ‘Listen,’ I wanted to make a song that feels like sinking or like a moment of when you’re sinking. I live in the countryside by the sea and whenever I stare into the waves just coming and going on the shore and birds flying about, I think about how beautiful everything is — if you take out the human aspects from the scene.”

″Listen″ is a new piano album by composer and musician Jung Jae-il [UNIVERSAL MUSIC]

“Listen” is Jung's willingness to listen to what nature is telling him, especially with the ongoing war and Covid-19 pandemic.

“'Esthesia’ is based on aesthetics, the potential of beauty while ‘Anesthesia’ is on the opposite end; but it’s not ugliness — it’s numbness, or the inability to feel beauty,” Jung said. “I wanted to make my album about the common and simple act of listening because although it’s not striking, I think it’s all about living with an open mind."

“My job is to listen,” he continued. “I am a listener and I have to listen in order to work. For this album, I wanted to listen to the sounds within myself, other people and the earth. And I wanted to make the small pieces that build up with each piano note of the track reach a great climax of emotions that come with the orchestra-like string number like a huge mountain of emotions.”

His main job will always be behind the stage making music for others, “because making ends meet is also important” according to the composer. But “Listen” will definitely be a part of a new step for him where he tries the things he hadn’t been able to before.

“Working with others has its own set of artistic joy and benefits to my real life,” he said. “But I would like to try making an album here I organize every detail so that everything, including the artwork, comes together to make one single work.”