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When Kim Ji-min — aka Meaningful Stone — won the Korean Music Award in 2021 for Rookie of the Year, she was hardly a rookie. Having put out her first singles in 2017 and her critically-acclaimed debut album A Call From My Dream in 2020, she was a bit puzzled. “I was like, ‘Why did they give me this prize? I debuted in 2017,’” she says with a laugh. But the prize put her in the eclectic company of emerging Korean stars like Hyukoh and SE SO NEON; last year, K-pop darlings aespa nabbed the same award. 

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Kim’s brand of indie-pop is mellifluous, at times inflected with folk and synth-pop. With her latest EP Psychomania (which dropped in fall 2022), she takes a rawer, grungier approach with music fit for the big festivals like South Korea’s Pentaport, which she played last year. But don’t compare her to grunge legends like Nirvana; her latest work is more directly inspired by first-generation K-pop star Seo Taiji. “For a year I was always listening to Seo Taiji. I obviously listen to Western bands, and they affect me a lot, but I don’t want to copy the Western,” she says. “I want to find good bands in Korea, like 3rd Line Butterfly.” She’s trying to find the “K” spirit inside Korean rock music. “I’m still studying, I’m still searching for it,” she says. 

meaningful stone

[Photo by @lagg_ner]

You might find that spirit in bands like Mukimukimanmansu, whose freaky folk-punk finds resonances in Kim’s recent “Trash.” Recently, Kim’s also been digging rising post-hardcore mavericks Soumbalgwang and folk singers like Kim Il Du and Haepa. “Haepa is from Siot and Breeze, the folk band, but recently she released her own album,” she says. “It’s so good! I love the Cardigans, and I hear them in her music.” 

Though she’s very much a Korean indie artist in her musical sensibility, Psychomania is Kim’s first attempt at singing in English. “I really wanted to get in touch with those outside of Korea, since I have a lot of international fans,” she explains. Especially in an industry dominated by the big players in K-pop, it’s sometimes difficult for artists to carve out a name domestically, so international support is important. “After I released the COBALT EP [in 2021], there’s been a lot of fans from all over the world,” she says. “Most of them are from the U.S. or U.K., but there are also a lot of Turkish and Malaysian fans, as well.” She’s even holding out hope for the chance to tour abroad and connect with those overseas fans and artists she loves. “My favorite musicians are all American or British, so I hope I can play in the U.S. or U.K., even if it’s just a bunch of small clubs,” she says.

Raised in the rural area between Gyeonggi-do and Gwangju, Kim wasn’t always a festival-touring indie star with aspirations for the international stage. “There were three buses to Seoul per day, and sometimes I would hitchhike instead,” she says. “In high school, I had like three classmates.” With these school friends, she started a band, kicking off her musical journey. The fact that all her bandmates were boys was often a sticking point. “I hated the Sex Pistols, but they were always listening to that stuff,” she says. Instead of the macho rock “canon,” she gravitated instead to artists like the Cardigans and Björk. She laughs it off now, though. “I tell my friends like, ‘I hate Oasis now because of you guys!’”

Kim has been living the city life in Seoul since she moved there for college half a decade ago, but she’s still often inspired by nature. “I really like to go to the mountains, especially ones where other people don’t go,” she says. “I love Seoul, but it’s so crowded, and there’s so much bad energy, too.” To escape the stressful palli-palli (faster, faster) culture in the city, Korea’s mountains provide a peaceful environment for Kim to reconnect with reality. “I wrote Psychomania because I was so stressed about people telling me I had to study about the Metaverse, or I had to get into NFTs,” she says. “I felt weird, because it’s just a kasang hyeonsil [virtual reality]. I was like, ‘Just fuck off!’” 

Though she does feel a measure of pressure to succeed as a jangnyeo, the eldest daughter in her family, her approach to music is characterized by that devil-may-care attitude. Unencumbered by the expectations placed upon her by her debut, Meaningful Stone is breathing new life into Korea’s music scene.