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How Blackpink’s Rose Found Her Voice as a Solo Artist With ‘On the Ground’

The hollow side of fame and fortune has inspired many a pop song, but “On the Ground” — the lead solo single from Blackpink’s Rosé — is already a worthy addition to the canon. Co-written by Rosé herself and delivered in a talk-sung flow, it unpacks the kind of quarter-life crisis familiar to many overachieving millennials with striking precision: “I worked my whole life just to get right, just to be like / ‘Look at me, I’m never comin’ down’ / I worked my whole life, just to get high, just to realize … Everything I need is on the ground.”

It’s also a candid dispatch from the buttoned-up world of K-pop, where working your whole life is barely an exaggeration. Like many of her peers, Rosé spent years training for stardom in a process that, as she described in Blackpink’s 2019 Billboard cover story, can at times be grueling and emotionally trying — particularly for someone who grew up thousands of miles away in Australia. But for the 24-year-old, the subject matter was the obvious choice to kick off her two-song solo project, -R-, out now. (The members’ solo efforts co-exist with the group — bandmate Jennie released her own single, the aptly titled “Solo,” back in 2018.)

“We wanted to find something that spoke to me, so it felt right to be talking about what I’ve been thinking about these past couple of years,” Rosé says over Zoom, joined by her dog, Hank (who spends most of the interview snoozing next to her). “It sounded like if you would have dinner with me, have a conversation with me. It’s something I would passionately talk about and question.”

From the pressure of fan expectations to the occasionally frustrating process of finding her sound, Rosé says stepping out on her own wasn’t easy. But she wasn’t totally alone — she credits her bandmates with encouraging her to pull the trigger on her solo music and holding her hand along the way. And any worries she had about how the music might be received were quickly assuaged: “On the Ground” topped both Billboard’s Global 200 and Global 200 Excl. U.S. charts and reached No. 70 on the Hot 100.

Below, she tells Billboard about learning to get vulnerable in her music, how she fell in love with the guitar and what it’s like discovering she has a fan in Britney Spears.

Now that the project has been out for a few weeks, have you been able to process the experience?

I think I’m finally getting used to the fact that it’s out there. At first when it came out, I was very unsure of how I should be feeling. I didn’t see that coming. I thought I had it all planned out like how I do everything with my work, but I don’t think I had my feelings planned out. So when the time came, I was like, “Oh my gosh! What do I do?” I guess the right thing is to celebrate all the work I’d put into it, all the preparation, and leave it up to my fans to react and see what happens.

I hope you did celebrate!

I wasn’t prepared to, but my family surprised me. I was like, “This feels like my birthday!” Which, basically — my song came out, so it’s the birthday of my solo debut.

Why were you unsure of what to feel? Because the material was so personal?

It was a lot of things. I know that my fans have been anticipating my solo and waiting and asking for it. So the pressure was high. On top of that, these songs are a lot like me, I would say. It was just being nervous about how people will react to something that was a different approach from what we would normally do for Blackpink.

The lyrics of “On the Ground” really struck me — the way you sing about questioning your priorities about work and your personal life felt really novel. Why was that the message you wanted to lead with?

We went through the whole thought process of: “What are we going to sing about? What is Rosie going to talk about for a good three minutes by herself?” It could have gone any other way — love songs, breakup songs. They would have all been great. But we wanted to find something that spoke to me, so it felt right to be talking about what I’ve been thinking about these past couple of years. When we debuted, it was all chaos, everything was happening — bam, bam, everywhere. We were on that whole rollercoaster. And there comes a time when you gotta just sit and [ask yourself]: Where am I going? Where am I at?

I had a lot of these thoughts in my head anyway, and I think this song just spoke to all of us. We felt like it sounded the most like me. It sounded like if you would have dinner with me, have a conversation with me. It’s something I would passionately talk about and question. It’s something I would question myself before I go to bed. So I thought it would be a good approach for my first solo song.

When you say “us” and “we” — do you mean the rest of the group?

Yes, my band is definitely a part of that. Blackpink, my producer, the company, everybody — as soon as we heard it, [it was like] “Let’s go with this one.” Also the song is in English. We usually release songs in Korean, so it was a big question [for us]: Is it the right approach to have a full song out in English as my title track? But it sounded like me.

That process you mentioned — figuring out what you’re going to say, what you’re going to sound like — is something we get a glimpse of in the Netflix documentary, Blackpink: Light Up the Sky. What was that like for you?

It can be very fun, but it can be very stressful at times. There’s so many ways to go about it. For me, there was a moment in time when I felt a little frustrated, to be honest. But at the end of the day, you know when it feels right. It’s like little baby steps of figuring out who you are and what you want to be. Everybody’s a chameleon, everybody can be all sorts of colors. At one point, you gotta choose: This is me, this sounds like me, this will describe me. The most crucial point is when you put your foot on it and go, “This! I’m going to put a period right there and stick with it.” That’s a scary part, when you have to start believing in it. But it’s fun at the same time.

In the film, Teddy Park, Blackpink’s main producer and creative director, says you have all these songs and stories inside you but that you were too shy to share them. How did you get over that?

I don’t know. I think I needed the push, to be honest. I needed the push from my producers, my members and everybody around me: “Trust in yourself, believe in yourself.” I’m a perfectionist. I’m always like, “Is this right?” I did need a lot of support from other people around me. I’m glad that they did. Sometimes you need that pressure: “Do it now! You just gotta do it!” That was very helpful for me.

You’re credited as a co-writer for the first time. What did it mean to you to up your involvement in the creative process?

It is my first time approaching songwriting, but in the past when we were preparing for all of our music, we were all in the process of it [in other ways], so it wasn’t too new for me. It was fun throwing in my opinions and thoughts. I think that’s the reason why the final product sounded like me and the reason [we felt] so sure about it coming out.

You’re a longtime guitar player, so I think a lot of fans were expecting a guitar-driven sound on your solo music. Was that always the plan?

At first, the track didn’t have much guitar in it, and we went and added a bunch. When they mentioned that, I was like, “Huh, I wonder how that would sound.” Because I couldn’t really imagine it with guitar. But then they had it all done and brought me in: “What do you think about it?” It spoke to me. I was like. “I love it! This is so much more attractive!” If there’s no guitar sound, it’s always OK, but with the guitar, it always sounds much better.

Was this song always earmarked as a solo track for you or was there a moment when it became clear this was the one?

Honestly, when the guitar was in there, it was like, “Yup, all done!” Before I was like, “Oh, this could be…” But when the guitar was there, it was like, “This is it, this is a full package, I’m loving it.”

What drew you to the guitar as a kid?

It was such a cool instrument! I just felt like all those people who could play the guitar were so lucky — as long as they have a guitar, they have everything. It’s all there for you. It’s portable, you can take it everywhere. and it just looks so cool when you’re holding a guitar. I was so attracted to that whole image of somebody being able to play a guitar and sing.

I bought myself a $70 navy blue one — it was wood, but it almost felt like it was a plastic. It was a terrible guitar from Amazon or something. When I was practicing the F chord, it would hurt my fingers so much. The strings were so far from the fretboard, that’s how bad the guitar was. And then I remember we invested in more of an expensive one, which I still have right now and use every day. We changed to that guitar, and I was like, “What?! It’s so easy to play the F chord! It wasn’t that I couldn’t play it, it was the fretboard!” I literally spent a week with my fingers bleeding. It’s hard! it’s a very painful process. But once you get through it, it’s like, “Yay! You can play anything you want!”

It’s nice to hear you still have time to play the guitar every day. In the documentary, we see you carving out time for yourself in the middle of the night. Have you had a lot of personal creative time these past few months?

That’s the thing — since mid January till now, I’ve barely had any time off. Maybe in this past week I got a few days off [but] it’s been a while. Yesterday, I remember it was 1 or 2 a.m and I really wanted to play the guitar, but I thought, “OK, I’m just going to take it a little slow.” I definitely need to get back on that. I think I’m going to have a lot of fun with it now that my [solo] work is done. I’ve been working very hard, and I’m pretty proud of myself. Now it’s time to just enjoy getting back to that process.

You’ve performed the song live a few times now. Can you tell me about the physical demands of that? The choreography is always non-stop with Blackpink — but now you don’t get a break on vocals.

It’s definitely different from when you have three other members sharing the song with you. You’ve got to be able to carry the song from start to finish and be present for every line you sing in that whole three minute song. But I made sure I stayed in the practice room a lot to figure out where I was heading with my performance singing-wise. Usually it’s just a short 15 to 20 second part and you would put all of your energy into that part. But I had to be able to spread it across the whole three minute song.

During your trainee years, you also had solo evaluations in addition to group practices. I imagine that must help prepare you, too.

Definitely. But also more than us training for solo songs, I think learning with Blackpink was the biggest part. Working as Blackpink for the past four years has given me a lot of experience, so when I am off on my own, I do know what I’m doing most of the time. Although it’s many [more] times the work I usually have to do, I still felt like I had a lot built up in me.

Did Jennie tell you what to expect from the solo experience as someone who had already gone through it?

I think she knew that I had it all together and knew where I was going. I think she knew that I would need a lot of support, too. You only know how it feels to be in that position if you’ve been in that position. She was trying to support me on the side and give me little presents here and there and check up on how I’m doing. She knew how much of a help it is when somebody does reach out.

What would you tell Lisa and Jisoo as they get ready to do their solos?

See, I think they will ace it — they’ll be so perfect at it. So if anything, more than giving them advice, I think I would just be there for them and make sure I’m there supporting them emotionally and physically — just being there and helping out. I will just make sure to let them know I’m there if they need my help.

Were they able to come to your video shoots?

Yeah, Jisoo was able to make it because her schedule did match. She was there for the first or second day. When she was there, I remember being so alive, like that gave me a good drive for the whole video shoot, to have that energy running. If she wasn’t there, I think the vibe would have really dropped. So I was really grateful for her.

Part of the thinking behind your solo projects is that whatever you learn or explore on your own is something you can bring back to the group to make Blackpink stronger. Jennie said working on “Solo” influenced how she thought about fashion and visuals. What will you take from this experience going forward?

Definitely my style of singing. I picked up this very raw and rough sound. It sounds like I’m just talking, but it also sounds very… I don’t know how to describe it, I’m going to use the word metallic. I don’t know why! But it reminds me of that. And vocally, I think it’d be fun to try contributing that tone to Blackpink’s music.

Britney Spears just used Blackpink’s “How You Like That” in one of her Instagram posts. Have you seen it?

No, I haven’t seen that. What?! [Pulls out her phone to look.] Oh my gosh! How did I not know this? Oh my gosh! This is so cute! I didn’t see this. That’s crazy. She’s such an icon. I grew up listening and watching her videos. That is crazy. That excites me a lot. She’s like the coolest person ever. Oh my gosh. I’m going to watch that later on before I sleep.

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