In K-pop parlance, a comeback refers to a new song or album being released, with many groups issuing new material a couple times (or more) per year. But for the duo Sistar19, the comeback was seven years in the making. A sub-unit of the girl group Sistar, the pair debuted in 2011 with their hit “Ma Boy,” before breaking up in 2017 — the same year Sistar disbanded as well.
“It wasn’t that we wanted to make a comeback exactly seven years later,” vocalist Kim Hyo-jung, who goes professionally by Hyolyn, tells Rolling Stone. “We’ve been talking about it since we disbanded, actually, but we had a lot to do. The timing was off until now.”
Hyolyn and rapper Yoon Bo-ra – better known simply as Bora – released their two-song digital single album No More (Ma Boy) earlier this morning. The title track and the sassy dance track “Saucy” were preceded by a rollout of concept photos designed to pique their fans’ interest. In one photo spread, the fashion-forward duo sports a retro fit of tube tops and furry miniskirts. In another, they’re wearing black shorts with thigh-high denim boots. Corsets, heart-shaped cowboy hats, and Daisy Dukes are featured in other photos. The result is a whimsical and defiant look at who Sistar19 are today. Yes, they are sexy, but they’re also wholesome in a way that only K-pop idols can be.
“It was really fun to do this, but honestly we were also anxious preparing everything,” Bora says over Zoom.
Hyolyn adds, “There’s no way we wouldn’t have had stress, because we really didn’t want to disappoint our fans who were waiting a long time for this.”
Sitting next to each other at a recording studio in Seoul the night after Christmas, they are dressed entirely in black, eschewing makeup. Now in their early thirties, the two appear fresh-faced and not much older than when they debuted in Sistar. They joke that it’s because after working nonstop through Christmas Eve, they got to spend the holiday at home resting.
Throughout this interview, Bora and Hyolyn share the easy conversational flow of close friends who finish each other’s sentences. “We spend more time together now than before we disbanded, because we are more sentimental about each other after our time apart,” they answer collectively.
Hyolyn, who is just a little younger than Bora, steers the conversation, thinking out loud about potential topics to discuss. Who are they currently listening to? Nicki Minaj for her, Olivia Rodrigo for Bora. But when she addresses Bora, she politely refrains from calling her bandmate by her name. As is customary in Korean culture, she refers to Bora respectfully as unnie – or older sister.
“Even though she’s older than me, I’m going to protect her,” Hyolyn says. “Coming back on the scene after such a long time, I’m very glad that I have a person like Bora who understands me. Preparing this album, I really realized that she is the most huggable, precious person. I thought, ‘I have to protect her.’ I used to think she nagged a lot!”
At this point, both women break into laughter as Bora nods her head in agreement.
“Even though she’s younger than me, I always feel that Hyolyn has my back,” Bora says, still giggling. “I always have fun when I’m around her, which made working on these new songs together so meaningful.”
The lush single “No More (Ma Boy)” isn’t a revamp of their 2011 song so much as it closes the door on that era. Set to a throbbing bassline and synthesizers, the new song lyrics don’t beg a negligent suitor to pay attention to them. This time, they exhibit a firm, but forgiving attitude, repeating the affirmation that “nobody’s perfect.”
I ask them, what do they think happened to the infamous “boy” Sistar19 pined for all those years ago?
“We’re more mature now, so the song’s protagonists are, too,” Hyolyn theorizes. “We are all more sophisticated about handling the end of relationships than back then.”
Laughing, Bora says, “He’s gone!” Motioning with her hands to indicate that he’s been flicked to the side, she adds, “He’s probably crying a lot somewhere.”
They were still working on the “No More (Ma Boy)” music video at the time of this interview. But they hint that the iconic synchronized chair dance from their 2011 video will be alluded to in their new production.
“It’s not a chair this time though,” Bora says. “We have a table.” Looking over at Hyolyn, she wryly adds, “We’ve upgraded.”
Fans want to know if this is a one-off reunion or something more permanent. Hyolyn says they’re taking it day by day: “We have plans through the single album’s release and then we honestly don’t know. We will have to see how it goes.”
Prior to reuniting, Bora and Hyolyn had flourishing solo careers. Hyolyn was a featured vocalist on several K-drama soundtracks and collaborated with Korean Canadian musician Paul Blanco on “This Love” last year. She also was a contestant on the Korean music competition series Queendom 2. And Bora, who has been acting since 2007, had roles in two seasons of the popular Korean series Dr. Romantic, Pale Moon and A Korean Odyssey. She also was featured on Sistar bandmate Soyou’s summer bop “Aloha” last year.
At this stage in their lives, do they feel they’ve accomplished everything they wanted to with their solo work?
Thinking a bit before answering, Hyolyn says, “I don’t think I’ll ever be completely satisfied with my solo career, because I want to do so much. But Sistar19 is so special to me.”
“Acting wasn’t the only career I wanted to pursue after the split,” Bora says. “I always wanted to do singing as well, so this opportunity to come back as Sistar19 was so good for me. I’m still open to acting and singing and working hard on both.”
As part of a second-generation K-pop group that debuted around the same time as 2NE1, Wonder Girls, and Girls’ Generation, Hyolyn and Bora are well aware that the market for girl groups has evolved since their Sistar days. The oldest members in NewJeans and IVE are 19 and 21, respectively, and write many of their own songs, something that Sistar and Sistar19 weren’t encouraged to do. In a 2015 interview on Korean radio, Hyolyn said their previous label didn’t consider her songwriting marketable enough to be included on their records. (She now represents herself with her own management company, bridʒ.)
But for this comeback, Hyolyn had creative input on both songs as the vocal director. She’s also credited as a co-composer on the title track and penned the Korean lyrics for “Saucy.”
“We have more power than when we started out,” Hyolyn says. “We get to voice our ideas and communication is easier now. But since we are idols, I can’t say that we are getting all of our ideas across 100 percent … yet.”