NCT’s Ten Is Willing to Try It All

"I just felt like I could really express myself," he says of new track "Birthday," which is part of the SM STATION : NCT LAB project

ten nct interview
Ten, photo courtesy of SM Entertainment
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To understand why Ten of NCT, WayV, and SuperM is in such high demand, all you have to do is watch him in motion.

Contemporary dance is at the heart of his first solo single, “Dream In a Dream,” which was released four years after he joined Seoul-based company SM Entertainment and one year after he debuted in the ever-shifting NCT U. Empty verses and sparse choruses, as well as a barren set, left room for Ten’s dancing to take center stage. The effect was breathtaking — in 2017, it whet the appetite of those getting their first taste of NCT’s then-novel concept — but more importantly, it showed what Ten brings to the table when twenty-plus members, and multiplying, are seated by his side.

Since then, his work in NCT’s Chinese subgroup WayV and SM’s internationally-focused SuperM has peeled back more layers. Ten is a playful cat dad and doting hyung (“older brother”) to the younger members of the former, and a multilingual, agile communicator in the latter. (Not to mention a powerhouse performer in both.)

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On social media, he shares tattoo-like doodles and fluvial, free-diving experiments; last year, he poured his love of visual art into a collaboration with Represent, before becoming the canvas himself in a pigment-soaked video for “Paint Me Naked,” a feel-good pop track. “I really want to do everything,” Ten tells Consequence over a Zoom call, cozied up in a multicolored flannel and beaming.

The music video for his latest single “Birthday,” released on Wednesday (October 26th), positions dance once again at the forefront, as two veiled figures, himself and another, perform a sensual pas de deux. The track — which is part of the SM STATION : NCT LAB project, a series featuring solo releases, self-composed songs, and unit collaborations from members of NCT — is more explicitly romantic (read: sexy) than what we’ve heard from Ten as a soloist before, but there’s another marker of growth for the artist: Here, Ten’s honeyed vocals, high and sweet, play a starring role.

In the below interview, Ten discusses all of the idol mentors, romcoms, and funky hats that have brought him to this moment — and how he’s still figuring out just who Ten really is.

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You originally performed a snippet of “Birthday” on the dance competition show Great Dance Crew in the spring. How long has the song been in the works?

Honestly, the first day it was given to me [was around the time they gave me] “Paint Me Naked.” But at that moment, I was not fully into the song. I felt like it shouldn’t be that moment that I performed “Birthday.” But this year I felt more capable of working on it.

In an interview, you talked about how “Paint Me Naked” represented your mindset at the time it was released — it was something a little bit lighter than what you’re used to doing in group songs. What was your mindset as you prepared “Birthday”?

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When I was working on “Paint Me Naked,” I was purely just… I was so free. Like, “If I don’t want to do that, I’m not going to do it. I want to feel free.” I wanted to open myself up while working on it. But for “Birthday,” it might be because I’ve been watching a lot of romantic movies lately, or maybe because I’ve had a lot of deep thoughts because of things that have happened to everyone around us. I just felt like I could really express myself with “Birthday” because… I think it’s deeper than other songs that I had worked on. My mindset is more calm.

What are some of the romantic movies that you’ve been watching?

Before Sunrise! Also a lot of animation. Those things really motivated me and inspired me to do this concept.

It also might be because I had a lot of alone time while I was promoting in China by myself for about a year. While I was alone, doing my own thing, I had a lot of time to think about myself.

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I saw that SM choreographer Bada Lee worked on the choreography. What was it like to work with her?

I’ve been working with her for a long time, training, before. But this time, Bada Lee and her friend Jrick [Baek] both helped me create this choreography. I told her I wanted something different from the last time — I wanted to make it more like an artwork than a choreography. Because I feel like nowadays I’ve been doing a lot of… if you think of group choreography, there are the same patterns all the time. So I was like, “I want to break that stereotype. I want to make something more unique.”

There’s an Instagram post of yours from last year where you’re free-diving in a pool, and it’s almost like a dance. I saw fans making connections between that and the music video, where you’re submerged in a tank of water.

I was like, “In this video, I need a water tank.” I don’t know why, I just wanted to dive in. It’s almost like when you put yourself in the water, [you’re] drowning in your own emotion.

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I saw fans speculating that it was going to be a siren concept.

A siren concept?

In Greek mythology, sirens are sea creatures that lure you with their voice, which seems fitting here.

Oh, I need to search that up!

If you look at the music video, each scene had its own object. There’s a mirror in one scene. In another scene, there’s a spotlight, a ray of light, and in the first one, there’s a white platform that I dance on top of. You know how when you dream, you just dream about one object sometimes?

Like you said with the mythical creature… I wanted it to seem like it’s not reality. It’s just something that’s in someone’s mind.

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Did you get to give input for the wardrobe in this music video?

Yes, I was very lucky. This time they [said to me], “Ten, you can really [build] your own closet.” It took me a week to prepare all the references and send those to them. There are four outfits — the white outfit is a futuristic style, so I wanted to represent someone that came from the future. The hat is flowy, very traditional. And the other two are suits because I wanted to represent myself as more grown up and mature. And if you see the armor, it was [supposed to be] strong, like, “You can’t be defeated, you’re safe.”

The hat was a standout moment.

At first, [we had] the hat but without the veil. Then when I wore it, it just felt like something was missing. So we sat down and talked: “Should we put some chains on the hat? Or some diamonds?” And then finally, we just saw like, some sheet on a table. Like, “Oh, let’s just try putting the sheet on the hat.”

Going back to Great Dance Crew, what did you take away from your experience mentoring other dancers?

Leadership! Honestly, before, I didn’t really talk a lot when [WayV] works as a team. Because, I don’t know, I feel like I might hurt someone if I say something. So I’m always just quiet and listening. But now, after working on that program, I can really talk it out [with them].

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So now, as WayV is preparing for our comeback, personally, I really do speak out and [suggest to] other members how to make things better as a team.

You also have mentors — senior artists, choreographers, and producers within SM. How have they helped guide you?

Before SuperM, I didn’t really have a mentor. But Baekhyun-hyung and Taemin-hyung really helped me while we were promoting. They gave me a lot of advice. Baekhyun-hyung [taught me] a lot about how to train my vocals, and how to use my voice. Taemin-hyung was more like, “Ten, believe in yourself. You have your own unique style even though you don’t know it now. Just keep working on it, and don’t throw it away.”

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For “Paint Me Naked” and “Birthday,” I talked a lot with my stylists and my friends for more motivation.

Speaking of vocals, I was recently rewatching the video for NCT U’s debut song “The 7th Sense” — I always forget this, but you’re actually rapping on that song! It seems like singing is a skill you’ve been able to develop more over your time at SM.

Before “The 7th Sense,” to be honest, I didn’t know how to sing! [Laughs] As we finished promoting that song, I [thought to myself] that if I wanted to express myself more, I need to be able to sing. It’s not like with rapping you can’t express yourself, but if you know how to use your voice, you can try different genres, like R&B and acoustic pop songs. Nowadays, too, rappers can sing — like, they have a melody in their songs. I want to be able to do different things in one track.

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What’s the next challenge you want to take on?

I just want to improve all the skills that I have right now. Before, I was like, “I want to try this. I want to try that.” And at the end of the day, if you try too many new things, the old things don’t improve. So nowadays, I’ve been trying to improve my language [skills], my speaking skills, dancing, singing, art, everything. Trying to level up.

What about a solo album?

Yeah, I do want to work on it. Because being able to do my own solo album, I could really express myself — not just [through] the title song, [but] b-side tracks. Everything in that album… you can really represent yourself. This is me. Or, this is me, at that moment.

But I do enjoy working in both a team and alone. If I only worked on my solo stuff, I might be stuck with one image. But when you work with others, you can learn something from them, and be inspired by the [compromises you have to reach] as a team. When you do solo work, you just do the things you want to do.

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Trying to compromise and find a middle ground, but not losing yourself in the process. Is that a difficult balance to find?

Yes! I just realized it this year. Sometimes there’s something that you are stuck on. For example, this time I want to do this concept, but the timing isn’t right. It’s so hard to balance the thing that you want while at the same time you know it’s not the right time. I still want to listen to everyone, all the comments that they give me, because you learn something from that.

“Paint Me Naked” was pop-rock, but “Birthday” leans more toward R&B. Does the music you’re listening to at the time influence what songs you want to take on?

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Nowadays, I’m interested in a very hard rock sound. Hard rock, you know, like the shouting? [Laughs] I might not be able to release that as a solo one day. But I easily get stuck on one thing.

I think now we need a screamo song on your solo album.

I want to try! I’ve been listening to Halsey’s “Nightmare,” and I was like, “Oh!” It sounds very pop, but at the same time, it has a rock element to it. I was like, “Let me try that someday.”

“Birthday,” like your other solo songs, is an English-language track. What is it like recording in English as opposed to the other languages you record in? Do you feel like you approach the process differently?

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How you sing, how you use your voice is different. As people speak in different languages, their voices change, right? I do sing a lot of English songs when I practice my vocals.

I feel like singing in English, it’s easier for me to express myself, my feelings. In English lyrics, one line [might be] very simple, but each of us interprets it differently. It gives me more space.

Would you say that being multilingual affects your perspective toward the music you make?

I’m thankful that I’m able to speak different languages, because if you understand different cultures, it helps you… not get mad easily. I don’t know why! It’s true, because if you know different cultures, you don’t have to question, “Why did they do the things that they did?” You become more open-minded.

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But I do [make] errors very often. If I don’t use English for a week or two, it’s just like bwahhh all the time. It’s so hard for me to switch languages.

Finally, is there a question you’ve always wanted to be asked in an interview?

“What kind of a person are you, Ten?” I would say I still don’t know.

Categories: Features, Interviews, Music