Something that you learn quick into an interview with Lee Tae-yong – best known just as Taeyong, a member of K-pop behemoth NCT – is that everything is about communication. From the music he releases, the content he makes and even the way he presents himself over video call, he’s seeking to make a connection with whoever may be listening.
This time he’s speaking to NME from Seoul about his latest solo venture ‘Love Theory’, which is a collaboration with rapper-singer Wonstein, but before the interview even begins, he makes a point to apologise for wearing a mask even over our virtual chat. A tell-tale sign of someone incredibly tuned in to what others may be thinking or feeling before they even say anything, a fitting trait when you’re one of the more senior members of an ever-expanding group that currently clocks in at hefty 23 members.
“I’m very thankful for all of the interest and love people have shown towards ‘Love Theory’,” Taeyong says, switching throughout the interview between his native Korean and English. He wrote and produced the song alongside Wonstein and frequent SM Entertainment producer Zayson. “Love itself is very, is very difficult and complicated for me,” adds Taeyong, who wrote and produced the song alongside collaborator Wonstein and frequent SM producer Zayson, “so Wonstein helped me out a lot with the lyrics to the song”.
The pair’s collaboration evolved organically, with the song having come together a lot earlier than people may expect. Fittingly, the finished product is a bit of a labour of love for the K-pop idol. “This is actually a track that we’ve worked on quite a while ago, it’s not one where we just got to it,” Taeyong reveals. “I actually reached out to Wonstein first saying how I wanted to make a song and we spent a good week or so just working on the pieces, excluding things, gathering our brains together and then just started working.”
The result is a playful and melodic hip-hop track that charms listeners with the relatable woes of trying – and failing – to understand love (he literally begs for a theory to master it). It’s a two-hander, with our protagonist Taeyong desperately reaching out for advice from a love coach in the shape of Wonstein. The dynamic is solidified in a video that accompanied the release, which sees the pair navigate a whimsical, pastel saturated dreamscape.
But the key theme in the video is one fans know and love: that is Taeyong’s face. He wears a T-shirt with his own face on it, hides under a duvet blazoned with his own face and even draws a set of curtains where, you guessed it, his own face materialises upon closure. “So there were actually quite a lot of individuals on set who wanted to kind of take the shirts and the set designs,” Taeyong says when asked about who now has custody of all these Taeyong-centric pieces, “but I felt like my mom would probably want [them] the most so I’ve saved them for her. I actually haven’t had the chance to see her yet, but [I’m] planning on seeing her soon so I will definitely get them over to her.”
While having choreography be as much a part of the song’s identity as the music itself isn’t anything new in K-pop, for Taeyong, it goes a little further than just being impressive dance moves: “It’s always very fun watching the fans recreate and upload their own versions [of the choreography], I really enjoy that.” He admits that whether fans will be able to recreate his creations is a key part of his process, a goal that sits front and centre through the choreography development process. “I feel like dance is, in a sense, a way to express music. It just comes naturally for me,” he says.
Whether Taeyong is standing alone or nestled into the 23 members of NCT and their various sub-units, the eye is always pulled in his direction at some point. The masterful control he has over his body and face, as well as his second-nature ease of musicality, makes you believe being the centre of attention is a role he was simply born to play, but he admits that confidence is never anything that comes easy, in fact he even mentions it as our call first connects because he’s nervous to sit in his Zoom window alone.
When asked how he must have felt, then, seeing himself blazened all across the ‘Love Theory’ music video? “Embarrassing. I was really, really embarrassed,” he laughs. The lyrics to the song make reference to his own challenges with self-confidence, as Wonstein sings: “So you’re a rich dude / Speak some English, too / And you ’bout my height, fam / What you lack, son, is 자신감 (Ja-shin-gam) / Let me translate that, ‘Confidence’”. It’s a playful self-awareness that many people who look to be thriving from the outside but continue to struggle with self-doubt may be all too familiar with.
When it comes to nurturing his own self belief, Taeyong says everything can be credited to his members, both in NCT and the SM Entertainment supergroup SuperM. “I’d have to say that the biggest thing that I realised when I was alone and without my members is that, well, I’m really not confident without them”, he admits. “I first thought that working as a solo artist might not be as difficult [as in a group], but what I came to realise is that it’s all the same and working alone, compared to being with my SuperM or NCT team members, I’m actually not as confident. They are my confidence boosters.”
As part of not one, but two wildly popular boybands, Taeyong finds himself in the unique position of being spread across multiple generations of success within the company – the fresh and bubbling triumphs of his own group and the learned, illuminated careers of the veteran SuperM members. “I actually do seek advice from other individuals who have released solo albums before, such as Baekhyun and Taemin,” he says. “I really get a lot of advice and confidence from them, especially Baekhyun who guided me to the right direction when I was unsure of myself,”
The pair’s ongoing friendship within and outside of their activities in SuperM has delighted fans, with compilations of tender moments between them littering social media with a clear fondness for the way the elder member, who’s currently undergoing mandatory military enlistment, takes Taeyong under his wing. It’s clear that friendship is of great value to Taeyong too: “I am really thankful to him. He would tell me to just do what I want to do and, you know, show what you want to show because you’re the best. That was very helpful”.
When you’re thrust into leadership from the outset, it may be hard to see your own needs as important as the collectives’, but what’s abundantly clear is that the collective is necessary for Taeyong to meet his needs. Again, everything is about communication. It’s part of the reason he’s set up his own YouTube channel, TY TRACK, with the hopes of reaching out to fans in a different way. “My YouTube channel is a place where I could interact and communicate with my fans, and I’ve been filming a lot these days, like performances and my daily life and my fish tank,” he laughs as he mentions that final point. The fish tank, fans will appreciate, is still going strong.
But what Taeyong seems to miss most – as the world slowly eases out of pandemic-induced measures – is face-to-face communication. He mentions it throughout the chat, wanting to meet fans face to face, wanting to do interviews face to face too. It feels like a lifeblood he requires to know that the work he’s doing is resonating.
It’s at the forefront of his mind, too, when asked about any goals he still wishes to achieve when it seems like all the ones he’s previously set for himself have been ticked off already. “[If I] were to say a goal, it’s not something major, but it’s just being able to meet our fans right now at this moment and being able to interact with them and see them face to face again”.
You could say love is, at its core, all about cultivating connection, about being in sync with someone else while nourishing yourself in the process. Though Tayeong says he finds it complicated, it seems like he’s already mastered it without requiring a theorum.
Taeyong’s new single ‘Love Theory’ is out now.