jakub | April 30, 2024

“I made a conscious effort to really show who I am”

As NCT’s Doyoung nears 30, he’s been thinking of the ocean. Specifically, what it looks like from afar. That’s why the Korean title of the singer’s first solo album, ‘Youth’, includes the word ‘포말’, or sea foam. Seen too close, the cresting tide is chaotic, even violent; but, step back, and there’s beauty in that battle on the swirling waves. It’s an apt metaphor for a look back on a chapter of your life, taken from a slight remove – where the rough current fades into mere memory.

‘Youth’ is coloured by time and the perspective that it’s given Doyoung. “I made a conscious effort to really show who I am as a person,” he says of the album over a late night Zoom with NME. “I had to ask myself, ‘What is the story that I have to share? What do I want to represent at this stage in my life?’ I thought about it for a while and the word ‘youth’ came to me.”

The concept of youth is a familiar bedfellow for the K-pop artist transitioning into early adulthood, yet in the blue hour of his late twenties, Doyoung’s got a little more wisdom to shade between those lines. In his own words, the spirit of ‘Youth’ is more “spring night” than “spring morning”: electric guitar riffs may lift his voice up like the warm breeze, but the wistful lyrics are that welcoming spring sun gently sliding away. It’s the story of youth, as told from the end.

nct 127 doyoung youth interview
NCT’s Doyoung. Credit: SM Entertainment

Once he had the idea for the album, it was like a faucet had been opened; things just flowed out. Before, his raw lyrical sketches had been rejected by the company, but, on ‘Youth’, Doyoung claims two writing credits (warm salve ‘From Little Wave’ and ‘Beginning’, an overture which brims with tender emotion), a fact he chalks up to a fresh honesty in their storytelling. This go-around, he found it was easier to tap into his “genuine experiences and sincere feelings”, and that growth was clear to SM Entertainment’s staff – especially after Doyoung tirelessly revised the album opener.

Our brief video call takes place a couple of hours after the official release of ‘Youth’. While speaking, and while listening to the interpreter relay his thoughts, Doyoung schools his face into the composure of a calm lake; he’s thoughtful, considered. Here is someone who’s had time to think through what he wants to say, though he just can’t help but make a few more last minute revisions. “I think it’s natural for there to be a difference in quality,” he says, pausing a beat, then edits himself: “Is that the right word?”

By contrast, there’s one word he definitively, and continuously, circles back to throughout our conversation: “naturally”. It’s how he describes the passage of time, but it’s also how he describes writing and recording. To hear him tell it, you would think everything simply clicked into place. The reality is, it takes a lot of effort to sound as effortless as Doyoung: in making the album, he crafted PowerPoint slides with his ideas, passed a birthday in the recording booth and spent hours on single lines. His hands are in every part of ‘Youth’, top to bottom.

Doyoung has said sub-group NCT 127’s music isn’t always his personal cup of tea, but releases from K-pop groups tend to be by committee; compromise is a necessity. On ‘Youth’, however, “the working process was certainly different without that group discussion or input of the other members”, Doyoung says. More control and responsibility, he adds, “pushed me to really focus on myself, my thoughts, and follow where the music was leading me”.

The frontman of a high-school band prior to becoming an idol trainee, Doyoung has long loved the sentimental soft rock and pop stylings of Korean bands like Hoppipolla, Daybreak and Day6. To recreate their magic, he asked SM’s A&R team to enlist mainly Korean talent for the album – breaking from the global pool they typically tap on. That began with Lucy bassist Cho Wonsang (“an artist-composer I’ve always admired”) sending Doyoung the demo for single ‘Little Light’, while other credits include prolific SM Entertainment producer Kenzie and composer Seo Dong Hwan, a collaborator of IU and AKMU’s Lee Suhyun.

Another of Doyoung’s close confidants during the process will be familiar to fans: NCT 127 groupmate and leader Taeyong. The two idols have debuted together twice: once with NCT U in April 2016, and again three months later as a part of NCT 127. Both introductory songs – hip-hop-trap hybrid ‘The 7th Sense’ and the blaring, rap-led ‘Fire Truck’ – have since been proclaimed as ahead of their time, chaotic disruptors of K-pop’s bias toward bubbly boy groups in the mid-2010s. But, at the time, the NCT units struggled to make inroads with the general public.

When Taeyong released his solo project in 2023, during an era of K-pop minimalism, the dirty bass and all-around eccentricities raised eyebrows – but it spoke to who Taeyong is as an artist, which makes him fit to advise on turning a blind eye to trends. “We talked through what it means to put together and release a solo album, and what challenges I could expect in the process,” Doyoung says. “I think Taeyong hyung definitely offered me more cautionary, realistic advice on what to expect.”

Because once the sound for ‘Youth’ was in place, the pressure was on. Sans the expected hallmarks of K-pop releases like sticky pop hooks and choreography, the quality of the music had to speak for itself. A docuseries about the creation of ‘Youth’ shows Doyoung tempering his hopes: What if, he asks, no one listens? Yet the slow burn rise of NCT has imparted patience and persistence to him. “Nice music will be loved eventually,” he concluded. “So if people don’t like the song [‘Little Light’] immediately, I have this feeling, one day it will be loved.”

In going after that timelessness, ‘Youth’ finds itself obsessed with time’s steady march. Cozy coffee shop tune ‘Time Machine’, written by NCT bandmate Mark and featuring Girls’ Generation’s Taeyeon, is a duet between lovers who accept that, were they to turn back the years, everything would turn out the same. A past self takes shape over his shoulder on the atmospheric banger ‘Lost in California’, while on the tender ballad ‘Rewind’, where Doyoung’s crystalline vocals are in top form, it’s someone else just out of reach: “When I reminisce about that day / The world quietly flows backwards / Your figure as you looked back / At the disappearing end of the street.”

Given the context, it makes sense that time would be on Doyoung’s mind: At the tail end of winter, NCT 127 performed together as a full group for the last time (that is, for a while). “With Taeyong hyung enlisting for his military service, there came a point where all of us had to think about when we would next tour as the complete team,” Doyoung says. Ever a sensitive soul, he ended a couple of concerts in tears. “Because of that uncertainty, I couldn’t help but feel more sentimental,” he adds.

Part of the sadness – for fans and members – was a feeling that NCT 127 had left some global success on the table, thanks to COVID-19. Just as the members were gaining momentum stateside with English singles and a promised US tour, a stop sign was firmly planted at their feet. “When looking back on our nine years,” Doyoung said during one of his send-offs, “there might be people who feel regret, who feel that we didn’t succeed, who wonder how it would be if the timing was better”. But that’s never been the way he sees it.

nct 127 doyoung youth interview
NCT’s Doyoung. Credit: SM Entertainment

“I think achieving success really depends on how you define it,” Doyoung says now. “To me, a successful artist is someone who is able to share their approach to music, their artistry and be recognised for their unique style by their audience. It’s that moment where a listener can say, ‘This artist, this group, makes this kind of music.’ By my definition, I think I can safely say that NCT 127 has reached a level of success.”

And as for himself? “When I was younger, thinking about what life had in store for me, the idea that I wanted to become a singer really grounded me,” Doyoung says. “My dream of becoming an artist who will be remembered for a long time gave me the direction for how I wanted to live my life.”

He feels an immense pride for that inner child, “for committing to a life of music, for working towards that dream”, without a guarantee of success – especially now, after it’s been realised. “I am hoping I can be recognised for my own style and tone, that I can make a name with my approach,” he continues. “That’s how I would define success for myself.” It’s spoken like someone who knows there’s only so much he can control; the rest, as always, is up to time.

Doyoung’s new album ‘Youth’ is out now on Spotify, Apple Music and more

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