K-pop Producer Spotlight: MonoTree￼
Hwang Hyun, G-High and Lee Joo Hyoung, founders of the production company, break down what it takes to craft some of your favorite K-pop hits
Not all K-pop tracks are lyrically rich, but those that are have proven to have a significant impact on the listener’s life. Take for instance Seo Taiji and Boys’ critically acclaimed 1995 hit, “Come Back Home.” The pioneering group’s single came at a time when teenage-runaway cases were at an all-time high, and it addressed the societal pressure driving the youth to take such drastic measures, apart from providing the parents’ perspective on the issue. The lyrics came from a place of introspection and care. Seo Taiji (the group’s principal songwriter) poured his heart and soul into the track to show both sides of the story, impacting his listeners with the heartfelt lyrical composition. As a result, runaway kids actually returned home.
“Come Back Home” is one of the tracks on an endless list of hits that have shaped a listener’s life in one way or another. Whether it’s a remedy for a broken heart, loneliness, low self-esteem or a lack of motivation, K-pop lyricism has played a pivotal role in solidifying the genre’s dominance in the global pop scene, connecting with millions (many of whom don’t speak Korean at all).
If you’ve forged a liking for SEVENTEEN’s all-English single “Darling,” or can’t seem to get enough of MAMAMOO Moonbyul’s “Lunatic” and ONEUS’s “Bring It On,” you have South Korean music production company MonoTree to thank for.
Formed in 2014 by Hwang Hyun, G-High and Lee Joo Hyoung, the trio set up MonoTree with a vision of acting as the link between “the emotional and business points” that exist in the K-pop industry. “Sometimes things get complicated,” co-founder G-High informs me. “So, we’d like to step in to separate the technicality from the emotional aspects.” At the crux of its formation, South Korea wasn’t big on founding agencies exclusively dedicated to housing producers, prompting Hwang, G-High and Lee to set up their own agency. “We thought it would be easier for producers If there was a system with contracts in place for them. In Korea, we didn’t have many agencies like the U.S. does, hence we liked the idea of building a model for K-pop producers just like [K-pop] artists have.”
With 22 members signed to the agency, MonoTree operates between two verticals: publishing and management. This structure allows the producers and songwriters to invest their energies and creative prowess in music rather than constantly worrying about the logistics, and so far, it has churned out some of the most viral and melodious hits the K-pop industry has seen.
“All the writers at MonoTree have their own ways, but the most important thing is refreshing ourselves by doing other things,” G-High explains about how the talents under their umbrella stay creatively challenged and inclined. “Some producers like to play video games and watch movies. Some like to talk with people around them and try to make a story from them, and some focus on different projects when they are stuck,” he explains. “But most importantly, we try to refresh ourselves by creating some distance from music production occasionally.”
Since its inception, the company has come a long way and has now branched out from composition to directing the concept for an artist or album. Just this year alone, MonoTree’s artists have composed, arranged and written tracks for SEVENTEEN, ONEUS, Super Junior’s Ryeowook, Red Velvet, Oh My Girl, Kep1er and many more chart-topping artists. Some previous compositions from the studios of MonoTree include A.C.E’s “Higher” (composed and arranged by MooF), Ravi’s “Flower Garden” (composed and arranged by Hwang Hyun), Red Velvet Joy ft Paul Kim’s “If Only” (arranged by Hwang Hyun), Girls’ Generation’s Taeyeon’s “Do You Love Me” (written, composed and arranged by Lee Jooyoung), TWICE’s “21:29” (composed and arranged by Lee Yooyoug), EXO’s “My Answer” (written, composed and arranged by Lee Yooyoung), SHINee’s “You Need Me” (written by Shin Agnes) and over 100 other tracks spanning genres and OSTs.
“It’s hard for us to say because we are directly affected by pop music and most K-pop producers grow up harboring a big love for pop music,” G-High mulls over the difference between the layering of tracks in pop and K-pop music. “We always feel thankful for the love that K-pop receives.” As for what role K-pop production and songwriting have played in the genre’s global boom, G-High offers me an alternative lens – one where he examines why people love K-pop. “It’s because it [K-pop] is dynamic in the music and performance aspects. In our industry, there are so many girl and boy bands [referred to as idols in Korea] and there is a lot of competition between them; hence we try to make it [the music] more exciting and not bore listeners.”
Some of the tweaks he mentions are those based on meshing an 808-chorus with other sounds or making “big changes” to the pre-chorus in a ballad. “I think these create the sub-originality of K-pop, making it different from pop music and perhaps, that’s the role K-pop production has played. It offers many dynamic and vibe changes separating it from pop. Of course, there are so many cases, but this can be one role that creates the difference.”
In an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone India, MonoTree break down their artistic approach, handpick their favorite tracks from their discography, and share the lessons they’ve learned after nearly a decade in the billion-dollar industry.
MonoTree offers an array of services, from songwriting to composition and production. How do the artists under MonoTree approach these projects?
G-High: There are too many cases. I can easily say it’s a ‘case by case’ approach [laughs]. But usually, we get leads or references from the entertainment labels, based on which our producers work. They [labels] know our musical style, so they sometimes pick a signature vibe and genre that only we can deliver. There are times when we start the production from the very beginning, like the concept, direction and everything including brainstorming. In that case, it’s more like a holistic production arena.
You’ve written for groups across generations. What are some trends or changes you’ve noticed over these years? How has K-pop production and songwriting evolved, and where do you see it going from here?
G-High: Initially, most of our role models came from pop music and other countries, hence we had many references. But nowadays, all kinds of music and K-pop, too, are influenced by each other. There are so many good artists from everywhere and not only from the Western side. K-pop also has its originality and is trying to develop in its own way not only for local listeners, but also for the whole world. To sum up, I think K-pop strives to have its own originality and is always pushing to keep things exciting and fresh – those are the two major trends I’ve seen.
What are some of the most challenging projects you’ve taken on? What were the challenges and how did you overcome them?
G-High: It’s hard to say since projects are so specific. Regardless, it’s challenging to be creative and original. We always try to express our own color through the song, but at the same time, we shouldn’t be too self-indulgent – we have to consider the artist’s colors too. As producers, we are making music for the people, not just for us, and hence we should be strategic. A strategy helps us create a balance between the sales angle as well as consider the originality of the music and the artist. It’s always hard to create a balance, but the answer to it is to always try and think, and study [things] through the heart and mind at the same time. It’s like being emotional but thinking like a businessman; that’s more or less what a producer does.
In terms of the overall package [lyrics, composition and production], what are some of the favorite tracks you’ve worked on and why?
Hyun Hwang: “Complete” by ONF is one of my favorites because it was the song where ONF started to create their own colors. I have been producing for the group and “Complete” was their second title. I think we started to find our chemistry music and production-wise [with that track] .
G-High: I love “Butterfly” by LOONA. From a production standpoint, it was very satisfying, and that includes the music video and performance. The company opened a lot of space for the music, so I could work freely and take the creative direction that I wanted for the artist. Plus, the composing arrangement and lyrics were all done by me, so it’s one of the special songs for me.
Joo Hyoung Lee: “The Road” By Wendy from Red Velvet is based on my true story. I’m terrible with directions and was wandering through some streets. I then realized that this emotion creates a good love story about déjà vu – the streets you used to walk on together with your loved one, forgetting and remembering it all. It’s beautifully sung by the artist Wendy, and just like my heart was moved, I hope the listener too can be moved by this song.
Several structures can be incorporated into a track. You can either go with the basic structure [verse-pre-chorus-chorus-verse-bridge-outro] or introduce the chorus first and so on. Amongst the various structures, is there a particular approach that guarantees a track’s success and longevity? What are some of the things you keep in mind when you’re working on a track?
G-High: I don’t think there is an exact answer. Every structure has its own specialty. Most of the time, we are trying to make the structure to persuade the listeners. Just like a movie, if we think we need to show the conclusion first for the dramatic vibe, we may put the hook first, and if we need a fresh direction for the song and the artist to give a different vibe, we may try a totally different structure like a pre-part for the whole song. We think there is a reason why the basic structure is used by many producers. It is one of the most dramatic solutions to make the listeners more easily emphasize on and feel the story being sung about.
What are some of your favorite lyrics from your discography?
Hyun Hwang : I pick “Beautiful Beautiful” by ONF. It’s not just about love between a boy and a girl, but between everyone. It’s more like the love for the human being itself. It was hard to express that kind of feeling, but the song and artist’s vibe made the synergy better than I could ever dream of.
G-High: I love “Sugar” by Super Junior’s Ryeowook. I wrote this song for my child. It was a great experience to express my feelings for my family through the song, and that too through one of the best vocalists. In the bridge, you can hear the voice of my daughter singing together with the artist. This was such a great memory for me. So thankful!
Joo Hyoung Lee: I pick “My Answer” by EXO. When I was writing the song, I tried to be honest with myself. This song is like a journal for me. It’s a very private song and one of my favorite songs that I’ve written. It’s these kinds of things that make me feel really happy about being a producer.
With the rise in short-format content and virality around tracks, do you think songwriting and production are losing their charm and importance? Sometimes, repetition can do wonders for a track as it’s addictive. But are these trends killing honest storytelling?
G-High: No, I don’t think so. Music and culture have been changing for centuries – since the beginning of human history. It’s possible to feel uncomfortable, but even though the platform and styles can change, the meaning stays [the same]. It has its own good and bad points. As you said, some styles of music can kill the storytelling but it can be a good way to express the direct vibe and feeling in a short time. We respect every change in music and try to survive within that trend [laughs].
What part of a track is particularly challenging to write – bridge, chorus, hook, etc?
G-High: Usually, it’s the chorus. It is the most important part of the song, so we try to put a lot of effort into it. But it’s not all about the time put in. Sometimes the melodies that are made in five minutes for the chorus can constitute a great chorus, and yet we keep thinking and monitoring, searching for a good chorus part, and keeping it in our mind for the best qualities.
What are some of the things you’ve had to unlearn to become a better songwriter/producer?
G-High: I think, nothing. All the experiences are important for music. When I started, I tried to have the right attitude to become the right producer. For example, I loved hip-hop music but I tried not to listen to many hip-hop tracks when I started working in the K-pop industry because I thought it would be better to listen to more pop-like music. Eventually, everything helped me to become a producer. Also, I think there are no wrong things for the producer to do, even if it’s a behavior that leads you to failure. It can be your chance to learn, to change your directions. Maybe this [becoming a better producer] can be a stereotype that we should forget.
You’ve penned down lyrics for an array of emotions, genres and keys. What are some themes that come to you naturally?
G-High:There are no specific genres. We may be more motivated by the feeling or vibe at [a particular] time. It is easier for us to start writing down the melodies together as we can put the same frequency for the song, lyrically and melodically. Also, we think it’s important to decide the targets strategically. If the music is aimed for a teenaged target, we try to become a teenager for a while [laughs].
What is the one piece of advice you give to artists who’ve written tracks alongside you? Who have you particularly enjoyed working alongside with, and why?
G-High: SM Entertainment’s artists are one of the best to work together with, even if we’re not writing melodies. When they sing, they know their strength and how to express themselves fully. They are very professional and understand music from the root. Hence, it’s always impressive to work with them. As for advice, I like to tell them to always express their feelings and stories, or whatever they want. It doesn’t have to be technical or musically professional. We [producers] are like a filter, helping them change their vibe to match the technicalities. I always ask them to be brave, to be themselves for the music.
What advice would you give to someone looking to pursue a career in the K-pop industry? Is there anything you wish you knew before you started your journey?
G-High: We think producers are musicians and salesmen. They should always work on their communication and work well alongside people. It will help us understand the harmony between the two roles we play. We should also be the mediator between artists and businessmen. It is also crucial to remember that you are making music for the people, and not just for yourself. At the same time, don’t let this take away your colors or originality. It’s all about balance, honestly. Lastly, I’d like to thank everyone who loves K-pop music.