LOS ANGELES- Aug. 24 (UPI) -- The last year has been monumental for K-pop in the U.S. BTS has consistently landed its last three albums on top of the Billboard 200 albums chart and BLACKPINK became the first idol group to play Coachella. In 2019, more K-pop groups have performed in the states than ever before, and the trend doesn't seem to be stopping any time soon.
But just as K-pop is slowly breaking into the American consciousness, many of its veteran Asian American stars are choosing different paths.
Having gone to South Korea at a young age to pursue music careers, many Korean-American K-pop stars are starting to come back home to work in the local music market, including Tiffany from Girls' Generation and singer Jay Park. And then there's James Lee and Kevin Woo, formerly of Royal Pirates and U-KISS, respectively, who are returning to the United States for hometown shows in Los Angeles on Saturday and San Francisco on Sunday.
"There's opportunities [now] that just did not exist when we started," Lee told UPI in a call from Beijing. "And that's why we went to Asia in the first place. You're going against the grain in America to be an Asian entertainer, an Asian musician."
As Korean-Americans growing up in California with dreams of pursuing careers in music, both singers moved to South Korea at an early age. Woo was a part of the boy band U-KISS for almost a decade, and played a big role in spreading K-pop outside of South Korea in the mid-aughts. Lee played the bass in the rock band Royal Pirates. Being part of a small group of American idols in the K-pop world, Woo and Lee became friends.
In 2017, Woo decided to leave U-KISS and work on a solo project. Following an accident that almost cut off his left hand and the complications that arose from it, Lee left the band the same year.
Since then, they've both had different paths. Though Lee has struggled with his physical and mental health, he released an EP last year, The Light, which documented his experiences after the accident. Unable to play instruments with his left hand, Lee learned synthesis and began making his music more electronic, but sticking to his emo roots by writing raw and personal lyrics.
"Physically, I'm worse. My hand has been acting up recently, it's been swelling up. That was giving me a bit of stress," he said. "But mentally, [I'm] much better, because I have a direction, I have a purpose. Making The Light EP in the first place was a reset for me. I'm in a much better place than I was last year."
Though he's still working on his first full album, Woo has kept active. He's released songs in Japanese and English, like "Spark" and "Ride Along," and done musical theater in Japan. Since going solo, he's gotten the opportunity to be more hands-on with the creation of his music, a luxury that hasn't been afforded to many K-pop idols within their groups.
"It's been a really liberating experience for me, I would say, because my fans didn't get to hear music that came from my experiences," Woo said from Korea. "But to write lyrics that are from my soul and what I wanted to express -- I think the distance between me and my fans got a bit closer. Because they can understand me and relate to me on a more personal level rather than just hearing songs that other producers write for me."
Now that both performers are at more stable points in their solo careers, Woo and Lee have decided to play two hometown shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco, joined by more of their friends, the band FYKE. They also recently released their first collaboration, "Falling," ahead of the tour.
"I've been able to witness [Kevin's] growth from before his debut until after he left the group," Lee said about Woo. "And I've always been a songwriter on my own, so we've always kind of talked about writing a song together, but this was his first chance where he had his independence and he was able to do what he wanted to do kind of freely."
Being a self proclaimed "emo kid at heart," Lee wrote a hook he thought would suit Woo -- a kind of throwback track heavily influenced by his punk-rock band days.
Woo and Lee met in Korea three months ago and decided it was time to make the collaboration happen.
"We went into the studio, we thought of some melodies, we thought of some lyrics, we finished the recording and the photoshoot for the album cover, everything, in like three days. We loved how it turned out," Woo said.
They recently performed "Falling" at this year's KCON LA, but will also be taking it on the road with their upcoming shows with FYKE. And though Woo previously played San Francisco with his former group U-KISS in 2014 and Lee had an album release party last year for The Light in Los Angeles, this is the first time they'll be putting on a show for the fans with their new material, as well as perform the multiple collaborations they've done with other artists.
"I've always wanted to perform for my American fans because it's always been a dream of mine, performing in the states, because that's where I dreamt of becoming a singer. And to be a part of K-pop for the last 10 years and represent America in Korea, and then bringing that back to America and represent Korea, that's something very special to me," Woo said. "All of these Korean-American artists are crossing over to America and doing shows here. I feel very proud to [also] be a part of this Asian representation in America."
Added Lee: "To be able to carry some of the momentum and go back into the game with a fresh mind-set, it feels very liberating. It's just really an exciting time to be able to do that, to play at home where we started with momentum behind us."
While in California, Woo said, they will be shooting a music video for "Falling," since the track was received really well by both fans and their friends. The singer also said that he's working on his first full album, and that fans can expect more of him in America in the next couple of years.
Lee, who loves collaborating with other artists given his background as a member of a band, teased that more is coming out soon. And though he won't reveal who he's working with, he said the songs would have a "very different vibe."
As for the homecoming shows, Woo and Lee have been preparing something big.
"I'm thinking of playing some new songs, to share some new music, as well as play songs that have never been played before," Lee said. Woo promised to perform all his international releases for the first time in America.
"It's exciting but it's also nerve-racking at the same time. But after I see the response from this first tour, that'll give me a lot of inspiration and a lot of help to see which direction I want to go into in the future," Woo said.