Cover Story: Kang Daniel is The Artist You’ve Been Waiting For
The singer-songwriter opens up about his most emotional records, what it takes to run a label, and the narrative which inspired his new LP, ‘The Story’
This cover story appears in Rolling Stone India’s K-Music Special Issue, on sale now. Buy your copy here.
It’s almost 10 PM on a Thursday night in South Korea, and Kang Daniel has butterflies in his stomach.
We’re just a couple of weeks away from the release of his first studio album, The Story, and he can’t escape the jitters because this LP is about to change everything. “I’m just extremely ecstatic,” he says with a big grin when we connect over Zoom. He’s blonde right now – which is a top secret until the promotions for the album begin – and his fluffy platinum bangs make him look even younger than he is. It’s been a long day full of interviews, and we’re his last press stop before he heads off for a late-night dance practice, but his excitement around talking about the music itself is nowhere close to waning. “Every time I release an album or a song, I have the same kind of feeling,” he declares. “Because it’s actually me taking center stage as the speaker in my own story, and I believe that that’s a blessing in itself. Like every other time, I just feel blessed and truly happy about it.”
Kang turns out to be the perfect interviewee. He sends over the newly mastered album to me in advance so I can get a better understanding of the direction he’s taking next, and he’s come highly prepared for the in-depth dive we’re about to take into his artistry – I catch glimpses of him taking notes so that he can map out his answers, and it’s terribly endearing. We nerd out together over small details like ad libs and background vocals, album design and release schedules, each topic more interesting than the last. He hides his face in his hands every time I compliment his hard work and grins when I point out things I’ve noticed in the record, adding in little behind-the-scenes facts that the audience might never otherwise know.
“They’re not all personal stories,” Kang says when I ask how much of this album (which finally dropped today on May 24th) was inspired by his own life. It’s a surprising twist considering all his previous albums have been based on incidents and trials he’s experienced first-hand, but he explains that it was time to look outside of his own sphere to convey the message he needed to at this point in his life. “I think that I was trying to find common ground that a lot of other people can really relate to, stories of other people that everyone can really relate to.” He takes on the role of narrator rather than protagonist, and The Story is more like an anthology that he’s taking listeners through. It’s the reason why he titled it the way he did. “We were just discussing and throwing out ideas and it was just a simple thought, because I had accumulated different stories and put them into this album,” he recalls. “All of these songs had different themes and different storylines, but I had put them together into one big album. So I thought, ‘Why not?’ Why not just call [the album what it is]. It turned out to be quite perfect.”
Kang Daniel is fearless. He earned this title with his 2021 record Yellow, which gained worldwide acclaim for its powerful analysis of mental health and catharsis. It was the last installment to his Color Trilogy project – which was conceptualized with the aim of showing audiences his various sides as a musician – and was a staggeringly vulnerable EP, filled with anger, frustration, anguish and hesitation. While the first EP Cyan was a pop dream to showcase Kang’s youth and entry into the industry and its successor Magenta showed off his EDM side, Yellow took a sharp turn towards grief and fear. It ranked second on Rolling Stone India’s list of ‘Best K-pop Albums of 2021,’ and appeared on similar lists worldwide – mostly thanks to Kang’s incredibly moving songwriting.
He opened up about his experience with cyberbullying on “Digital,” anxiety and self-critique ignited by depression on “Paranoia,” and a desperation to be saved from his own mind via “Antidote.” People from all walks of life across the globe voiced their love for the 25-year-old singer and found solace in the words he penned down while he was still in the middle of one of the most trying times of his life and, in truth, he’s still trying to process the attention. “I think… it’s something that’s bigger than myself,” he says in reference to the reaction the world had to Yellow. “At this moment in time, I think that it’s difficult to fathom, because it’s quite overwhelming for me. I’m grateful that I get that kind of attention and that kind of response. It’s a surprise, first of all, but I’m very thankful that it’s been well received, that the feedback is great, because it was just me talking about my story.”
“If you just get mired in your own feelings, I think that you can go into this hole, and you can never come out of it.”
We try to pinpoint why Yellow made the impact it did, and Kang presents a theory he’s been thinking about for a while. “It’s quite a difficult question, but I think that at some level, the courage to be able to open up about the hurt, or those sad feelings, or the innermost thoughts – that was what was applauded,” he says. “I’m sure that everyone around the world will, at some point in time, have their own difficulties and have their own sorrows. But ironically, it’s very difficult to open up to your closest people. It’s difficult to open up to your friends, your family, so I did that through the medium of music. I think that people had been waiting for someone to open up and I think that the timing was right. And because people had been waiting, and it was the right timing, it was well received.”
I mull over his words later and realize that he is absolutely right; in the wake of the pandemic we’ve all been thrust into, and the devastation wreaked on our planet, most artists have switched their focus to try and blanket the situation with positivity and good vibes. Everything became about dancing the pain away or lighting up the darkness with the hope of a better tomorrow, and in an attempt to escape the devastation many of us experienced, we chose to sweep sadness under the rug and turn away. Kang’s approach involved facing the pain head-on and ripping off the security net, reminding listeners that hiding away isn’t going to help in the long run. It’s a process I went through personally after my first listen of Yellow, and I tell him this. I often fear opening up to people about my struggles, and he assures me that it’s a trial he had to endure as well.
“I think it comes down to this: if you are hurt physically, if you get a scratch on your skin, it’s visible and you can see whether it’s healing or whether it’s bleeding,” Kang says. “But if it’s something inside, and if you’re hurt emotionally, you really can’t fathom how much you’re hurt, whether you’re healing or whether you’ve gotten over it. And so, sometimes you just try to forget about it. I think that trying to forget and trying to ignore it is the worst thing that you can do.” He explains that everyone has to find an outlet they can rely on, and for him the outlet was music. “I personally thought that I had to create a medium that I could vent through or express myself. If you just get mired in your own feelings, I think that you can go into this hole, and you can never come out of it. Especially these days, you can really isolate yourself from others because there’s so much out there. There’s social media, there’s a lot of mediums like the metaverse, or there’s a lot of things that you can really get immersed in, that you can lose yourself in.” He adds that while it helps to escape into these pockets momentarily, they can also separate people from their emotions to a dangerous level of denial or even dissociation. “So, you have to step away from your smartphone and your computer from time to time and go to your mom, cuddle up next to her and really talk about your feelings, or have the courage to just talk about your innermost feelings.” It’s advice that comes from a place of empathy and, after this conversation, pushes me to indeed go hug my mom.
The Story has been nearly three years in the making, and Kang has poured his heart and soul into it even while working on other projects. “It was even before I was starring in [the Disney+ show] Rookie Cops, I think,” he recalls, attempting to lay out an accurate timeline. “So, the songs date back to maybe three years ago, because I had plans to put together a full album. I was already writing and gathering the songs that I wanted to put in the album and that was a really long process. So if you go back in time, I think I was planning the songs for this LP while I was releasing Magenta.” He went with his gut feeling while deciding which tracks fit the record, a technique that’s served him well in the past, and he explains that building the track list of each album is always a matter of matching songs to the message he wanted to convey with each release. “For the Color Trilogy, with Cyan, it was more of a teenage pop vibe. For Magenta, it was songs that provide energy and exude energy. For Yellow, it was music about inner sanctity. So, for The Story, it was literally about stories [I wanted to tell] – it was more of a feeling that if a story fits, it went into that album.”
We go on a sidetrack for a moment to talk about creative freedom and telling the stories he wants to tell as opposed to what a mainstream audience might demand, and Kang explains that the courage he got from deviating from the norm with Yellow is something he never wants to give up. ”I think that every artist who is appealing to mass culture comes across that dilemma every once in a while,” he adds. “I think it’s that intricate balance between creativity or the mainstream or the message of whatever the fans want, and what to give more weight to in terms of priority. But I think that it’s really about trusting your instinct and your gut feelings. For myself, I went with that gut feeling and just went with the flow. It was more about what I had felt more inclined to at the time. I think if you think too much about it, if you dive too deep into it, that becomes another stress factor which is, in return, counterintuitive and it just backfires on you. It becomes another stress level. So, [the trick is to] not dig too much into it but to go with your gut instinct.”
If Yellow forced confrontation, The Story is the balm to soothe yourself in the aftermath of laying yourself bare. “I think that I always had a takeaway message for all my fans or anyone who had listened to my albums or my music. For Yellow, I wanted people to listen to the song and open up and talk about what they felt inside. But this time around, for The Story, I wanted them to listen and feel as if they were reading a book. I want them to listen, see, read and feel in the most comfortable and relaxed way possible, without any kind of burden whatsoever.”
“I’m sure that everyone around the world will, at some point in time, have their own difficulties and have their own sorrows. But ironically, it’s very difficult to open up to your closest people.”
On listening to the LP, it turns out to be vastly different from Yellow – there’s a much more positive vibe to it all, a lightness that reflects the mindspace Kang is in at this point in time. There’s R&B, trap and synth-pop, which we know he’s explored before, but he adds dashes of new sounds we haven’t seen him take on. You can feel his exuberance throughout, and it’s a joy to experience. There’s also a brand new roster of collaborators who each influence the record with their bright energy and respect for Kang. He redirects all the praise I have for the album towards his collaborators. “I’m extremely grateful for them because they each have their own colors, which were imbued into the tracks, and their vibes really just exploded,” he says happily. “Thanks to them, this whole album has become much more colorful. I can’t really speak for myself, but I think that it’s really thanks to them that this full album has become much more of what it is.”
The most striking out of the 10 tracks are the Latin-pop fueled “Don’t Tell” that features veteran rapper Jessi, the playful, gospel-inspired “How We Live” with rapper Sokodomo, and the orchestral, synth-drenched “Parade.” He nods when I mention the influence of gospel and seems pleased I’ve noticed all the new things he’s tried. I ask him to give me an insight into the conception of these particular tracks in the studio, and he smiles. “Well, I think that it all really came together naturally,” he says. “I didn’t really have any plans on having people being featured or adding artists or any contracts [for collaborations] or whatnot. It was more of a very natural process where acquaintances just got together and made music.”
Starting with artists under his own company like rapper, producer and songwriter Dbo, who became integral to the album right from day one, and rapper and producer Chancellor who has worked on every single song, Kang relays the stories behind each collaborative track. Sokodomo, for example, is a longtime friend Kang had been waiting to find the perfect song for, but in the end the decision to collaborate was a spontaneous move after years of dancing around projects – “How We Live” reflects the mood of that journey. “As for Jessi, I was really grateful because she just loved working on this music together,” he says about the charismatic Showterview host and accomplished artist who has been a valuable mentor. “It wasn’t really planned out or anything and she wasn’t under a contract. She just came to help and support everything that I was doing. Everything fell in place naturally, and it was just perfect and I was so thankful.”
He reserves a special shoutout just for Chancellor, who had the most influence right from the demos to the finished record, especially when it came to directing Kang’s soaring background vocals and detailed ad libs (especially prominent on “Upside Down,” “Ride 4 U” and “Mad,” which Chancellor features on). “So, usually when I’m working on and producing my songs, I try to save whatever I can from the demos,” he explains. “For the chorus and ad libs, I worked very often with Chancellor. I had been talking with him about these aspects for my album and we were just throwing out ideas, saying, ‘What if we could have this kind of ad libs or these kinds of background noise in this version?’ I think that you cannot find one song without his voice in this album. He participated in every single piece. And so I really would like to take this opportunity to thank him once again for everything.”
When it comes to creating the visuals for an album, Kang says he’s always drawn the overall look from the message he wants to convey. He also, again, credits the beauty of the finished product to weeks of group brainstorming with his talented team. “Whatever song that we create, or whatever new trailer that we’re shooting, we’re always talking about the overall concept and the look as well as the overall feeling of the song,” he explains. While the singer is hands-on during every step of the comeback process, he makes sure to include his team’s opinions on everything; from what outfits where he’s going to wear for the music videos and live stages, to the main colors that will build the record and the images that go into the album jacket. “[There were even more discussions] since we also did individual trailers for the full album this time around,” he laughs. “Because we wanted to have a storyline, we didn’t look at it like I’m the protagonist. For Cyan, Magenta and Yellow, I was always the main character, but now I’m the storyteller and that inspired concept and the music videos. We start with the concept and we kind of imbue all of that into our work.” The Story builds its visual foundation with comforting hues of purple, grey and black. (A few weeks after this conversation, our team as well as Kang’s are elated to discover his Rolling Stone India cover matches the color palette of The Story – a total stroke of luck.)
We discuss his journey as a musician right from his debut with the now-disbanded boy group Wanna One, to his first solo release Color On Me (2019) and his latest venture with The Story, and Kang takes a moment to absorb everything we’ve talked about. “I don’t think that there is one album that hasn’t taught me a life lesson after I released it,” he says finally after a few minutes of us both sitting in comfortable silence as he gathers his thoughts. “I’ve learned so much after releasing all of my albums and they’re all such precious lessons that I have gained from my own life journey.” He walks me through it, recalling that after the release of his first EP, he learned that he needed to hone his skills as a lyricist and performer, which he channeled into Cyan. After releasing that record, he wanted to focus on the things that he was afraid to do and wanted to challenge himself to try something new, which led to the creation of Magenta. Right after that, it became about creating an outlet for his innermost trials and pain, a way of getting it out and giving himself the chance to be honest about his own emotions. That was Yellow.
Once he’d done that and shown the world who he was, he wanted to shift gears completely. “After Yellow, I said, ‘Okay, now that I’ve talked about what I have inside, I now have to listen to others. I have to turn it the other way around. Turn the focus to other people and learn to now listen carefully to what others have to say.’” As he shared before, with The Story, Kang is no longer the protagonist and is instead the narrator. Understanding the trials and tribulations of other people was an insight that the reaction to Yellow granted him – no other experience could have done that. “You can think of music albums as just one of the processes that artists or musicians do in their lifetime, but I think that they have so much to teach and you have so much to learn from that as well.”
Kang is a generous, dedicated individual, and it comes through not only in his music, but in the way he runs his label, Konnect Entertainment. After the disbandment of Wanna One, several dead-end hunts for a new label, contracts falling apart and the media analyzing his every move, Kang wanted to take matters into his own hands and create a platform where he didn’t have to depend on tight systems and contracts – and eventually give that same opportunity to other artists. “Everything was a challenge every step of the way, every day was a challenge,” he says about the journey to establishing Konnect. “Because I think it was unprecedented. I don’t think that there was any other case like mine. I don’t think that there was anyone who had started off in a group and then just kind of got separated from that group, and due to a couple of issues, couldn’t continue in the entertainment world, so had to come back as an individual artist and start from scratch. So, it truly was challenging. But because I had the team, because I had my fans, and because of all of the support of the people that trusted my work and had faith in me and my music, I think that I could find the stability that I have now and I still can find that stability to go on and carry on with my labor.” Artists under his label now include Chancellor, pop icon CL and former GFRIEND member Yuju, and Kang is determined to give them and any future signees the best experience possible.
During our conversation, I’ve learned that one of Kang’s most shining qualities is his drive. He gives 100 percent to every task at hand – his pen darting in and out of the video frame as he takes notes throughout our chat is testament to this – and his work ethic is unmatched. What fuels this drive to constantly better himself? We enter another long and comfortable silence together as he ponders this. “I think that it’s a difficult question and I honestly haven’t really thought about it before,” he finally replies with a shrug. “But off the top of my head, I think that it’s a sense of responsibility. I think even more so recently, because I brought in new Konnect family members and I’m the one that started it all. Since I am the front runner of the family, I think that I have to take responsibility and become the best that I can be in order to lead them further. I think that that sense of responsibility is what keeps me going.”
We wrap up as he takes me through his schedule for the next couple of weeks – there are fanmeets, performances, video releases and interviews aplenty – and we naturally arrive at what comes after The Story. Where does Kang Daniel see himself five years or even a decade from now? He brings the focus right back to Konnect Entertainment and ties his own evolution to cultivating a positive, creative space for the artists he oversees. “I think five or 10 years from now… First of all, for myself, I think I want to become the best artist I can be in that timeframe. That will allow me to give others the chance to be able to become the artists that they want to be. At the moment, they’re all doing their best and they’re really good at it, so I think I need to be the best artist I can be to match that.”
At this point it’s integral to remember that Kang is just 25 years old and established Konnect when he was 23 – making him the youngest CEO in the K-pop industry. In addition to running a massive label and looking after the artists under its umbrella, he’s a full-time musician with a slew of commitments made over the past couple of years that include hosting TV shows, making his acting debut with the 2022 show Rookie Cops, reuniting with Wanna One for special events, collaborating with global names like Miyavi, Inverness and Epik High, releasing complex albums, and making the time to promote it all. It’s overwhelming to just think about it, and it’s a lot of pressure on his young shoulders, but Kang sees it as an exciting adventure he gets to be on. “I go with the flow,” he tells me with a breezy laugh. “I do what my heart tells me to do. That’s the only way I can keep up that level of passion, because I still love this work. Working on the album or working as an actor, it’s still so precious to me and I still have so much fun working on it that I feel as if it’s my first time releasing an album again. I still have butterflies in my stomach. So I will continue to do whatever makes me feel this way. I will do whatever my heart tells me.”
Photographs: Chun YoungSang, courtesy of Konnect Entertainment
Cover illustration: Veer Misra
Curated by: Riddhi Chakraborty, Divyansha Dongre, Oysmita Majumder, Debashree Dutta
Art Director: Tanvi Shah
Stylist: Kim Beungkyu
Hair: Kim Haebin
Makeup: Lee Anna
Stream Kang Daniel’s new record ‘The Story’ below: