Meet Zayson, The Musical Genius Behind Your Favorite K-pop Hits
The Malaysian producer opens up about starting his journey in K-pop, working with NCT Taeyong, Suran and Baekhyun, and how he plans on growing in the multi-billion dollar industry
When fondness for K-pop manifests into genuine admiration, you’ll find yourself digging into the creative minds working behind the scenes. Knowing the industry’s go-to producers and songwriters gives you an upper hand, equipping you with the necessary information to make an educated guess about the general style a track will embody even before the label releases the highlight medley. If you’ve got Yoo Youngjin credited on a track, you know it will challenge the limits of your musical sensibilities (in a good way, of course). American producer Dem Jointz? An absolute soaring party anthem with a hook so catchy that you’ll come back for more. And if it’s Malaysian producer-songwriter Zayson, you can bet that the song will not fall off your ‘on-repeat’ playlist.
Born in Malaysia, Zayson’s artistry roots itself in reinvention, meshing different influences and sounds. This perhaps has a lot to do with his upbringing, which saw the producer growing up in Malaysia, Guangzhou, China and finally Los Angeles for his higher education. Equipped with formal education in business administration, audio engineering and music production, there’s so much to learn about the young producer on the rise; making his journey one every K-pop fan or music lover must follow.
You may know Zayson from NCT Taeyong’s Instagram stories or recently from the NCT leader’s vlog. But there’s more to the producer on the rise. He has enriched Taeyong’s creative vision across projects, be it through intimate demos on SoundCloud or official releases under SM Entertainment. “Overall, I think we usually take a serious-yet-chill approach to our music creation process regardless of the project. We do it because we love it and at the same time, we want to get better and ‘grow up’ together through each songwriting experience,” Zayson explains about his experience working alongside Taeyong.
Recently the duo – alongside South Korean rapper Wonstein – released the pop single “Love Theory.” Bright, spirited and zestful, the track roots its production in rhythmic percussion and bouncy sounds, giving “Love Theory” an exuberant and perky edge, befitting the coyish romance theme. “I think one point that makes our songs stand out is that we don’t really consider whether or not SM Entertainment will like it or let us release it. Except until we get feedback – then we have to try,” the Malaysian rapper elucidates on why the duo works exceptionally well together. “I think listeners can tell that we are just exploring what we want with a lot of freedom of expression. That is very precious to us.”
Though Zayson has been active in the K-pop industry for a little over three years, the young producer has established a work ethic that allows him to function as a seasoned producer. Wanting to further the vision of the artist, Zayson believes in the power of collaboration: “Taeyong has so many crazy dope ideas and as a producer on these songs, I’m really just trying to execute his [Taeyong’s] vision without getting in the way of his artistic expression. He can pull off so many different concepts and that just really opens up the possibilities for what we can explore musically too. Working with him has been very rewarding and fun for me, and I’m very grateful for it.”
Spreading his artistic vision wider, Zayson’s musical contributions are not limited to his close friend alone. In just three years, the producer has played a crucial role in bringing some of the greatest hits by NCT DREAM, EXO’s Baekhyun and Suran to life.
While Zayson is still finding his feet in the industry, pursuing creative projects with utmost passion, the producer’s relationship with music bloomed very early on. “My earliest memory of music is sitting in between my two siblings at the back of my parents’ car, listening to whatever my parents put on,” he recalls. “The song that’s stuck with me as the earliest memory is ‘Yesterday Once More’ by The Carpenters and I still love that track.”
The music industry is as diverse as it gets and once the musical bug bites you, there’s no going back. From singing to composing, arranging, producing, audio engineering or songwriting, every role within this industry promises a home to the creative side in you. “I’ve always loved music and worked around different roles within music until I realized that I just want to create it,” Zayson reveals. “It took years of exploring other aspects within music such as playing in a band, studying audio engineering, interning at different studios and taking music-industry classes before finding the courage to realize what I actually wanted to pursue.”
With his vision set in stone, it was finally time to pursue the right opportunities to fulfill his dreams. “In 2017, I decided to be a music producer and I set my producer name as ‘Zayson.’ Prior to that, I was always working on other people’s music, whether as an assistant or as an audio engineer or intern,” the producer explains. “I decided it was time to do my own thing and build my name, so I started making songs on my own.”
Putting himself and his craft out into the world was the first pivotal point in his journey, helping him build the right connections to further his career. “Soon enough, a producer called Lawrence Lee hit me up to do some collaborations for K-pop, and he gave me a lot of advice and direction about being a producer in the K-pop world. When we sold a couple of songs together through his publisher [Jihu Kim] B2J Publishing, they invited me to sign with their publishing [house] as well and I agreed. Looking back, I think that’s how this ‘career’ started forming.”
Entering an exclusive contract with B2J Publishing unlocked exciting opportunities for the young producer, including an invitation to a songwriting camp at SM Entertainment, the ‘founders’ of K-pop. Home to the Hallyu wave, SM Entertainment’s songwriting camps have been the ground zero for some of the greatest hits for their illustrious roster of artists, which includes BoA, Red Velvet, EXO and NCT to name a few. “Yes, what a camp!” Zayson fondly recalls his first songwriting camp at the entertainment giant. “That’s where I first met two of my best producer friends, Royal Dive [a producer-duo comprising Raider and Milden], Louise Frick Sveen and Ellen Berg, as well as other great friends and writers and producers who have since made amazing achievements in the industry.”
Harboring a collaborative space where ideas blossom, songwriting camps are a great way to forge relationships with the right creative minds. With a mix of enthusiasm and nervousness pumping through his veins, Zayson spared no efforts at his first camp: “I remember being really nervous and feeling that I had to try my absolute best, especially since it hadn’t been that long since I started being a producer. Thankfully, everyone was so kind and amazing. I am so thankful to Jihu Kim from B2J Publishing for many things, but especially for inviting me to this camp.”
The writing camp was intense, yet fulfilling. As a young, wide-eyed producer, Zayson absorbed learnings like a sponge. Hyper-focused on demonstrating how much the creative side in him has to offer, he eventually found himself sacrificing his sleep for the bigger picture. “Honestly, I felt like a zombie after because I probably overworked myself and didn’t get enough sleep,” Zayson confesses about his state of mind after leaving the camp. “But after I traveled home [Los Angeles] and rested, I felt really inspired by all the great songs I’d heard and all the talented writers/producers I’d met. That’s when I channeled all this inspiration and passion into writing new songs.” One of the first tracks that he worked on after the camp was Baekhyun’s “Psycho.” Created alongside Megan Lee, “Psycho” was first heard at the EXO member’s solo concert and later on his debut EP, City Lights.
Creative inspiration was one of the many factors that persuaded Zayson to take a leap of faith and move to Seoul to pursue music production. The second was some good old pep talk from those in the business. “I’d say it was more Royal Dive who encouraged the move,” Zayson opens up, painting a vivid picture of the difference in an unfiltered conversation with someone who shares the same creative wavelength as you can. “Jomalxne was there too, we met for the first time on Venice Beach. When they visited Los Angeles in early 2019, we hung out and they stayed over at my place. We talked a lot since it was our first time seeing each other since the SM camp and it was really a great time. Really chill guys and great memories.”
“To give some context, this was when my song ‘Psycho’ was bought by SM [Entertainment] for Baekhyun’s concert stage but without any plans of using it on an album yet,” he dives deeper into the final moments before he made the big decision to move bases. “On the one hand, I felt like I had achieved some kind of important first step. On the other hand, it wasn’t released on an official album yet, so I couldn’t make use of it for the visa situation. With this in mind, Royal Dive told me that I should move to Seoul and keep pursuing music production there, and then maybe rechallenge Los Angeles someday.”
Zayson’s ties with his industry peers are a solid example of just how crucial these early relationships can be in framing the career trajectory of young producers. “They said ‘we got your back’ and I believed them because we could already tell that we would be lifelong friends since meeting at the SM [Entertainment] songwriting camp. I thought that it made more sense than moving back to Malaysia, so a few months after they visited me, I actually made the move to Seoul.”
With the looming fear of an impending U.S. visa expiration hovering over him, Zayson moved to South Korea, and as fate would have it, this transition propelled the producer towards some of his most exciting projects with Suran, NCT Dream, Taeyong, GOT7 and more. “I remember he [JAY B] would lightly tell me to try writing and submitting songs for GOT7 and that gave me strength,” Zayson expresses. “I still remember the Offshore guys were all so kind-hearted and encouraging and I will never forget it.”
Zayson is very receptive to his surroundings and it reflects beautifully in his work. He approaches projects without any prejudices and trusts his creative instincts when working on music. It is this mix of sensibilities that largely constitutes the sense of fluidity and freshness we experience when listening to the tracks he’s worked on. Not only this, but as a composer and producer, Zayson realizes the power of music and emotes the predominant Korean lyrics through a mix of sounds that echo the emotional quotient. Be it the tear-jerking R&B ballad “Never Goodbye” by NCT Dream that discusses waiting to be in the same place like a Polaris, or Taeyong and Wonstein’s nerdy romance epic “Love Theory”; Zayson is more than comfortable making music his language to convey these innate emotions.
Above all, Zayson has cracked the code of what it takes to become K-pop’s next big producer. You see, teamwork cannot be instructed, rather it’s a trait that is cultivated and in Zayson’s case, he knows the value of a collaborative environment. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone India, Suran opened up about working with Zayson, praising him for understanding her artistry and vision. When asked about the importance of picking the right producer, Suran’s response perfectly encapsulated what Zayson brings to the table: “Finding the right producer is very difficult and extremely important,” she explained. “You have to consider many facts, including capability, chemistry, and a good eye for the artist. There is no right answer for a perfect partner or right producer, but it is important to win the producer’s heart as an artist. If you become best friends with the producer, even if it’s only for making music, it’ll be the best solution.” Synergy, unparalleled support, strong work ethic and a distinctive music approach; this is what makes Zayson a brilliant producer. Ask anyone in the industry and they’ll tell you just how valuable having an anchor disguised as a producer can be.
In an exclusive conversation with Rolling Stone India, Zayson breaks down his creative process, working with K-pop A-listers and what it takes to be a producer in a multi-billion dollar industry.
How did you manage to build a network to get where you are now?
Even though I recognize it is a ‘network,’ I honestly never looked at it that way. My philosophy is to always be genuine in my work and my relationships with others, and I think that is why I had the privilege of meeting and working with some amazing people over the years. I think trying to be genuine in every situation probably helped people feel comfortable with me and it probably built trust that then developed into positive relationships and recommendations.
What does a day in your life look like? How much time do you spend working on projects?
For my first year in Seoul, I actually lived in my studio [I had a convertible sofa] so I was basically working and being around music all the time. I still remember times when I would wake up at 3 am for some reason and I would just hop on the computer and keep making music. A lot of inspiration comes in the late hours. Thankfully, I eventually saved up enough to afford the ‘key deposit’ in Seoul and moved into an apartment one minute away from the studio. It changes all the time but these days, I hit the studio in the afternoon/evening and work until sometime in the morning, like 8 or 10 am. Then I go home and sleep and probably repeat the same thing the next day. It is kind of unhealthy, so I am trying to fix it.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I draw my inspiration from anything and everything that I can. Life, conversations, other artists, you never know where it could come from.
Could you please describe your creative process? How do you usually approach fresh projects?
Since I’m not the artist, I usually start by trying to understand what a company or artist is really looking for. Then, I mentally make some sort of balance or ‘compromise’ with myself in terms of what I feel like creating. That is important because I have to believe that I am able to make what they might want and do it well. Then I sketch out a track/instrumental and it depends on the situation. If I’m making a song to send to a company, then I contact a topliner friend or friends to help make the melody and sing the demo. Sometimes, I try to make the melody and sing the demo myself too. If it is a song for an artist friend, then I just send or play them my sketch directly and they will try to write their ideas and melodies on it if they like my sketch. Regardless, I think I just try to approach everything with an open mind. I don’t want to get boxed into any routines or patterns.
How do you know when to stop tweaking a track and that it’s ready for mastering?
That is a great question because sometimes you really can’t be sure. You could think it is ready one day and then you listen with fresh ears after a couple of days and suddenly you hear things you want to adjust. So, I think it best to at least give yourself the chance to listen with fresh ears before deciding you are finished. If you listen in a couple of days and it still sounds great the way it is, then maybe you’re done.
How has your experience been producing for Suran? What are some of the things you’ve learned about your artistry along the way?
It has been a very rewarding experience and meaningful challenge in my music career. Suran has such a sensitive ear and sense for music, and I think I have learned and grown so much from working on her songs. She really taught me how to take responsibility for a song from beginning to end and it still amazes me because she is just as much of a producer as she is an artist. She pays attention to all the little details while constantly keeping a pulse on the bigger picture and vibe, it’s just crazy and I have so much respect for her. There have been a few times where I couldn’t even hear what she was talking about, until I finally did and my mind was blown. She just really, really cares about her art. And that is so important, you know? That’s what we really need at the end of the day – people who actually care and put love into this. That is probably one of the most impactful things I learned from her and I’m eternally grateful for it.
What is the most challenging project you’ve worked on to date?
The most challenging project I’ve worked on so far would be Suran’s EP Flyin’ (Part1) because it was my first time working on a full EP for an artist [except for one song] and I definitely felt that it was a new type of challenge. We wanted to make a fresh-yet-pop fantasy R&B sound/experience for both her Korean and global listeners, and that is not an easy thing to do. For each of the songs, we put a lot of effort into the sound design and made sure the final mix and master quality lived up to our ideals. Even though this EP was a big challenge and came with a lot of new responsibilities, I think we definitely achieved our vision and I am so proud of it. Maybe some listeners might not ‘get it’ but I’m pretty sure those who do… really get it. Those are the people we did it for. A shoutout to those listeners!
Is there any project from your career that was a truly enriching experience, i.e. it taught you a lot about the industry, your artistry and to a certain extent, changed your perception about how you want to grow as a producer?
My answer is the same as the previous question because the scope of that project was very wide and I learned so many new things from it. This project reminded me to be serious and thorough about my craft, and to be sincere and genuine in my approach to making songs and creating music. In the past, sometimes I used to feel like songs were ‘just another song’ but working with Suran quickly snapped me out of that type of thinking. Songs need that magic touch and you have to give it your all to try to achieve that. At the same time, as a team member of Suran’s new label S-TASY, I got to see a lot of things behind the scenes that I just wasn’t exposed to or involved with at all before.
How did the theme for “Love Theory” come about? I reckon reading it is the result of a conversation you, Taeyong and Wonstein had about the meaning of love? Is that the source of inspiration?
If I recall correctly, Taeyong came to my studio to hang out/work and he mentioned wanting to make a song with a nerdy vibe. I think he watched Big Bang Theory or something and had this idea to make a fun, nerdy song about trying to understand love. That’s how it first started and I tried sketching out a beat that would fit. In my experience, Taeyong usually freestyles and comes up with different catch phrases/topics/melodies while writing. Then, we pick the things we like the most and start forming a more coherent song and theme. After we developed a sketch of the demo, we set up a session with Wonstein to officially collaborate on the song and finish it together. That’s when we got together to really discuss how to execute this concept with their synergy and charms/wit. Personally, I think both Wonstein and Taeyong have a very cute side to their personalities, so it was really fun to watch them exploring this concept. Also, a huge thank you and shoutout to Suran for introducing Wonstein to both Taeyong and me!
Any behind-the-scenes stories you’d like to share from the recording session?
The narration/skit at the end of the song in the music video was actually a somewhat last-minute suggestion from the SM Station A&R team. That’s why even during the final recording, Taeyong and Wonstein were still sort of revising and playing with the lines/delivery of the skit. I think that added a fun challenge for both artists during the recording and it really wraps up the song nicely. Thank you to the SM A&R for the great suggestion! Besides that, I recall Wonstein wearing some really hip butterfly glasses to the recording. And Taeyong was riding a scooter at some point. Now that I’m saying this, it sounds so strange and I’m wondering if I am making this up?
You’ve worked on some of my favorite tracks such as “Privacy,” “Blue,” “Sunny” and “Never Goodbye” – each track is distinctly different from the other. Would you mind breaking down your creative processes for these tracks?
Thank you so much for liking these songs!
For “Privacy” my studio brother and friend Brian Cho came to me with this crazy piano riff. We knew we wanted to make this a song for Baekhyun, and Brian wanted me to do ‘my thing’ with it. Brian’s piano was already this vintage, choppy kind of trip that I really loved so at first I really had to think hard about what to do. If I recall correctly, I think I developed the drums and swung it to give it more lo-fi vibes and added this hype build-up in the pre-chorus. I remember getting into the zone late one night, making the drop part by chopping his piano and adding synths and 808s and somehow got the idea to incorporate a door knock and door-closing sound at the end. Funny story/coincidence – we wanted to ask the topliners/lyricist to incorporate that somehow in the lyrics, but in the end we didn’t make any specific requests. When they sent us back their melodies and lyrics and the concept was “Privacy,” I was just the happiest person in the world. It was like we communicated through music and understood each other without words.
For “Blue” Taeyong told me one day he wanted to make a stripped-down, minimal kind of song with guitar. I prepared a sketch of the guitar you hear in the released version and he tried many melodies over it together at my studio. His energy, tone and versatility is just crazy. He comes up with lyrics really quickly too so I’m always amazed at how many ideas he creates. After a couple of sessions we decided on which melodies we wanted to keep and what kind of structure we wanted for the song. At this point, the song was still somewhat minimal so Taeyong suggested we develop it with his friend SQUAR. I had listened to many of SQUAR’s demos with Taeyong and love his sound – I used to ask Taeyong what SQUAR eats as a joke because his production and drops are crazy! Anyway, I was happy and thankful to develop it further with him and I’m glad Taeyong’s fans love it too! I think Taeyong really spoke his mind and heart with his songwriting and that’s powerful because it resonates more with people when they can feel it is genuine. Even though it was for release on SoundCloud, the SM A&R team gave us their feedback before the release and helped us make it even better.
For “Sunny” Suran had written the melody and lyrics with her friend Charming Lips on guitar. It was a very chill sound and I loved the song. Suran’s singing and tone are just out of this world. She hit me up to do the arrangement, so I tried a different twist to it – I used some of the original chords from their demo but also changed up some of the chords to make it more dramatic. In my mind at the time, “Sunny” was not just a sunny day – I was picturing the magnificent sun that shines glory upon our world from outer space [lol]. What I mean is something more mystical and dramatic, yet soothing and beautiful. I started with the synths you now hear in the song, which sound really spacey especially with that chord progression. Then I tried developing some hard-hitting drums that simultaneously float/groove and smack you in the right places. In my opinion, the combination of this arrangement with Suran’s vocals just hits different in a really new and fresh way. It’s almost as if the cultural soul of K-ballads meets Frank Ocean. Throughout the process, Suran was producing this with me and making sure everything from the sound design to the individual sources of each sound was just right. She then hit up Juk Jae for guitars and that was amazing too.
For “Never Goodbye,” I was actually trying to write a pop-ballad [something I don’t do often] with my big bro Jihu Kim who is the first publisher I ever signed to and a great songwriter/producer as well. It was 2019, a few months after I moved to Korea, and we were actually imagining it for EXO though we thought it could be a flexible song as pop ballads usually are. The whole track is quite minimal – once we settled on the percussive rhythm sound and the chord progression we wanted, we sort of stumbled upon a starry synth sound that arpeggiates throughout the song and we loved it so much. It reminded me of Bazzi in the best way and from there, it was mostly about making a great melody together. After that, I wrote the English lyrics and recorded my vocals for the demo and we submitted it. Little did we know, it would finally get picked up for NCT DREAM more than two years later. Life is crazy!
Say you hit a creative block while arranging or producing a track. How do you usually tackle such situations?
I try to take a break when that happens. There are times I can fight through it and keep trying until something sticks, but sometimes it is better to step away and go outside and live life for a while. That and listening to some new music for some new inspiration. My studio bros inspire me a lot too. Shoutout to Brian Cho, Royal Dive, Saimon, HRDR from GGB1!
How do you wish to grow as a producer? Where do you see yourself in, say, the next five to 10 years?
I think in many ways I am at just about 20 percent of my full potential. I have a long way to go and I want to keep improving songwriting and producing and making music that really hits people or moves people. I want to grow with results too – I hope more and more people get to listen to and love the music I help create. In five to 10 years, I honestly have no idea what life will be like but I hope I can be a producer that listeners trust and look forward to.
Currently, K-pop is the biggest genre worldwide. Oftentimes, music critics and fans cite the production and high-budgeted music videos for the genre’s mass appeal. As a producer who has worked with some of the biggest K-pop acts, what is it about K-pop music that makes it such a hit amongst millions of listeners globally?
I think it is the energy and the full-package effect of having eye-catching visuals, energetic and advanced/addictive choreographies and music that is sonically competitive with modern production/audio engineering standards. Of course, the high-budgeted music videos probably help a lot too. K-pop dares to be whatever it chooses to be in the moment with 100-percent conviction, and that can be really addictive or charming in many ways. K-pop also has all kinds of genres and styles, so there really is something for everyone.
Musically speaking, K-pop has some really fresh and groundbreaking moves from a songwriting/music production angle. It’s gotten to a point where some of the best producers and songwriters in the world are sending demos for K-pop and competing for spots on albums. That means these songs that are being released are pretty much top-tier and world-class.
What are some of the things you’ve had to unlearn to become a better producer and songwriter?
When I was first starting out, I focused a lot on the track/instrumental. That was necessary and cool for my growth as a producer, but I think I sort of ‘leveled up’ when I started focusing more on the final song – the vocals, the melody, the lyrics, the feeling and what the song is really trying to say. At the end of the day, I think making great songs is the top priority and the track/instrumental is just one key ingredient [and a very important one] towards achieving that goal.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in K-pop?
I honestly think that it is incredibly difficult to do this for a living. I’m still shocked to have done what I’ve done so far. It takes a lot of failure, patience, perseverance and luck for even just a chance to make it work. It takes a lot of mental healthcare too. So I would say please don’t pursue this lightly. Think twice before quitting that day job because it is a long-term battle. However, if your heart is in the right place and you have the skills to back it up with good songs and demos that can show others what you’re capable of creating, then good luck and I am cheering for you!