Meet Val Del Prete, the Italian soul of K-pop
There is even a bit of Italy in the K-pop industry. Impossible, you might think. How can two worlds which are so apparently distant come together and even merge? To reveal the secret of Italian style in the world of Korean music is Valeria "Val" Del Prete, topliner and vocal producer that for years has been involved in songwriting (melody and lyrics) and vocal productions of some of the most famous idols in the world. Some names? Astro, Aespa, Twice, Cravity, Mirae, but the list is really long. Italian but living in London, her songs have sold over 3 million records in four years. Val, who has a background in science and has a Ph.D. in brain science, is a musical talent discovered at an early age by pure chance. A raw gem that began to shine in the European capital of pop music in 2015 and has since then taken Italian pride all the way across the Atlantic to the Far East.
Panorama.it interviewed her.
Val can you please introduce yourself and tell us more about you and your job?
«I am a songwriter and vocal producer living in London and working on the k-pop market. My parents found out by chance that I could play the piano by ear when I was 3 years old, so it was clear that I had a talent for music. By age 6 I had written my first song and by age 8 I had started taking piano lessons regularly. As a teenager, I used to sing in a band and do local gigs. However, due to a combination of reasons, I did not immediately decide to take a career in music. I was generally a very good student at school, particularly in mathematics and science, and my family has an academic background; hence it was considered a "waste" not to pick a career that would secure an easy and comfortable future financially».
So you moved to London. And music found you again.
«Music really seemed to be "the most difficult option": I had no contacts at all in that world and I wasn't confident enough in my abilities to even try. So I decided to take a degree in physics and went as far as taking a Ph.D. in brain science. Back then, I think I was honestly convinced my future was in science. Science, though, brought me to London, the European capital of pop music; here, my love for music emerged again, stronger than ever, so I gave up my career in science, found a part-time job, and started making music at home. I remember the first time I put my hands on a keyboard after a while I cried, no joke. I knew I was quite "a late starter", particularly in a career path that is so competitive and cut throat, but I felt much happier finding the courage to embrace my real nature and my dreams».
You are 100% Italian and you are working in K-pop. How was your journey?
«I am 100% certified "Romana de Roma"! I also visit Italy quite often to see my family. Nothing beats Italian ice cream and pizza! However, I have always loved the English language and international pop music. When I decided to devote myself to music, I started collaborating with songwriters and producers in London and some of them were working on the Asian market, specifically Japan and Korea. This was at the start of 2015, roughly. Back then, K-pop was not so popular in the UK, but I was totally drawn to it as soon as I started working on this genre».
What did you find so fascinating about K-pop?
«As a writer/producer, I find that the structure of a k-pop song is more varied and almost experimental compared to UK/US pop; K-pop leaves a lot of space for intricate vocal productions and experimentation blending different styles. I also love the fact that, when writing, I have to take into account the choreographies, incorporating musical elements that have their own "visual counterpart" to create a multi-sensory experience for the listener. Sometimes, when I write a k-pop song I feel like creating a whole mini-opera with several sections intertwined. It is challenging but very entertaining. So I decided to focus on developing my skills and network in Asian pop; I gradually got in touch with publishers and record labels in Korea and Japan. It took about 2 years for my first placements, and lots of trial and error and hard work, but by 2018 I had my first platinum release».
You are a writer and vocal producer. Can you describe your daily routine?
«Generally I wake up by 9-10 am, have breakfast, and start reading the emails I received during the night. The music industry is extremely fast-paced and a 24/7 experience, particularly when working on a market in a different time zone and in the age of the internet. It is not unusual that I wake up with a series of emails that demand my immediate attention: requests for new urgent songs, requests for urgent changes to songs I wrote, requests for new collaborations. Sometimes I can spend an entire day "working" on these requests for songs, changes, etc. Collaborating with people in Asia and in the US, who operate at a different time zone, may mean that I can end up working until late at night, or that I have very early morning sessions. On a normal "easy" day where there aren't very urgent specific requests from labels or publishers, I spend my first hour checking the new releases and learning new songs, practicing new vocal techniques or chord progressions. I feel that this study is necessary to keep my writing up to date with the current trends. I also spend lots of time learning new lyrics and new concepts. I write for a young audience, so it is very important that I keep in touch with how young people think, and with what makes them tick. To be honest, I am also really young at heart, so I love it. Later in the day, I start my actual creative work, writing. I can have a minimum of 4-5 songs I am working on simultaneously, so I open the arrangements and start working on the melodies, lyrics, and on vocal production. Working simultaneously on several songs keeps my ears "fresh" when listening back to the ideas I came up with. I can keep working until 8-10 PM, but on most days I will have a walk to do my daily shopping, and 2-3 days per week I go jogging for a couple of hours to keep myself fit».
You worked with lots of artists, from rookies like MIRAE and Aespa to top stars like TWICE and ASTRO. Which is the main challenge in working with idols?
«Personally, I think the main challenge is to be able to write a song that fits perfectly well with what an idol group represents vocally, concept-wise, lyrically, etc. Writing is partially inspiration, partially craft, and, if different idols have different artistic identities, different writers also have different vocal tones, writing styles, etc so sometimes these two won't match, and you will find it very difficult to write the right kind of material. When I started, I used to "write for myself from my heart" only, and I used to write songs that fit my vocals only. Some writers actually keep doing only this and are very successful in their own right. For example, a writer like Bekuh Boom, who writes almost exclusively for Blackpink, is absolutely phenomenal in that specific style, almost unbeatable, hence she focuses on it. But I quickly found that I rather preferred not to focus on one specific style, writing instead for different idols, pretty much like an actor takes on different roles. Writing means also escapism to me. I love the feeling of writing a dark, sexy girl crush song one day, a "Jackson 5" uplifting funky bop another day. It is like becoming different characters and living different lives. My vocals won't fit some styles, but I work with other writers and vocalists depending on the song, to cover as many styles as I can. This is how I went from writing the sweet bubble gum pop "Happy happy" for Twice to writing the much darker and sexy "Ultraviolet" for Koda Kumi or "One" for Astro. It takes effort to do this "chameleon switch" mentally, but on the other hand, I find it absolutely thrilling to be able to write in so many styles across the board, and get to know and work for many different idols».
You wrote a lot of hit songs, like ASTRO's "ONE" or Twice "Happy happy". Which is the process behind creating a success like this?
«The process can be different each time, to be honest. For "ONE" for example, we started from a simple melody hook idea. The arrangement was not even there, but we built the song starting from that hook "we come as one", bit by bit. For some parts, I worked piano and voice and sent the ideas to the producer, who then produced those sections. It was literally like putting a puzzle together. For "Happy happy" the process was more linear. A US producer, Eric Sanicola, sent me a full instrumental that inspired me to write the song. Once I wrote the song, I realized it would fit Twice and I sent the song to Min "Collapsedone" Lee, who is a producer particularly skilled and experienced in the "Twice sound". He took the production into his hands and molded it to fit the Twice sound perfectly. However, while the process can be different each time, the goal is always the same: write an undeniable "hit" that people love and want to listen to over and over again. There is a craft behind writing an undeniable hit, but there is no clear recipe. This is the joy and the pain of art».
Is there an artist you'd love to work with?
«There are many! I'd love to continue writing for Aespa, if there is a chance. They are incredibly talented and have a fresh concept. I feel they could break new ground. I'd love to work with NCT, and with Enhypen - I was totally impressed with their latest albums. And of course, I'd love to work with BTS (let's face it, who wouldn't?). However, my dream collaboration would be with Park Jimin on his solo work. I adore his vocal tone, it is very very unique and instantly recognizable, and he puts so much emotion into his performance - he really "lives" the song. "Serendipity" and "Promise" are in fact among my favorite k-pop songs (and always will be, I think!)».
Can you give us some spoilers on your next works?
«Unfortunately I cannot really mention artists I am working with or upcoming releases, for confidentiality reasons, but at the moment I am writing very cool hip-hop-oriented material for both boy band and girl band. That's all I can say!»
You are a woman in this overwhelming industry. Do you ever feel oppressed or stressed about it?
«This is an interesting question because science is also a male-dominated field and I spent a few years in that field before moving to music. If I have to be really honest there were a few occasions in both fields where I felt downplayed and borderline bullied; however in general my experience is positive; maybe, working in science I got so used to being one of a few women in a male-dominated environment that my entire attitude, body language, and stance when I communicate with men makes it a bit more difficult to "look down" on me because of my gender. But it is a sad reality that there is a gender gap, despite women have proved over and over again that on average they have the same skills, if not superior skills to their male counterparts, in most fields. This situation is gradually changing, thankfully, but the change is still quite slow».
Back to your Italian roots. What do you think about this growing interest in k-pop here in Italy?
«I am absolutely thrilled about it! I discovered a while back that my niece is a massive Twice fan. I found out that there are Italian fan clubs for Twice, Cravity, and for Aespa. It is crazy to think that just a few years ago literally no one knew k-pop in Italy. The internet has helped the spread of k-pop worldwide, which I think is fantastic. The diffusion of music genres, in general, promotes artistic innovation, new ideas, and cultural contamination, all things that are great for progress and evolution. The success of Maneskin worldwide also proves that the doors are more open for artists from emerging markets to be successful on a large scale and that quality music will rise to the top. Maybe we could soon have collaborations between Italian artists and K-pop artists; that would be something amazing to see!»
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