SISTARs Are Doing It For Themselves: The Surprise Return of SISTAR19 (Interview)

Bora and Hyolyn discuss their comeback, over a decade after “Ma Boy”

13 years ago, SISTAR19 sent the nation of South Korea into a body rolling frenzy with their debut single, “Ma Boy.”

The Brave Brothers-crafted midtempo R&B jam was the first to come from the then-newly twenty-something Hyolyn and Bora, two of the four members of K-pop girl group SISTAR.

The idea of forming a sub-unit – smaller pop groups created within existing pop groups – is nothing revolutionary these days. But over a decade ago, it was still a relatively new concept. When SISTAR19 formed, it was not only among one of the first major sub-units on the Korean music scene, but among the first to excel – arguably even surpassing their main group’s success at the time, first with “Ma Boy” in 2011, and then with 2013 follow-up “Gone not around any longer,” a slinky, sexy anthem that saw the duo dominating music shows with immediately iconic, butt-sliding choreography.

Over the years, the duo’s main group SISTAR, icons of the second generation of K-pop groups, became dubbed the “Summer Queens” due to their propensity for producing bangers every single time summer rolled around: from “So Cool” to the Family Guy-featured “Touch My Body,” to “Shake It” to “Lonely,” their final release before disbanding in 2017, the ladies dominated the charts during the sunny season with their bold, sexy brand that would inspire generations of idols to come.

Each member of SISTAR went on to achieve solo feats in their own right, including Hyolyn, who embarked on a fruitful solo career while forming her own management company Bridg3, and Bora, who moved into the acting world, consistently starring in Korean dramas to this day.

Now grown women with an additional decade of industry experience, the duo shocked fans by reuniting for another round as SISTAR19 to kick off 2024 with “No More (Ma Boy),” out Wednesday (January 16), a sequel of sorts to their 2011 hit, along with a tasty accompanying B-side, “Saucy.” (And yes, even more body rolls with a dance challenge for the TikTok age to remind the children.)

I had the pleasure of speaking with Hyolyn and Bora about their decision to reboot the legendary sub-unit, their relationship with the members of SISTAR today, their candid thoughts about the K-pop industry, and everything in between.

SISTAR19 is back at last! It’s been 13 years since “Ma Boy.” Why is now the right time for a comeback, and what led to the decision?

Bora: We didn’t really think about the right time to come back, but Hyolyn’s schedule and mine worked out well. We also really wanted to work together again since it’s been a long time.

Hyolyn: We have always been in touch often with each other and also see each other a lot. One day the subject came up about Bora and I working together as SISTAR19 again, and since the timing was right, we were able to get together. So many people are rooting for us and sending us love, and we are happily and eagerly getting ready.

“No More (Ma Boy),” of course, references your hit “Ma Boy.” Tell me about the decision to revisit the song, who you worked with to create the track, and what it was like being in the recording studio together again.

Bora: I think you can consider it as a sequel to “Ma Boy.” “Ma Boy” is a song expressing a young girl’s feelings, and “No More (Ma Boy)” is more dignified, relaxed, and mature. I think we were able to express more mature feelings based on our experience and emotions we portrayed through “Ma Boy.”

Hyolyn: The song felt comfortable because the concept and the mood fit us well. I didn’t have a lot of time to create things together with Bora before, and this time we got to spend a lot of time working together and that process was really enjoyable.

“Saucy” is a tasty accompaniment to “No More.” How did that song come about, and why was this the right song to put out alongside “No More (Ma Boy)”?

Bora: The mood of the song contrasts with “No More (Ma Boy)” and we thought it is a song that can show various sides of SISTAR19, so we wanted to include it in the album.

Hyolyn: There are two new tracks, and when we selected the songs for the album we wanted to choose songs that show different colors. The title track, “No More (Ma Boy),” is a sequel to “Ma Boy” and it’s an attractive song with a great hook that captures your ears. “Saucy,” on the other hand, is a song that has a similar vibe as “Ma Boy,” so we wanted to include that song.

SISTAR19 was among one of the first sub-units in K-pop, and one of the first to have a hit as big as the group itself and bring more attention to the main group. What were the discussions that led to a sub-unit being formed in the first place? Why did it happen?

Bora: We weren’t seeking the title of being the first one, but simply wanted to show various sides of ourselves to many people, so we created a sub-unit.

Was there any jealousy or mixed feelings within SISTAR that came from the sub-unit’s success? You were all so young then, and the concept of a sub-unit was still sort of new. I imagine it could possibly cause some challenges.

Bora: There wasn’t any jealousy or mixed feelings, and we rather enjoyed the process because everything was a new experience! Other members that were not part of the sub-unit were rooting for us, so we felt supported.

Do you feel like SISTAR19’s success shaped the sound and style of SISTAR moving forward, and if so, how?

Bora: I think SISTAR19 is clearly different from SISTAR in terms of its music style and others. Both have different vibes and I think that made it easier to express that through the songs and performances.

Hyolyn: I think it did shape the sound and style. I don’t think the influence is one-sided, but it’s more like that the different side of us that we didn’t get to show during SISTAR was expressed through SISTAR19, and I think that influenced each other.

“Gone not around any longer” was such an intriguing release. It’s really sexy and sensual, a less common vibe in K-pop generally. And it was a hit on music shows! Can you reflect on your memories of recording the song, and your thoughts on releasing it?

Bora: I don’t remember that well since it’s 11 years ago, but I do remember the clear table that we used as a prop on stage.

Hyolyn: I remember crying while singing “Gone not around any longer.” The song is so sorrowful and I was immersed in the song, and I remember shedding tears involuntarily while recording.

Hyolyn, you had a great run on Queendom 2. What was the experience like against all groups, being the only solo star? Did it have any impact on your music moving forward?

Hyolyn: Queendom 2 was a competition, but it was also a time where we could all grow together. There was a lot to learn from watching the stages of the other singers that were part of the show, and it also helped me with creating the stage. It broadened my views on how to look at the entire picture of the stage when I am on the stage, and how I can make the stage better.

What’s something surprising viewers wouldn’t know from behind-the-scenes of filming Queendom 2?

Hyolyn: I showed the powerful side of me with vigorous energy on the stage, but I’m usually mischievous and playful off-stage before going on stage, and think that is the behind-the scenes that the viewers don’t know.

I was at your NYC solo concert at Flash Factory in NYC in 2017, Hyolyn! It was absolutely incredible. The energy was insane. I think I wore that shirt from that show all year long. K-Pop had finally started becoming more mainstream by then in America. Do you remember performing that show, and what was the experience like for you?

Hyolyn: I remember. It was so hot. Concerts that I get to meet overseas fans always help me grow. And that show is the one that made me play even more freely on stage.

Bora, you’ve been consistently working as an actress, appearing in lots of dramas. How has the experience been for you, and how does it compare to being an idol and performing?

Bora: I think it gave me time to think about focusing on new characters. It was a time that I could ponder on how to overcome the traumas I have and actually overcome those traumas. Different from being an idol, I had time to “wait” and I used that time to think about how to use this time to grow myself. I think I also got to learn a lot from the time I got.

Would you ever want to do solo music, Bora? What do you feel about your own music career?

Bora: I have been thinking for a while that I would like to do solo music. I still think the same. I haven’t been brave enough to do it, but I would love to make more effort and take the challenge to work on a solo album!

You’ve had a lot of time to reflect on your SISTAR19 debut. What worked, and what didn’t work that you may have taken into consideration for future comebacks?

Bora: I believe that we were able to get together and come back with an album like this because we got so much love from you all. We released this album after a considerable time, and we wanted to be more careful than light-hearted. We wanted to show better music and better performance, so we thought about those aspects more.

Some of your SISTAR19 choreography, like the “Ma Boy” body roll, definitely would have been a TikTok dance challenge today. You were ahead of your time! How do you feel about social media and TikTok being such a big part of idol life today vs. when you debuted?

Bora: I’ve thought “the time has changed a lot”! I feel that these challenges have become a form of play these days, and I would like to enjoy various shorts and challenges through this album.

Hyolyn: I wanted to follow more of the challenges, and I wish that the choreography for the challenges could be a little bit easier. So when we were creating the choreography for “No More,” we discussed with our choreographer how to make the dance moves simpler for parts that we can use for TikTok so that it can be easier to follow. I hope a lot of you can participate in the “No More” challenge~(lol)

@sistar__official 💃 #NOMORE_CHALLENGE 💃 #SISTAR19 #씨스타19 #효린 #HYOLYN #보라 #BORA #NOMORE_MABOY #NewMusic ♬ NO MORE (MA BOY) – SISTAR19

Hyolyn, what do you think is Bora’s biggest strength as an artist? And the same question to Bora. What is Hyolyn’s biggest strength as an artist?

Bora: As many of you already know, Hyolyn is a great singer and a dancer, and she has found her own style. She knows exactly what she needs to do for that and she is such an amazing artist in my eyes as well. While working on this album, I could see that Hyolyn’s mental attitude has changed, and I could feel that she has become even more mature. I thought to myself that because of all these aspects, there is no doubt why Hyolyn could succeed.

Hyolyn: I think Bora’s biggest strength is that she is very fast at comprehending and memorizing the choreography. Because of that, how she performs on stage is so neat and she delivers the messages the songs carry so well.

You were among one of the biggest girl groups with SISTAR, and one of the major players in the second generation of idol groups. How has the K-pop agency culture changed over the years?

Bora: I am extremely delighted and proud that K-Pop is getting attention worldwide and becoming well-known. I believe this result is led by the effort that all the senior artists and fellow artists put in together, and I am so happy about that.

Do you both feel as though you have more creative freedom with this comeback than early idol days?

Bora: I do certainly think that we are in an environment where we can get more of our opinions reflected onto our work compared to before. We are asked first about our opinions these days.

Hyolyn: I think Bora and I were able to freely share our ideas and opinions, and participate more compared to our idol days. But SISTAR19’s image and color is more important than our voices, so we were flexible as we worked on the album.

SISTAR became known as the “Summer Queens” for your run of summer bops. How did that all start, and was it always the plan for your group?

Bora: We weren’t aiming for the summer, but as we performed SISTAR became known for our healthy and sexy image, and naturally led to matching summer with us.

Hyolyn: I wasn’t thinking about becoming the “Summer Queens” when we first started. I don’t remember when we started to be called that, but so naturally our group got the image as the “Summer Queens” and I’m very grateful for that.

There’s a famous moment in the show Family Guy, where Peter Griffin discovers the music video for SISTAR’s “Touch My Body” on TV. I’ve always wondered about the group’s reaction to that moment.

Bora: When that happened we were so surprised and so excited about it!

Where do you stand with the members of SISTAR today? Are there any chances of a full member comeback?

Bora: We still hang out often with SISTAR members. We haven’t really seriously talked about the future plans of SISTAR yet, so it will be difficult to say that we have a specific plan.

Hyolyn: We keep in touch often with SISTAR members and get together on a regular basis. We don’t have a specific plan for a full SISTAR comeback, but I would love to be able to meet our fans as a full SISTAR again if an opportunity arises.

How do you feel SISTAR19 would sound in 2024?

Hyolyn: SISTAR19 in 2024 will be showing our original musical color with added trendiness. We will try to not be tilted to one side.

Which SISTAR track brings you the happiest memory, and why?

Bora: I remember the time we were shooting the music video for “Loving U.” “Loving U” was the song that depicted summer the most more than any other songs, and I think that is why that song took the biggest role in making SISTAR the “Summer Queens.”

Hyolyn: “Loving U.” It was so fun while we were shooting the music video and we were so happy. For that, “Loving U” brings me the happiest memories.

What are your artistic motivations in 2024, and have they changed since your debut? Do you have any specific goals in mind for the future?

Bora: So many things have changed before debut and after debut, and it will be difficult to pick one thing to talk about. As environments change and as every human being changes, we also have gone through the periods of change. I would like to say thank you so much to our fans for continuously sending us love throughout these changes. Now that SISTAR19 is embarking on 2024 with our new album, it is our goal to become like a gift that brings a little joy to our fans. Also, the most important goal for myself is to do my best as SISTAR19. Fight on!

Hyolyn: Rather than focusing on numerical goals, I would like this to be an opportunity to become the driving force to help us think in more various ways when we go our own ways. Also, I think the biggest goal right now is that I want this project to be a happy one for us.

“No More (Ma Boy)” is out now.

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Photo credit: Klap Entertainment

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