20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.
“Life is not all fluffy and rainbows, it’s also hard and cloudy, but we find beauty and substance in all of them… and we will be empowered through them all.” AZRA is an independent Korean-American artist, creator of the Substance Pop genre, performer, singer/songwriter, hip hop dancer, model, published author, and motivational storyteller. A creative powerhouse and lover of unconventional wisdom, AZRA’s mission is to inspire people to be their authentic selves and empower others to live out their dreams unapologetically and boldly. Through bewitching music and memorable live performances, she creates an experience toward a whole new state of mind — what she calls the “6th Dimension” — in which she deeply connects with her fans. After being diagnosed with glaucoma at age 19 and losing eyesight temporarily on her right eye, AZRA was forced to see beyond what meets the eye and to begin a lifelong quest of substance and meaning in life. “I was basically unpeeling the layers of external influences off of the onion I’ve built so thick from the inside,” she says. “It wasn’t easy, and I realized the only way to see substance and get deep is to learn to accept and listen to my inner voice, and my heart.”
Born Clara Lee in South Korea, AZRA discovered her love for the arts at the age of four. Her family moved to San Jose, California, when she was nine years old and she learned English through “obsessively” singing, playing, and listening to music. At 10, she had already composed her first classical pop piece on piano and violin. She grew up listening to K-pop and American pop, which heavily influenced her music and helped her become fluent in both English and Korean. Along with her friends, AZRA would sing songs in Korean, learn all the dances by K-pop artists and even created TV shows and cover albums out of them from her garage. Showing her entertainment prowess since she was a toddler, she would volunteer, audition and sign up to perform every opportunity she had.
After her glaucoma diagnosis, AZRA was inspired to write an inspirational self-help book about fostering relationships and encouraging self-reflection and self-love in others, called The Cupcake Theory. Aside from being a successful businesswoman and accomplished author, she also began modeling shortly after graduating college, discovered by a fashion photographer in Boston. This led her to become the winner of America’s Next Top Model for the CW28 New England Division. She went on to sign with agencies in Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles, where she walked the runways for designers during fashion week shows and appeared in print ads and commercials. Realizing, however, that music had always been in her DNA, she reinvented herself once more to pursue her professional music career, no holds barred.
I had the opportunity to get to know all about AZRA for this week’s edition of 20 Questions, where she let me in on the inspiration for her creation of the Substance Pop genre, which artists have inspired and influenced her the most, why true beauty is captivating and infectious, her latest single “Solo,” and lots more.
What’s one thing that made you fall in love with music?
Singing and performing.
What inspired your stage name?
Interestingly, the name AZRA sort of just came to me a long time ago even before I knew how to speak English. I always thought that would be the name I should call my future daughter. I also always had this vivid image of a little girl inside me who acted as my emotional barometer. Then, when I finally confronted my lifelong passion of being a singer and performer, decided to obey my soul and pursue this musical journey professionally, I realized that AZRA was not the name I was supposed to give to my future daughter, but it was the little girl inside of me who’s been wanting to express herself through music and the arts with the world since she was born.
As a songwriter, which artists have influenced you the most?
As a songwriter, other artists and writers like Freddie Mercury, Madonna, Pink, and Max Martin.
Who is your style icon?
I have a mixture of style icons consisting of Gabrielle Coco Chanel, Rick Owens, and a few others. Honestly, my style is like Matrix meets, Ghost in the Shell, meets GOT, meets Mortal Combat, Saint Laurent, Rick Owens, Vetements with lots of Gabrielle Chanel sprinkled all over it…
What time of day are you most inspired?
Early mornings, 5:30 to 9:00, or late nights after 11:00.
As an artist, what would you say is the general theme of your music?
I created and publicly coined a new genre of music called “Substance Pop” in 2017. I like to create music that focuses on various life’s challenges and experiences and turning them into empowerment and lessons. I like being able to shift perspectives and empower others to be themselves. Life is not all fluffy and rainbows, it’s also hard and cloudy, but we find beauty and substance in all of them… and we will be empowered through them all. Specifically, the term Substance Pop, influenced by a mixture of 90’s Max Martin-centric pop music and contemporary pop and grunge rock, includes empowering pop belting and catchy melodies fused with mission-driven lyrics focused on self-empowerment, authenticity, and personal development. The term Substance Pop was originated after my traumatic experience of being temporarily blind out of my right eye through juvenile glaucoma when I was 19 years old. I vowed that my music and any artistic expression I share with the world will have substance, depth, and purpose behind them to lift others up along their life’s journey.
The best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Follow your bliss, trust the process, embrace the unknown. What you want is already there waiting for you.
How would you characterize your new single “Solo”?
It’s another Substance Pop song. It’s a feel good, raw, empowering, self-reflective, a confidence boosting anthem.
Are you an introvert or extrovert?
Mostly extrovert, but I definitely have very specific introvert sides of me. I like my privacy and alone time as much as I love performing and being around people. I’m a Libra.
What is your favorite kind of song to write?
Songs about being myself, being a boss, confronting the various “conformities, norms, and standards” of society, unapologetic songs that makes you feel deeply empowered whether it be a ballad, dance, mid-tempo pop/rock song. Songs that evoke visual imagery, have bold messages and substance, and are melodic with heavy beats.
What does the word “beauty” mean to you?
Timeless and objective… I define the word “beauty” similar to that of the way I created and describe my music: Substance Pop. The word “beauty” to me means deeper than the external aesthetics of a person, nature, or a thing. External beauty we so obsess with in our culture is not timeless. True timeless beauty, I believe, means someone or something that embraces themselves as who they are wholeheartedly, dark or bright, and still manages to show up. It’s who exudes love, kindness, authenticity, generosity, and self-respect. When someone cultivates those types of energies, it’s inevitable to see their true beauty. True beauty is captivating and infectious.
What kind of artists did you grow up listening to?
A variety. Pop, heavy metal, pop rock, Hip-hop, and K-pop artists, oh and Broadway singers! Some examples: Michael Jackson, Queen, Whitney Houston, Cher, The Beatles, BoA, Madonna, Britney Spears, P!nk, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, Timbaland, Swizz Beatz, Missy Elliot, Green Day, Sum 41, and Children of Bodom (and other heavy metal bands).
What’s one vice you wish you could give up?
Favorite movie of all-time?
The Devil Wears Prada, The Matrix, Frozen, and The Greatest Showman.
The last book you finished?
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson.
One piece of advice you’d give to your younger self?
To my younger Clara Hyunju self, I would say: “Don’t worry about what anybody else says. Your heart knows what it wants, so speak up about what you want, follow your dreams and know that if you can dream it, it’ll always happen, so just do it (like your family motto: if you do, it’ll happen)!”
You’re stuck on a long flight. Which world-famous musician would you want sitting next to you and why?
Cher, Freddie Mercury, and Madonna. I feel they’re all eclectic people and misfits who turned into legends by sticking to what they believe in, worked their asses off on their craft, and created their own worlds. I think they would understand me. They are pioneers of being unapologetic. Being in their presence would be an honor.
The last series you binge-watched?
The Handmaid’s Tale.
One thing that’s been keeping you sane throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yoga and music. They are both equally my drug and medicine.
What can we expect to hear next from you?
More Substance Pop music and live shows!