We asked Jung Kook to draw anything he wanted for the photoshoot. The photos featured in this article are snapshots while Jung Kook was at work. Even when the photoshoot was finished, he left the studio only when he completed his drawing.
“Butter” has been at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart for six weeks straight. (This interview took place on July 12)
Jung Kook: I was never attached to rankings, but as good as it is and as happy as I am since we’ve kept setting records since “Dynamite,” it also feels like a burden.
Is it because you’ve been successful beyond anything you could’ve imagined?
Jung Kook: Sort of. A huge number of people have given me recognition, so I’ve been going along thinking I have to work harder, but we did even better with “Butter” than with “Dynamite,” so I think I ended up feeling weighed down. That’s what I’m like. BTS is an amazing team, but maybe my problem is that I’m not able to keep up with BTS.
You were the one to set the mood for “Butter” by singing the intro to the song. Didn’t that make you feel good? You were definitely as amazing as the team itself. (laughs)
Jung Kook: “Butter” just feels so good. It’s different from our usual style, so it felt different while recording. The song’s great, too. I love that, but it’s separate from that feeling of pressure. I mean, I hope BTS does even better, honestly. Lately I’ve been thinking that that pressure means I need to do better. After “Dynamite” became number one on the Billboard Hot 100, it’s not like we’re being forced to try harder; it’s just my personal ambition. I think I can do better.
Why do you think “Dynamite” wasn’t as satisfying?
Jung Kook: Because I couldn’t express everything I wanted the way I wanted to. When I listen to the remixes, I think about how I could’ve sung it differently. Like, “Aw, man! If only I could do it again!” (laughs) I got some things from singing “Dynamite,” like, I’m not quite there yet. So I try to practice singing at least an hour every day, no matter what. Any singer who’s been at number one on Billboard for six weeks had better be really good at singing. That’s what I think.
Something about the way you sang in English probably made you hear your own singing in a new light. Your tone is different from when you sing in Korean.
Jung Kook: Sometimes you have to bear down a little on your words to talk in Korean. Plus I’m from Busan, so I speak in a little bit of a low voice. I don’t have that when I use English, though, so it’s like there’s pros and cons. It’s easy to use your head voice when you sing in English as well, but it can be uncomfortable, while in Korean, if you try to sing higher using your head voice, it can sound a bit nasally sometimes. But at the same time, it can be hard to break old habits when I sing in English since I’ve always been singing in Korean.
“Dynamite,” “Butter” and “Permission to Dance” are all English songs and you were in charge of the introduction for all three. It seems like you put some thought into how to create different impressions for each song.
Jung Kook: “Butter’s” really bouncy, as you know. It’s a little deep, it’s got a driving beat, it’s rhythmical. And before I record, I listen to a recording with guide vocals, and then when I go to record, I have to keep all these characteristics in mind and mix them together with my own style properly in this subtle way. I think it’s seriously an intuition. (laughs) I had a hard time when we were recording, obviously, and when I first did it, my voice didn’t sound right, so I had to keep looking for the right voice. I think the most important thing is to really nail the voice you want to use first, and so is figuring out how to make it your own. In “Permission to Dance,” for instance, I sang it more the way I wanted than the style the guide vocals had.
How do you come to that kind of conclusion?
Jung Kook: Everyone’s voice has to sound different, so it can be overpowering if I copy the guide too much when I sing. So sometimes I follow what I’m thinking of exclusively. I was thinking about how I should sing the first part of “Permission to Dance,” and when I went to record it, even Pdogg, the producer, told me, “It’ll work best if you go with your own voice, your own style.”
What effect does listening to so many other artists’ songs and analyzing them have on you?
Jung Kook: The more I listen to music, the more my vocals change. It really changes a lot when we get a song and listen to it and practice it. I guess you could say my vocal cords are always readying themselves for improvement when I practice. (laughs) And improving while I record, and just improving any time I sing. But there’s also times when it suddenly doesn’t sound right when I try it the way I want, so I just give it a try, or I quickly look up other vocalists and listen to their songs or ask some of the older artists. Doing that helps me find a certain voice I’m looking for.
You sang uncannily similar to SUGA when you briefly sang his part in “Life Goes On” over V LIVE, even though your voices are different. You’re quick at picking up on the characteristics of others’ vocals.
Jung Kook: I used to rely on that a lot. Like, I can hear [the characteristics in their voices] at least. (laughs) Now, though, it’s like, Oh, [I] guess I shouldn’t do it that way. You can safely assume I’ve heard a countless number of other singers’ songs. Then I would think a lot about how I want to sing, thinking how those other singers would sing, before making my own voice. I carry over those people’s voices and vocal patterns and think about how it would sound if they sang in this room, then I think about how it would sound in my own voice, and then sometimes I can make my voice sound similar if I try to.
It seems like it was important for you to find your own style for the performances as well. Not only were the three English songs different from your earlier work, but there were also a lot of parts in “Butter” that you could only perform through gestures and facial expressions.
Jung Kook: Before “Butter,” I just worked really hard, and had fun doing it, in whatever way I wanted but starting with “Butter” I think I managed to do things in a more thought-out way. I was more attentive to my facial expressions and movements and thought through what I should do in each situation in each performance to do it in my own style. And it was kind of a fun process. I don’t feel any pressure about that; I just thought I can create that kind of image if I just try to be a little cool and not cringey (laugh) for people from now on.
What image do you want people to have of you, as an artist? One that says, This is who I am as an artist right now.
Jung Kook: I don’t think I’m at the level where I need to worry about that yet. I have a general idea about what kind of singer I want to be and what I want to be really good at, but I don’t think I’ve ever imagined defining myself as a certain type of singer yet. Because it’s an ongoing process, when I can prove myself, then, bam!—I give proof and become a truly influential person, only then can I go around saying, This is the kind of singer I am. For now, I don’t have anything, I guess you could say, “substantial” to show off. I think, Even if I’m part of BTS and tour stadiums, does that automatically make me better than other artists? And then, by thinking so, I center myself again.
Couldn’t you be a little softer on yourself?
Jung Kook: No. I have to think about the future many times throughout the day. For example, sometimes I spend a whole day doing whatever, but whenever I do, I regret it severely. So I promise myself that I’ll get this and that done. That’s how I live, because if I don’t think that way, I won’t jump into action to get anything done. It’s like the title of our song, “Life Goes On”: the treadmill just keeps on going, and we’re on it, so I always think, I’d better not ever stop. I can express myself better if I think while I talk, and I can organize my thoughts while reflecting back on what I said. I try to think about everything in that way. I think I need to improve, whether it’s at singing or my hobbies—more than now, better than now.
Are you doing particularly well with any of your hobbies these days? It seems like you got a little better at painting, judging by your vlog.
Jung Kook: I think I’m getting better overall, little by little. My vocals are where I’ve definitely improved lately. And bowling! (laughs) I learn how to paint by watching videos on YouTube. I think I’m good at picking up skills by emulating others. I’m actually not good at learning things. (laughs) I just like to do what I like to do and I naturally learn from the people around me, I guess. And I think the things I really want to learn are still the same: singing, English, exercise.
Learning from other people and wanting to do better is a form of recognizing who you can compare yourself against. Are you at all influenced by the other members? You’ve talked a lot about how much you’ve been influenced by the six older members.
Jung Kook: I think I started paying attention to people other than myself after I moved to Seoul and met the other members. I wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings, but I do notice them now. It’s like I really started to see myself for who I am from that point on.
That makes me think of when you talked about seeing the sights in Seoul for the first time on tvN’s You Quiz on the Block, the way you got to know the feelings the outside world can give.
Jung Kook: The first time I saw the streets of Seoul, they were enormous. I was really worried, since I’d just come to Seoul, and I got to know myself because of the change of environment. I think it was the very first time for me to think for myself, and it became the starting point for me to get to know myself.
When you took some candy you liked from the BTS pop-up store, j-hope said you were still the same from when you first met when you were 13 years old. Do you think you haven’t changed at all compared to back then?
Jung Kook: In some way I must be better or different on the outside, but I’m sure there’s still things about me that are the same as when I was 13. I learned how to be considerate towards the other members and how to understand them because I fought with them occasionally, but nobody’s going to stop me if I take candy. I take it like I always did. Like when Hobi and I fought over a single banana. (laughs)
But what’s changed about you, then? Being a member of BTS must have had an effect on your view of the world. You sought understanding from your vegetarian viewers when you were eating meat in a salad on V LIVE before.
Jung Kook: I thought to ask because I know that many people abroad, and in Korea, too, are vegetarians. It’s one of the things you learn when you tour around many different countries. Obviously I don’t know about every single country’s culture or personal identities or choices, so even though I have a long way to go, I think it’s important to respect them based on what I do know.
I think you must know that you’ve had an influence on a lot of people. Partway into your V LIVE, you talked about how you couldn’t find any of the kombucha you drank before anymore because it was all sold out and you thanked your fans for giving a little help to small business owners.
Jung Kook: Restaurants aren’t doing well and there’s a lot of closed-up shops in the markets now, as you know. So if I’ve had an effect on even one person, it’s been worthwhile. And sometimes the people I’ve had an influence on go on to make donations, too. There could always be someone who takes advantage of the things I say or do, but I’m confident a lot of people will use them for good.
This influence is something you’ve crafted with your fandom, ARMY. I imagine you’ve been influenced not only by the other members but also by ARMY since you were young.
Jung Kook: There’s a lot going on inside a concert venue: the lighting, the stage, the floor, the stage design, the video projected on the screen. Plus there’s the music, the dancing, and us. Even if they’re all in balance, ARMY has to be there to complete the scene. When it comes to our concerts, ARMY are the ones who bought the tickets and they’re the main characters. I think everything we focus on comes back down to ARMY. We share in each other’s feelings and they’re the source of our strength, and I think they have synergy with us. It’s not enough to just say ARMY and us like each other, or that we love each other. There’s definitely more to it than that. It’s, well—I don’t know. It’s hard to put into words. (laughs)
I think you need ARMY to be there at the concert for you to fully realize the concert you’re aiming for.
Jung Kook: Yes, exactly! Even if everything’s set up and we’re in front of the camera, if ARMY’s not there, it’s a completely different concert. Even when ARMY’s there and there’s a live camera broadcasting it, I’m like, There’s a camera? Sure. Obviously I care about it when I have to say hello to ARMY sitting on the other side, in front of their screens. Other than that, I get all my energy from all the ARMY sitting right in front of me. That’s how much they mean to me. It’s completely different.
The concept for BTS 2021 MUSTER SOWOOZOO was similar to being in concert with an audience. It must’ve made you think of ARMY even more.
Jung Kook: I’m seriously good as long as I can perform. I can put on more and more concerts in the space of a year if we’re touring. I felt it more profoundly this time since we couldn’t perform with an audience. Wow, I really took things for granted all this time. I should’ve done more.
You must be disappointed. It’s your time to shine as a vocalist and as a performer.
Jung Kook: (sighs) I, well, I really need to hurry up and make a mixtape, first of all. (laughs)
How’s your mixtape going?
Jung Kook: I was working on it just before I came. But it’s hard! (laughs) I could just make it about myself, and then it would be like, I started as a trainee when I was 13, I worked hard, and found success. But anyone could do that. So I keep thinking I want to make up my own original, complex story and write the songs from there. Billie Eilish’s debut album left a big mark on me when it came out, in that respect. And it’d be nice to have a cohesive flow to the tracklist, but even if it’s all jumbled up, that’s fine, too, as long the good songs keep on coming. That’s sort of what I’m thinking. So these days, rather than focusing on the album’s story as a whole, I’m just going to write whatever it is I want to say in each song. If I get that feeling right after listening to a track, I’ll try and make it. And I’m going to try to make it a little bit light-hearted.
It can’t be easy for you to concentrate on it if you’re making it here and there between all your other work.
Jung Kook: It’s fine if it takes a really long time—it’s just hard to work on it in pieces. I mean, if I stay up late working away at it, it’s hard to get through the next day. (laughs) I stayed up all night again last night and slept between appointments today, but I’m still going to keep working like this today and then go work on my mixtape again anyway. I’ll do my best to release it as soon as possible. I want to write and record a lot of material.
Is there anything about yourself, other than your work or concerts, that you want to show to ARMY as an individual?
Jung Kook: I want to show them, that, umm … Just my real self, Jeon Jung Gook. That I’m fairly easy-going, very honest, and nothing special.
What kind of person do you think you are now?
Jung Kook: I’m, I’m a, lazy … person. (laughs)
You’re being very hard on yourself. (laughs) How could you be lazy if you’re a part of BTS?
Jung Kook: No, I really am lazy. (laughs) If I were alone I’d probably miss a lot of my appointments. (laughs) But I have to avoid making any mistakes when we function as a group. I’m really lazy, and—oh, I overthink things sometimes. I think more than people might expect, and I do things my way. Plus, even though I don’t care what other people think of me, I kind of still do. (laughs) I have no idea. I’m sort of goofy—? But I’m also trying to live a full life—I’m that kind of person. (laughs)
Thank you for the interview. Oh, by the way, I liked your “Butter” fan cam. Your moves were really agile.
Jung Kook: Really? Do you think I’ve gotten better? (laughs)
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