In the run-up to the release of his debut solo single album ‘Voyager’, Yoo Ki-hyun – best known mononymously as Kihyun and as one-sixth of K-pop powerhouse MONSTA X – released a “mood sampler” video that showed him meeting another version of himself. The first Kihyun sits at a table while the other arrives with a suitcase in hand. They face off, before Kihyun hands his traveller alter-ego a glass of water after his long trip.
“So the traveller can represent the Kihyun of MONSTA X and how he achieved that pathway through past experiences,” Kihyun tells NME over a video call from Seoul. “The other Kihyun, the one who has arrived at the destination, represents a new start and the future of Kihyun as a solo artist.”
It’s a week to the release of ‘Voyager’, and Kihyun looks relaxed in a leather jacket and t-shirt. If there is any underlying trepidation about the project then he’s not showing it. When asked if he felt nervous during the process of making the record, he coolly admits: “There was not much difficulty, to be honest, I instead tried to enjoy showing my own music and my colours.” It’s a fair response, as just a few seconds into the title track, it’s clear that Kihyun, solo artist, has arrived.
Title track ‘Voyager’ is a jaunty pop-rock anthem and the vocal equivalent of a door being kicked wide open. ‘Comma’, which Kihyun contributed to lyrically, follows and is a reflective and introspective pop song. Finally, he flexes his R&B prowess on closing track Rain. “I tend to focus solely on the mood and atmosphere of the tracks”, Kihyun says about the three songs that make up the album. “Starting with ‘Voyager’, I could show the refreshing cool voice of myself, for ‘Comma’ I tried to be more sentimental and moody and for ‘Rain’ I tried to portray the raw and authentic, warming sound of my voice.”
As a member of MONSTA X, straddling genres isn’t new to Kihyun. Over the course of their seven years together, the group have amassed one of the most diverse discographies in K-pop, with Korean, Japanese and English releases shifting from everything from EDM to synth-pop to disco. Kihyun is the third member of the group to release solo music, after rappers I.M and Joohoney.
“Joohoney gave me some advice, like real musical advice, like serious lyric advice,” Kihyun says when questioned about whether any words of encouragement were received from his bandmates. “But I.M was kind of teasing me and pretending to be a senior artist who made their solo [debut] previously, and [acting like] was older than me.”
Clearly grateful for support given by his fellow bandmates, the ever-collected Kihyun admits the only time his nerves faltered in the run-up to the release of ‘Voyager’ was on the set of the single’s music video, where he was welcomed with an unexpected surprise.
“So right up until I shot a music video, I wasn’t too nervous and I really didn’t think a lot about it. But you know for the music video shooting, all of the MONSTA X members, including Shownu [who is currently fulfilling his mandatory military service], visited the on-set scenes,” he muses fondly at the memory. “They gave me a lot of comments, feedback and they just rooted for me. That’s when I noticed that, ‘Oh, I am really going to be a solo artist and my album is gonna drop very soon.’ After that moment I started to get a little nervous.”
The nerves thankfully subsided, however, as Kihyun admits he’s not the kind of artist who gets too worked up about letting new work out into the world. It’s something, he says, that has come with age and experience: “I used to prefer being perfect. But after a certain number of years as an artist, I realised that being perfect and preferring to be a perfectionist is not always a good thing. So I tried to be more humble and generous to myself, and it has become so helpful in a lot of ways, including for musical things.”
There’s a peace that exists in letting go of harsh expectations for yourself, and that’s a theme that exists across ‘Voyager’. But it especially clear in the title track, where Kihyun sings lyrics like “Feeling like a voyager, feel so free / This relaxed feeling in my busy life” and “Come with me now / If you want, don’t hesitate / You, yes you who think too much”.
“I feel peace when I sing and the outcome is satisfying – that’s when I feel okay. That is a peaceful moment and that was the case for ‘Voyager’,” Kihyun admits in response to the overarching motif of the album. He also admits that serenity has come from not looking into the past or the future too much where possible: “I used to think that way, I used to think about reflecting on the past. But right now, I’m more of a free person. I just try my best for the day that I’m living right now.”
Trying to live for the moment is something many people can relate to, especially as we come out the other side of two completely unprecedented years that still shake everything from our daily lives to the mechanisms of the music industry. MONSTA X, too, are trying to signal a fresh start for themselves as well by embarking on a world tour in May, after literal years of delays – the latest one being just a handful of months ago.
Freedom to travel and move with ease is still, to many, an unpromised reality, but the joy of a spontaneous trip into the unknown bursts through the seams of ‘Voyager’. Kihyun admits that, if given the chance to be a voyager right now, to be the traveller alter-ego that introduced us to this new solo era, he’d go in blind.
“I’ll open up the flight app, I don’t care where it is or whatever it is, I’ll just click and get the tickets and fly over to anywhere,” he smiles through the screen. “I love a trip without a plan. The places and things and people that I meet by chance feels like destiny for me.”
Kihyun’s debut solo single album ‘Voyager’ is out now