Henry Lau Discusses the Inspiration & Pressures as a Newly Independent Artist: 'I Wanted to Make My Own Brand'

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Henry Lau

As the singer-composer-actor eyes new music for spring, the 29-year-old isn't bound by language or industries: "There's no excuses anymore."

Henry Lau's latest trip to New York was technically for the 2019 Fall edition of Fashion Week, but minutes into talking with the singer-composer-actor will show his mind already steps ahead of the current moment.

After leaving K-pop superlabel SM Entertainment in early 2018 upon contract expiration, the trilingual solo star and former Super Junior-M member has been cultivating and creating a team of support systems that can support him in the multiple areas he's exploring. For pursuing his first love of singing and producing music, the 29-year-old is preparing an upcoming album this spring that he says will focus on "golden melodies." For Lau's acting passions, fans around the world will get to see him in a "perfect role" for his upcoming Hollywood debut in A Dog's Journey. Even brands like Marc Jacobs and Li-Ning are reaching out to him thanks to a newfound enthusiasm for fashion as the star made his way through fashion weeks in NY and Paris. To support his different endeavors, he's got the newly established Monster Entertainment Group handling global management for a career active in China, Korea and the U.S. So, what's next? 

Inside the luxury-boutique mid-Manhattan hotel Lau's staying for NYFW, the chic chaos of the living room may speak to where his career stands. The living room boasts is a mix of gift boxes from high-end brands, filming and recording equipment for the crew along with him for the trip, and two empty beer bottles (the labels removed, perhaps to make sure no photos are accidentally taken and potentially spoil a lucrative endorsement deal). There's a lot going on and a lot to explore, but when Henry enters the room he's directly focus on what's at hand and what he wants to discuss. He's quick to share his excitement for his upcoming album and projects, but is also keenly aware that this all is a direct reflection of him.

"Now that I'm an independent artist, everything I do matters," he tells Billboard. "I have total control so it's a lot more stress. Everything I do and say connects directly to me...there's no more, 'Oh, Henry released this because his company wanted him to' -- there's no excuses anymore."

Oftentimes while speaking, Henry trails off or circumvents long before landing on the point he aimed to make which is perhaps a representation of how much the dude has happening in his head and the burgeoning opportunities at hand. Opening up for the first time about his future endeavors and what inspired his past decisions to leave his initial K-pop home, Lau lets fans inside to what's inspiring him, what's coming and why it all matters more than ever.

First things first: What can you tell us about your upcoming album?

Before, I'd want to show a certain sound, type of performance or concept. This time, I just want the golden melodies -- I'm just all about melodies, the chords and lyrics. It's just me. You can expect a lot of very melodic stuff this time.

What language will you be releasing music?

That's what I'm working on right now. A lot of people will say, "Why don't you release more English stuff? Why don't you release more Chinese stuff? Korean stuff?" it's a triple-edged sword actually. [Laughs] I'm still working on it, but I think for certain languages, certain songs do work better. So, right now, I'm at the point where I can say, "I should use this one in this language" but I think everyone can expect everything. I know it's been a long time since I released some stuff and this is my actual album so I'm going to put everything into it.

That's great to hear because music these days is less bound by language.

Everyone's listening to everything -- doesn't matter if it's C-pop, J-pop, K-pop, it's just music. A lot of the demos I write are all in English, so releasing music in English isn't translating to English, it's just keeping them in English. You know, I wrote some songs for EXO and a lot of people wanted to hear the original demo in English so I actually put up a video of the original lyrics and everyone was going crazy over that. So I think I'll have a lot more English tracks.

Is there one song you've recorded that you're really excited for people to hear?

Right now, what I’m doing is writing a bunch of songs and then kind of cut them to what I really want to show this time with the album. It's never like we don't have enough songs -- we have too many songs, we just want to cut it down. I’m at that point where I need to decide on the direction. There's a track with a piano and just a voice…but I don't know! [Laughs] I'm still deciding.

Musically, what's inspiring you these days?

So, I was in Paris Fashion Week, it was my first time in Paris and I now have a playlist for French music. I guess everywhere I go, I get inspired by those places, and then I have a bunch of Voicenotes on my phone. Everywhere I go, I think of these random melodies. It's crazy because everywhere you go, the melodies are totally different. Paris was like [sings a floaty, dreamy melody] and New York is like [beatboxes a harder percussion melody], it's crazy. 

You're going to get a chance to show a new side of yourself in your upcoming film A Dog's Journey.

When I got the call for the movie, it was like, "Spielberg's studio [Amblin Entertainment] is calling you." And I'm like, "What?!" I thought they were lying to me. It ended up being a perfect role; perfect in the sense it just fits me. I know there aren't many roles for Asians so then I was like, "Wow, this is a huge opportunity." I was very honored. I had a video conference with the director, Gail Mancuso, who [worked on episodes of] Friends, Modern Family, things like that. Working on A Dog's Journey, there are a lot of dogs, it's for the dog lovers, but it was an amazing experience. I think people can look forward to more projects in Hollywood for me, that's definitely something I'm working towards. 

Why do you say it was the perfect role for you?

So, A Dog's Journey was based off the novel [of the same by W. Bruce Cameron] and there's an Asian kid. It's an actual character, it's not something where they said, "Oh, we want to put an Asian in there" or "Oh, we want to put a Hispanic in there" but the Asian part wasn't the important part of the role and that's why I liked the role so much. It wasn't like I came in speaking in a Chinese accent or anything like that. I think that's important these days…I have to be secretive about what I say, but it's a warm, loving movie that get you at your heart strings.

And how have you enjoyed your work in the fashion world?

It actually came very naturally. I always liked clothes when I was younger, but I never really dove into it. In the last two years, I just kind of dove into it and there's all of sudden a lot of brands asking me to do collaborations, inviting me to Fashion Week and I love it. I feel like I'm growing because the more shows I go to the more I learn. 

So everyone knows you left SM Entertainment, but no one really knows why you left. What went into that decision?

First of all, we parted on really good terms. Everyone's happy. It's just...I think every artist is the same in wanting a more customized setup for yourself. I'm very thankful to that company for discovering and making me and everything, but I just feel like to really do what you really want to do, you have to do it kind of yourself. I'm actually an independent artist now and I think it's for my fans.

Is that scary going from a company and brand that is so established and well-known to now being independent?

I think that answers it actually: I wanted to make my own brand, to have my own color. If you're part of such a big chain, you don't really have your own color. I just wanted to really, really focus on my own brand. It wasn't that I was frustrated, I just think I'm freer on my own. When you're part of a big company it's like you kind of get [in the mindset of], "I could just do that and it doesn't really matter." Now that I'm an independent artist, everything I do matters. I have total control so it's a lot more stress. Everything I do and say connects directly to me. I wanted more responsibility so I could control more and do more of what I wanted to do. I do know that it's a lot more stress and you have to do a lot more, but I just wanted to be the driver now. 

There's no more "Oh Henry released this because his company wanted him to." There's no excuses anymore. Before, of course there's a producer at the label and everything needs to be approved by them. But they gave me a lot of artistic freedom there, probably because I was just constantly producing my own stuff -- like "1-4-3 (I Love You)" I just made with a friend in my house.The main difference is that [now] everything I release is totally mine. I got to put out something good.

These days, it's not like before. People think that the big companies make songs and their artists just release it. It's not like that. These days, the companies want their artists to do their own things and they're trying to support that. And there are a few people like members of BTS who produce and everything. It's changing now, it's really changing, and now artists are finding their own colors within these companies. Before, everything was just the same. 

Because K-pop still gets an unfair tag that it's "factory-made."

It can't be factory-made when it's people. You can't make or program people. Everything's evolving and everything's going into a good direction. 

What's a special memory from your time then?

You know, I had this single called "Monster." I wrote that with a friend of mine named Bazzi. At the time, Bazzi was just a writer, he was my friend, and I was like, "This guy is an amazing writer, he's got to get big." Just one of those people you really hope that they'll get big. He used to come to Korea a lot, he wrote a lot and came up with this song. He was just amazing, I still remember I used bring him shopping, because he really liked Korean clothes. It's just amazing how I go and film a movie and the next day he's all over the Billboard charts. He inspires me in a way because he works so hard. If he didn't make it, I would have been like, "This sucks…" you know? But he's done really well. It's been amazing. He's just genius.

What's the Henry Lau vision these days?

I look at everything as one these days, there are no borders.