For a flavor that is so universally beloved, vanilla doesn’t always get the credit it deserves. Sometimes branded as boring and uncomplicated, it’s often cast aside in the freezer aisle and at ice cream parlors in favor of more adventurous options. But Korean girl group Lightsum is giving vanilla the spotlight it deserves. On the group’s debut single of the same name, the spice gets its just deserts as the base of the thrilling flavor profile of a new love. That bursting, butterfly feeling, they sing, is like a “sweet vanilla” enveloped in a “candy jelly topping” and “starlight sprinkles.”
“‘Vanilla’ is refreshing and cheerful,” says the group’s lead vocalist, Chowon. “I tend to think in terms of colors, especially when I smell things and when I listen to music and [the song] reminds me of the color ivory first, but I think mint suits it, too.” It’s a few days before “Vanilla” drops, and she and her seven bandmates are sitting down to finish a long day of pre-release promotions. It’s a little after 11 p.m. in Seoul, but they’re bright-eyed and beaming with an energy more often seen at the beginning of a long day than at the end.
As Chowon, a self-proclaimed fragrance fanatic, describes the hues of her favorite scents (“I like soft, sweet fragrances that remind me of the color purple or a deep burgundy, like a wine color”) it’s hard not to wonder if she has synesthesia, a rare neurological condition where multiple senses are stimulated when just one should be, causing people to hear smells, taste touch, or, in the case of musicians like Billie Eilish and Lorde, see sound. Chowon’s eyes land on Lightsum’s leader Juhyeon, and she commences a spectacular, rapid fire assessment of each member’s representative color and scent. “Vanilla suits Juhyeon,” she begins, “and the color ivory.” For baseball-loving Sangah, “I’m thinking a unisex fragrance and navy blue.” And for the youngest, Jian, “I think floral scents would suit her but a deeper kind of floral, like a rose, and for the color...” Chowon trails off and takes a deep, contemplative breath. “Cherry red?” suggests Sangah. “Yes! Cherry red,” Chowon agrees.
The darling, dimpled Huiyeon is next, but Chowon needs more time to divine. “I’ll come back to you,” she says matter-of-factly and swiftly turns her attention to Nayoung, as Huiyeon feigns offense. “Nayoung tends to introduce herself as the lemon of the group,” Chowon reasons, and Nayoung smiles and pretends to squeeze lemons with her hands, “so I’d pick that scent for her and the color yellow. Yujeong doesn't really like fragrances,” she admits, and Yujeong nods in agreement, “so I’d choose a natural low key kind of scent, like a skin scent, a natural fragrance. And for color, I’d pick peach.” For ballet dancer Hina, “I thought of floral scents but Hina actually likes to use soapy fragrances... for her I’d pick the color white.” Chowon turns back to Huiyeon, who poses playfully and flutters her fingers under her chin. “Huiyeon is similar to Yujeong, but with, like, a hint of floral scent to her and for color I’d choose a yellow green,” she finishes, with a satisfied thumbs up to the camera.
Chowon’s evaluation is all the more impressive considering that Lightsum’s lineup was only finalized a mere five months ago, with the last-minute addition of Huiyeon and Jian. All eight members now live together in an apartment, but have been so busy with preparations for “Vanilla” that they say they’ve barely spent time there since moving in two months ago. As Juhyeon explains how they’ve learned to work around each others’ schedules, Sangah makes a determined grab at the air and then slams her palm on the table with a loud bang. She turns towards the camera with her hands pressed together in a plea for forgiveness. “Sooorrrrry!” she cries in English. “There’s a mosquito in here!” explains Jian. Nayoung volunteers that she has snuck in a few cooking sessions, most recently making mayak eggs and rice for Juyheon. “It had like five eggs and was totally, totally out of proportion,” says Nayoung. “It was fine, just perfect!” Juhyeon assures her.
They all agree that the strangest revelation since moving in has been Sangah’s hidden talent for time management. “Say we're being picked up at 1 p.m.,” says Juhyeon. “Sangah will get up at 12:40. But she's never late to anything! She has her own 15 minute routine and is ready on time, all the time. Like, she even goes to the convenience store if she needs to!” Juhyeon laughs. ”I still don’t understand how she manages to do it,” says a bewildered Huiyeon, as Sangah pumps a triumphant fist in the air.
Yujeong, who has been quiet and attentive thus far, softly cheers “yay!” when given the chance to discuss ASMR, which she listens to to fall asleep every night. She first started using quiet talking and tapping triggers to overcome her fear of the dark, a method suggested by her older sister, who also listens to the genre to relax ("An ASMR family!" jokes Chowon). Yujeong gasps excitedly at the idea of opening her own channel. “I want one!” she declares. She credits ASMR with helping her overcome some fears, and training for debut as helping her overcome the rest. “I used to be afraid of challenges and adventures, but life as a trainee gave me a lot more confidence and empowered me to not be as afraid.”
18-year-old Hina, the group’s only Japanese member, was empowered by training, too. She flips her inky black hair over her shoulder as she explains the experience of leaving her home country for Korea. “I’m an only child and very close to my parents, so it was a little difficult for me to do everything on my own, from laundry to cooking... all the chores. I learned how to take care of myself.” She hasn’t been able to visit her family since July of 2020, but Lightsum’s debut will allow her parents to see her living her dream. It will also bring Hina one step closer to the artist who inspired her. “TWICE’s Sana got me into K-pop, she's the one who influenced me to pursue this path. If I ever run into her in a waiting room [backstage], it would be great to meet her. I would love to talk to her.”
Rapper Jian, who is just 14, can relate to Hina’s growing pains. “I started training really young, at 12, so it made me mature faster than others my age,” she says. In school, her friends told her she was “odd,” and she doesn’t disagree. “I still think I’m pretty unique…” Jian explains, moving her hands around her head like orbiting planets, “I still find myself to be a little different from others. The things that I think of and my responses are not ones people normally tend to give.” Huiyeon nods enthusiastically and Chowon confirms, “It really is all the time, every thought she has.” Jian wants that personality to be reflected in her raps, “I want my lyrics to be unique and different from what’s already out there, that's the most challenging part.” Fellow rapper Sangah agrees, “I want my raps to be anecdotal, for my lyrics to come from my life. But it's hard to make them fit into a song because the room I have for lyrics is so much shorter than my experiences. So making it short, but still allowing fans to be able to relate to it, is the most difficult part for me.”
At the far end of the table, Juhyeon pops her head out from behind Jian. “I like writing music—both lyrics and composing—and I’ve recently learned how to play the guitar so I definitely want to be able to write a song for our group.” She has plenty of experience to draw on; the last time fans saw her, she was a 13-year-old in braces flabbergasting a judging panel of K-pop industry icons on the competition show “The Unit.” A clip of her audition now has more than 17 million views. Sangah sings the chorus of a song Juhyeon performed on the show as Juhyeon reflects on what it was like to be thrust into a new environment in her early teens. The group is sitting in a conference room whose entire right wall is stacked with shelves of gleaming awards and trophies won by other artists under their label, Cube Entertainment. “Cube is like a smaller version of a society,” Juhyeon observes. “It was hard to get used to but, looking back, it helped me learn a lot more about myself and break boundaries I thought I couldn’t overcome.”
Now, at 17, she serves as Lightsum’s leader, a hefty role that requires her to act as the group’s spokesperson, counselor, and advocate. Those duties are difficult enough, but Juhyeon has been pushing herself to do more. “There are environmental issues that I’ve been feeling concerned about, so I’ve been trying to study and pay attention to that more,” she says. “Mostly about global warming and what I can do in my daily life to help relieve it, like reducing plastics or not consuming meat as much.” She’s a diligent student (she has been studiously scribbling down notes throughout this interview) and has upped her news intake in addition to watching National Geographic videos about endangered species. “As an idol, I’m aware that everything I say can be influential,” she explains, “which is why I want to study and learn more about the world, so I say the right thing, the good thing.”
It turns out that “Vanilla” won’t just be Lightsum’s introduction to the world, it’ll be their first step towards a larger purpose. “I hope Lightsum can be friends for those who pursue their own paths,” says Huiyeon. It’s a dream instilled in her by her mother. “Her wish for me when I was born was that I would be like Avril Lavigne.” Huiyeon explains, “My mom likes Avril Lavigne not just for her music but for the confidence that she exudes on stage. My mom hoped that I would find my own style and be confident in expressing my opinions and breaking stereotypes, she hoped that all the young girls of this century would be like that,” Huiyeon says brightly. A former competitive ice skater and passionate Swiftie (her favorite song is “Betty”), Huiyeon says music has always been her companion. “I’ve tried many things, and taken different paths, and throughout all that, I found that music really helped me, comforted me, gave me relief and lots of energy. I hope our music will do the same for other people.”
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue