The artist muses on his post-Wanna One ambitions, recovering his mental health, and a comeback record that expresses ‘what it felt like to explode’
Kang Daniel – once dubbed “the Nation’s Center” – is one of South Korea’s most famous young men, selling over million albums globally as a soloist and over 4.2 million as part of Wanna One, the K-pop group with whom he shot to fame. He’s also the CEO of his own company (Konnect Entertainment) and a brand ambassador for Givenchy Beauty, just one in a long line of A-list endorsements. Today, the 24-year-old is makeup-free, approachable, and charming. Wearing a cream hoodie he looks like he could be the, albeit ultra handsome, guy next door.
That is, of course, partly why Daniel became a household name. Yet he remains shy by nature; when he speaks, his eyes drift away from the Zoom camera but the longer we talk, the more frequent is his recognisable hiccupping laugh (compiled across dozens of YouTube videos) and the brighter he becomes with that incandescence unique to very famous people. Our conversation ends with idle chatter about creatives in constant chase of the next adrenaline rush, and Daniel nods. “It’s gotten weirder and weirder (for me). I started thinking about Magenta when I was promoting Cyan. I started thinking about Yellow when Magenta came out. I haven’t even started promoting Yellow but I’m thinking about the next record,” he laughs.
As such, this appetite for creativity is the perfect place to begin because it’s not only the reason Kang Daniel is on his third EP in 13 months but why Kang Daniel is still making music at all. In 2019, his world was turbulent and, eventually, an unhappy one: After Wanna One disbanded, he signed to LM Entertainment in February only to file a contract injunction a month later (the dispute was resolved that September) and set up his own company instead. There was, he says, no fear in doing so. “I started work young, like 15, and I was envious of my friends, they had a path where they could take each step. School, university, job,” he explains. “For me, I was thrown in and had to learn how to go about it. So when the company was made, I was just like, ‘Oh, okay, that’s great. Konnect? Good name, let’s go!’”
A week after releasing “Touchin’” on November 25, a follow-up single to July’s debut solo EP, Color On Me, Konnect announced Daniel’s hiatus due to depression, anxiety, and panic disorder. It came after a fancafe post in which he wrote of “How they edit everything to make me look bad. How the music and performances that I love are being treated like trash, how the fans that I love are being ridiculed... how it's suddenly become a crime to say that they like me, just everything is really too difficult. The fact that I am me is too difficult”. Unrelenting cyberbullying had driven him into a pit of despair. It wasn’t family, friends or colleagues who encouraged him to take time out. The decision was purely his own. Daniel holds his hands up in a position of defeat. “‘I’m done’,” he recalls thinking.
In January last year, he wrote a letter to his fandom, Danity, saying: “I am trying to pick myself up and greet the coming Spring”. In earlier interviews he’s credited watching other performers with reigniting his passion and hunger but, alongside professional help, he now says discovering what was actually important in his life played a major part in his recovery. “At that time, I was like, ‘I’m not going to do this any more’. Because even if I said something small that didn’t mean anything, it would become something huge (online). And then people would be like, ‘That’s who Kang Daniel is’. So I felt like I shouldn’t do anything at all. I shouldn’t speak or move. But what really touched me was that everyone from my company visited me at least once. I realised that I wasn’t looking at the people closest to me. Although you live life alone, really, people are all connected. They affect you in positive ways.”
Returning to work with the Cyan EP in March 2020, and its sibling, Magenta, in August, they contained B-sides – “Adulthood” and “Flash”, respectively - which began exploring what he’d emerged from. Comparatively, the trilogy’s new, final installment, Yellow, is no mere snapshot of Daniel’s experiences but a tour de force through his darkest hours and subsequent escape from them. He’s never owed it to his fans, the public nor the media to revisit this period of his life, but in doing so has made his most raw and true album thus far, and also his most sophisticated and self-assured.
“Paranoia”, Yellow’s first single, resurrects his battle with those who tormented him and the inner demons that subsequently sprang to life. The bed of spikes looming above him in the video was replicated from his recurring nightmares, while the choreography is zombie-like but equally that of a powerless string puppet. The relentlessly frank “Digital”, dense with tightly coiled 80s synths, captures the period directly before his hiatus – “Instantaneous lies, spread so easily/how did it get so loud… Hide my pain/Keep my truth hidden, they wanna take me down.”
“I realised that I wasn’t looking at the people closest to me. Although you live life alone, really, people are all connected. They affect you in positive ways” – Kang Daniel
“I wanted to express what it felt like to explode,” he says bluntly. “In my mind, at the beginning, it was like, ‘Say what you want to say’. As a celebrity, it’s your job to read the public’s feedback. Good feedback is very helpful but it’s really hard to ignore the bad comments. Reading those, I was getting more and more annoyed,” he says, imitating himself at the time, all gritted teeth and thinned lips, then laughs. “It makes you go crazy!”
Yellow’s narrative follows him from breaking point “(Digital”) to the desire to recover (new single, “Antidote”), through to reassuring people they aren’t alone on “Save U”, the track he holds closest to his heart. “It’s a message to myself, but it’s also for people who are going through a hard time,” he says. “It’s a little cheesy but I want to make music that helps people. I don’t want to be like, ‘Let me save the world!’, I want to stay humble and make music that’s honest to myself and those listening.”
He chose a diamond as the cover art because “depending on how much pressure is put on it, it becomes a diamond or stays a lump of coal. It’s about the pressures put on me and where I am right now because of those pressures.” The colour itself holds a double meaning; “When people think of yellow they think of it as a cute, lovely colour but I see it as really cold.” He muses this might be because he grew up in the port city of Busan. “When I think of yellow I think of the coldness of the early morning. But, at the same time, it’s the start of the new day.”
Having previously referred to himself as a “simple” person, he clarifies that to mean he doesn’t like “thinking about complicated things. I don’t want to worry. When I look back on my life, I want to think I tried my hardest. I want to make the best choices and live my life simply.” That’s not to say Daniel doesn’t like to think. Complicated shouldn’t be mistaken for complex.
He loves Dante Alighieri's terrifying epic, Inferno. When writing “Paranoia”, trying to recapture the feeling of wanting to jack everything in, he realised he could no longer fully remember what that felt like and turned to films in order to help express himself. Drawn to dark imagery and characters, he flags Christopher Nolan’s Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy as favourites. “Ever since I was young, I’ve liked movies that make me think afterwards. There are feelings and effects that you can only get when you watch a movie. The ones I watch the least are romantic films, like The Notebook,” he grins.
Although celebrities are more frequently removing themselves from social media, Daniel’s cyberbullying experience hasn’t turned him against the medium. He opened a fresh Instagram account in March last year (posting regularly to his 4.2 million followers), and joined the new K-Pop platform, Universe, last November. He does, however, have strong thoughts on people’s online behaviour. “I’m not saying everyone has to help each other out but we should act humanely, make the right choices, and acknowledge each other’s differences. I don’t want to get too deep on this. Just act like a human being.”
To this day, he doesn’t know why he received such vitriol. In the absence of a definite answer, he blames himself – “I do feel responsible for people targeting me because there must have been a reason,” he muses. After Wanna One, his ambition was to “show people I was more than what they thought, to show a better side of myself”, which he pursued with such vigour that he reasons it turned people against him.
But Kang Daniel wants you to know that he feels “stable” and, because of that, he’s happy to talk about his experiences. Ask him how he feels different as a person to who he was in 2019 and he thinks for a long time. “That’s a hard question,” he finally laughs, “because I don’t think I’ve changed, but feel like there has been a change. I still read bad comments but, because I was able to overcome them once, I can just deal with it now. There’s a certain way to do that, and I trust myself and the people around me to help. There are good days and bad days but there’s always a reason to live. There’s good things about life and that's what I look for.”