Nail Art

The Grammys | GRAMMY.com

K-pop singer Ten wants to be seen for who he is right now. “But that might be hard, because no one can really understand each other, right?” he tells GRAMMY.com via Zoom, an inquisitive smile forming on his lips. As one of the industry’s most entrancing artists, he is mindful of the gap between self and others, artists and fans, private and public. “You might not really understand yourself,” he adds.

But still, he hopes that, at least for 3 minutes and 41 seconds, people can see what he calls his current “real me”: a sleek, futuristic performer, drawing pristine lines with his body and casting spells with his voice on “Birthday ,” his latest solo effort.

To Ten, expressing himself is like breathing. Born Chittaphon Leechaiyapornkul in Bangkok, Thailand, the 26-year-old was influenced by his mother to explore the arts and sports since childhood. He speaks five languages ​​(Thai, English, Korean, Japanese, and Mandarin), but fluency is a word that overflows to many other areas in his life: singing, dancing, drawing, taking photos. He blooms in mutable environments — a pattern that repeats itself throughout his journey.

The wistful “Birthday,” for example, is part of NCT LAB, a series of releases by K-pop collective NCT, which currently holds more than 20 members in various units, fixed and flexible. Ten debuted as part of NCT U in 2016, but he is also a member of SuperM (a supergroup formed by members of different acts under SM Entertainment) and of Chinese group WayV, as well as a budding soloist. In 2017, he released his first solo track, the hazy “Dream in a Dream,” followed by 2018’s EDM-centric “New Heroes” and 2021’s laidback pop “Paint Me Naked” — each a screenshot of who he was and what inspired him. at that moment.

Diving into this “new era” for the singer, GRAMMY.com caught up with Ten to discuss his current self, letting intuition lead the way, and a new perspective on the sultry lyrics of “Birthday.”

You first performed “Birthday” on the reality show “Great Dance Crew.” What made you want to release it as your own solo for NCT LAB?

I received the song when I was working on it [my previous solo] “Paint Me Naked,” but at that time I was, like, “I don’t think I’m in the right mood for ‘Birthday’ so let’s keep it for a later opportunity.” After “Paint Me Naked,” I went abroad to China, I worked on the reality show, and then I [thought] Okay, I think I’m ready to perform this song, but just a teaser.

So I did it, and when I came back to Korea, I was like, I need to release this song as soon as possible, because I was in the right state of mind. I’m feeling the lyrics and the mood of the song, and I always want to express myself in it [my current] mood.

For my solo songs, I want myself to really get into the lyrics and be able to represent myself with the song.

Is there anything you want to say about the lyrics of “Birthday?”

Um… The lyrics are very sensual, but I hope people don’t fixate on the words. Finally they can relate to their own story. And the emotions can be not to your lover, but to yourself, like, ‘I want every day to be my special day.’ You can hear it as me talking to myself, not to an opposite person.

Back in April, you posted some drawings on Instagram about “Birthday.” Now, in the music video, there are some scenes that resemble those drawings — the veiled people almost kissing, the hands holding each other. Was it your idea to add them to the music video?

Oh, yes. I did participate in the [creation of the] atmosphere of the music video. I was thinking of myself dancing in a desert, like a small oasis, but that’s going to be hard to film, right? So I just narrowed it down. I wanted to use a mirror, a water tank… If you see the first scene, there is a futuristic, wide platform, but at first it was a bathroom mirror. I was thinking about something very vintage, like a picture I saw on the internet, which was a bathroom with a dead robot [in it]. I was like, “I need that in my music video.”

But then it became a futuristic platform?

Yes, yes. All the staff have helped me, they got a lot of my ideas and just made it into reality.

You’re also wearing that wonderful hat with a veil in the music video, and all of your dancers have their faces covered. Was it your intention to cover or conceal facial expressions?

That was my stylist’s idea, the see-through black sheets covering the dancers’ faces. If you see all my outfits, the first is a flowy, sensual outfit, but very minimal, very casual at the same time. The second one is a suit with armor on it, and what’s the third one? The white outfit. With that one, I wanted to represent a person who came from the future, so you can see that I had some piercings on me. But yeah, everyone around helped me, so I thank you [them]my stylist, my director, all the staff.

Since we’re talking about accessories, you’re also wearing several rings and bracelets in that first outfit, and it gives your style an androgynous flair. Was leaving things ambiguous, in that sense, one of your goals?

This is the fun part, because before we film the music video, we just sit down and look at all the accessories that are laid out on the table and say, ‘Okay, let’s try that one on,’ and everyone goes, ‘Okay , no,’ or ‘Okay, yes,’ but [with these ones] I was just, ‘I need to put these on, and no one’s going to say no because I won’t put it down.’ It’s a lot of talking. We just prepare the basics, and then the small accessories, or makeup, or the nail art, that’s all [decided] at the shooting.

Even though you are part of NCT, SuperM, and WayV, you are also slowly building your distinct solo discography. What are some defining points of your artistry? Are there any elements that you always turn back to in your work?

There’s no connection between each song, it’s just ‘me’ in that era. For example, in “Paint Me Naked” I was so chill at that time, it was like puberty. That’s what I [was] at that moment, so I presented myself as “Paint Me Naked.” And for “Birthday”… Maybe I’ve been watching too many romantic series and dramas, so I needed something that was very deep, very expressive. It’s what I’m into [now]and if I’m into this, I want to express myself in that way.

What series or dramas inspired you for “Birthday”?

So many. On Netflix, I just randomly watch movies, and I love watching animations. There’s some sadness [ones] that makes you think after you watch them.

You have spoken in other interviews about how you have two sides. One is more cute and bright, and the other is more dark and mysterious. How do you think that they play out in your solo work?

I think they give more color to all my work and my character. I’m not stuck with one specific image, I keep changing. This time I [can] do a very deep, romantic, sensual song, but next time I can do something very hip-hop.

The things I watch really influence me a lot: animations, movies, or some picture that I found on my Instagram, those kinds of stuff. As you grow older, you just like change, right? You get into different stuff.

That’s true. When you look back to your first solo, “Dream in a Dream,” what do you think about that time?

When I look back to every work I did, it’s just… I don’t remember that guy. [Laughs] That’s me, but it’s also not me in the present. But I appreciate that guy who did “Dream in a Dream,” or “New Heroes,” or “Paint Me Naked.” It feels like an experience. When I was 16, that’s how much I had experienced in life, so I represented myself that way. And now, all the experiences that I faced come out as I do my solo stuff.

You are known to speak many languages, but all of your solos have been released in English. Is that the language that you feel more comfortable expressing yourself in?

I’ve grown up listening to a lot of English songs, and when I practice my vocals, I sing in English. I think English is easier for me to express my feelings. It’s very straightforward, but it’s up to the listener to analyze the lyrics, so I feel like I can just sing one simple sentence and create my own world inside [of it]. Different languages ​​have their own charms, but English is [easier] for the listener to relate to their own story.

Have you ever tried to write your own songs?

Yes, I did. Last year I did a lot of sessions, like, making melodies, but I haven’t created my own lyrics yet. I’m more into making melodies than lyrics. I think later on I will try to write my own songs, but right now I just enjoy making top lines and stuff.

On the other hand, you’re one of the best dancers in K-pop. You make it seem like it’s the most effortless thing in the world. What goes on in your mind when you’re dancing?

Thank you. Wow. Before, I would say that I think of a line in the water, or those kinds of elements, but right now I want to make something different from the past. There’s so many choreographies that look the same, so when I dance I just think of how to make this one simple movement become more unique. This is what I’ve been working on lately. Trying to make the tiniest difference, but make it very unique.

You’re also an artistic person in general. Is there a specific medium where you feel more comfortable with?

Each of them have their own space in me. I think of myself more as a performer than a singer, or a dancer, or a painter. I don’t think of that. I’m just like, I’m going to perform, I want to express myself. That’s the only thing I really focus on.

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