A few minutes into NME’s interview, Super Junior’s main vocalist Yesung takes off his muted flannel to reveal a white t-shirt emblazoned with The Rolling Stones’ iconic lips logo. “The last time I went to England, I bought this. It’s a real one,” he says, proudly giving a thumbs up and edging closer to the screen to make sure the label is visible.
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“I’m a big fan of The Rolling Stones, and I have a very good memory of Mick Jagger listening to one of our songs,” Yesung continues, unprompted. “He did an interview where he mentioned ‘Walkin’ by Super Junior, and a lot of our members aren’t so familiar [with The Rolling Stones], so I was the only one who was very, very surprised and happy that he had recognised us.”
Eighteen years into their career, Super Junior are well on their way to becoming K-pop’s very own Rolling Stones: a legendary group, still active and prolific after six decades. For Yesung, at least, there are no signs of stopping. After delivering a number of singles, collaborations, and four solo EPs, the 38-year-old tenor released his first full album, ‘Sensory Flows’, in late January. Today, a special version of the album dubbed ‘Floral Sense’, arrives to greet the upcoming spring.
In addition to the 10 tracks on ‘Sensory Flows’, ‘Floral Sense’ includes two versions of the eponymous title track (one featuring aespa member Winter, one solo) and ‘그대에게 (Mother)’ (which Yesung has lyrics and composing credits on). The collection is a warm fusion of indie inspirations (‘Small Things’, ‘Beautiful’, ‘HO’ featuring NCT’s Mark) and city pop atmospheres (‘All Night Long’, ‘Like Us’), made even more cosy through Yesung’s vocals.
NME caught up with Yesung to discuss his future plans, what it takes to be a K-pop idol for almost 20 years, and a certain fan-favourite photocard.
There’s a wordplay with the titles of ‘Sensory Flow’ and ‘Floral Sense’. How did you come up with this idea?
Yesung: “I’ve been preparing this album for a very long time, and I tried my best to put a lot of myself into the album and the tracklist altogether. To first explain about ‘Sensory Flow’, I wanted to express that I’m starting to show my sensibilities to the fans. And by releasing the special version, which is ‘Floral Sense’, I wanted to emphasise that my sensibilities are blooming. It’s a period in season where me and my fans are blooming one sensibility together. I’m preparing one more album this year, which is going to be related to senses [as well], so ‘Floral Sense’ is actually the middle-step in the whole series that I’m preparing.”
Was expressing yourself the main goal you had while choosing the tracklist?
Yesung: “Yes, I did put a lot of thought into expressing myself in each track of the album. From the music that I wrote, composers like Etham [Basden], even the Korean artists that participated, I really tried to listen closely to them and consider the music style that I’m aiming for so that we could match together.”
You worked with aespa’s Winter on ‘Floral Sense’ and with NCT’s Mark on ‘HO’. They were both kids when Super Junior debuted. How was it to collaborate with artists that are so much younger than you, and why did you choose them?
Yesung: “I was preparing ‘HO’ around two years ago, and that’s when I actually reached out to Mark. I really like Mark’s voice and rap style, and I thought that it would suit well with the song. So I reached out to him, and he participated directly in the rap making. He did a really good job, more than I expected, so I was very grateful.
“’Floral Sense’ was actually completed as a solo track. When I looked back at the lyrics that go ‘Life is always like a domino, and everything collapses when someone touches it / Then let’s hold each other so that we don’t fall’, the ones that hold me up are those that I love and those who love me. And I felt like this feeling was missing, so I asked myself, ‘how can I make this a track that fans can better sympathise and connect with?’
“That’s when I realised that maybe by adding a female vocalist, I could enhance the atmosphere and better deliver this message in the track. At that time, I came across a track by aespa and when I heard Winter’s voice, I thought it well represents the bright spring vibe that I wanted to add to the song, which is how I ended up working with her.”
“The older you get, especially as an idol, the more you feel the limits that you have, but I did my best to try to overcome all those limits”
‘Small Things’ talks about appreciating what often goes unnoticed in life. What is something that you only learned to appreciate with time?
Yesung: “The things that I’ve learned to appreciate with time are the smallest things from my daily life. Even the fact that I can meet my fans right away and have my family by my side, doing the music that I want to do, there’s truly a lot to appreciate.”
You also wrote lyrics for ‘Together’, which is a song for your dogs, and ‘그대에게 (Mother)’. What is the importance of family for you?
Yesung: “Family is very important to me. I’d have to say they are my everything.”
Your shower photocard is quite popular, as you know. What was in your mind when you took that photo and decided that it would become a photocard?
Yesung: “If you can see my album, there’s not that much Photoshop. It’s more of an organic album, where you can see the real me and my daily life. At first, I did think of not making photocards, but I heard that the fans really liked them, so I thought that maybe I could put the real me in it and express who I really am. I did prepare having both the real me and a few [more traditional] pictures and then we’d have to show it to the public, but since then I realised that the fans do like the real me. So I [decided to add] a realistic photocard after all, which is 100 per cent me.”
You’ve been a singer for almost 20 years. What is an essential skill that an idol should have to last so long in this industry?
Yesung: “I do think that a skill an idol should have is having an able mindset, a mindset that doesn’t shake easily. I didn’t think of myself as just an idol, but more of an artist, and what I felt as time passed is that it really depends on the mindset that I have.
“The older you get, especially as an idol, the more you feel the limits that you have, but I did my best to try to overcome all those limits. And I do believe that age doesn’t matter when it comes to music, so rather than just enjoying what I have, I am still trying to do my best to take care of and maintain what I have right now.”
If this album is an expression of who you really are, what kind of artist do you want people to see through it?
Yesung: “I don’t think much about this, because I feel like in Korea, there’s a slight difference between being an ‘idol’ and an ‘artist’, which can get a bit stressful when trying to decide which to be. For myself, I want to be remembered as a person who takes on challenges with no regrets. I want to be seen for who I am, and accepted for the music I do without any biases. Just truly accepted for being me.”
Yesung’s ‘Floral Sense’ is out now