Unlike their western counterparts, K-pop artists intentionally steer clear of any news or discussions regarding relationships. Dating within the realm of Korean idols remains a controversial subject and in 2018, DAWN found himself embroiled in a dating “controversy” with a senior artist from his record label—an incident that could have spelled the end of his career.
Today, however, that very experience is shaping his most impactful music to date.
Following the infamous expulsion of DAWN and his then-girlfriend HyunA from Cube Entertainment after going public with their dating news (despite a wave of international media attention and fan support for the relationship that put the contract break on temporary hold), the then-24-year-old boy band member embarked on a solo journey. He became the first male artist to join PSY at his newly established P NATION label.
His second act delivered experimental pop and hip-hop singles like “Money,” “Dawndididawn” and “Stupid Cool,” with his relationship put on fully creative display with a joint EP with HyunA, titled 1+1=1.
By the end of 2022, both DAWN and HyunA decided to end their contracts with P NATION as well as their six-year relationship.
Now, DAWN’s personal and professional transformations have paved the way for his Act III, which commences with his latest single “Dear My Light.”
Now signed with the burgeoning hip-hop label AT AREA founded by production duo GroovyRoom (who have produced everyone from Korean hip-hop legends like Dynamic Duo to trending idol groups like (G)I-DLE and OnlyOneOf), DAWN has found a new home to build a dedicated creative team so “more people to understand me as a person better.”
With more music in the works, DAWN’s inaugural step with AREA through “Dear My Light” discards K-pop’s signature glossy veneer and unveils an acoustic-led and emotionally charged letter to his ex. This production is not the only thing stripped down as DAWN exhibits candidness through the lyrics that speak directly to his experiences with the K-pop industry and HyunA. Ironically enough, despite cultural norms prohibiting K-pop stars from dating freely, “Dear My Light” has emerged as DAWN’s most successful chart hit in Korea thus far.
Reflecting with Billboard from the comfort of his Seoul bedroom, DAWN opens up about this new chapter, the raw experiences charged into his new single and what lies ahead.
Billboard: You had a busy end to 2022 and start to 2023 with new professional and personal changes. First and foremost, how are you feeling these days?
DAWN: When I left P NATION, I had about four to five months where it was a time to recharge and also kind of rethink and plan out what I wanted to be and how I wanted to define myself as an artist. There were two things that came up as goals: One was trying to have my own artistic team and create a creative crew that I can work with. Another thing was finding a label that can really understand how and who I envision myself as as an artist. And, now, I feel confident that I’ve accomplished both so I’m very happy and continuing to work with that.
The music industry can be challenging and this was another significant shift for you. People can get disheartened or broken down by the industry. Did you ever consider leaving music or does it remain your core focus?
Sometimes I do think about not pursuing music anymore because in the back of my mind, I’m always [thinking], “Until when can I really do this? Is there an endpoint to this? Will I be able to continue?” I think that when listeners feel what I’m doing in terms of music is not trendy or I’m not putting out good quality of music, I feel like maybe that’s the time when I stop but, obviously, I don’t want to. That’s why I’m always putting in the effort to look for something new, trying to learn and be inspired because being inspired by something is also a big part. So, that’s also why I created our team because I felt like I could be inspired from other boundaries of art too—not just other musicians, but from paintings, a tattoo, graphic design. I obviously don’t want to stop, but I think about it and I’m doing everything I can to continue to deliver good-quality music.
What was the process in creating and finding this team with your new label, AT AREA? I don’t know if I’ve heard of a K-pop artist making an art team in this way.
I started in K-pop and there’s a lot of visual effects to the music. So, when the music comes out it’s very important to think about how we’re going to maximize the content creatively and visually. When a song comes out, you have to think about the artwork, the video and photos—I think K-pop is an interactive content and art form. With AT AREA, I obviously wasn’t only talking about the music with them, but I started sharing my ideas with them and creating an art team was one way for more people to understand me as a person better since the team would understand my stories the best. I feel very comfortable and safe brainstorming on how my music will be seen; I’ll talk about different styles like, “I want to be seen this way for this kind of music.” The synergy is really, really great now and I have the right partners for each aspect of my music.
I’m glad to hear that because “Dear My Light” is very different from the music we’ve heard in the past. Starting with the sound, what made you want to take this almost musical shift?
The change and transition happened very naturally from leaving P NATION. Although I left under good terms, one of the reasons why I did was because I knew I wanted to show a new side of myself as an artist. So, I don’t want to describe this as a “new” path for me really because I don’t see it as a transition but simply a change in my mindset.
Even the artwork for “Dear My Light” feels like a change from your past work, almost like a new artist, so it’s really exciting but you say it’s a transition?
Apart from the piercing, I guess my new mindset is that before it was very focused on talent. I would say, “I can dance like this, I can sing like this and I can perform like this” so I was very focused on that. But now I’ve changed to wanting to showcase more of who I am as a person. As in, “This is a type of story that I want to tell you and inspire you.” I want to talk more about myself and send a message, “This is my voice and I want to tell my stories more.”
You’ve shared how “Dear My Light” is about your relationship with HyunA, which was very brave to not shy away from and put into a song. What more can you share about the song in terms of your history together?
I can confirm that it is about my past relationship, but I want to add that it would be odd for me to deny that because, as an artist, I want to talk about what I’m going through now. So, I’d be lying because that is what I went through, that’s what I’m going through and that’s how I’m feeling. So, I’m confirming it is about that and the song is my story.
Do you have a favorite lyric?
It’s a part of the first verse, the [English translated] lyrics of, “Met you when you were most beautiful/ I could go through anything no matter what anyone said.”
Is that line referencing when things were unclear after you left Cube Entertainment?
It is referencing back to that time when I left the company and there were a lot of different comments, media, stories, a lot of talking happening. There was a lot of backlash from that, but also a lot of people worried about us and, of course, a lot of people supporting us too. I was also very young at the time. But if I think back to it now, I feel like that was such a hard time but I remember that even though it felt like the whole world was against us and we could really go through it because we had each other and because we loved each other so much—that was what kind of helped us get through it.
Thank you for sharing that. I loved the chorus’s last lines, “It’s okay if I lose everything/ As long as I can see you dazzling.” There’s a sense of being selfless even if you’re hurting. What inspired that?
It’s a pretty direct reflection of how I was feeling when I was in love and I still believe that that’s the right way to love because I heard someone say once that if I really love someone, then your brain oddly makes you think that your lover is actually you. So, you start cherishing them like you’re cherishing yourself. And so I believe that what I do for my partner is essentially what I’m doing for the two of us so that’s kind of my selfless attitude when I think about relationships.
Something that I thought was interesting was that HA:TFELT, or Yeeun from Wonder Girls, co-wrote “Dear My Light” with you. She also came from an idol group background and could show herself and her stories more as an artist. Was there any connection or common ground that you guys found together?
So, I’m not very good with words. [Laughs] Expressing myself and my emotions into words is very challenging sometimes. One of the challenges was, “How can I write my emotions in a beautiful way?” And HA:TFELT has been a friend ever since me and HyunA were in a relationship so she’s kind of seen the whole process of our history. And she’s an amazing writer too. So, I really wanted to work with her; there was a really good synergy between us writing this.
The artwork and concept photos are very powerful too I loved all the styles in “Dawndididawn” and “Stupid Cool,” but this feels like one, straightforward concept. What are the artwork aspects representing here too?
I think fashion is not just the wardrobe or what I’m wearing, but I use it as a tool to express myself. That’s why I think there’s consistency because me, as a person, doesn’t change. So, I feel very confident that it looks coherent together. In terms of the artwork and the photos itself in “Dear My Light,” it’s a song about the progression of a version of myself that was in a dark space finding a person, finding the light, and progressing into a more positive person that feels brighter. That’s why you see thorns around the neck and a hole in my heart on his chest; all of that expresses the void that I felt during my dark times, but the music video shows that void fills up and the same progression that the song portrays.
Is there anything that you want people to know who listen and connect to the song personally?
For people who either parted ways from their partners or are going through a dark time in their lives, I want those people to know that if you look around, there are people that can really shed light on them.. There are people who really love them and I really believe that. Through this song, I also want to be that for them and reassure listeners that maybe this song could be the light, or if you really look around there’s someone who could be that for you. I want to be a cure for those who need it sort of.
Anything else to share as you continue on this new chapter?
For my fans and listeners, I always aspired to make music that inspires others. Now with AT AREA, I have already written a lot of my stories and will continue to write more. I’m looking forward to people listening to that music and I’ll keep working very, very hard.