Meet Taemin, the melancholic megastar of K-Pop

Lee Taemin, better known simply as Taemin, has always appeared to be missing an off-button. After only a couple of weeks promoting his latest solo single – the dark, throbbing electronic pop of ‘Want’, which he describes as “space disco” – he’s now busying himself with preparations for Seoul concerts this month. Taylor Glasby meets him

Having begun his idol training aged 12, debuted in 2008 (aged 15) with SHINee, who would become one of K-Pop’s most successful and long-standing idol groups, and developed a critically acclaimed solo career alongside his group activities, 25 year old Taemin is a certified K-pop powerhouse.

In spite of K-Pop’s ever-quickening revolving door of idols, where you’re only as relevant as your latest chart position and YouTube view count, Taemin has become a stable fixture, unperturbed by the trends that often dictate the sound of the entire K-Pop industry, instead focused on making records that wholly suit his dramatic, and often melancholic, flair.

His 11 years in the spotlight, ongoing success and enigmatic stage presence are the reasons the latest idol groups – some with members older or the same age as Taemin but with less than half his experience, and even a few who weren’t yet in primary school when he debuted – gaze at him on South Korea’s weekly televised music shows with a mix of respect and starstruck awe.

I’m really grateful for those [junior artists] who see me in that way,” Taemin tells NME.

Unfeasibly grounded, quick to smile, Taemin, despite the sensual stage persona and having coming out of his self-confessed introverted shell over the years, retains a certain, endearing, reticence. “I also don’t want to let anyone down. Just like they have, I’ve always had others that I respected and admired, and the fact that I could become that person for someone is a dream for me.”

The seven-track mini-album, ‘Want’, is his fourth Korean solo album, the follow-up to the impeccable ‘Move’, released in October 2017, and whose eponymous lead single and video – with its sinuous choreography and genderless costuming – made a lasting impression not only across his fanbase but Korean and K-Pop culture as celebrities – from idols to actors and comedians º attempted to emulate the dance, often with awkward, amusing results.

I spent about a total of one year preparing for the ‘WANT’ album,” he estimates. “There were a lot of changes made to it during the process because I really wanted it to reflect my music style, and to connect this album to ‘Move’.”

Unpack ‘Move’ and you’ll find themes of attraction, admiration, breaking up and romantic gestures. Only one song (‘Thirsty’) dips its fingers into unbridled lust and it’s the bridge into the new material – “leave you wanting more/ thirsting for more/ I’m your eyes, I’ll help you see a new world/I’m your toy” he sings on (the single) ‘Want’. As an album, explains Taemin, “it’s really focused on feelings closer to desire and craving, I wanted to really solidify this concept.”

In the single’s video, the symbolism is biblical (real and CGI serpents, a neon cross, Rodin’s giant Gates of Hell), sexual (spiderwebs, wet skin, a red palette underpinning the lighting and styling), but also perhaps personal as magnifying glasses cluster in front of his face to mimic the scrutiny he bears as a performer. Have him pinpoint a moment he feels is significant, however, and Taemin, often cited as one of K-Pop’s most accomplished dancers, hones in on the performance element. “I personally like the scenes when I’m dancing solo,” he admits, adding, “those were actually my idea.” They were spontaneous, unplanned during storyboarding and shot off the cuff on the day.

The album is quintessentially his sound – pulsing synths and an airy vocal hook on ‘Artistic Groove’, his love of showy strings and grandiose choruses on ‘Shadow’ – and although he doesn’t write the songs, he ties himself to the creative process the minute the demos come into his label. “I listen to as many as I can, then pick out my favorites,” Taemin says. “After I choose, I’ll discuss (them) with my team and pick the rest of the songs. I’m pretty meticulous about it, and what I look for is to try and see if I can picture myself singing and performing the song.”

Taemin poses for a photo during a showcase for SHINee’s sixth album “The Story of Light” in Seoul on June 11, 2018

The first song he laid down was the emotional ‘Monologue’, with its beautiful but sparse piano and violin instrumental. Its lyrics reflect loss, grief and letting go – “Our last night, the night I lost you / It’s beyond the regretful memories / Rewind the time… I can’t touch you / I’m talking to myself / I want to reach you / Walk with me”. Unsurprisingly, fans have questioned if the song is for SHINee’s Kim Jonghyun, who passed away, aged 27, two months after ‘MOVE’ was released.

Having admitted on Twitter that he’d gone through “trials” in recording ‘Monologue’, there’s the question of what was going through his mind in the studio. “While I was singing,” he begins, “I was imagining looking at myself, sitting in a room alone, from a third person’s perspective.” With such evocative lyrics, is there a line or verse he especially connects with? “It’s hard to pick just one part that particularly stood out to me,” Taemin replies, simply.

Early in 2018, SHINee made the decision to continue as a four-piece, releasing three EPs in the first half of the year, while Taemin also released a Japanese album, and performed a 32-date tour of Japan, even as he was prepping the ‘Want’ album. But although it appears that 2018 was a year of almost relentless work, Taemin points out it was also a period of learning and discovery. “I always imagine, and try to be on the lookout, for new things, for references that can inspire me creatively so I can showcase things that people haven’t done before or that are new,” he says.

One thing I discovered about myself recently is that I’m more at ease. I have a greater capacity to deal with the situations and circumstances around me. For instance, things that would usually make me really nervous,” he says, although he doesn’t elaborate on what those are exactly, “I now have a greater capacity to cope with them. I think I always try to challenge myself. Instead of comparing myself to other people, I want to showcase what ‘Taemin’ is really like. I’m always thinking about what my identity is. I want to express myself but, at the same time, still be special and different.”

(L-R) Onew, Taemin, Jonghyun, Minho and Key of SHINee boy band attend the ‘SHINee World IV’ press conference on May 17, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea

Since releasing his first solo EP, ‘ACE’, in 2014, where brash, sometimes bratty, self-belief strutted all over songs like ‘Pretty Boy’ and ‘Danger’, his song choices and performances have matured, expanding both in emotional reach and sonics; one only needs to look at 2016’s ‘Sexuality, which sports subtle barbershop harmonies alongside a dubstep-influenced bridge and chattering snare rolls. Or ‘WANT’’s album cut, ‘Truth’, on which Taemin, feeling that the word ‘love’ in songs has become banal, swaps it with the notion that transparent honesty and sincerity can effect the same or greater meaning.

Taemin credits his team more than himself for this creative and personal evolution. “They are amazing, and I’ve learned so much from them over time. Maybe because I debuted young, I was able to absorb things faster,” he muses. “Before, I used to feel more pressure about having debuted at such a young age but I think now I’m a lot more grateful.”

When he looks back at what he’s achieved and undergone, Taemin composure is unsurprisingly worldly given that he’s managed to pack more ups and downs into a quarter of a century than most. “I’ve had a lot of experience, and put out many albums. And because of that, I’ve been exposed in a particular way to the spotlight and attention,” he says frankly. “Fans and audiences have certain expectations of me and, as much as that expectation is there, I really do enjoy myself and try to have fun while promoting. And if there’s another opportunity,” Taemin concludes, thinking of what’s ahead of him, “I definitely want to try out new concepts as well.”