“I’m getting pretty old,” Mark Tuan admits at some point during our chat. “I see this as a beginning – a beginning for a 28-year-old.” He chuckles with amusement at the irony, though it doesn’t seem to faze him in the slightest. At the time of NME’s conversation with the singer, it was just a couple of days before the release of his official debut solo single ‘Last Breath’, which he looked towards with equal parts thrill and anxiety. Mark might have over half a decade of experience in the music industry under his belt, but stepping out on his own daunts him all the same.
Mark first entered the public eye nearly eight years ago as one-seventh of K-pop boyband GOT7. After seven triumphant years together, with a sprawling backlog of 11 mini-albums, four studio albums and multiple sold-out gigs, the boyband decided to depart from longtime label JYP Entertainment in January, each eventually signing with different labels in the months to come. For Mark, this meant a chance for him to carve out an artistic persona of his own design where he feels most comfortable – in his home city of Los Angeles.
As Mark’s first foray into English music as a solo artist, he had a clear idea of the narrative he wished to take with his solo debut. “The song is based on a lot of my experiences from back then,” he tells us of ‘Last Breath’, in reference to the 10 years he spent in Seoul, South Korea. “[For] the whole project, I wanted it to be super personal.”
A perfunctory glance at the new track may not instantly uncover the complex layers of his intentions, but look deeper at its lyrics penned by Mark himself and you’ll find the core of the story he’s been waiting to tell: the feeling of being trapped. “One last breath in me / I know you wanna take it away,” Mark sings, “You got your hands around my throat / So I only breathe when I’m alone.”
The raw vulnerability ‘Last Breath’ is infused with extends to the rest of his forthcoming debut solo album, but that doesn’t just include the tales spun by its songs. It’s also a significant opening gambit for Mark on his quest for self-discovery, the beginning of a new chapter that he holds dear. “I’m still trying to find my sound, [so] it’s the first step in the process in a lot of ways. It’s the first step in showing fans what kind of artist I am,” he explains after some thought. “I feel like this album will always have a special place in my heart.”
In spite of the anecdotes of troubled times, Mark’s debut album also acts as a testament to his persistence and ongoing re-emergence as a reinvented version of himself, forged on his own terms. “I guess as a solo artist, it’s fun that I can try different sounds and not get tied down to one, just because I feel like I’m still finding myself.” He’s dead set on breaking down outdated perceptions of him as only GOT7’s Mark by malleating a new identity. “There are some things I want to change about how people perceive me. It’s going to take some time but it’s also hard because [as] K-pop idols, we’re supposed to have this image,” he says, adamant on constructing a side to himself that’s more authentic. “I just have to find the right balance, and I’m still trying to figure that out.”
Being part of a group with six of your closest friends and going solo with your music are two completely different beasts – starting fresh with a blank slate and an overwhelming volume of new ideas (“Because it’s the first project and we wanted to go all out,” as he puts it) after having already cemented a specific sound as a group was an abrupt shift in pace for Mark. “We have seven different guys in one team, plus we have the company. We throw out a lot of ideas together and think what would be best for GOT7,” he explains. “Right now, the toughest part is, compared to me starting off with a solo career, we [as GOT7] have an idea of what we want to sound like and what the fans would like. It’s kind of hard [on my own], because I’m still trying to find what I want to show the fans, what I want to sound like. There’s still a lot of things I’m trying out, too.”
The inception of Mark Tuan the soloist hasn’t always been sunshine and rainbows for the singer, who had endured a brief phase mired in self-doubt before he felt ready enough to move forward. “I guess everybody [in GOT7] always wanted to try doing their own solo music,” he reveals, though he adds that he never shared this sentiment while in Seoul, confessing that he hadn’t been able to pinpoint what his own sonic colour was during his time with the boyband. “I don’t think I was super wanting to do my own solo career when I was in GOT7,” he admits sheepishly. “Even [after] coming back, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep pursuing music.”
It was, without question, a disconcerting period for Mark to second-guess his own aptitude for pulling off what he had already been doing throughout nearly all of his 20s. “I feel like just being with [GOT7] for such a long time, I felt comfortable,” he professes. “Having to do this by myself was a lot of pressure.” He even asked himself at one point: “‘Do I have the capability of making an entire song and attracting people’s attraction?’”
His reservations weren’t quelled until he returned to the studio with an open mind, willing to give music a second chance with a new team of producers at a tempo that felt most natural for Mark. “I realised this was a lot of fun and still wanted to continue [making music],” he eventually arrived at this conclusion after ephemeral uncertainty, a decision that he now seems to be at peace with.
Mark is now at a point in his trek toward introspection and selfhood where he’s both assured in the direction he’s heading towards and is also open to dipping his toes in something new – a value he upholds through his upcoming record. “It’s been really fun [creating] all the songs on the album, it’ll be good,” he declares with the utmost confidence. “I think a lot of fans will be surprised.” ‘Last Breath’ is the first of many to come from Mark Tuan, who hints at a couple more tracks being released across the following months before the album finally arrives in its entirety. “I want to say that I’ll give it to [the fans] by next year,” he teases, with a grin born of pure excitement.
“I want to show people that I [can be] an idol and an artist. I don’t know why people see us differently,” he questions, referring to a long-standing ideology in South Korea (and arguably also globally) that sets idols and musicians apart, barring idols from being considered “real” artists. It’s a stereotype he wishes to eventually dispel as he continues to establish himself as a solo musician. For now, however, he only has one goal: “I just want to tell my story and have fun doing it.”
Mark Tuan’s new single ‘Last Breath’ is out now.