K-Town

EXO's Suho Paints an Intimate 'Self-Portrait' With His New Solo EP

EXO Suho
Courtesy of SM Entertainment

EXO's Suho

For much of the decade, Kim Jun-myeon has been better known by his stage name Suho. A member and the leader of K-pop boy band EXO, the singer -- whose stage name means "guardian" -- spent his twenties performing across the globe, releasing multiple hits in South Korea and selling millions of copies of albums worldwide since the band's start in 2012.

Now, he’s ready to share more of himself on his first-ever solo album, Self-Portrait. 

Out Monday (March 30), the singer turns away from the dance and R&B-oriented sounds typically associated with EXO’s releases, and shows a new side to himself through six original rock-oriented songs in his new EP. Though the album embraces Suho's identity within the group, it also expands upon it, introducing new sonic elements. The 28-year-old, who writes lyrics under his pen name SH20, also shares his world view via the soft and indie rock-imbued sound, leading with the single “Let’s Love.” 

With its title inspired by EXO’s catchphrase, the breezy, sweet tune is passionate, as Suho sings about a love he is racing toward but has not quite reached yet. The song is both a romantic pop-rock ballad and a message aimed at EXO’s global fan club, EXO-L.

Prior to its release, Suho spoke with Billboard to discuss what Self-Portrait means to him. 

How are you feeling ahead of the release of Self-Portrait

I’m so nervous [for the release date]. Because it’s my first solo album, and I’m doing it without the members of EXO, I’m somewhat nervous and also very excited -- somewhat like a new start. I hope that this album and the songs are things that many people will like. Not only for Korean fans, but all of my fans globally. I hope that they enjoy it. 

The album is very intimate, as it’s called Self-Portrait. What inspired you to put forth this narrative for your first solo EP?

The inspiration was drawn from Vincent van Gogh’s "Self-Portrait." I first saw it in Switzerland and Paris, and for van Gogh, it probably meant a lot to him as a person. Since I’m not a painter, I wanted to paint something in my album as a self-portrait, per se, similar to how it was for van Gogh to share his own view of himself. 

Van Gogh painted different self-portraits to reflect different sides to himself and changes to how he saw himself. Do you feel this album similarly does that for you as an artist?

Yeah, that’s right. I think so. Through this album, I’ve been able to explore and show different sides of me, not only what is perceived from the outside, but also what is inside of myself. 

I saw the covers were based around four different variants. Do you feel there are four distinct sides to you? Or is it not as specific as that?

To be completely honest, I believe that there are probably more than four sides to me; there are many facets of my personality. With all these various sides that I have, I tried to condense it to an essence where it can be portrayed in four different self-portraits. 

Do those four specific facets have any meaning to you? 

When I first asked to use this concept, I didn’t have too much significance to show regarding myself, but I wanted to visually depict four different seasons, the four seasons of Suho. 

Do you have a favorite season?

Spring. 

Along with the four images featured on the album, you made a self-portrait of yourself featuring bunny ears, and that’s become your Twitter emoji. How do you feel about sharing that side of yourself as an extension of Self-Portrait’s promotional concept? 

That, a rabbit or bunny, is my nickname from EXO-L, so that’s why it has significance to me. Whenever I’m communicating with fans, talking to EXO-L directly, that’s when the nickname pops up, but for the album, it’s not included because I want this album not only to be meant for the fans, but also for many other people who will listen to this album. So for the bunny ears drawing and emoji, it was more a signal that can be recognized by fans and EXO members.

So the album isn’t solely aimed at fans, but these sort of social media interactions are. So it sounds like it's important to you that the general public will be able to enjoy listening to Self-Portrait, beyond your already loyal EXO-L.

Yes, the songs on this album are composed of band sounds. [Editor's note: In Korean, it is common to say “band” rather than “rock music" when referring to rock-affiliated genres.] That’s a genre that international audiences are very used to, and they really enjoy. I feel like this album is one that the general public will be able to pick up and just listen to comfortably because it doesn’t have the strong beats and basses of the dance music that EXO albums usually have. 

You mentioned that this is music you think the general public likes, but is it also the type of music you particularly like? 

Of course. I really like Coldplay. Their music has had a big impact on me. 

Regarding the single “Let’s Love,” why did you decide to make this the single for Self-Portrait? 

This is my favorite song of this album. And the meaning of the title recalls the cheer EXO does before we go on stage: “Let’s Love!” Just generally, we use it as a cheer. It’s also a message I want to tell people, “Let’s love.” 

In regards to that, is there a message you would like people to take away when listening to the six tracks of Self-Portrait? 

To be honest, there’s not a single message on this album. But the theme that connects all these songs is the idea that everyone has scars, everyone has been hurt. But even so, shouldn’t we still love? So this is an open question I want to ask to the people who are listening to my music. 

You were involved in the songwriting process, and are credited as a lyricist. Are there any verses you want people to pay particular attention to?

Track six, “For You Now.” When you live life, there are many times you just miss the opportunity to properly thank someone whenever you feel thankful for them. Sometimes you look back and always regret not being able to say, “Thank you.” So in order to express my thankfulness, even though it’s late, I want to tell them, “Thank you.” And I want people to feel the same way; even if it’s late, it’s never too late to say “Thank you.”

Do you feel you have a lot of those regrets?

Yes, there are many. Many. [Nods thoughtfully.] Sometimes a person just misses the opportunity to thank their parents as well, and so I do have these sorts of regrets.

You worked with Younha on “For You Now.” What brought about that collaboration? 

I am not a personal friend of Younha, but I’ve respected and admired her work for a long time. That’s why I reached out to her and asked her if she could collaborate with me. As for the song itself, she is such a great singer. She went above my expectations in regards to how she was able to express the song, musically, lyrically, and through her expressive vocals.

There’s a song “Self-Portrait,” but it’s not the single even though it’s the album’s name. Why did you decide to go with “Let’s Love” versus “Self-Portrait” for the single?

Although it’s the album’s name, when people listened to “Let’s Love,” that’s what people enjoyed the most. The phrase is also meaningful, so I wanted to emphasize that. 

Was it important for you to make it clear, through picking this song title for the single, to blend your identity as Suho the soloist and Suho the EXO member on this solo album?

I didn’t try to emphasize my identity as a member of EXO particularly while creating this album, but when I started drawing a self-portrait, EXO has been an important part of me over the past 10 years as a person. So it was very natural for this part of my identity to seep into the lyrics and the album itself.  

In general, what was your creative process like when approaching this album and its introspective nature? 

For the past three months, I’ve only been listening to [rock] music, whether it’s by Korean artists or international ones, and did not listen to any dance music or R&B and jazz music to get into the mood for this album. I paid a lot of attention not only to the music, but also the way they approached their lyrics.

Also, I spent a lot of time talking to my friends to discuss what sort of story I want to express, what message I want to send across. I found areas where me and my friends would agree upon, or have the same empathetic connection. So all of these combined together went into making this album what it is.

It’s almost like method acting. 

[Laughs] Yes.

You said you spoke to your friends to get their opinions on the message, but the album is called Self-Portrait, which as an artistic form doesn't typically take into account outsiders’ point of views. Was there any particular importance for you to discuss your ideas with them? 

The reason why I spent time talking to my friends is because you can say that my friends know the side of me that I’m not even aware of myself. And even though it’s a self-portrait and my story, if my friends -- or just people in general -- cannot feel any connection to it, it might feel that it doesn’t have enough impact or significance. So that’s why I spent time talking to friends and others about this project. 

You’ve had a lengthy career already. Why did you decide that now is the time to share this side of you with the world? 

My career as a member of EXO has been almost 10 years, and I will soon be going into my thirties, so I thought it would be a great time to talk about my life in my twenties. 

Earlier, you mentioned that you’re nervous about the album’s release. Is there apprehension specifically in showing these new elements of yourself?

People know me from within EXO, and people remember me and my overall image as a member of EXO. But for this album that I’m releasing, both the fans and the general public might be a little shocked to see a different side to me, a different musical genre. I really like this style of music, and I have confidence in this album’s style, but I hope my fans and the general public take some time to listen to the lyrics on the tracks -- one through six -- and I’m pretty sure that after they listen to them, they will love the songs. 

You’ve released solo music before, and other members of EXO have gone on their own to release solo albums. So do you really think that this will be truly shocking to listeners to hear a new side, a new story from you?

When it comes to EXO members, usually our solo projects have revolved around balladry, R&B, or hip-hop. At our concerts, many of the solo stages are primarily those sort of performances. A lot of the members have spoken about how these are their favorite styles of music.

But I never publicly, necessarily, showed that I really like [rock] music. Since I never really shared this side of me, that’s the reason I say I’m nervous. I’ve also done musical theater and released songs exploring other genres of music, but this is the first time I’m sharing this so … I think I’m the first one, among our members, to really show something new like this, so that’s why I think fans and the general public might be shocked. 

What would be your ideal reaction to this album?

Even if people don’t know Suho from EXO, I hope that people will like my song and become a fan just by listening to this album. I also would love, whether professional or amateur, bands also would enjoy this album. That would be great.

The album is coming out at the end of March, so imagining the rest of the year, what would you like 2020 to bring your way? 

Oh, this is hard. I would like to communicate and connect with everyone, whether it’s my members or EXO-L or the general public. I hope it’s a 2020 where we can have many empathetic connections.  

This interview was conducted in English and Korean, and edited for clarity.