It takes Onew around seven minutes to start looking at the Zoom call screen more freely. Until then, the main vocalist and leader of SHINee has been politely staring down, lifting eyes only from time to time, as if peeking through a door ajar, while the translator relays his answers from Korean to English.
Ask any introvert and they would confirm that’s nothing to be alarmed about. It’s not a lack of interest, or the results of a poorly slept night. It’s just that Zoom calls aren’t the most welcoming places per se, and doing a solo interview with a journalist who doesn’t even speak your language can be daunting – especially when it’s not a frequent occurrence. Onew, ever so attentive, was simply accessing the room before easing into the moment.
The atmosphere starts to warm up as soon as we dive into deeper topics, like reflecting about his most unique trait. “I’d have to say that [it is], of course, my voice. I know a lot of people have told me that as well,” he says, interlocking his fingers and pressing his lips, still cautious. But as I agree, he finally opens up and says “thank you”, in English, followed by a good-hearted laugh. “I really want to use my voice to express all the emotions and feelings, so I’ve been spending a lot of time practising, taking lessons and working to show new sides of myself through it.”
Since his debut with legendary K-pop group SHINee in 2008, Onew and his inimitable timbre have grown into steady powers in the industry. Aside from his group activities, he has been part of musical collaborations, soundtracks, joined a number of variety shows and acted in a handful of dramas and musicals, like 2021’s Midnight Sun – for which he will reprise his role this year. “I’ve had a lot of experiences throughout my career,” he recalls thoughtfully. “And what I’ve come to realise is what I like and what I’m not too fond of. But through it all, I’ve become someone who can do everything and anything.”
Although many people have come to associate Onew as a crooner of stirring ballads, that’s just one string in his myriad of talents. “[People] were probably expecting another album that consisted of deeper and more emotional tracks,” he says, referring to his solemn solo debut, 2018’s ‘Voice’. “But I wanted to completely break out, I wanted to show a new side of myself.” The result of that desire is ‘Dice’, his delightful sophomore mini-album. To better illustrate the differences between both albums, Onew makes an analogy with the colour blue: “‘Voice’ is a bit darker, it has deeper sentiments to it, but ‘Dice’ would be a brighter and lighter blue.”
And if Onew’s albums are represented by the calm and profound colour blue, then his voice is the complementary orange, adding tenderness and ease to a sublime combination. “My voice is one that can really touch the hearts of people,” he reflects. “In a sense, [its] specialty is warmth, it makes you feel like someone is holding you tight. That’s how I always wanted my voice to be, and what I aim for it to be as well.”
Indeed, through its six tracks, ‘Dice’ rolls as smoothly as a summer breeze, embracing the listener in a blissful wave. “I wanted to be able to give that positive influence to everyone,” Onew explains, adding that his main goal with this album was simply to provide happiness. “It’s important for an artist to expand their spectrum, but my main focus is bringing that energy and hope to people.”
From the sparkling ‘Sunshine’ to the devotional ‘여우비 (Yeowoobi)’, each song offers its own flavour of joy. However, that sense of companionship that Onew refers to is best felt on ‘In The Whale’ – the album closer, and the only one that Onew co-wrote. “When I started working on this track, it was with the thought of making it for my fans,” he says. “But, going a bit broader, I wanted [it] to be one that, when everyone listens for the first time, they can feel as if someone is listening to them and reaching out.” Instead of fighting the monsters in our lives, Onew extends a hand and invites us to explore their darkness. “We swim the seas / This place is in the whale / I’ll be by your side,” he sings.
When we think of idols in general, we tend to imagine dazzling personalities, born entertainers who become superhuman under the spotlight, and that’s all true, to some extent. But Onew’s strength lays precisely in his introspection – his whale, if you will. He might not be the flashiest, or the most hyperactive, but his sweetness feels just like home, and his strength should not be undermined. In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain argues that people like him “might have been prodded to come ‘out of your shell’ – that noxious expression which fails to appreciate that some animals naturally carry shelter everywhere they go, and that some humans are just the same”.
Onew says he’s come to accept that the only difference between his artistic persona and Lee Jin-ki, his given name, is whether he is styled or not. “I can have bright moments, I can have sorrowful moments, but all of that combined is who I am,” he adds. A known perfectionist, he admits thinking that releasing this album earlier “would have been cool” (it was originally scheduled to be released a whole eight months earlier) but also that “timing is very important, and it’s always important to make sure you are ready when that time comes”. He never thought he was fully ready – does anyone, ever? – but looking back, he wonders if he could be “closer to 100 per cent” had he released ‘Dice’ earlier.
As there is never the perfect timing, he moved forward with a suitable one. “I feel like it was a good time to widen my musical range and experiences, to be able to do something before I get older. I’m the youngest right now, so…” he laughs, all the shyness from the beginning of this conversation gone now. “Being a singer is something that I will continue to do, but when it comes to dancing, that’s a different story with age. I want to do it as much as I can [and for as long as] I have the energy.”
Onew’s second mini-album ‘Dice’ is out now.