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TAEYONG:A real-life ruby

by Lai Frances

TAEYONG covers tmrw's #47 issue, opening up about his "SHALALA" EP and evolution as an artist — individually and within K-pop powerhouse NCT.

July is the month of the ruby — a gemstone that symbolizes passion and loyalty. Two characteristics that can be emulated in all parts of one’s life; whether it’s work, relationships, hobbies — anything. The gemstone is not only one of the strongest materials on the planet, it’s also an emotionally powerful one from the metaphorical meaning its deep red color evokes.

However, in a song sung and written by TAEYONG, “Ruby” is a heart-tugging ode dedicated to the late furry best friend of the K-pop singer. He confirms the name did come from the month’s gemstone. “You’re correct!” he says, eyes widen with a pointing to me via Zoom, as if I won trivia night. “I [also] thought about ‘Ruby’ up until recently,” he admits. To TAEYONG, “Ruby” is a double entendre that carries the literal name of his dog and his birthstone.

Born on the first of July, TAEYONG shares a birthday with iconic leaders of their own: Princess Diana, Missy Elliott and Leeteuk of Super Junior; all who have emulated the love they have for their work, their teams and their supporters. Just like them, TAEYONG has grown to be a leader who exudes loyalty to his roots. After also discovering that I share the same birthday as well, the chat became an easy-flowing conversation discussing the dedication and compassion we have in our respective lines of work.

TAEYONG has been on the go since he first hit the ground running in music in 2016 when he debuted in NCT with SM Entertainment. In June, he released his first official EP, and lead single of the same name, titled SHALALA, which thoroughly embraces his musical individuality and various inspirations from the past 28 years of his life. But it took 11 years (including four years of training and seven years of idoldom) for him to personally translate that passion into music on his solo EP.

“I wanted to directly show to fans how much I have matured over the years as an artist,” TAEYONG says, wearing a baggy black shirt with his icy lavender locks quarterly slicked back. “And I utilized social media to really communicate with fans and show them how much I have grown over the years. And I felt most satisfied to produce music as I do with NCT. I felt a new sense of satisfaction when creating SHALALA.”

As the singer is spending his break from our shoot at the label office to avoid potential background noise and loss of connection from the call, it felt like TAEYONG was the epitome of an individual who is everything and everywhere all at once. The past seven years of his career has accumulated success in music, fashion and entertainment. Of course, most of which include his work as the leader and member of one of K-pop’s top-performing acts, NCT.

The idol has landed himself in the group’s subgroups such as NCT 127 and subunit NCT U, while even being a member of SM Entertainment’s project boy group, SuperM. (NCT 127’s documentary series, NCT 127: The Lost Boys, debuted on Disney+ on August 30, and NCT 127’s fifth studio album, Fact Check, is due out on October 6.) While he may have released solo projects on SoundCloud (“Rose (feat. Seulgi of Red Velvet)”) and SM Station (a collaboration with Korean rapper Wonstein titled “Love Theory”), it was only this year TAEYONG was able to show off his musical colors.

“I was able to introduce more different sides of my characters through SHALALA,” he explains. “And hip-hop is the genre I was very confident to perform in. With this mini-album, I focused on showcasing and incorporating that and the old-school genre as well.

SHALALA was the album that I felt very satisfied about because I also think it’s the album that met the fans expectations and made fans anticipate my future solo endeavors,” he says, as he nods looking down a bit at the conference table in front of him. His tone gave off a sense of sincerity as he expressed his ongoing love for his work. (“Married to the music?” I joke. “Yeah!” he laughs.)

Despite getting a little sidetracked by an itch he claims is “a pimple on his arm,” in which he giggles while scratching and apologizing, he proudly speaks on how hands-on he was with his work. From the music production to the actual album packaging, TAEYONG has shared his creative input in all aspects of his first official project.

To break it down, the SHALALA EP comes in five different versions (THORN VER., SMINI VER., ARCHIVE VER., COLLECTOR VER., and DIGIPACK) all of which contain different booklets, imagery and album freebies at random in the album packaging.

“I really tried to express myself, using concepts like the rose and the use of different figures and archives,” he answers. “Since I post everything on Instagram, all the concepts have been driven from wanting to express myself, TAEYONG.”

"I feel the same. I get nervous as much as I did when I first debuted, but I feel like I’ve grown when the company respects me as an artist and is more open to our opinions. That’s when I feel like I, and we are grown."

He points out the colorful COLLECTOR VER. as his personal favorite one. The reason was simple. “It’s because the concept was new for me,” he says. “So it’s a concept that I have never tried before and it felt very new to me.”

Fresh out of wrapping up his album promotions in June, the K-pop artist has set his sights on bigger things ahead.

“My next goal is my solo tour, so–” TAEYONG lets out a chuckle. “I want my solo tour! ‘Cause if I have a solo tour, I’m able to show a lot of things by myself, you know? Like my performances, and other things like that. I already have a lot of ideas, and [ just thinking about it] I’m really excited.”

The NCT member is still on a high from performing solo live in front of thousands at CXO Media Live on Stage in Jakarta, Indonesia a few days ago. It wasn’t too long ago he was also named one of the performers at this year’s KCON in Los Angeles, California. His face lights up just thinking about live performances as he continues to reference it every chance he gets. It’s like there’s a certain sparkle in his eyes that shows how enthusiastically devoted he is for the future of his career. As expected from a July baby.

“Traveling the world means a lot to me in my life,” he begins to explain. “And experiencing different cultures influenced a lot of my music. Most recently the Latin America tour, NCT 127 tour, and my solo performance in Indonesia have become the most memorable experiences as of recently.”

It wasn’t long before the multi-boy group member soon revealed a second album was already in the works.

“We just started to plan my second solo album,” he confesses. “And I’ll continue to work hard, hoping to meet the fans at my solo tour one day. There are a lot more emotional songs [than before]. So, I don’t want to spoil it right now but it’s kinda like that.”

Hearing that can only make one curious if the leader of one of K-pop’s most active and busiest groups takes a break. Or better yet, raising the question on how they manage their time, especially juggling through tours, new music, shoots and interviews just like this one. TAEYONG recollects preparing for his album and having the support he has that helps him push through.

“A lot of people asked me if I had any time to even prepare for the album and people questioned about the process of me producing music,” he begins, knowing himself how busy his schedules can get. “And I have managed the time very tightly. I think everything was possible because the whole process of creating the album and producing music never felt like work. And it was very relaxing and felt like I was doing something fun. So because I felt the joy out of it, it was possible to produce music.”

TAEYONG has fully immersed himself into his work, becoming the living definition of that saying “If you love what you’re doing, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” He agrees upon hearing the reference.

Nothing much has changed in terms of the way he carries himself. He’s still the TAEYONG who is devoted to bring the best side of himself whenever, wherever possible. “I feel like I’ve been working ever since I debuted,” he casually says. “And I cannot imagine myself without working, so I don’t feel like there’s a big difference.” (“Same,” I replied.)

But in terms of growth in his career?

Becoming an artist is a dream fulfilled for TAEYONG. After years of focusing on how to improve and excel in dance, singing, rapping, songwriting, producing and whatnot, the K-pop star is a decorated artist winning awards as a soloist and as a member of NCT. Besides his fellow members and the team behind them, he thanks his family. Rather than sharing something career-related when asked about the biggest learnings of his career, he emphasizes the importance of family.

“Nothing is more important than family,” he begins. “That is the biggest lesson I have learned over the years. Because no matter how successful I become or how badly I fail, I can always go back to my home. That’s why I learned that family means more than anything.”

The topic of food comes to mind as we begin to talk about family. We agree that a mother’s home cooked meals are the best, bringing another source of comfort and familiarity than being home in the presence of loved ones. TAEYONG takes a moment to boast about his mom’s exceptional cooking, especially when it comes to bossam (broiled pork). “Every time I go home, my mom always asks what I want to have and I always answer ‘Bossam!’ every time! And my mom is an excellent cook! Excellent cook!”

The conversation continues to linger, almost losing track of time. “Your timezone is really late, right?” He quickly makes a side comment before continuing, noting the time difference in Seoul and the east coast of the US. The small gesture just showcased how much of a compassionate person he is off-cam from his on-cam persona. Like he mentions, there is no difference.

“Are you happy right now?” I asked as a final question. TAEYONG takes a moment before he gathers his thoughts. But it didn’t take long for him to answer and refer back to everything that’s happened that lead up to this moment.

“You know, when I visited Indonesia it’s like I really felt happiness a lot. Because [there were] really a lot of people in the crowd really hyping me up, so it’s that kind of situation that makes me [truly] happy. I’m really happy my album went really successful and then my next step is my team’s things. It’s like nonstop, [so I’m going to] keep going with all this happiness I felt a lot.”

Before disconnecting the call, he teases what’s in store for the rest of the year.

“In this year 2023, there’s going to be more fire! We’re gonna show a really big thing!”

Photographer: Hale Lee
Stylist: Kim Youngjin
MUA: An Seong Eun
Hair Stylist: Han SongHee
Writer: Lai Frances

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