standing alone, kim jonghyun is unlike any other k-pop idol
As the main vocalist for multi-million selling K-pop supergroup releases his debut solo album, Kim Jonghyun discusses SHINee, songwriting, standout tracks, and staying power.
Sporting a fluffy shock of candy pink hair, 26-year-old Kim Jonghyun has spent a whirlwind month performing, meeting fans, and appearing on various high profile TV shows, including a not-so-subtle jab at 'sasaeng' (obsessive) fans in a skit on the Korean version of SNL. Having stepped away from his day job as a main vocalist for multi-million selling K-Pop supergroup SHINee, he's been promoting his first solo full length album Good/She Is. It spotlights Jonghyun's distinctive vocal color and dexterity with nods to 80s funk pop, tropical house, EDM, and alternative R&B.
Unarguably, it's already one of the year's best releases: a remarkably cohesive experience that's both mature — such as the gloriously sensual track "Moon" — yet playfully able to pack the dancefloor ("White T-shirt"). It's not the first time his solo work has cut a swathe through the musical landscape; his 2015 EP Base saw success with the singles "Crazy" and "Deja Boo," while a project entitled The Collection: Story Op.1 — a "compilation" album he wrote using stories sent in by listeners to his regular stint on Blue Night Radio — quietly entered the Top 30 without promotion.
Now officially a K-Pop veteran, Jonghyun — scouted playing a show with his band at school — was deep into the rigorous vocal and dance training required by South Korea's most successful music company, SM Entertainment, at the age of 15. SHINee debuted shortly after his 18th birthday in 2008 and, since that nervy, first official performance of the R&B-lite "Replay," have become one of K-Pop's most enduring and musically experimental acts. Its sound switches back and forth between extravagantly heavy synths ("Lucifer"), dubstep ("Everybody"), tinkling pop ("Hello"), or UK House ("View") over the years.
Unlike the majority K-Pop idols (although this trend is changing), Jonghyun has had a hand in SHINee's output, which can be seen as far back as 2009 when he began penning lyrics. His determination to become more than just a performer has paid off; in the last two years he's developed into a fully fledged songwriter, not only for himself but for SHINee, YG Entertainment's Lee Hi (which marks the first ever crossover for the two entertainment giants), the solo work of fellow SHINee member Taemin, and labelmate group EXO, to whom he gave "Playboy," one of the standout tracks on its Exodus album.
Jonghyun, however, has remained low-key about his growing writing prowess, preferring to bury himself in the process, admitting that he's "never actually stopped working on music. I even kept myself busy continuing working after SHINee's [recent four month] Japan tour." Before he heads out on the SMTown Live world tour and to SHINee's commitments in the USA, Jonghyun sits down with i-D to discuss his artistry and why, these days, the only person he wants to please most with his music is himself.
How would you categorize She Is compared to the rest of your solo work? And how do the challenges of creating them compare?
I think Good/She Is is an extension of Base, it's an album that has a very clear characteristic but, at the same time, danceable music is its main genre, whereas Story Op. 1 is an album with more acoustic emotions. The more difficult one to create was... well.. Good/She Is — it feels more complicated. For this album, instead of talking about my own stories, I imagined a character and that this character was singing these nine songs from the start. Of course, this character might reflect some part of myself: he is an amusing, attractive young man who is sometimes up to mischief which I've created in my mind during the album production. And since producing the album was a process of acting out this character, it has a completely different direction compared to The Collection.
Many songs on this album are about falling in love, finding an amazing girl, and being intimate... is this something you've experienced recently, or is it all part of this persona?
There are some of the things that are based on my past experience, but most of it comes from observing things around me. For example, "RED" is from observing traffic lights, "MOON" is from a story of a lucid dream, "Dress Up" from a conversation about what to wear, "Cocktail," while spending time with a friend drinking... ideas come from everywhere in our daily life.
When you create a new body of work, do you also discover something new about yourself? What insight did making Good/She Is reveal?
I realized I'm a person who doesn't really mind other people's opinions or thoughts on my music. I had a great time and enjoyed the process of producing this album, so I hope the listeners enjoy it as well. But even if they don't, I don't mind since now I really put what I like and what I want to express in the center of my music, and make an album based on those instead of trying to please the public.
As a songwriter, what's your process? Some writers hear a melody in their head as they're falling asleep, others find them when they're simply tinkering about on an instrument.
If I'm writing a song for other artists, I observe and study that artist. I listen to all of the songs, look at all of the photos, watch all of the music videos first, and then start putting the genres and images I thought of the artist into shape. Recording melodies [I think of] on a cell phone can be one way and I often did so when I first started to write music, but these days I prefer to sit in the studio being focused and working on a song there from very beginning.
What kind of person are you in the studio — are you fast, or slow and methodical? Do you like to experiment with lots of different arrangements and mixes, or do you have a very clear idea early on?
It depends on the song but I do have certain outlines for each song in my head first. After completing that outline, I try many ways putting various elements together, and lastly I edit them to sound nice. The more sources [versions] I have, the more options for me when editing!
When you write songs, at what stage do you know it's not right for you and you give it to someone else? How does it feel to see someone else making it their own?
Usually I choose a certain target before writing a song — whether the song is for SHINee, myself, or some other artists. It has always been and will be a thankful moment for me to see other artists sing the song I wrote and blow some soul into it.
There are some truly standout songs on the album, but which really pushed you as an artist?
I would have to say "Dress Up" as it's an EDM song which I haven't tried before and I think I'll have a lot of fun performing on stage.
Fans have named part of the album "the space trilogy" ("Moon," "Orbit," "Aurora"). Was it your intention to have this theme? It wouldn't be the first time you've used space and the moon as inspiration, previously seen on the SHINee track "The Distance Between You and Me."
Actually, I didn't intend on telling stories about space but, since last year, I did get really interested in space literature. So I guess that naturally affected me during this album production!
There are moments, particularly on "Moon" where a strong Prince vibe — especially from around his Purple Rain era — comes through. Did his music have any influence on this album?
I love Prince. I really like Jamiroquai as well, who I was influenced a lot. If you felt that way, it is a huge honor.
SHINee celebrated eight years since debut last month and many groups don't make it this far! What's the key to this longevity?
We all don't like to cause others harm or make others feel uncomfortable. So we always try to respect others' boundaries and consider others' feeling as well although we are close.
Eight years is a long time for K-Pop. What changes have you noticed over this time period? For example, is it easier or harder for groups to become or stay successful? Would you be worried about if you were starting out in 2016?
Well, I don't think the debut date or the format [solo or group] is important to be successful in the industry since one's talent is what makes the difference. If I were to debut in 2016, I would probably have the same thoughts I had when I debuted — how to constantly improve my musical skills and talents. I would like to believe I've matured music-wise step by step as the years passed since SHINee's debut, and will continue to try my best on becoming the musician I've dreamed of being.
You've achieved so much in eight years. What's your next goal?
Short term, I'm trying to gain 11 lbs as fitness is one of the most important elements to me, when composing songs or performing on stage! But my one and only goal has been staying in good shape both physically and mentally. That way I can continue producing music I love and meet with the fans as long as possible.
Text Taylor Glasby