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On breaking free of other people’s expectations, finding inspiration in family, and the future of pop music

Welcome to Rolling Stone’s 2021 Musicians on Musicians package, the annual franchise where two great artists come together for a free, open conversation about life and music. Each story in this year’s series will appear in our November 2021 print issue, hitting stands on November 2nd.

“I really want a lot more Asian pop stars,” says CL. The South Korean pop singer, 30, is already doing her part to meet that demand — as is the woman she’s talking to, Jhené Aiko, 33. Both artists started making music at a young age, and they’re both still reaching brand-new peaks in their careers. Though this is their first time meeting, they immediately find a bond, learning they share a sign (“When I found out you were a Pisces, I said, ‘Yes!’ ” Aiko exclaims) and an outlook on making music that doesn’t conform to any set genre or industry mold.

A Los Angeles native whose background includes Japanese, European, and African American roots, Aiko got her start in the R&B world, and she’s since been nominated for Grammys in six different categories, including Album of the Year, for her 2020 album, Chilombo, a post-breakup exploration that suggests a modern update of classic quiet-storm balladry. CL began her career in the K-pop system, as part of the enormously popular group 2NE1, and continued that success after striking out as a solo artist; her 2016 song “Lifted,” which riffs on a classic Wu-Tang Clan track, made the charts in the U.S., and today, on October 20th, she’s releasing her full-length debut, Alpha, which fuses pop, hip-hop, R&B, and EDM with a joyful sense of borderless self-discovery. “I have an album coming out independently,” CL notes. “I chose to do that, going outside the system.”

CL: I know we both started when we were pretty young. I would love to know, what keeps you going?

Aiko: I started when I was 13. So it’s been 20 years, and I had my daughter when I was 20. When I had her, that was the pivotal moment of, “OK, I need to really take this seriously.” Or, I need to find another career path that guarantees a paycheck — a steady paycheck, so I can take care of me and her. She’s been one of the main things that keeps me going. It’s inspiring for me. And then, I don’t know, I feel like I always am in this space where I want to create. You’re a Pisces, right?

CL: Yes! I did want to mention that, too.

Aiko: Our dream world, our fantasy world — I always want to bring that to real life. I always want to share that with people, and I always feel like I need to explain it more and I need to add more details throughout the years. I’m like, “Oh, wait, but I need you to see this layer of the world, and this layer and this layer…” There’s always another layer with us.

CL: For me, when creating and expressing myself, it’s like, if I don’t do it, it’s like my blood is not circulating. I started when I was really young, too. I’m from the K-pop system. You’re almost like an athlete — you’re trained to dance, it’s all scheduled, all those things. I was always in that program. Recently, I decided to get out of it. I didn’t really get to live my life.

My biggest dream is to become a mother, which I would love to learn more from you. I really would love to be blessed to be able to do that. I didn’t really have a life for 13 years. I decided to take some time off, and everything just stopped; and when I wasn’t creating, I felt like I’m pregnant and not giving birth [laughs]. So that’s when I realized I want to continue doing this. That was my motivation. I realized that when I took some time off: I actually enjoy and love doing this.

“I never saw an Asian pop star where I was like, ‘She looks like me.’ I felt that was impossible. That’s what I want to do, for 12-year-old me.” — CL

You definitely paved a lot of ways and did amazing things. And I want more of us. I’m a very MTV-era girl, and I never saw an Asian pop star, where I was like, “OK, she looks like me.” I felt that was impossible. So that’s what I want to do, for 12-year-old me.

Aiko: I think you’re doing it, for sure. I know you’re doing that.

CL: Thank you. We need to continue to do this.

Aiko: I think a big part of it, too, is taking those breaks. Life is always going and going and going. It’s important for me to always take some time for myself, to live and experience life. There’s always things that I am being inspired by, or new song lyrics and new stories that I feel like I want to tell. And like you said, when you’re not creating, sometimes it can just feel like, “What am I supposed to be doing right now?” It just kind of feels, like you said, like you’re pregnant but you can’t give birth. That takes nine months. So with my projects, I let everyone around me know that this is not going to be one of those things where I’m just pumping out all of this material. This is a real process. I heal through my work, it’s therapeutic for me. I express myself because I have to let it out or I’ll go crazy. And yeah, it’s deeper than just trying to stay relevant or popular or whatever.

CL: You’ve been there and done that. There’s nothing to prove.

Jhené, you’ve worked with your daughter, and CL, you work closely with your sister, and your father also has been a big inspiration. Why have you chosen to work so closely with family?

Aiko: My daughter has been on all of my albums, except for this last one. She was like, “No, I’ll skip this one.” She’s kind of too cool for me right now. Working with her was just one of those surreal moments, like I can’t believe this is my daughter and she has perfect pitch. I remember being in a studio with her. It’s just like, “You’re me, but you’re the better version.” It’s brought us closer for sure, being able to bring her on stage. And then my father, I’ve worked with him a few times. He’s a doctor in his seventies now. He’s just pursuing all of his dreams. He’s writing poetry books and recording music

I have a big family. I did a song with my sister for this last album, and it’s been long overdue. It’s a bonding experience. I’m superclose with my family. They’re also my friends, they’re the people that I hang out with. So why not be the people that I work with as well? In this industry, it’s hard to find people that are really genuine and find a genuine connection. I’ve been lucky to be blessed with that built-in group of people that are literally my family. No matter your career, they’re going to come into in some type of way and help out, because they’re family.

CL: I didn’t get to grow up with my sister because, like I told you, the K-pop system is . . . You’re very guarded, and you have to be committed to that fully. I didn’t really get to grow up with her after my teenage years. After she graduated college, she graduated in accounting, so she was like, “I’m good at it, but I don’t know if I’m so passionate about it.” I was like, “OK, let’s just go on tour together. Come live with me and travel with me,” because I wanted her to have that experience. It’s hard to keep the balance because . . . it’s also from the system, but I’m not too open about my personal life to the world. Maybe that’s something I need to do to grow up.

Aiko: It’s all about balance. When I was younger, I was a lot more open, telling all of my business all of the time. As I’ve gotten older, there’s some things that are sacred, and everyone doesn’t need to know everything all of the time. That’s been helping me preserve energy for myself, and for my family, for my friends, protecting us against that unnecessary energy of judgment. We all have stories, and we all have things that someone is going to judge us for. Everyone doesn’t need to know everything all the time. No shade to the people that love to share their life all the time, because that’s a beautiful thing too. It helps us connect with one another, just learning each other’s stories. It helps us realize that we are more alike than different, no matter where we’re from or our age or gender, any of that.

CL: How did you get into sound healing? Because I love sound baths, but I don’t know enough about it.

Aiko: I remember my mom telling me when I was younger, when I first started, she was just like, “You can do whatever type of music that you want to do. You never have to be married to just one genre or feel obligated to say that you’re just an R&B artist, or just pop or hip-hop or jazz, gospel. Whatever you want to do, you can do that.” And I kept that in mind.

I got into sound bowls in my teens. I got a few just because I liked how they sounded and I liked how they felt, to actually play them. Little by little, I started studying, “What is this doing for me?” Because I felt a difference. I felt like it was helping me in some type of way. Then I found these bowls made of different crystals and decided to start incorporating them in my music as I studied how they resonate with the different parts of your body. I’m like, “This is why I’m making music.” It’s to help people get to that state of harmony within themselves. That peaceful state, that calm state, so no matter what you’re going through, you can navigate more calmly, you can be more mindful of how you’re living your life. We all need that.

I definitely still love to turn up and put on something that’s going to give me energy, but all of these different types of sounds have the ability to affect us in different ways — to give us energy or to help us calm down or to help us cry and release. The bowls that I use are infused with different crystals and different metals. Some of them have platinum and diamond, ruby, rose quartz, tiger’s eye, anything you can think of. They’re super-special. Each bowl resonates differently within the human body because the properties of the crystals add to the vibration. There’s still a lot that I’m learning about it as I go.

CL: Next time you have a show, I would love to be there to experience that. For me, it’s more scent that I find peace in. I was perfume shopping all the time. I love candles. And I was like, “Why?” I realized that whatever mood I want to be in, I use different scents. We’re traveling a lot, and we’re hotel to hotel. For me to feel like home, that helps me a lot.

Aiko: Same. One of the things that I did right before Covid happened was this immersive experience that combines sound therapy, color therapy, and aromatherapy, because I’m the same way. I always have to have my incense or my aroma sprays.

You know what else I’ve started to do more of is breathwork. I have a new puppy. I have a 12-year-old daughter. There’s sometimes so much going on. And for me, the goal of meditation is to center myself and quiet my inner world. When you’re focusing on that breath, you can’t even think about anything else but your breathing. And then when you’re done, everything just feels so balanced. It’s so satisfying.

I reached a point last year where I started to feel super burned out. I was doing what I could, but then when I reached the peak, it was just like, “I just need to stop doing everything and just go into hiding for a few days.” I was doing too much. You don’t always get to take that time. But the goal is that, daily, you can set aside time for yourself. Instead of waking up and checking my phone, I’m going to wake up, do some breathing exercises, go outside and stretch, have something to eat, and then I’ll get to a phone.

CL: More than ever, a lot of people are experiencing. . . go, go, go, and overwork, which I have done for years. And when I stopped, I didn’t know what to do. I think that was another thing, just to have that routine and making sure that you take 10 minutes of your life every day. . . just for yourself, whatever heals you or comforts you.

Aiko: There’s a lesson in all of that. The fact that you were aware, and you were able to even say, “Oh, OK, I need to get back in harmony and find the balance” — because some people will just keep going and going and going, or they’ll just be off-balance for so long that that becomes their normal. I personally cannot function when I’m not balanced. It gets very chaotic. And I deserve the peace.

(Main photograph by Erik Carter for Rolling Stone. Produced by Walaa Elsiddig. Fashion Direction by Alex Badia. CL: Styled by Sebastién Hohl and Aunna Kelly. Hair styled by Serena Radaelli for Cloutier Remix. Makeup by Morgan Marinoff. Coat by Peter Do. Earrings and Rings by Vhernier. Choker by Ivan Tufenkjian. Aiko: Styled by Casey Billingsley. Hair styled by Kahh Spence. Makeup by Nikko Anthony. Dress by Zara. Gloves by George Keburia.)

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