In the middle of their meteoric rise, ONF was separated from their fans due to the pandemic, and then every member of the group, minus U, enlisted for military duty. But they made up for the lost time with their mini album LOVE EFFECT, their first release in one and a half years, with first-week sales hitting an all-time high for the group. And at the center of this music that shows off ONF’s personal flare so well is none other than MonoTree producer Hyun Hwang, who’s produced every single one of the group’s songs. We asked him what it’s been like to be the exclusive producer of a group that’s now in their sixth year, the group’s potential, and the current state of the heated world of K-pop.
You took a break from producing for ONF while five of the members were in the army.
Hyun Hwang: It wasn’t really a break. (laughs) I was so busy that it didn’t feel like the group members were in the army that long. (laughs) We kept recording right up until they enlisted, and immediately after they did, producer BUMZU commissioned me to work on SEVENTEEN’s song “Darl+ing.” I focused all my efforts on LOVE EFFECT during the first part of the year, and also worked on outside projects, like SEVENTEEN’s song “Ima -Even if the world ends tomorrow” from their Japanese album, and the tracks “Kitsch,” “NOT YOUR GIRL,” and “Next Page” off IVE’s album I’ve IVE. Even though I was busy, I still had time to think about what’s next for ONF.
What were your thoughts?
Hyun Hwang: I was afraid public interest would wane even faster than expected once the group hit the pause button. They put out the special album Storage of ONF during their off time, but there was a limit to what could be done when they weren’t able to actually promote in person. I felt like we should take things in a whole new direction once the boys were discharged.
And how was that reflected in the latest album, LOVE EFFECT?
Hyun Hwang: With the ONF members in the army, [ONF’s fandom] FUSE had about a year and a half with nothing going on. And I wanted to bridge that gap. I felt it could actually work to our advantage if people heard “Love Effect” and thought, Huh? This is an ONF song? Were they ever gone? I convinced the members that we shouldn’t try something completely new with the album but instead have it bridge the old to the changes to come. Judging by the reaction, everything went according to plan. (laughs)
The theme of the album is love, and I get the sense that you looked for a novel way of conveying such a universal theme.
Hyun Hwang: I tried to express things differently. I didn’t want it to sound too typical, and that’s when I thought of waves and particles. I knew ONF would be making their post-army comeback sometime in the fall, and the brisk winds of fall are themselves a kind of wave, which I felt could be equated to love. I’ve been interested in quantum mechanics for a while, and there’s that thought experiment posed by the physicist Schrödinger where we can’t know whether a cat inside a box filled with poison is alive or dead until the box is opened. I thought the idea that someone can only come into existence by having been observed was romantic. Even the word “collapse” in “Love Effect” was inspired by the idea of wave function collapse.
The theme of love is explored in a broad sense to include the longing felt by the members of the group for one another and the connection between FUSE and ONF. You’ve mentioned before that you try to avoid pronouns when writing lyrics.
Hyun Hwang: I think the real power of music is allowing the listener to use their imagination. When I see the lyrics to the Panic song “Station,” I think, "Who are they talking to?” And, to me, “U R” by TAEYEON feels like what parents would say to their children. These days we see gender isn’t split in two but spread across a spectrum. By not using pronouns, anyone can relate to the lyrics with ease, which I think allows a more diverse group of listeners to enjoy the music.
A lot of times, ONF’s lyrics come across as asides. For example, in “We Must Love,” the singer isn’t directly relaying their thoughts to the other person. And now there’s “Love Effect,” where this changes to them saying directly, “I will dance like never before in the world,” and, “I’ll turn on the lights.”
Hyun Hwang: Exactly. I always try to word the lyrics in whatever way best suits ONF. If the group had been trying to convey a strong image, the lyrics would’ve been different. Like, “I Know You Love Me!” as opposed to “We Must Love.” (laughs) But, considering there've been so many boy groups with that kind of image the past few years, I avoided expressions like that to show that ONF is different. But I also felt that the ONF members changed after they got back from the army. They used to be like the kid next door, but I can tell they’re more grown up now. Naturally, I ended up working that maturity in. So “Love Effect” had to be upbeat but not overly cutesy. When it came time to direct their vocals, I asked them to sound tougher. It’s okay even if we can hear them breathing or they sound a little hoarse. There’s lyrics in “Wind Effect” like “Bear with me if I’m a little slow,” and, “I’m on my way, slowly.” The singer in ONF songs was always quite insecure and antsy before, but now he’s more laid-back.
Lyrics in “Be Here Now,” like, “Of course we were sad putting out an album we couldn’t promote,” and, “gone away for 548 days,” are faithful to the artist’s current experiences.
Hyun Hwang: I had already written the music for “Be Here Now” a long time ago, then I quickly whipped up the lyrics. MK was done with his service a week before the others, so as soon as he got out, the two of us were in the studio. I said to him, “What if we make it about your time in the army?” Usually the members write the lyrics and I give my stamp of approval, but this time I wrote them and MK approved. (laughs) Because they’re the ones who are closest with the fans and understand how they feel. MK modified the parts I wrote and then it was ready to go. Then I asked WYATT to fill in the rap parts we left blank as soon as he got out of the army. I actually didn’t realize the line, “thank you for U,” was about U at first. He said, “This part of the lyrics is really important to me,” so I looked at them again and saw U was capitalized. U waited for the other members while they were in the army, and the rest of them all sing on that line. WYATT was also the one who wrote in the word “gladiolus.” It’s the lyrics they all wrote that make the song so deep.
The blurb for “Be Here Now” describes the song as “a march of the youth”—it’s certainly got that feel with the brass instruments in it. That’s immediately followed by “Love Effect,” which has a similar sound to it and the excitement of a festival.
Hyun Hwang: There’s a line in ONF’s song “My Name Is” that goes, “I will be the light of your youth.” I wanted to use that as a kind of slogan. It’s hard to tell how old the ONF members are when you see them. There’s nobody who exudes the brilliance of youth like ONF when they’re together. Being a fan of an artist means spending your youth with them and being there for that artist’s brightest moments. I look at this album as FUSE’s return to their youth after they put it on hold while waiting for ONF. So I tried to capture the feel of a festival by recording real session players on brass instruments for both “Be Here Now” and “Love Effect.” I went bold when writing those parts because I think the use of real instruments is one thing that showcases ONF’s originality.
Before the chord changes a little later in the song, “Love Effect” uses the C major chord, which isn’t heard very often in K-pop. The melody also descends a lot, so it feels sentimental, but the lively arrangement that stands in contrast makes the song emotionally complex.
Hyun Hwang: I tend to prefer a mix of emotions rather than just making a song purely exciting. ONF is an emotionally sensitive group, so I try to get that kind of poetic quality out of every song, even if it’s a dance song. I usually try to avoid C major since it can sound a little too light, but I ended up using it because it makes the vocals sound much more dramatic. In “Love Effect,” they need to capture that feeling of a dizzying love by singing more and more intensely as they get closer to the chorus. The song’s a kind of circus for their unbelievable vocals. (laughs) It’s really high pitched and hard to sing live, but I figured the members could pull it off, so I just went with it. They were really determined and practiced more than I expected them to, so I was confident about this album.
An important aspect of songs like “Complete” and “We Must Love” are the switch-ups they have. “Love Effect” has a complex arrangement, but you manage to do it all while keeping the song sounding consistent.
Hyun Hwang: I try to put ONF’s originality on display as much as possible, but you can’t just ignore the trends of the music industry. With simple, straightforward pop being the latest trend, I placed more emphasis on the music of “Love Effect” itself. I want to demonstrate the very essence of music through ONF. Music started out as something you just listen to, but now there are many different components to it. It’s the result of where pop culture is headed. And while the visual elements are important too, I need to put myself in the listener’s shoes and try to make perfect songs, as a producer who got his start in the music itself.
The sound of the “Love Effect” intro and the way it echoes on the word “collapse” are great. It’s a bold move, given that most listeners will be listening with earphones.
Hyun Hwang: I find sound very, very important, so I’ll typically try out everything I can. I try to switch things up whenever I make a new song, even if the listener might not notice. That’s how you develop yourself. I’m really grateful that WM Entertainment gives me the space to keep trying out new things with the sound. It’s all thanks to them putting all their trust into one songwriter and giving me that authority that I can keep pursuing that. I added a delay when they sing the word “collapse” to express it literally. The intro to “Love Effect” is kind of an Easter egg. (laughs) I was going for a sort of cyberpunk sound. I wanted it to feel like ONF is a CGI coming to life. That’s why I gave “Arrival” a cyberpunk feel too. The story within the album really comes down to “Arrival.” “Dam Dam Di Ram” is about keeping yourself moving even when there’s no obvious path and you don’t have a compass. “Arrival” is about the group members telling you they’re finally back to see you after being away for so long.
You take all elements, from the music to the narrative behind it, fully into account.
Hyun Hwang: Yes. I look at K-pop as a form of entertainment where fans interact with the group of their liking to create a unique story. It’s like how you start out with the basic story in a role-playing game but build out the story as you interact within the game. That’s why I think the narrative is so important. If I weren’t able to look at things from a market angle like this, I wouldn’t be able to produce music for ONF. That’s part of the fun of producing. That aspect of it keeps things fun when I’m making songs. For example, if the song’s going to have choreography, even though that’s not my job, I still think about how it’ll be directed and the camera work.
You studied classical music but like visual rock, and have worked on everything from ballads to electronic music, acoustic songs, and K-pop. What changes and trends do you see in the world of K-pop today?
Hyun Hwang: I feel like the line between K-pop and American pop is becoming blurry. The music’s way more diverse now and there’s more and more English lyrics as we continue to think about fans globally. So I thought I should write Korean lyrics for ONF instead—to show what makes them different. More people can understand when it’s in English, but fans around the world use languages other than English, too. Unless there’s absolutely no way to express something in Korean, I try to write lyrics in Korean and in a moving way. ONF already switches things up with every new album, and we should keep doing that. I think K-pop is about taking on new challenges while still holding onto what makes your group special.
Aren’t you worried about how to maintain your creative output continuously?
Hyun Hwang: When I’m writing a song for ONF, I have a text file of all their lyrics that I search through—just in case something accidentally gets reused. Really, it doesn’t matter whose lyrics I’m writing, because it’s not supposed to be from my point of view. I have to be possessed by the members. (laughs) I think I should do my best to align with both what the fans want to hear in the song and what the singers want to say. I was inspired when I wrote the lyrics for “Kitsch” because I wanted to express the idea of being good at something without sounding snobby. I wanted to write lyrics that would make teens think, I want to be cool like that, too—but not in an arrogant way. So I wrote, “I pop up on your algorithm every day.”
How does it feel to be the sole producer for the group? Based on what you said, I imagine you must face a number of creative challenges.
Hyun Hwang: It’s not easy, to be honest with you. But the whole reason I can keep going is because I have that sense of duty. I first met the ONF members a year before they debuted, and even back then I was already thinking, there’s no way they won’t be successful. And I want to prove that I’m not wrong. They’ve been at it for years now and they’re busier than ever, but they’ve never slacked off, whether when they were trainees or now. I think that’s quite amazing, really. So I think I want to keep up with them however I can.
In what areas did you notice improvement from the ONF members while working on the album?
Hyun Hwang: U has always been grown up and mature, but his views on performing broadened even further while he was by himself and waiting for the other members to return. And he listens to a lot of music. He sends me music all the time, asking if I’ve heard it before. For WYATT, the raps that he writes are even better now. It’s at the point now where he takes everything he wants to talk about and works it down to just the most important parts, so there really isn’t much for me to touch up. J-US has a super high-pitched part in “Love Effect,” and he did a great job with it. He used to practice right up until recording to get as close to perfection as possible, but now he’s so much more relaxed about it that he has room to interpret the songs in his own way to put his own spin on things. He shows more maturity as the OFF team leader, too. And although HYOJIN’s always been a great singer, he feels he’s not quite there so he’s always trying to improve himself. And he’s always been good at handling himself—it was the same when he had leave from the army and it’s the same now. E-TION’s brought his vocal game up a notch with this latest album. He’s ever better at taking on different genres now. I love his facial expressions, and as someone who knows his personality, I can take a good guess about how hard he worked on them. He’s amazing in the new concept film, too. MK loves music, period. He’ll even send me messages when he’s at one of the TV networks: “When are we going to work on some songs?” (laughs)
I feel like what makes ONF as great as they are is the members who have been unwavering for five years and their producer who’s always by their side.
Hyun Hwang: My hope is for ONF to do what no other group can. HYOJIN said in an interview before that he wants the group to become the standard by which all others are measured. I think that says it perfectly. I hope someday ONF will be a name that’s mentioned whenever K-pop is brought up. ONF has mastered the basics: dancing, singing, and discipline. When they head into the label, they’re always practicing if they don’t have any other obligations. I think it’s just their nature that has allowed them to pull through so many difficult experiences. I’m really proud of them for making it as far as they have, and I hope they only keep doing better.
Unauthorized reproduction and distribution prohibited.