From gentle countertenor to masculine rock star

Singer Kang Hyung-ho, a member of crossover quartet Forestella debuted as a soloist with his first solo album on Nov.10. [PARK JONG-KEUN]

The boy dreamed of becoming a rock star. But his parents were against it. The boy decided not to disobey his parents and entered university majoring in chemistry. After graduation, he landed a job as a researcher at a petrochemical company. But his dreams of performing never left him, so to keep his passion alive he formed a band while studying at university.

Becoming a rock star remained an “unfulfilled dream” until the boy participated in “Phantom Singer” on JTBC in 2017, an audition program for male vocalists in crossover music.

This boy was Kang Hyung-ho, a 33-year-old singer who won the second season of “Phantom Singer” by forming crossover quartet Forestella. Among the four winning bands of the program’s four seasons, Forestella is the most active, still performing in different cities across the country. But Kang says he’s still thirsty. Being a member of a crossover quartet was just not enough to quench his inner rock spirit.

Forestella debuted after winning the second season of JTBC's "Phantom Singer" in 2017. [ILGAN SPORTS]

That is why he decided to try his hand as a soloist. Kang debuted as a solo rock singer with his first solo album “ID:PITTA” on Nov. 10. Kang works as a solo artist under the name PITTA.

“What worried me most while working in Forestella was that people would recognize me as a countertenor,” said Kang in a recent interview with the JoongAng Sunday, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

“I’ve never studied that field. I just got the role in the group because of my voice range. The title was just given to me but that is not who I am. I wanted to clarify my identity and start over. It took me two years to create this album, which will finally allow me to have my own identity.”

Because of the image Kang has as a member of Forestella, his fans expected his solo album to be filled with sweet rock ballads. They were wrong. Kang’s new music is “mysterious and dreamlike.”

“I personally pursue such style of music,” said Kang. “Like British pop, I want my music to have profound messages and be very artistic.”

Will such music appeal to his existing fans?

“It’s an adventure,” he said. “I wanted to take it further, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t show my full color. I think the direction has been set, but there’s still a long way to go. I think I’m somewhere on the boundary line between appealing to the general public and rock fanatics. But the music style I ultimately pursue is pretty full on.”

Kang says he didn’t want to debut solo and release similar music to Forestella.

“If I continue on with the Forestella-style, there’s no reason for me to go solo,” Kang said. “There has to be a clear difference. There are many music lovers who quietly and individually enjoy rock music. I want to be recognized by such group of people.”

Kang recently had his first solo concert on Nov. 12 and 13 at the Blue Square in central Seoul. He was no longer backed up by the three other Forestella members. Although alone, he dominated the stage.

“As a little boy, I frequently dreamed of performing at a very energetic concert,” Kang recalled. “I was jumping up and down, running across the stage from one end to the other. I think it’s because I always listened to Western heavy metal music before I went to bed. After giving up music and joining a company, I thought to myself that staging such a performance would never happen in my life. Even after forming Forestella, I think somewhere in my heart, I knew it was impossible because it’s a totally different genre of music.”

Kang believes that many Korean artists have a desire to try their hand at rock music but give up on their dreams because it's relatively less popular.

“They eventually form a band and do music that appeals more to the masses,” Kang said.

Kang jokingly blamed his mother for “giving up music.”

His elementary school teachers recommended that he study music by going to an arts school after seeing his talent first hand. But his mother talked him into attending a general high school by allowing him to form a rock band there with his friends.

The album cover of Kang's first solo album "ID:PITTA" [ARTS AND ARTISTS]

“When I finally was ready to form a band in high school, she told me that I should focus on studying for the CSAT and told me that I could form a band when I get into college. When I went to college, she told me that I should focus on getting a job. That’s when I first rebelled," Kang said with a laugh. “I took a year off from school and formed a rock band with my college friends. I promised my mother that I would quit the band when I have to join the military and focus on getting a job. But when the time came, I couldn’t quit. I negotiated with her that I’ll continue my band activities on the condition that I receive a scholarship.”

His university band continued even after graduation. His solo name PITTA was also the name of the band.

“It means having many different charms, like a fairy pit,” said Kang. “We named the band PITTA because we wanted to make fun music regardless of the genre. I used the name for my solo project because I wanted to create an infrastructure for performing with the same band members in the future. In fact, the guitarist in the band produced the album. Thanks to him, I was able to juggle my role as a Forestella member and preparing to debut solo.”

Kang said the reason he grabbed immediate attention from the first episode of the “Phantom Singer,” was thanks to his band PITTA. On “Phantom Singer,” Kang sang the songs that received awards from different competitions the band participated in to “earn some money for get-together dinners and drinks.” In other words, he chose songs that had the potential to appeal to the public after testing them out with the band.”

Throughout the show on JTBC, Kang said his mother “prayed for me to fail in getting to the next level.” Her prayers didn’t work. Kang continue to move up and when he finally was able to become a quartet in the program, Kang’s mother gave up.

“That’s when she began praying for me to win,” Kang chuckled. “Actually, she was still concerned during the first two years of Forestella. I’m from a very conservative family so she always emphasized the role of the ‘oldest son’ in the family. She said I should find a job that has a steady income because I’m the oldest son.”

Kang doesn’t hold any resentment toward his mother, but instead gives her credit for helping him to get to where he is now.

“Maybe it was her big picture,” Kang said. “If I majored in singing and was a professional countertenor, I don’t think I would’ve received the spotlight and praise that I did. I am really happy with where I am now and all the things that happened in my life that brought me here. I learned a larger spectrum of singing because I did not major in music. I can sing classical music, crossover, rock and maybe even have a go at singing trot.”

Kang’s mother is now his most ardent supporter.

“She gives me detailed feedback and that helps me a lot,” Kang said.

Forestella was hit hard by the pandemic. All of its concerts got canceled and Kang had to get a loan to make ends meet. But not having a packed schedule for Forestella allowed him to concentrate on his solo album.

“I spent a lot of time working closely with the guitarist who produced the album,” said Kang. “I think I was able to complete the album thanks to the pandemic.”

Kang’s pretty-boy image contradicts the strong music he pursues as a solo artist. Kang says he has a macho element to his character that doesn’t really go with his soft appearance.

“I somewhat had this sense of shame for having to act like a softy for Forestella because that image was what our fans wanted,” said Kang. He expressed such a feeling in his new song “Persona.”

“It’s a song that expresses the sense of disparity between my social self and my original self,” he said. “It created confusion in my values. When I perform as a member of Forestella, I instinctively became more feminine to express the feeling of sadness. But I’m probably the least feminine man I’ve ever known.”

Kang in fact uses strong Busan dialect, the representative image of a conventionally manly man in Korea.

Another track on the album titled “Prayer” reveals Kang’s manly side. Kang said he was inspired by war films when writing the song.

“It’s about pushing forward with courage when encountered with a crisis, rather than just wishing for luck,” said Kang. “I am a big fan of war movies. Protagonists in such films always win despite difficult situations. That became the motif of the song. After experiencing the coronavirus, my professional consciousness was raised.”

When Forestella dropped its first album, Kang wanted to get rid of the countertenor image.

“But now, I think I’m okay with it. I’ve realized that this character is like a rope that keeps me afloat in this industry,” said Kang. “I am really lucky to express two different personas. I can be gentle when I sing romantic songs and be manly when I do rock music.”

“It’s not like I’m going to grow my hair and do heavy metal like conventional rockers,” Kang said. “I just want to appeal to those who can understand the music I love.”