Since sharing his debut solo mini-album ‘April, And A Flower’ in 2019, EXO’s Chen has carved out an artistic niche for himself as one of K-pop’s most romantic vocalists. His catalogue so far is like a diorama of love – from debut single ‘Beautiful Goodbye’’s bittersweet break-up to ‘Shall We?’’s butterfly-filled new beginnings. On his newest mini-album ‘Last Scene’ – his first material in three years due to mandatory military service – he once again works his way through different stages of a relationship, adding more colourful and heartfelt tales to that display.
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Considering this new record’s title, it’s fitting that Chen finds portraying the emotions needed to bring those stories to life an exercise akin to acting. “I often ponder what the protagonist [in the song] would feel or be doing in those certain moments,” he explains, his face cast in careful consideration as he sits in a meeting room in SM Entertainment’s office. “What would I think, what would I feel if I was in that position?” It’s an approach he’s borrowed from his work on K-drama OSTs, which he’s been contributing to since 2014, two years after he debuted with EXO: “I almost feel like an actor myself because I feel that I have to bring out the emotion of the song through my voice.”
As Chen makes his big return to music, he speaks to NME about getting back on stage and in the studio, the meaning of love, and his hopes for the future.
‘Last Scene’ is your first release in three years – how did it feel coming back to the industry and returning to songwriting and performing?
Chen: “Three years has definitely not been a short time and I really felt that over the break that I’ve had. There’s been a lot of throwback moments [in that time] where I’ve been reminiscing about old memories and experiences. But I looked back and realised that I felt like coming back home after a long time and felt very comfortable and happy to be back. In the songwriting, there was a moment of introspection where I had to really look back and that process helped me to open up my eyes and widen my views of the world and how I thought about certain things.”
This is the first release of your thirties, a decade that is often associated with truly settling into adulthood after the exploration and figuring out of the twenties. As you’ve gotten older, how have your experiences and maturity had an impact on the artist you want to be and the stories you want to tell?
“They’ve definitely had a lot of impact on my current music and I realise that in my twenties I received so much love, often love that most people can never really receive in their life. It was a really rare experience and quite precious. I also really took this time to reflect and wonder what love means to me. To me, it’s something that is without extravagant, pretentious decoration – something that is raw and on its own and somewhat organic. I really hope to become an artist who can share through my music how I see things and how I perceive different experiences and show my perspective of things.”
‘Last Scene’ is such a beautiful but emotional song to return with – what was it about the track that made you want to lead with it on this mini-album?
“The first meeting I had with the A&R unit within the company, I had the chance to listen to a couple of candidates of other songs that could have been the title track for the EP. But as soon as I heard this track, it immediately clicked with me and I had no other thought than this is exactly what I want as my title track. So it was an instant moment, almost like love at first sight. A part that really stuck with me and the reason why I chose this song and how I felt when I heard it would be the melody and the harmony, which really clicked with me and touched my heart. It made me recall things that recall love in a certain way, so it was just something that I was very pleased with from the very beginning.”
You wrote the lyrics for the song ‘I Don’t Even Mind’, which is about the complicated feelings around confessing your love for someone. Where did the inspiration for that song come from?
“Out of all the B-side tracks that were coming for my album, I realised that this one didn’t have set lyrics because it came as a demo. It actually took a while for it to come together with the lyrics. Within the demo, there was the phrase ‘I don’t even mind’, which stuck with me. I wanted to maintain that first impression of the song and still carry and show my own voice and wanted to interpret it in my way.”
Your solo material, including this mini-album, has often touched on the many different sides of love. What have you learned about love through songwriting and performing over the years?
“Love is something that we all experience and feel, but it is perceived very differently for each and every one of us. So it’s hard for me to define and conclude what love is [universally], but, for me, love is about being honest and being real with yourself and to your partner. If you really love someone, you have to really love them for who they are. In order to know who they really are, you’ll start to show your real self as well. That interaction allows the two people to create this kind of energy and chemistry. There are white lies that often get told between partners but eventually snowball into a bigger misunderstanding or lack of trust. Honesty is the wisest action and bravest thing to do and has a big part in the definition of what I think love is.”
So far this year, you’ve held a few performances here and there, including a stunning set at HallyuPopFest in London. What was it like returning to the stage after so long?
“It was my first time being in London, actually, for HallyuPopFest, and it was one of the first stages I had after my break, so it was very, very memorable for me. I remember that my performance time was actually during the night, but on the day of the concert, from the morning until the moment I sang the first note, I was nervous throughout the entire day. It was very nerve-wracking, but as soon as I sang the first note, I really felt comfortable and happy, and I felt like I was back where I belonged. All of my worries went away, and I could recall all the nice moments of being on stage before, so I want to thank all the London fans who have been there to support me and had been waiting for me until I was there. I hope to visit again very, very soon.”
What are your hopes for the future as an artist?
“I want to become an artist where I can truly show who I really am and where I can be real. There are certain things that only I can do best on my own. Often, music feels like an act where I have to tell a certain story or share a certain moment in music, but I always try to make it my own. I want to become someone who continues to just showcase my true self the entire time.”
Chen’s ‘Last Scene’ is out now