Kang Daniel has done a lot of things. He wants to do a lot of things. Mostly, though, he wants to be happy. Everything else will eventually fall into place. “Happiness is the most important thing, more than anything in life.” he says.
One might find this simple, yet profound aphorism in any self-help book, but Kang is among the lucky few who truly understand it. This is the culmination of years of deconstructing and reconstructing his beliefs, of constantly remodeling his psyche, of evaluating his goals and adjusting them to circumstance and ambition, of finding out who he is. This is lived experience speaking, and Kang Daniel has lived a life – more on that in a minute.
And because he understands now what is important to him – because he’s committed himself to the ultimate goal of happiness, not contentment, like most of us do – he’s decided to submit himself to the grand design of things. Take it easy. Go with the flow. See what happens. The little things don’t bother him anymore. His eyes are on the horizon.
Case in point, this interview actually took three tries to complete. The first time around, our chat is cut short due to internet connectivity issues, but Kang’s easy smile never falters. He answers the rest of the questions through email, and then another round of follow-ups. You can see why people like him.
You can chalk this up to him being a nice guy (which he is) or wanting to tell his story (which he does), but it’s more complex than that. While Daniel had always been easy-going – quick to smile, quicker to laugh – there is a lightness of being to him now, a quiet, radiant, arresting confidence that whatever is meant for him will come to him. When he’d just struck out solo in 2019, he might have felt like proving something – but now, he’s learning to get comfortable with who he is and what he wants. Everything else is white noise.
The reason why his debut full-length album ‘The Story’ is perhaps his most sublime work yet, thus, is because it’s laced with this infectious, inspiring self-assurance. After finding himself and facing his demons over the course of the tumultuous ‘Color’ trilogy – released as three mini-albums titled ‘Cyan’, ‘Magenta’ and ‘Yellow’ – Kang isn’t restless. He isn’t itching to jump out of his skin or peel back the layers to find more, more, more.
He languishes on ‘The Story’. He takes his time. He understands that he can’t please everyone, can’t control everything – so he takes care of what he can, enjoys when he can, lets go of what bogs him down. When he speaks to you on ‘The Story’, it isn’t as a pedantic, pretentious evangelist who claims he has unlocked a secret code to being happy in life. When he speaks, it’s purely, unabashedly as himself – he’s having fun being himself, and it tugs at something deep and dormant inside.
‘The Story’, thus, was breathed into existence by the primal need to just be, as opposed to being meticulously constructed block by block, lyric by lyric. “There did not seem to be any difficulties. The process went very smoothly,” Kang says. “I didn’t set any elements in advance for this album. All the songs were decided naturally, and there was no main theme in mind at the time.”
Then again, the greatest of stories don’t come with a genre tag, do they? He may have a goal, but Kang realises that the way to it isn’t by boxing himself into a specific genre or label – he works better when free and fluid.
“I could enjoy the process more while working on this album with others,” he says, reflecting on how this freedom changed his approach to his work. “It was almost the first time I felt relaxed and amused while working on an album project for both me and my team. It was a great opportunity to feel grateful for the people around me again.”
Once upon a time, Kang Daniel’s story was headed down a different path. In 2017, he was K-pop’s “it” boy. The reality TV competition Produce 101 had catapulted him to fame as the center of its consequent K-pop boyband Wanna One, turning him into an overnight sensation. You’d have been hard-pressed to find a single variety show, magazine cover or billboard that didn’t feature his enchanting smile and endearing face. Kang Daniel was the moment.
Then, a little over a year later, Wanna One disbanded and trouble waltzed in. Kang moved to LM Entertainment to continue his career, but filed an application to suspend his contract only a month after. He soon set up his own agency – KONNECT Entertainment – to kickstart his solo career and dropped ‘Color On Me’, his debut mini-album. He followed it up with the singles ‘Touchin’’ and ‘Adulthood’ in November, but the momentum was brought to an abrupt halt when, a week later, Kang went on a break from activities to focus on his mental health.
KONNECT Entertainment disclosed that Kang had been battling “depression and panic disorder” since the beginning of 2019, but it was Kang’s intensely personal message to his fans – posted not long before his hiatus – that revealed just how much he’d been struggling: “It’s too much. I’m so tired. How. How can it be this hard? It’s just been so difficult. Someone. Please save me… Just everything is really too difficult. The fact that I am me is too difficult.”
It’s a far cry from the driven, focused, resolute artist we’d come to know. The vitriolic eye of the internet had him shackled in double-minds and doubts, picked apart every move, every smile, every word with scathing words and venom. “I felt like I shouldn’t do anything at all. I shouldn’t speak or move.” he told Dazed in an interview last year.
Kang often says that all he has is himself and his story. Part of telling said story is accepting that it’s not always going to be pretty. Then comes honesty and finding a way to tell it like it is. Looking back, he doesn’t want any pats on the back for it: “A lot of people say that it’s cool to say something with courage, but I don’t think it’s just courage.”
“I think it’s being honest about my experiences and being myself, I didn’t avoid the things I’ve encountered.” he adds. While he may not have had any other choice earlier, he’s decided to trust himself more. “For me, I tend to go with gut feeling following the natural flow in each moment. My mindset seems to be the same.” he says, and one can’t help but think that it’s why ‘The Story’ sounds so much more liberating than his previous work.
Kang’s determination to go on is reinforced throughout the album. On the poignant eponymous opener, he says: “I’m staggering all night but carry on, Until the red sun rises… Sometimes sad things happen, I can laugh it off.” On the trap and R&B-infused ‘Loser’, he cherishes being able to smile openly despite being “a loser with nothing” and “having no friends”.
Sometimes, the memories come rushing back, as they do on ‘How We Live’. “I’ve walked a road harder than anyone else,” he says, but instead of latching on to a detrimental pain, the acknowledgement comes with affirmations. “I’m going to pick living, by trusting myself,” he tells himself.
Because he’s confident and comfortable, he’s also indulgent, tapping into a delightfully sensuous side on ‘Ride 4 U’ – where he promises utter devotion to the object of his affections – and the Latin-inspired fever dream of ‘Don’t Tell’, his collaboration with Jessi. He’s a little partial to this one, he admits: “Everything is memorable, but ‘Don’t Tell’ with Jessi is the most impressive collaboration. It was the last video that we filmed, and at the same time, it was the last project that we worked on at the end of the album so it meant a lot to me.”
If all of this doesn’t tell you exactly why he’s done this – why he’s chosen himself, why he’s living the most unabashed, truest, most unequivocal version of himself – ‘Parade’ might give you an insight. “I think ‘Parade’ is a great song to describe the album for me. The song reminds me to think again about the things I’ve forgotten without realising it in life,” Kang says during our talk.
On the track, he proudly proclaims he’s going to live his life the way he wants, because in the end, it all means “nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing”. Don’t be alarmed by the nihilism, though. “‘Parade’ is more concentrated on people with mundane routines. Many people forget that their life and time are much more precious due to routine work. So I also realised that my life would be more valuable and meaningful and I would be grateful for everything,” he explains.
Oh, one more thing: Kang Daniel wants you to know that his happiness doesn’t have to be perfect. He, in fact, doesn’t believe in perfection. Once things are proverbially perfect, there is nothing to look forward to. Being flawed means having scope for growth. “I usually try again and again until I feel satisfied rather than to be perfect.” he says, before emphasising that part of the process is to know when to stop.
“Of course, there are days that don’t go my way even though I try continuously. Then, I sometimes skip the days when things don’t go well. If I take a step backwards on those days, I can do better next time in better condition.” he says.
So, is Kang Daniel happy? That might always be a work in progress, so let’s rephrase: What makes him happy now? The answer comes quickly to him: his friends, family, his team, his fans. Most of all, however, it’s the knowledge that this list also includes himself.
“The thing I’ve felt is that I came to love myself more than anything else while working. I try to do things and choices which make me feel delighted in my life rather than being selfish.”
Kang Daniel’s new album ‘The Story’ is out now.