An young Asian man sitting against a mirror that's reflecting him from below

Two speakers, a microphone, an audio interface, a MIDI keyboard and a computer. These days, that’s all you need to make songs that could reach fans all over the world.

At least that’s the case for Sung-Woo Baek ’20, who’s established himself as a musician and producer through the emotive R&B and pop songs that he releases under the stage name Milky Day, which have kicked out 60 million Spotify streams and counting. After a lifetime of being drawn to music, the New Zealand-born-and-raised artist of Korean descent taught himself to produce beats as a sophomore in his room in Amherst’s Moore dormitory. He quickly found an audience after uploading his original songs online.

“I realized it’s really hard to predict which songs are going to do well,” the 26-year-old artist says, calling on Zoom from Sydney on a morning in March. Outside his bedroom window, sunlight glitters on slivers of the Pacific Ocean that are visible beyond the city skyline. “Sometimes I write a song and release it, not expecting much. Then it blows up.”

Baek’s catchy, textural tracks are transcending borders, reaching hundreds and thousands of listeners from different corners of the world—from Bangkok to Los Angeles, Quezon City to Seoul. Through these songs, Baek conjures feelings of longing, heartbreak and uncertainty that resonate with adolescents, regardless of their area code. His success has brought hits like 2019’s “fool” and 2021’s “You’ll Be Alright,” which exceed a combined 32 million streams, leading him to perform at music festivals across Asia and Australia last year, most notably at Hanoi’s City of Miracle festival.

In his songwriting, Baek says he likes to “evoke certain feelings that are quite intimate or relatable.” On “Let Me,” his 2023 collaboration with Denise Julia, he paints a vision of moonlit romance as he sings, “I’m drowning in your eyes. / We’re wandering tonight.”

“When I’m making a song in a certain mood, I try to imagine scenes in my head,” he continues. “If it’s a somber, moody song, then I’d imagine a scene where it’s late at night on some city balcony, smoking a cigarette. Maybe I’m looking at the moon and over at the cityscape. Or, if it’s something sad, then I’m thinking about lying on my bed, looking at the ceiling fan turning slowly.”

While he’s been associated with K-pop (the highly stylized form of South Korean popular music that’s been sweeping the globe since the ’90s), it would be more accurate to call Baek a rising star within the bedroom pop or lo-fi scene, which has brought online fame to young artists who make intimate music in their home studios. “I haven’t really worked in a professional studio, because I just like the comfort of my room,” Baek says. “I like everything being a lot more casual.” His production setup hasn’t changed much since he first started out; he turns his camera around to show me his sparkling-clean desk, with two white speakers flanking his computer monitor.

Baek has spent the last couple of years branding himself as a heartthrob crooner, shooting expensive music videos and experimenting with upbeat dance sounds, but now he’s pulling back. He wants to return to his lo-fi “roots,” and this shift is exemplified through his new single “Closer,” a wistful, romantic song made with his longtime collaborators and fellow bedroom pop artists frad, Hayne and Thomas Ng. Compared to Baek’s more pop-forward songs from 2023, the track is more mellowed out and emotionally delicate. He sings at the song’s start: “Blurring all the boundaries between us…”

I just want to make good music. Music shouldn’t be about fame or image making.”

“I just want to make good music; I actually don’t want to be a celebrity,” Baek clarifies. “When you think of a musician, you think of celebrities, but those are two different things. Music shouldn’t be about fame or image making.”

Born in Palmerston North, New Zealand, to a nurse mother and a businessman father, Baek played classical piano from a young age as he grew up in Auckland with an older sister. Since his mom always told him to keep “music as a hobby,” he nurtured his artistic instincts through extracurriculars—choir, barbershop quartets and a cappella groups—while he also pursued cross-country running and navigated the academically cutthroat environment of his all-boys high school, Auckland Grammar School. (His mother and father had immigrated to New Zealand likely because they wanted their kids to “have a better lifestyle and education,” Baek posits. After he and his sister got into college, their parents moved back to Seoul.) “It was 2,500 guys, so you can imagine how that is,” he says of his school experience. “A lot of hormones.”

Though he decided to apply early-decision to Amherst, a school halfway around the world, Baek had no idea what his career aspirations were. He was drawn to the fact that you didn’t have to declare a major upon applying to Amherst—unlike the schools he was considering in New Zealand, Australia and the UK. Plus, the liberal arts college was need-blind for international students. “It’s strange, because I feel like people expect you to know what you want to do for the rest of your life when you’re 18,” he says. But, at that age, “what do you know about engineering or medicine? So I thought it was wise to go to the U.S., where there’s a lot of flexibility.”

Once he got to Massachusetts, Baek hit the ground running. Amped on meeting people of different backgrounds, he would search for free events around campus to attend, on top of meetings with the Amherst College Entrepreneurship Society, mountain biking club and Korean Students Association. He had a lot of downtime after his internship at a health-tech startup, founded by an Amherst alum, during the summer after freshman year. So he decided to open up the music production software Logic to make his own compositions. He was reminded of a compulsory music class he had taken in high school, which planted the seeds of his interest in producing. The class, he says, “was just basic stuff, but it showed me that [music] is not as hard as it looks.”

A young Asian man sitting in a room in front of a large computer monitor

Baek, making music from his apartment in Sydney: “I just like the comfort of my room,” he says. “I like everything being a lot more casual.”

Soon, Baek began sharing his experimental tracks with his friends and uploading them onto the music-streaming platform SoundCloud. “I started releasing stuff immediately, because a part of me wanted to show the world my creations ASAP,” he says. The name Milky Day arose as he was making music with two friends, but when he decided he wanted to go solo, they agreed to let him take it for himself. “We just thought that it had a chill ring to it,” he explains. Baek recalls playing his first show in that original Milky Day trio at an Amherst event, opening for a DJ named Oshi, to a crowd of 10 people.

Baek’s friend Louis Kim ’22E remembers eagerly checking out all of Baek’s songs when they dropped—back when Milky Day only had 50 listeners on SoundCloud. “The first year and a half, his music was simple, acoustic, lighthearted beats,” Kim says. “Then, toward his junior and senior year of college, it got a little more R&B. He started experimenting a lot more with his [production] sounds. It’s almost like he injected emotion into [the songs] and started singing about his feelings, relationships and different things in his life. His music became more representative of himself.”

It took less than a year for Baek to find his breakthrough as an artist. While on a trip with friends in Paris during his sophomore spring break, he woke up one day to find that Mellowbeat Seeker—a YouTube channel that curates fresh bedroom pop, lo-fi R&B and chill music from South Korea and beyond—had featured his 2018 song “After Midnight,” with vocalist cherrypizZa, on their profile page. All of a sudden, Baek’s music was reaching hundreds of thousands of new listeners. “I was really ecstatic,” he recalls. “Plus, I was in a foreign country, which made it extra unreal.”

One of Baek’s frequent collaborators and close friends, Stephen Park, a New York-based artist who goes by Sway Bleu, believes that Baek’s open-minded attitude toward working with others is one of the biggest factors in his fast rise. “[Sung-Woo] loves talking to new people; he loves collaborating,” Park says. “Personally, I don’t love collaborating, because sometimes I struggle with egotistical things, like, ‘Am I better than this person? Am I not good enough for this person?’ But Sung-Woo is really good at pushing past that. For him, it’s a passion and not a competition.”

He found the right trend, the right market and the right niche at the right time.”

Park also notes that Baek found an  audience during a time when Korean music was cresting in the American mainstream, thanks to the frenzy over K-pop crossover acts like BTS and Blackpink. “I think, five years ago, there was this huge wave of, if you were Korean and you did anything creatively, people were gonna gravitate toward you,” Park explains. “[Baek] found the right trend, the right market and the right niche at the right time.”

Even after declaring a double major in math (the practical choice) and music (his true passion) his junior year—a little later than typical of Amherst students, Baek still “wasn’t sure if I had found exactly what I love,” he recalls. So he spent two semesters studying abroad—one in Sydney and the other in Seoul—using the time as an opportunity to “explore other crazy subjects,” like architecture and finance. All the while, he was still making music, packing his speakers into his luggage and finding inspiration from his travels. His outlook on life began to widen.

“Before I got to college, I thought, ‘OK, I need to find a major, get really good at that thing, become a skilled and useful worker, and then get a job,’” Baek explains. “But as I progressed through college, I realized I cared more about getting a deeper understanding of the world, being exposed to a wide range of subjects and disciplines.”

A young Asian man leaning against a railing in front of a vast harbor

Baek by Sydney Harbour. He “was always very entrepreneurial and thinking about how to connect his work to the courses,” says music professor Jeffers Engelhardt.

His music courses, especially the ones taught by his advisor and professor Jeffers L. Engelhardt, helped to expand Baek’s worldview. “I remember studying all different kinds of music: Indian ragas and African rhythms,” he recalls. “Looking back, I’m sure it influenced my music or equipped me with certain tools to use while I’m producing.” For one class, Baek designed a website for a project called “Voiceless Voices,” in which he explored how to use digital processing to make different noises—such as a car horn’s honk or the slam of a refrigerator door—sound like a human voice.

“I think he was always very entrepreneurial and thinking about how to connect his work to the courses,” Engelhardt recalls. Having listened to some Milky Day songs, he expresses pride at witnessing his former student’s evolution. “I think he’s highly skilled at connecting production aesthetics to the exact kind of audiences that he wants to appeal to,” he says of Baek. “That’s probably the biggest change I’ve noticed, is that he’s built a real awareness of audience desires and how he can create sounds that speak to those desires. And that’s the paramount skill in being a popular musician.”

Upon graduating in 2020, Baek moved to Los Angeles to work for the health-tech startup that he previously interned for, which soon dissolved. Jaded from working a regular job and facing visa issues, he decided to move to Sydney and pursue music full time. Now, he’s focused on working steadily on his music in typical Milky Day fashion: in his bedroom, yet collaborating with people around the world, while still enjoying time with friends and getting out in the beautiful nature that Australia has to offer. His favorite spots, he says, are the Bondi and Manly beaches and a nearby national park called the Blue Mountains.

Maybe, down the road, Baek will start his own label. “I just want to discover underrated, talented artists and help them out,” he says. “Because I feel like a lot of labels are scammy. They strip away a lot of your rights.”

Having followed an unusual path of his own, he encourages students at Amherst, current and former, to explore and experiment despite any outside forces.

“When you’re at Amherst, it’s easy to feel pressure to take certain pathways, and I just want people to know that they really are the masters of their own destinies,” he says. “College is the time to try new things. For me, it was the time where I tried making my own music, something I’ve always wanted to do. It might be something a little bit different, a bit unconventional. But make your own recipe, and explore it while you’re in college. There’s no better time.”

Michelle Hyun Kim is an award-winning writer, editor and curator based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Their work has been published by New York Magazine, W Magazine, Rolling Stone, NPR Music, Pitchfork and other outlets.

Photographs by Daniel Boud