The Real Thing: Jackson Wang Interviewed

“Every time I meet someone, I open myself up 100%. It’s a gift and a curse.”

Chinese pop superstar Jackson Wang has undergone a major creative and emotional metamorphosis – and he needs you to know why…

The Real Thing: Jackson Wang Interviewed

It’s around 8pm when Jackson Wang calls. “Where are you?” The line is scratchy, his voice fading in and out. “Give me the address, I’ll pick you up.” The singer, rapper, dancer, designer and entrepreneur, who made his name in the glossy world of K-pop, debuted in 2014 with the seven-member idol group GOT7 and has juggled both the band and a highly successful solo career since 2017. He wants to go to a studio in a buzzy area of Seoul to run his new music, talk and drink. He calls back shortly; he can’t get away from the task at hand. “Let’s talk tomorrow,” he insists, his attention already shifting, as it often does, to something else on a never-ending mental to-do list. For Jackson Wang, life moves extraordinarily fast.

Our new rendezvous point is a picturesque stretch of beach an hour outside of Seoul. The sun is warm but the air is cold, tugging on Jackson’s blue-grey hair. There’s something of an old-fashioned matinee actor in the structure of his jaw and cheekbones, not to mention an incandescent charm that he can dim but never quite turn off. He’s in a pensive, restless mood. Whatever you think you know about the 28-year-old Hong Kong-born artist, his second studio album, ‘Magic Man’which overflows with guitar riffs and broken hearts, will make you question it. Making it made him question himself, too. 

The Real Thing: Jackson Wang Interviewed
The Real Thing: Jackson Wang Interviewed

Its origins lie in early 2021, a period of time in which he says, “I was really lost. I didn’t know what I was doing. It got to a point where my team insisted on sitting me down and talking to me and, like, it was the first time that words meant some shit to me.” He pinpoints two aspects of the conversation; that being present was always more important than worrying about the future, and the question of whether or not he was enjoying himself anymore: “I was working hard. I was doing what I loved but I wasn’t having fun.” When they insisted he take a break, Jackson flailed against it. “I’m a person that if I chill out for a day, I’ll get insecure and anxious because I feel like everyone else is working so hard.” 

The Real Thing: Jackson Wang Interviewed

Some of these recollections he’s already shared with fans but it’s only the first page in a story he’s still gingerly feeling his way through. It’s perhaps serendipitous that our first ever interview was a mid-pandemic Zoom session right around the time he hit a wall, and, this, our second, is during his creative rebirth. Jackson doesn’t remember the former but he’s curious about the impression he made. For the record, he was good-humoured but opaque, yet what then felt impossible to breach within Jackson Wang wasn’t by design. 

“Honestly, there was almost nothing in the box then, I was empty. Now I want you to feel what I’m really feeling inside.” His sips at pink fruit juice as school children run by laughing, kicking up plumes of sand. Novice surfers in gleaming black wetsuits stick close to the shore, shouting as they wipe out. Jackson gazes across the landscape, shivering: “Fuck, it’s too cold, I can’t think.” We walk, the tape still running, but the conversation fragments in the strong wind. That’s okay; what he’s sharing, he thinks, is too personal. In the warm silence of his car, Jackson relaxes: “I don’t really feel like this is an interview, I want to tell you my plans and my fears as just two people talking.” He asks where we left off.  

The Real Thing: Jackson Wang Interviewed
The Real Thing: Jackson Wang Interviewed

After that initial conversation with his team, he spent time trying to make sense of where his head was at. During a trip to Los Angeles he met with the director Nabil Elderkin and stylist/designer Mobolaji Dawod who gave him paternal advice, what he calls “hugs with words”. Jackson had an emotional epiphany over a sake and sushi dinner then, overwhelmed, proceeded to get extremely drunk. Ultimately he realised “it’s great to have opportunities to be in front of people everywhere, like on TV shows and this and that, but something wasn’t 100% me. I was lost because through the whole journey there was stuff I wasn’t comfortable with.”

Like what?

“A lot of stuff, man,” he deflects. “Just stuff I don’t wanna do. It happens all the time but people don’t know. I’m not blaming or complaining, I’m not rebelling, I’m not against it, I’m just not a part of it. You do you, I’ll do me. I don’t want to live that way anymore, I wanna show the raw me. It might not be what everybody will love but it’s me, and that’s ‘Magic Man’.”

The Real Thing: Jackson Wang Interviewed
The Real Thing: Jackson Wang Interviewed

‘Magic Man’ isn’t just a title, it’s the part of him that he’s kept away from the public. You’re introduced to him through the album’s artwork – photos of Jackson layered on top of each other to create a distorted, almost demonic-looking creature. Sometimes when Jackson looks in the mirror, that’s who he sees.

“Every release I’ve done, I’m always a step closer to myself. I’m me but at the same time I’m not. ‘Mirrors’, ‘100 Ways’… on all these songs I’m jumping out of my comfort zone, being like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know I could do that’. But I faced problems, like overthinking it to a point where I thought, ‘I’m losing myself, I’m trying to be someone else’. So for ‘Magic Man’, every session was about an hour and a half. Super short. I’m following my feelings. I’ve done that all my life except in my career. I used to get so technical, let’s throw all that away. This album is about the attitude, the colour, and the feeling when people listen to it. It’s like: shut up and let me be me.”  

The Real Thing: Jackson Wang Interviewed
The Real Thing: Jackson Wang Interviewed

He unveiled this side of him at Coachella in late April, with one reviewer calling his barnstorming performance “unhinged”. That show, he recalls, “was everything for me. I went up on stage [thinking] ‘if this is the last thing I do’.” He was the first Chinese soloist to play the festival, and the fourth most talked about act online – no mean feat when sharing the bill with Billie Eilish, Megan Thee Stallion, The Weeknd and Harry Styles – but Jackson isn’t impressed by himself. “Fourth means I’m not there yet. No one gives a shit.”

Do you think you’re being fair to yourself?

“There’s two of me inside. You’re like, ‘Why are you cruel to yourself?’ That’s him, Magic Man,” he says intently. “Sometimes I feel sorry to my fans, I want to make them proud. I’m still figuring out how to be better. Even when I fuck up, they’re like, ‘You did a great job’. I feel bad about that. Sometimes my song isn’t the best song in the world, it’s not even good, and if I know that, they must know it. So I get frustrated, like, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’”

The Real Thing: Jackson Wang Interviewed

But there’s a difference between being self-critical and brutal.

“That’s what my parents are telling me, that’s what my real friends are telling me.”

Are there fake friends around you?

“Yes, there are. Everyone says, ‘Jackson can make friends with a lot of people’. Well, yes, because every time I meet someone, I open myself up 100%. It’s a gift and a curse. I’m not friends with someone because I need something. I hate that. So I get hurt from people betraying me, I’ve been through too much of this. I’ll still open up my gate for everyone but now if I see something weird, then, bye. I used to think of everyone as a fam, my brothers and sisters,” he reflects. Outside of his immediate family, he says, there’s only one person he can absolutely rely on to be there for him.

There’s something a little surreal in discussing the pitfalls of celebrity in a climate-controlled car with its reclining seats and shielded windows while just outside families and couples stroll and walk their dogs, oblivious to the very famous man within. A little heartbreaking, too. But Jackson Wang isn’t looking for your sympathy.

“Don’t think about it too much,” is what he wants to say to his fans. “I’m trying to find my happiness, really. It’s just part of my journey before the destination.” He’s accepting of the path he’s chosen, its highs and lows. “I’m doing this because I want to make something before I die, to leave something behind. Living on earth is fun and I cherish it but the big picture is my legacy. Every decision I make is based on that. Every step has to be in that direction.” 

The Real Thing: Jackson Wang Interviewed

Jackson’s making a renewed effort to bring more peace into his life, like learning how to let go of things and accept whatever happens, but it’s a slow process. He thinks ‘Blow’ – ‘Magic Man’s first single, whose jaunty guitar-pop slides into an echoing, abrupt darkness – was pretty good. “If I’m satisfied with it but it fails, then I’m still good with it. It’s at 23 million views, but it’s not 100 million views.” 

Do you want it to be?

“Of course I want it to be. I want people to be able to see it. But I’m happy with it, I appreciate it,” he says. The numbers game is more deeply ingrained in his thinking than he’s comfortable with. Five years ago, he set up TEAM WANG – a multimedia company containing a design arm and a record label – but this mini-empire places Jackson’s blossoming desire to simplify in something of an artistic conundrum. 

“I’m always around business people and sometimes they just care about numbers and that fucks up my mind. Everything I have passion for and believe in I start to question because I’m surrounded by people who will all think about something a certain way and I’m the only person who says no [to it]. I always say I’m doing what I love but the hardest part is that there’s so much you can’t do alone. I tried but it takes a team. Everything – every video, the music – it all needs a strategy to launch.” He can hear himself speaking like a man ingrained in commercial viability and it’s begun to drive him nuts. “I don’t want to think that way, that’s the problem. I just want to be an artist who focuses on what they believe in, and kills it.” 

The Real Thing: Jackson Wang Interviewed

Is there anything stopping him from taking a couple of weeks off, working with one producer, secretly laying down tracks, and uploading them to Soundcloud? Jackson pokes straws into small boxes of almond milk. We sip them in silence. Imagine it: No internal memos, no complicated video production, no announcement, no interviews. Pure freedom. “But then,” he says, sounding pained by his contrariness, “it wouldn’t be up to my standard.” 

That makes you a self-placed rock in a hard place.

“Yes,” he says with a rueful smile, “and I hate it.” 

The Real Thing: Jackson Wang Interviewed
The Real Thing: Jackson Wang Interviewed

The seismic shifts created by fractiousness between Jackson’s worlds – art, the self, and commerce – may seem unsettling but as with all such upheavals comes learning, renewal and growth. “I have evolved,” he acknowledges. “Having fun means doing something that excites you. What excites me is when I write a good song, and when people can relate to it, to me as an artist. That’s my fun now, to try to make a masterpiece.” 

His deeper sense of being is something he says he’s “still figuring out”. Some days Jackson feels comfortable in himself, able to accommodate the Magic Man’s complicated and demanding traits that call him towards the unknown. Other days, his equilibrium feels brittle and off-kilter. He’s come to realise that when you’re recovering, the term ‘getting better’ is a fragile one: “If just for one second you don’t maintain it, then you’re back to being the original you,” Jackson says. 

The Real Thing: Jackson Wang Interviewed

There’s a small knock and TEAM WANG staff open the car door, allowing the sounds and smells of the world to rush in like an awakening. They need him urgently but Jackson’s always needed urgently somewhere and for some reason. It’s immutable but somehow also reassuring.  Unfurling reluctantly, Jackson squints into the sunlight. “Sometimes I find myself in that emo zone again. The emotional anxiety zone. Then sometimes I’m really like, ‘Yeah, fuck it’. I’m focusing on my shit and that’s it. Nothing else matters.”

The Real Thing: Jackson Wang Interviewed

This cover story appears in Clash 122 – order your copy HERE.

Words: Taylor Glasby
Photography: Elliott Morgan
Fashion: Davey Sutton
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

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