“I actually created the word. I created my own genre,” says AZRA, founder and ambassador of “substance pop.” Last month I got a chance to chat with the LA-based Korean-American artist (who actually lived in Queen Village in 2016 and 2017), who tells me, “I always have to have substance and meaning behind the music.” AZRA’s recent single, “Dirty,” whose Kill Bill-inspired music video dropped at the end of July, is a TRL-ready anthem about having the bravery to avoid conforming to the expectations established by popular culture: “Whatever I put out, I wanna make sure it has substance. I’m gonna make sure, even if it’s music you can dance to, like pop or pop-rock, that it has depth.”
AZRA has cited Freddie Mercury, Whitney Houston, Cher, and Michael Jackson as major influences, but tells me she’s also inspired by a handful of more recent pop stars: “I would say definitely P!nk, Kanye, Lady Gaga and Madonna – they’re super inspiring. Britney, you can’t forget about her.” She also cites Nicki Minaj, Panic! at the Disco, Imagine Dragons, Miley Cyrus, and Bruno Mars as some of her favorite artists, but also admits to having certain tastes people might not expect: “I grew up listening to heavy metal… In high school my guy friends were like heavy metal kids.” When I ask what kinds of things inspire the sounds of her substance pop, she says that she thinks it has a “’90s Max Martin pop music vibe,” before adding, “I feel like, for me, Max Martin’s late ‘90s and early 2000s stuff was just all about the vibe and it’s very melodic and very dynamic and catchy. It hits the emotions, hits the heart, gets right to it.”
When AZRA and I chatted last month, she had just gotten back to the stage, having played The Mint in LA on July 31st, something which she admits she had some anxiety about: “It was my first show in a year and a half, so there were a lot of different nerves and emotions going on before the show.” However, she tells me that once the show got going, her nerves completely left the building: “I was really excited and grateful to get back and do what I love. I remember during the show when I was singing, and I was on the third song, ‘Gravity,’ and I just thought, ‘This is why I’m doing what I’m doing. This is what I want to do.’”
In addition to her singing and songwriting, AZRA is also a model, hip hop dancer, published author, and motivational storyteller. She tells me that much of the motivation and outlook behind her work comes from a traumatic experience when she was younger. At 19 AZRA was diagnosed with juvenile glaucoma, providing a major hurdle, both physically and mentally: “I was half-blind for two months… That time was really hard for me, but I learned so much from that time. Before that happened with my eye, I felt like I was completely invincible [laughs].” However, that experience has driven her to a plethora of accomplishments. When I ask her about some of the highlights of her musical career, she has quite a list.
“I got to go out on tour with Plain White T’s and then play a bunch of pride festivals, of which I’m a big advocate. My single ‘Dimension’ reached #1 on the Digital Radio Airplay Independent Chart. Recently I was asked to be part of GRAMMY NEXT, and they are like the future leaders of music… I try to be grateful to do what I love. It’s like every day is a little highlight.”
For those based in LA, tonight AZRA will be starring in the latest episode of Barrio Fino, a five-part documentary series about the music scene in and around MacArthur Park in LA. Tonight’s episode, Koreatown 3.0, explores the music and arts of Koreatown. The hour-long documentary will be screened at 7pm PT from the rooftop of Walter J. Towers. Details can be found here.