Nyia Sissac

For fourth-year Jhung Kim, making music has always been about the unexpected.

Jhung Came Out of the Blue

What was intended as a one-off EP has instead (re)launched the student artist’s musical career.

For fourth-year Jhung Kim, whose stage name is Jhung, making music has always been about the unexpected. From the release of his 2022 debut song “Always the End,” meant to both open and close the book on his pursuit of music, to his farewell show and new EP, the musician and UChicago student has built his burgeoning career through circumstances as surprising and delightful as his arrangements.

“Very few people at UChicago knew about the EP,” Jhung said about the making of Always the End. The project started as a personal one for Jhung, a classically trained pianist and oboist who had the talent for music but was losing his curiosity for it. Isolated during the pandemic, Jhung began working on the EP to fill the empty hours, but the project took on a new urgency when he returned to campus.

In order to marshal the sticky hooks and genre-bending production of Always the End, Jhung drew inspiration from both his favorite artists and material created by his peers at UChicago. Influenced by acts like Tyler, the Creator; Black Party; and Brockhampton, Jhung’s sound draws on genres ranging from gospel to bossa nova. To channel these influences into his own project, Jhung reached out to the musical community at UChicago.

Overcoming limited resources, Jhung began corralling the instrumentation he needed for the EP. After reaching out to student musicians like violinist Grace Kim ‘23, who can be heard in the opening of the EP’s title track, Jhung recorded using only his phone and mixed the audio for headphones because he did not own any speakers. During a 10-day quarantine while visiting family in South Korea, he recorded take after take alone in his room until he was satisfied with his vocals. Through this tireless process he began to assemble the songs that would fulfill his goal for the project: to make music that would show a new side of himself.

“I started feeling the need to be seen,” he said, though on the cover of Always the End, Jhung appears with his face entirely blocked by a white square. Rooted in his desire for visibility was a need to change his image, to move beyond the expectations of close friends and classmates.

The five-track EP, which Jhung released in May 2022, is built neatly around this problem; from the first moment of its opening track, we learn that “JHUNG IS DEAD!”, which sets up the titular track and the remainder of the record to serve as the artist’s “last words.” This setup mirrors the project’s themes of loss and loneliness and its staging as the death of his former persona.

“The EP was meant to be my last stab at music, the metaphorical death of my music[al] ambitions,” Jhung said. Instead, in the making and release of the project, he took those ambitions to new heights. Within a month of its release, the project racked up more than 150,000 streams on Spotify and was featured on several of the streaming platform’s editorial playlists. For Jhung, this increased exposure brought a new perspective.

“You can’t expect to know how people will relate to your art,” he said.

The overwhelming positive reaction caused Jhung to reevaluate a record that had blossomed into something much larger. Fans messaged him on Instagram to tell him how his music had carried them through difficult times, and he began to understand that the individual struggles he had faced while making the EP connected him to a sympathetic audience, one that turned to him for support in communicating their own experiences.

The success of Always the End also propelled Jhung into uncharted territory when he was invited to open for R&B singer Ravyn Lenae at the Major Activities Board’s 2022 Fall Show. Before a packed crowd, he performed the songs he said “were originally intended to be listened to alone.”

But instead of shying away from this unforeseen result, Jhung embraced it and once again found support among his peer group. In addition to his solo music, he began performing with guitarist Nick Tarr a.k.a. Neon Mercy, bassist Joey Sperber, and drummer Lucio Figueiredo, all fellow fourth-year students he connected with through the making of and release of the EP.

“Networking was the most important part,” Jhung said, which became especially apparent when he connected with his manager Elliott Ducree Jr. through the class “Music of the Black Radical Tradition,” which they took together last spring. After hearing “SEE ME,” Ducree saw Jhung’s potential and the chance to realize his own ambitions of breaking in a new artist to the scene.

“I started to feel like this [was] the perfect opportunity,” he said. Ducree began working as Jhung’s manager during the summer. Looking to highlight Jhung’s strengths in producing and arrangement, the two strategized to develop his brand as an artist and grow his presence on campus.

Having graduated, Ducree moved to LA to work at the Creative Artists Agency and connected Jhung with second-year student Kevin Michuki. Ducree met Michuki at Back 2 Back, an event series at Hallowed Grounds that Ducree designed with inspiration from Aux Cord DJ events hosted by Chicago music professionals.

“It was a great opportunity to have someone who is my peer already working in the same spaces I want to be [in],” says Michuki, who also serves as social media editor for the African and Caribbean Students’ Association and sports editor for African student publication The Independence. Throughout the academic year, Michuki helped promote and market the programming Ducree and Jhung had planned over the summer. This programming culminated in Jhung’s May 19 farewell concert, a sold out show at Hallowed Grounds ahead of his own graduation in June.

Speaking on his future project, Jhung said he wants to be more intentional about his public-facing persona. If Always the End was designed for headphones, this next project is intended for “speaker setting.” As he leaves UChicago, Jhung faces a world of new opportunities for his musical career. He’s certain to sound right at home.

Editor’s Note: After this article’s publication, the writer and Maroon Editors agreed to amend several paragraphs to contexualize the production and networking processes surrounding the events of this story.

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