Yoo Kihyun Has Had An Epiphany

“Feeling like a voyager, feel so free…”

In 2020, Monsta X’s Yoo Kihyun had an epiphany. The vocalist, who debuted with the South Korean idol group in 2015, acknowledged to himself a long-standing struggle with expressing his feelings, that in his desire to be pleasant and accommodating to everyone he encountered, the underlying meaning in his words went unnoticed. It was a habit learned during childhood, ingrained by fame. “As an artist, a celebrity, I have to continuously show myself to the public,” Kihyun explains. “I tried to control myself and put myself in a box with boundaries and it was hard. Then all of a sudden, I thought, ‘This time will never come back because we only live once’. So I thought to pursue life more naturally and find my true self.”

There was no rom-com level metamorphosis into the ultimate rebel. “I’m not a bad boy,” he says in English, amused. He’s as approachable, attentive and conscientious as ever, the abrupt, breathy bark of his laughter echoing through tinny laptop speakers. But he speaks firmly and with emphasis, his glance frequently falling onto the translator’s notes just to ensure all that he’s said is there, intact, thorough. Because if anything demonstrates Kihyun’s discovery and consequent sharing of his true self, it’s his debut solo EP, ‘Voyager’.

At three tracks, it’s short but as eclectic and multi-faceted as he is, its creation a combination of timing, fate and clarity. He’s previously dabbled with covers (Bruno Mars, Tom Grennan, Crush, Imagine Dragons) and sung original soundtracks for K-dramas, but in the seven years since MONSTA X’s debut, Kihyun says his personal musical identity had been so scattered that a solo record didn’t feel viable: “It’s only right now that it’s in one piece,” he says, adding that time, generally speaking, also played its part. “I didn’t have any,” Kihyun says wryly, referring to the frequently hectic Monsta X schedules, “but in between the [recent] press tour and album I had a short break, and when I heard ‘Voyager’ I instantly thought, ‘This is the song, this is it’.”

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‘Voyager’, the title track, isn’t a far throw from Bruno Mars' ‘Doo Wops & Hooligans’ era (Kihyun’s taut 2016 live cover of album B-side ‘Runaway Baby’ lives on as a fan favourite): Pop rock with a smattering of tinkling jazz piano and orchestration, a song with a smooth bounce in its step and a cheerful, retro heartbeat. It’s a natural fit for Kihyun’s vocal dexterity, the ability to settle into scratchy huskiness as easily as the power notes he’s famous for. It’s a song for the escapist within – “Feeling like a voyager, feel so free… this paradise I dreamed of, so beautiful” – a side of himself, he says with a theatrical sigh and a laugh, that he doesn’t allow himself to entertain too often. “Whenever I get too tired I might think about it but escaping from reality isn’t so easy,” he says. When the pressure mounts, music is still his preferred medium for release and comfort.

His taste has leaned towards guitar-lead music since he was a teenager. Music that feels or sounds “raw” finds favour over “a lot of polished details”, and satisfaction is when a song’s lyrics hit a nerve within him. So it makes sense that he’d write on ‘Voyager’, putting pen to paper for the lyrics of ‘,(Comma)’, a song that almost never was. A different demo had been chosen, approved, the lyrics done, the recording completed. “This is top secret,” he says, and laughs, quite possibly at this, his go-to phrase for when sharing something he hadn’t quite planned to. “Something came up, there was an issue, and that song had to be dropped.”

Scrapping the track hit him hard – “I felt like all the energy was gone,” Kihyun adds – but the silver lining of having done so is the delicate wistfulness and soaring ad-libs that ‘,(Comma)’ brings to the record. “Because it was my first time trying to write the lyrics,” he remembers, “when I got the new track, I tried to be natural. I didn’t want to write lyrics that were artificial and I thought it’d be great to write my own story.” As it turns out, he found the writing process not at all difficult but he chooses his words carefully on how the song most accurately reflects his life. “I wanted to express that by going through tough times, sometimes you think you know yourself well but you can often deny yourself [what you need].” He equates the comma as a grammatical pause to the need we have as individuals for that same breathing space. “By having that comma, I’m able to then try and find myself.”

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There’s no textbook definition of what constitutes the perfect K-pop idol but being in possession of a cornucopia of dualities and talents is lauded. Kihyun himself oscillates across a broad spectrum: Confident to self-deprecating. Sweet to strict. Charismatic on stage to charming in person, his humour sprinkled with a peppery dryness. And then there is his voice, with its beautiful, distinctive timbre and a seemingly indefatigable strength.

But the idea of being perfect – drilled into idols as trainees as the ultimate although, by the very nature of idols being human, invariably unreachable summit – has lost its glittering appeal. Instead, Kihyun’s embracing himself as a work in progress, letting go of the expectations he once piled onto his shoulders. “I used to prefer being a perfectionist,” he recalls. “Perfection was always one of the things I wanted to achieve so whenever I made a mistake I used to stress myself out. But now, rather than pushing myself too hard, I just say, ‘I can do better next time'. This actually improved me as an artist. Whenever I thought something wasn’t going to happen, that it was impossible, I didn’t try to challenge myself. I never liked risk-taking and whenever I felt fearful of things, I always tended to step back. But now I’m like, ‘Let’s try this, whatever, let’s do this.’ I’ve changed a lot.”  

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Yoo Kihyun Has Had An Epiphany

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This open-mindedness and the freedom acquired through being comfortable in his own skin is the backbone of his solo work. As Kihyun of Monsta X, he says, “there are rules, there are members to care for, but doing my solo music, there are no rules and no guidelines to follow.” What emerges are the more intimate layers of the balancing act he’s mastered. He remains the sensible member of Monsta X, the one that other member’s parents will call to check in on things, the neatnik, the dab hand in the kitchen, the ‘hamster’ – an early nickname bestowed because of his youthfully round cheeks.

But Kihyun is also a restless spirit, unwilling to become complacent as his 20s close out. His preppy boyfriend look – oversized hoodies, cardigans, neat jeans – has been put aside for a plain black tee and a well-loved black leather jacket, his much sharpened cheekbones and coppery brown hair catching the unforgiving strip lighting above. Many of ‘Voyager’’s concept photos feature water – in cups, on book covers, at the beach – and he’s either in it, on it or gazing at it. Water is an escape, not only as a means of travel, but as a way of disconnecting from life for a while. He likes the ocean, going surfing and the immersion of falling in, feeling the waves crashing against him. Resistance and surrender. He’s fond of driving, too, getting behind the wheel of his car whenever he can, a machine he lovingly describes as “fast, black, all black, with nice curves”, as he traces rippling shapes in the air with one hand.

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This deepened view of his polarity unfolds across the EP’s third track, ‘Rain’, offering unexpected territory to explore. He was drawn by its dark, brooding atmosphere, and piqued by its challenge: “I noticed there was a rap part and my first thought was, ‘How am I gonna do this?’. When I first tried it in the recording studio, it was very unusual.” As the first line of that verse unspools, you could be forgiven for thinking there’s an uncredited feature on it: “It’s me!” he crows, suddenly gleeful. He had nailed the section in under ten takes.

As the line between an artist’s public and private persona grows thinner and blurrier, and not just in K-pop, it raises the question of where does it, or should it, stop. Kihyun’s bandmate, I.M, believes there’s a need to safeguard oneself, their personal identity, but Kihyun has struggled with that. “Originally, my thoughts were along the same line as I.M’s, I thought that there was something that needed to be protected as an idol,” he says, “but my personality just won’t accept being in the middle.” When amongst friends growing up, he could never be one part of who he was, he had to “show everything I have”, an ethos that’s spilled into his career.

It’s come with consequences: “I do agree that if we show too much and we don't protect ourselves, we get hurt, and we have experience of that.” It led to what he calls a “sudden closing of the door to our hearts”, and while, unsurprisingly, he didn’t enjoy it in the moment, it equipped him with what he needed in order to open that door once more. “I’ve grown up,” he muses. ”I’ve been able to control and train my thinking and it’s helped me in my daily life.” You could call it a resilience although Kihyun prefers not to sugar-coat it – “I got more stubborn,” he smiles – but what he wants to make clear is that his mentality, his state of being, is now “at the top level” and, whatsmore, Yoo Kihyun isn’t planning on moving from that spot any time soon.

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Words: Taylor Glasby // @_xTGx

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