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Borrowed Tongue is the debut solo album by Korean singer-songwriter Minhwi Lee. It’s a mysterious, strangely compelling thing, an album of rare poetry, and remarkably self-assured. Originally released in November 2016, the album made waves, winning best folk album of 2016 at the 14th Korean Music Awards. Its eight songs, written and predominantly arranged by Lee, don’t reveal their secrets easily, or at first blush; rather, they take their time slowly to unfurl in her listeners’ worlds. There are hints of other music here, from time to time: the intimacy of Stina Nordenstam, perhaps; the gauzy haze of Hope Sandoval, on the blissed-out pop of “Broken Mirror”; there are touches of acid-folk, and ECM jazz, and a slyly filmic approach to songwriting and arrangement that makes every song fit perfectly into the album’s arc.
Lee arrived at her solo music through a complex, circuitous route. After studying musicology in Seoul, she learned her trade, film scoring, in New York and Paris. She also studied classical music, blowing off steam in a wild punk duo, Mukimukimanmansu, who released one album, 2012, on Korean indie label Beatball. Subsequently, Lee has been refining her music, focusing both on her solo songs, and on writing for television series and films; she’s written scores for films by such directors as Sangmoon Lee, Jeongwon Kam, and Wanmin Lee. She also plays in the jazz outfit Cubed, and recently joined doom metal group Gawthrop on bass.
Since its release in 2016, Borrowed Tongue has slowly bewitched listeners with its idiosyncratic arrangements and evocative songwriting. It’s an album that hints at plenty, but refuses to make grand statements, something Lee seems intent to pursue: in correspondence, she’s very clear that she wants these songs to enact a kind of transmutation, to be adopted into the listeners’ lives and exist within their own imaginings. She does, however, offer a few hints to what propels these mercurial songs, explaining, “this album is about a person who again opens their mouth, which was once shut. The album deals with what it means to speak: things that are known but not said, things that should be said but are not, things that cannot be said but nonetheless are.”
This may well explain the curious mood of Borrowed Tongue, the multiple ‘voices’ that inhabit the album; Lee’s singing voice is pliable and mutable, approaching each song as its own diorama and ensuring the song is sung with just the right tone. The arrangements Lee conjures for her songs are all in service to narrative and melody; they appear to her alongside the composition, which is surely why everything here fits together so beautifully. From there, Lee approaches her songs carefully, in deference to their ‘need to be sung’ a certain way. There isn’t a moment wasted: everything on Borrowed Tongue is as it needs to be, whether a melancholy folk song taking to the air, or a psychedelic reverie dreamed into being. It’s a beautiful, poised and confident debut.