As the conversation with Sanggun went on, Minho’s questions naturally turned to the topic of the cafe ‘Once.’
The reason for this was because cherished objects were things that took on the heart of the person after they use it for a long time.
But this place was the entire space. What kind of life would someone have to live to make that happen?
“This place is especially antique. There are a lot of signs of wear here and there.”
“It’s the cafe owner’s policy. He says everything is a memory so he doesn’t change anything out unless it’s totally broken. And it’s better to fix it.”
“Who’s the owner? Someone famous? Was he a music expert in the past?”
Sanggun shook his head, popping Minho’s bubble of anticipation.
“I could say his name but probably no one would recognize him. He’s just a philanthropist who likes music. His wife also used to play music as a hobby.”
“What? The cafe is too awesome for that….”
The cafe was covered with a faint glow in every corner. And Minho was the one who felt its greatness more than anyone else.
“Other places have better facilities. But ‘Once’ is the best when it comes to tradition.”
“No, the place is covered with affection.”
Sanggun scratched his cheek as he heard this.
“The owner would be really happy to hear that. But he only comes when there’s no one here.”
“It’s just something I heard, but it’s because of the memories of his late wife. He keeps up the cafe the way his wife liked and performed in, but seeing it makes him cry, so he just comes in by himself. He says there’s still warmth left in the things his wife used to like.”
Minho felt somehow solemn when he heard this. There was usually a story behind a cherished object in order for it to hold someone’s wishes. This kind of space wouldn’t have been created if the owner’s sincerity and earnestness hadn’t been deeply imbued in it.
‘Maybe making people emotional is the cafe’s ability.’
Minho was deep in thought when Sanggun patted his back.
“Why are you being so gloomy? The owner’s living a good life now. We just need to enjoy that live stage so that when he comes later he can enjoy some cheerful music.”
As Sanggun picked up his juice glass, Minho lifted his as well.
“Oh right. Haha!”
The two tapped their glasses together and drank their juice. Their shoulders automatically moved to the music flowing out.
The cafe tables were filled with customers by 9:00 p.m. The live performances that would start at this time and run for two hours had become the cafe’s charm and tradition as many indie singers passed through.
Minho was waiting for Sanggun’s turn which was at 10:00. And Minho was thinking he could learn the strokes of a professional guitarist by playing with Sanggun’s guitar while he waited.
The stage lighting was set and the first live performer went up onto the stage. Sanggun made a surprised face as he saw the person who took her place on stage.
“The first time slot is Hannah’s. Did she move her time frame?”
Minho, who was completely lost in playing the guitar, lifted his head up and saw the fair-skinned girl who had just stopped in front of the mic.
“Hannah unnie had something come up so today I came in her place. My name is Iseol Yoon. I’m twenty years old and aspiring to be a singer.”
The stage lights shining on her soft, downy hair made her look childlike, but she gave off a composed aura for how young she looked. It seemed she had a bit of experience performing.
Iseol put the guitar strap over her shoulder with a calm expression.
“This song isn’t completely polished since I wrote it not too long ago. It’s a song for everyone who is worn down from daily life.”
Over the gentle sounds of the guitar, Iseol began to sing. Maybe it was because it was Minho’s first time listening to music in a live cafe or maybe it was because of her unique and resonant tone, but it felt like listening to mellow background music.
“The song is like a whisper in your ears.”
Sanggun gestured around him in reply to Minho’s comment.
“It’s good, but that’s the problem.”
The people who were concentrating in the beginning began turning away their attention one by one to drink or start a conversation with the person next to them. Just as Minho heard and felt, Iseol’s performance was a pale pastel piece of music.
“Is there a problem?”
Sanggun shook his head when asked for his opinion.
“Overall it’s good. But do you hear her lyrics?”
Minho turned his ear to listen carefully to Iseol’s music again. It was a good performance with a good voice even the second time he listened. But her whisper-like song didn’t remain in his mind for even a second.
He then finally understood what Sanggun meant by ‘It’s good, but that’s the problem.’
“It’s okay in its entirety but it’s just plain.”
“Right. It’s difficult if the singer’s voice completely becomes background music even if the music is meant to be in the background. On top of that, she has skill but it’s the wrong song selection.”
This was a live cafe not a music cafe. The difference between the two was bigger than expected. Sanggun who had a lot of live stage performance experience had no choice but to look at her with pity.
“She’s the first runner up so it would have attracted more attention if she went with a cheerful song.”
“She’s aspiring to be a singer so I hope she won’t be hurt or disappointed with today’s experience.”
Sanggun smiled saying ‘it’s okay’ to Minho’s concern.
“Don’t worry. People who perform music fall into the music before the audience does. And the customers here are listening with their hearts open so it’s okay.”
Minho who was holding onto Sanggun’s guitar was sharing some of his musical knowledge and nodded in agreement. And when Minho was about to move his hands to learn the guitar skills, Iseol’s melody that flowed through his ears floated around in his head.
It was like a song on repeat like an echo. Someone was humming and singing along with it. And it wasn’t just from anywhere but it was coming from a table.
‘Who is that lady?’
It was a petite woman wearing a flower print dress and a wide brimmed hat. Could she be Iseol’s older sister? The lady, who looked astoundingly similar to Iseol, was wearing large framed glasses and humming along. Then she got into the posture of playing the guitar.
And at that moment, a soft cotton candy-like guitar took its place in her hands like the magic of taking a rabbit out of a hat.
Tap. Tap. Ta-ta-tap.
The lady began to follow the rhythm by tapping on the body of the guitar instead of strumming. It was as if she were playing in an ensemble with Iseol, and even harmonizing.
Could it be said that she was dressing a naked melody with a tune?
‘Ah! She must be the cafe owner’s wife!’
Minho abruptly stood up. The fairy-like lady was performing and dancing amongst the tables filled with customers. The music swelled but no one could see her in this situation. Surely this was the ability of the cherished object coming to life.
Minho felt pleased. He’d never been married but his heart felt warm and peaceful as if he were appreciating his loving wife and daughter’s cute performance. In this moment, Minho was the owner of ‘Once’ and had the heart of this woman’s strong supporter.
‘Play some more. I’ll always be your first audience.’
Minho now understood how the owner remained alone in this place with the type of longing he had for his wife as he planned the performances for her.
Maybe it was because of this cheering and encouragement, but the lady who was harmonizing and playing the guitar plopped herself on the stage as she struck the drum and moved the cymbal.
The illusion became auditory and its rhythm came to Minho’s ears. The guitar the lady had left continued to play the melody, the strings sounding by themselves.
Minho, the sole audience of this beautiful performance, followed her with his eyes.
“What? So you think this sounds okay?”
Sanggun asked Minho who was staring straight at Iseol. Sanggun had seen Minho’s ability during the Radio Day so he didn’t let this reaction go as just a happening. In reality, Minho’s foot tapping, finger movements and head noddings matched perfectly with the rhythm of Iseol’s music.
“Here’s the thing.”
Iseol finished the first verse and began to play the bridge. And now the lady was playing the synthesizer. The enervated song became lively as the cello added a solemn tone to the music.
‘How can flat music turn into something this rich?’
His body trembled with emotion.
“It’s so good. This music is so great but I don’t know why there’s no reaction to it.”
Minho’s answer was different from a moment ago. Sanggun realized Minho recognized the possibility and began concentrating on her song with producing in mind. He wondered how Minho viewed this song.
At that moment Minho held up his hand. He moved his hands up and down like a maestro moving a whole orchestra.
“A drum here, you say?”
Sanggun followed Minho’s gaze and looked over to the drum. Minho, deeply entranced, smiled widely. Sanggun had no idea that Minho was responding to seeing the lady in the flowered dress smile.
The cymbal boosted the cheerful rhythm with the start of the second verse. The violin jumped in at the same time with thrilling high tones. It combined with Iseol’s voice and created a fantastic effect.
The woman was like a fairy blowing life into something lifeless as she played the xylophone, the violin and even the cello. Now she had returned to playing her guitar.
‘This is it, this!’
His fingers flicked involuntarily.
Minho let his body follow the rhythm of the impromptu harmony of exquisitely blending tones. In no time Iseol’s song ended and Minho clapped enthusiastically by himself.
Minho on his own seemed satisfied enough to surprise the others who were clapping out of courtesy. The lady in the flower print dress disappeared as she bowed deeply in gratitude. It was truly a dream-like performance.
Sanggun stared at Minho.
“Did you like it that much?”
“Yes, I think this will become a really good song if a session man who can do impromptu performance joins in. Of course it would need more preparation for it to be perfect.”
Minho’s eyes glistened brightly as he was intoxicated with the banquet of instrumentals laid over Iseol’s music. Maybe it was thanks to the ability of the cafe but different methods and things to add to make this song sound better sprang up abundantly in Minho’s mind.
Sanggun asked just in case.
“What instrument players do you need?”
Minho recalled each one he saw in his illusion.
“Three backup singers, guitar, drum, vibraphone, soprano saxophone, synthesizer, cello, violin…”
“Hey hey, didn’t you say impromptu?”
Sanggun reacted as if he found it so absurd it was preposterous, so Minho had to try hard to find a common ground. Another reason Minho had to do that was because the music made by the fairy of ‘Once’ was fantastic. Minho knew he couldn’t easily recreate that kind of music so he had to compromise for a part of it.
He cut it down to the ones he really needed.
“Drum, synth, cello, and violin? And for guitar, you’ll be enough, hyung.”
Sanggun felt his musician blood stirring at Minho’s great excitement. Sanggun thought ‘What is it that he saw about this song?’ The thrill of performing an awesome collaboration was always welcome.
“I know some hyungnims in a band. They come here often.”
“But it’s so last minute. Do you think they’ll have the time?”
“What type of musician declines a chance like this? Don’t worry.”
It had been ten years of independent musician life. Sanggun rang up the artists who would wake up from their sleep for a good music session.
Iseol finished singing the last chorus without making any mistakes. Then she gently listened and opened her eyes. The mood of the cafe was more reserved than she thought.
‘…it’s too quiet.’
She finished with a composed expression but she couldn’t hold her heart back from the disappointment. She knew there wasn’t a dramatic melody to this song but she didn’t think she would be ignored to this extent.
‘Is it me that has to change?’
This was the path she had started on, thinking that with music there’s always a way. But it was hard to stay optimistic about only appearing as a replacement for someone else.
She thought it might have been a mistake to give up on auditioning with entertainment companies and choose to go around the streets and live cafes to increase her skill.
There were many times she had faltered due to the sweet proposals from third rate entertainment companies telling her that with her pretty face she would be famous as soon as she debuted as an idol. But she prefered live music where she could sing and perform herself.
If it continued like this, there would be a moment where she would have to make the same decision as everyone else.
‘Can I keep going…?’
Just as Iseol stood up, dispirited–
As she was putting her guitar away in its case, she discovered a guy with an unusually loud voice clapping his hands across the audience. He gave her a thumbs up as her eyes met his.
It was deeply awkward because his actions were so exaggerated as if he knew her and was cheering for her on purpose. But she was certain she didn’t know him and he looked like he was genuinely cheering.
It was a little comforting, in an embarrassing way.
She thanked him in a voice that could barely be heard, then she lowered her head bashfully. She hurried off the stage with her head down, and tripped and fell.
The sound was quite loud but it didn’t hurt at all. It might hurt later but for the moment it didn’t.
She was calm on stage, but normally quite clumsy. Her face turned red and she had to run away from the audience’s stares. It was a relief that most of the customers were watching the next live performer who was preparing on the stage.
‘Maybe I shouldn’t have said I’d perform in place of unnie.’
She opened her eyes which were shut tight with embarrassment and searched for the exit. As she was trying to quickly leave the cafe, someone stood in front of her and blocked her.
“Ms. Iseol Yoon, wait a minute.”
Her head bumped into him and she looked up.
A tall young man smiled brightly and greeted her. It was the guy who cheered for her song.
She was thankful but because he was strange she recoiled and stepped back.
“What is it?”
“Oh, my name is Minho Kang. I enjoyed your performance just now.”
Minho scratched his chin as Iseol didn’t relax her nervous gaze.
“I hope you won’t take this wrong. The song that you wrote–would you like to sing it properly?”
What did that mean? The audience’s reaction had been a bit cold, but she had sung the song properly without any mistakes.
‘Maybe he’s a con artist?’
Was he trying to reel her in with sweet talk about making her a star, like a third-rate talent agency?
Minho gestured with his hands, explaining to Iseol who was tense with suspicion.
“The drum sound will be added like dum tss dum tss, and the synthesizer will make the chorus soft. And violin here, and if the cello is added like ji-ing, then it’ll become a great song. How about it?”
This guy was delivering his message by even making the instrument sounds like a poorly done beatbox.
Iseol calmed her surprised heart as she watched Minho who was speaking with his eyes gleaming with passion. She performed in the streets frequently so she was able to tell the difference between the eyes of someone who approached her with ill intentions and the eyes of someone who spoke to her out of their pure interest in music.
This guy was the latter no matter what anyone else would say.
“It would be good to add those instruments, but as you can see, I only know how to play this.”
Iseol tapped the guitar case on her back. Minho beamed a smile and gestured behind her.
“Don’t worry. Sanggun hyung said he’ll cast some performers.”
Sanggun, sitting at the bar, looked toward Iseol and bowed his head in greeting.
Confusion showed in Iseol’s eyes. She knew well that Sanggun was a skilled musician in the Indie world. She couldn’t help being dazed because he was the most sought out and going over to the mainstream.
“Why are you saying you’ll help me?”
“I like music. Just that.”
Her heart beat due to Minho’s innocent words.
I like music.
Agencies and audience response–lately she had been focusing so much on the surface things in music, she had forgotten those words. The preposterous side to this guy somehow reminded her of the moments of passion she felt as she was learning music.
“How about it? Want to try it once?”
Iseol looked back and forth between Minho and Sanggun. She didn’t completely understand what these two people were saying, really. It was sudden and she was taken aback.
But the empathy of music and passion warmed a part of her heart. Her heart thumped with anticipation.
She contemplated for a while but her decision was quick.