Nayeon has been having one hell of a busy year. As a member of Twice — the highest-selling K-pop girl group of the past decade, per South Korea’s Gaon Chart — the 26-year-old has spent most of 2022 on a world tour tied to her nine-piece group’s latest Korean studio album. The tour ended last month with two record-setting encore concerts in Los Angeles (and unfortunately for Nayeon, a positive COVID test upon her return home to Korea). Twice is also scheduled to release a full Japanese album in late July. But if you think that means Nayeon is taking this month off, you’d better think tw— okay, okay, we won’t make the joke. Today, Nayeon makes her solo debut with her lively EP Im Nayeon. The eponymous project includes “POP!,” an infectiously upbeat title track written by K-pop industry staples Kenzie and LDN Noise, and “Candyfloss,” which was co-composed by Little Mix’s Jade Thirlwall.
While Nayeon is the first Twice member to go solo, she’s no stranger to being early. When the group was formed on JYP Entertainment’s 2015 survival competition show Sixteen, she was the first artist confirmed to the final lineup. And across Twice’s discography, she typically sings the opening lines of a song — which also means that her friendly face is often the first to appear in music videos. (Incidentally, Twice’s name refers to the group’s goal of making an impact “once through the ears, and once through the eyes.”) Zooming in from a JYP company meeting room in Seoul, Nayeon chatted with Vulture (and a translator) about finding out she was the group’s inaugural soloist, writing lyrics in planes and hotels, and working with featuring artists Felix and Wonstein.
Before debuting as a Twice member in 2015, you trained at JYP for five years. Did you know from the start that you wanted to go solo one day?
I don’t think I had that specific goal, but I did imagine it a lot. Even as a trainee, except at the very beginning, I was in a team. So at one point, it became a little difficult to dance or sing by myself. Because I felt kind of limited, I wondered, Will I be able to do well when I’m given time to be on stage on my own? But as a person who sings and dances — as an artist — if I am unable or afraid to do it alone … I thought that wouldn’t be right. [Laughs] So with that in mind, that’s when I began imagining [going solo] more.
How did you find out that you would be the first soloist in your group?
Our company always sets annual goals around the end or beginning of the year for what kind of albums will be released and when, although of course that’s subject to change. When they told us the finalized plan for this year, that was when I realized that I have a solo album coming out in June. At first, it did feel unreal. And I also felt slightly pressured. I knew that because I’ve been working in a team for such a long time, a lot of people have been waiting and looking forward to this. But once I actually started preparing, it was really fun.
I’m not sure of the exact reason why the company decided that I would be the first solo. Even though I was given the opportunity, I think that there will be more opportunities in the future for the other members to show off their individual capabilities [as solo artists]. When the members heard the news about my solo, they all really congratulated me as if it was a Twice album coming out. They trusted me a lot and were happy for me.
There are two artists who feature on your album: Felix from Stray Kids is your JYP labelmate, and Wonstein is from a different company. Can you compare your experiences working with both of them?
Rather than differences between them, just the fact that I was making songs with other artists outside of the other Twice members was a whole new experience for me. The songs themselves were different styles from the songs I’ve done in the past, so I think that was the biggest difference. Felix and Wonstein also have very different voices, so that made the collaborations very interesting and fun.
For Wonstein, since we wrote the lyrics together, I showed him what I wrote first, and he finished writing his lyrics to match. Similarly, when we sent him the recording of my part, he sent his part back to us when he had time. For Felix, since he was singing parts with lyrics that were already written, we didn’t really need any communication. But I did run into him in our company, and I thanked him for doing the recording so well.
You wrote lyrics for “Love Countdown,” the track with Wonstein, and “All or Nothing.” What was your songwriting process like?
When I was writing the lyrics for this album, I was on tour. So I wrote during flights from city to city or in hotel rooms, since I couldn’t really go out as much due to COVID. Writing the lyrics was the most time-consuming work for this album. I think because it’s still a hard process for me, it’s currently a little more stressful than enjoyable. For “Love Countdown,” I was told a set mood for the song and what it should be about, so I tried to write according to that. For “All or Nothing,” I had more freedom. In addition to following the song’s vibe, I tried to include things I wanted to say.
How much creative input would you say you had for this album?
There were definitely lots of opportunities for me to contribute my thoughts and make decisions throughout the process. While working on it, I was able to do a lot of things that I wanted to do, and I learned a lot. I tried to give lots of ideas for clothes that fit the song and the choreography of “POP!” I also was able to select teaser images that were released to the public for this album.
Can you walk me through what went into your decision-making process?
There were so many pretty outfits, pretty makeup, and pretty hairstyles presented to me, but when I had the opportunity to choose, I chose ones that I haven’t shown before. I feel like for the past seven years, I’ve done so many styles that it was inevitable to think, Oh, that style is similar to this or that album from the past. But I still tried my best to show something new.
There wasn’t necessarily anything that I didn’t want to try or didn’t like. I picked things that fit the album’s overall mood, which is very lively and bright. Since the album’s also coming out in the summer, a lot of the songs also have refreshing vibes, so I tried to blend those vibes together when making decisions. And I think I wanted to incorporate a mature side too, while also being bright and youthful.
Do you have any goals as either a group member or a solo artist?
I think while we were on tour this year, all the members thought the same thing: Concerts are so, so much fun, and I’m so, so happy when I perform for an audience. As we meet many fans and new fans, we get a lot of energy from them, and I also think the energy we give to them is very meaningful. So I think all of us now have the goal of continuing to have more concerts. In terms of my personal goals … I want to work in a healthy mind-set.
2022 is Twice’s seventh year. It doesn’t seem like you plan to stop promotions any time soon, but if you ever did decide to retire, how would you know that it was the right time?
[Exhales] Hmmm … This is kind of how I feel. I think there are many Once around the world that want to come to our concerts and see us. But there are many countries that we still haven’t visited, and many Once that couldn’t come to see us for personal reasons. So I think I’ll feel that it’s enough once we meet all of them, and they agree that it’s time.
And lastly, you mentioned on a recent live that Twice has been watching season four of Stranger Things. So I have to ask: What songs would save you from Vecna?
Well, our … Oh no, I keep trying to give spoilers! Ah, I want to answer honestly, but I’m worried because it might be a spoiler. I’ll just say that we have been preparing albums for a long time, and even now we’re still in the process of preparing a Japanese album and other future albums. I think our team’s dance music is very exciting. [Smiles.]
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.