The K-pop Ten singer wants to be seen for who he is right now. “But that might be difficult, because no one can really understand each other, can they?” he tells GRAMMY.com via Zoom, an inquisitive smile forming on his lips. As one of the most captivating artists in the industry, he is aware of the gap between self and others, artists and fans, private and public. “You may not really understand each other,” he adds.
But still, he hopes that, for at least 3 minutes and 41 seconds, people will be able to see what he calls his current “true self”: a sleek, futuristic artist, drawing immaculate lines with his body and casting spells. with his vocals on “Birthday”, his latest solo effort.
For Ten, speaking is like breathing. Born Chittaphon Leechaiyapornkul in Bangkok, Thailand, the 26-year-old was influenced by his mother to explore arts and sports since childhood. He speaks five languages (Thai, English, Korean, Japanese and Mandarin), but fluency is a word that spills over into many other areas of his life: singing, dancing, drawing, taking pictures. He thrives in changing environments – a pattern that repeats itself throughout his journey.
The melancholy “Birthday”, for example, is part of NCT LABORATORY, a series of releases by K-pop collective NCT, which currently has over 20 members in various units, both 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 groups under SM Entertainment) and Chinese group WayV, as well as an aspiring soloist. In 2017 he released his first solo track, the hazy ‘Dream in a Dream’, followed by EDM-centric ‘New Heroes’ in 2018 and the laid-back pop ‘Paint Me Naked’ in 2021 – each a catch of his own. screen of who he was and what inspired him at that time.
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 to “Birthday.”
You performed “Birthday” for the first time 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 the time I was like “I don’t think I’m in the mood for ‘Birthday’ so let’s save that for a later occasion.” After “Paint Me Naked”, I went overseas to China, worked on the reality show, then [thought] Alright I think I’m ready to perform this song but just a teaser.
So I did, and when I came back to Korea, I was like, I need to release this song ASAP, because I was in the right frame of mind. I feel the lyrics and the vibe of the song, and I always want to express myself in [my current] vibe.
For my solo songs, I really want to get into the lyrics and be able to represent myself with the song.
Is there anything you want to say about the lyrics to “Birthday?”
Um… The lyrics are very sensual, but I hope people don’t get hung up on the words. I hope they can identify with their own story. And the emotions can be not for your lover, but for yourself, like “I want every day to be my special day.” You can hear it as I speak to myself, not an opposite person.
In April you posted some drawings on Instagram about “Birthday”. Now, in the music video, there are scenes that look like these drawings – veiled people almost kissing, hands holding each other. Was it your idea to add them to the music video?
Oh yes. I participated in [creation of the] Atmosphere of the clip. I was thinking of me dancing in a desert, like a little oasis, but it’s going to be hard to film, right? So I just reduced it. I wanted to use a mirror, a water tank… If you see the first scene, there is a large futuristic platform, but initially it was a bathroom mirror. I was thinking of something very vintage, like a picture I saw on the internet, which was of a bathroom with a dead robot. [in it]. I was like, “I need this in my music video.”
But then it became a futuristic platform?
Yes yes. All the staff helped me, they understood a lot of my ideas and made them a reality.
You also wear this beautiful hat with a veil in the music video, and all your dancers have their faces covered. Was it your intention to cover or conceal facial expressions?
It was my stylist’s idea, the sheer black sheets covering the dancers’ faces. If you see all my outfits, the first one is fluid, sensual, but very minimal, very casual at the same time. The second is a suit with armor on it, and what is the third? The white outfit. With this one, I wanted to represent a person who was from the future, so you can see that I had piercings on me. But yes, everyone around me helped me, so I thank [them]my stylist, my director, all the staff.
Since we are talking about accessories, you also wear several rings and bracelets in this first outfit, and it gives your style an androgynous touch. Was leaving things ambiguous, in that sense, one of your goals?
That’s the most fun part, because before we shoot the music video, we sit down and look at all the props that’s laid out on the table and we’re like, “Okay, let’s try this one,” and everyone says “Okay, no” or “Okay, yes”, but [with these ones] I was just, ‘I have to put them on, and nobody’s going to say no because I won’t put them on.’ It’s a lot to talk about. We just prepare the basics, and then the little accessories, or the make-up, or the nail art, that’s all [decided] at filming.
Even though you are part of NCT, SuperM and WayV, you are also slowly building your distinct solo discography. What are the defining points of your art? Are there elements that you always come back to in your work?
There is no connection between each song, it’s just “me” at that time. For example, in “Paint Me Naked”, I was so cool at that time, it was like puberty. This is what I [was] at that time, so I introduced myself as “Paint Me Naked”. And for “Birthday”… Maybe I watched too many romantic series and dramas, so I needed something very deep, very expressive. That’s what interests me [now]and if I like it, I want to express myself that way.
What series or dramas inspired you for “Birthday”?
So much. On Netflix, I watch random movies and love watching animations. there is sad [ones] that make you think after watching them.
You’ve talked in other interviews about how you have two sides. One is cuter and brighter, and the other is darker and mysterious. How do you think they play in your solo work?
I think they give more color to all my work and my character. I’m not stuck with a specific image, I keep changing. This time I [can] do a very deep, romantic and sensual song, but next time I can do something very hip-hop.
The things I watch really influence me a lot: animations, movies or photos I found on my Instagram, that kind of thing. As you get older, you like change, don’t you? You get into different things.
It’s true. When you think back to your first solo, “dream in a dream“What do you think of that time?
When I think back to every job I’ve done, it’s just… I don’t remember this guy. [Laughs] It’s me, but it’s not me in the present either. But I appreciate this guy who did “Dream in a Dream”, or “New Heroes”, or “Paint Me Naked”. It sounds like experience. When I was 16, that’s what I had been through in life, so I pictured myself that way. And now all the experiences I’ve had are coming out as I do my solo stuff.
You are known to speak several languages, but all of your solos have been released in English. Is this the language in which you feel most comfortable expressing yourself?
I grew up listening to a lot of songs in English, and when I practice my voice, I sing in English. I think English is easier for me to express my feelings. It’s very simple, but it’s up to the listener to analyze the lyrics, so I feel like I can sing a simple phrase and create my own world inside. [of it]. Different languages have their own charms, but English is [easier] the listener to relate to his own story.
Have you ever tried to write your own songs?
Yes I did it. 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’ll try to write my own songs, but right now I just like to do the best lines and stuff.
Thanks. Wow. Before, I said I was thinking of a line in the water, or that sort of thing, but now I want to do something different from the past. There are so many similar choreographies, so when I dance, I just think about how to make this simple movement more unique. That’s what I’ve been working on lately. Trying to make the slightest difference, but to make it very unique.
You are also an artistic person in general. Is there a specific medium that you feel more comfortable with?
Each of them has its own space within me. I consider myself more of a performer than a singer, or a dancer, or a painter. I don’t think about that. I’m just like, I’m going to play, I want to express myself. It’s the only thing I really focus on.