TEN Talks Embracing New Sides of His Personality on New Single ‘Birthday’

While some of history’s greatest artists have a distinct look for fans to recall instantly, many musical greats are shape-shifting chameleons, finding different looks, styles and eras throughout their careers.

TEN falls strictly in the latter category, with the Thailand-born K-pop star using his songs and music videos to express the different creative concepts, characters, and, at times, confusion inside his mind.

After trying out shouty punk-pop with “Paint Me Naked,” festival-ready EDM on “New Heroes,” and the hypnotic “Dream in a Dream” with fusions of traditional East-Asian instruments, TEN has paired sultry R&B sound with vigorous group choreography. His new single “Birthday” dropped as part of the NCT LAB project under K-pop super-label SM Entertainment to spotlight the different members in its ever-expanding NCT boy-band project that currently boasts 23 members.

While TEN has already proven his superstar status as a part of groups like WayV and NCT U, as well as one of seven members in SM’s K-pop supergroup SuperM that hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200, TEN refuses to sit comfortably as an artist.

“I get bored easily and the audience will get bored of me doing the same thing,” the singer says during a Zoom call from Seoul. “So I keep finding what kind of stuff I haven’t done yet.”

Wrapped in a flannel shirt for this giggly Billboard interview, TEN’s bubbly warmness strays far from the seductive, slithering soloist rocking chains and veils throughout the “Birthday” video. Even as TEN speaks with a lightness, there is compelling duality in his seriousness in accepting who he is while simultaneously wanting to level up in his work. Even when the star admits he’s lost inspiration, there’s still a guiding force pushing TEN into new, creative areas.

Read more from TEN on all the vocal, thematic and dance elements behind “Birthday” and what else is on the way.

Billboard: Congratulations on the new song. “Birthday” is your fourth solo single, what’s the difference this time compared to past releases?

TEN: This song has no connection with my past singles or whatever you see in “Paint Me Naked” or “New Hero.” They’re different in genre, style, makeup, and choreography. Even the use of my vocals changed. I’m not really interested in doing the same thing over again, like this deep and strong vocal that’s at the same time very soft. If you listen to the verses, I’m using a lower register and then a high falsetto on the chorus. I want to show the contrast between strong and soft.

I’m glad you brought that up because it was a great vocal performance and something we haven’t heard from you before. Was it a challenge or did you know how to approach it?

I did find recording the vocals very challenging because R&B is different, you know? “Paint Me Naked” is a pop song so you just hit the melody, which is simpler than R&B because when you sing R&B you need to have that delay and draw things out. At first, I was singing it similar to “Birthday,” but I thought, “This is not how I want it to sound.” So, we re-recorded after I listened to more R&B songs to see how they ride the rhythm. And I was trying too hard at first, but the next session was just chill; I just felt the lyrics, listened, and laid back.

There are many NCT members and a lot of SM Entertainment artists, but it seems like we can always look forward to a TEN single each year. Do these opportunities come because you always try to show something new?

I keep finding new concepts by watching movies, looking at tattoo pictures from Instagram, other artists’ photoshoots, fashion shows. If you see luxury brands’ fashion shows, they have their own concept and each year it changes. I’m into that. I’ll say, “Okay, I like this kind of stuff so let me keep it to myself, look at other stuff and mix it together.”

Do you save a lot of things on Instagram? 

I take a lot of screenshots on my phone! I was even watching an animation recently and was like, “Okay, I like this concept, let me do it like this guy here, then let me use this color as an outfit…”

How much of your inspirations came out in “Birthday”?

I was very lucky at this time with all the people that help me make “Birthday.” They really asked for my opinions, “What kind of stuff do you want to represent? How do you want to express yourself?” I chose all four outfits. There’s the suit because I want to show a mature side of me. Another one had the chain on my chest, an essential look; I need one look that is very sexy. The other one is an outfit where I wear a hat and there’s a black sheet covering my face. It’s a traditional, flowy kind of outfit because I don’t want to only show mature sides.

I wanted to show the fluid side of me too. It was very hard to find a lot of references at that time, it took me a week to find everything that I wanted, but I sent it to my stylist and video directing team. They just say, “Okay, let us figure everything out for you.” We had a lot of talking going on during the making.

Tell me about the choreography.

This one is mainly by my friends Bada Lee and Jrick [Baek]. They really helped make my vision come to life. I told them how there are a lot of K-pop groups out there with choreography that has a signature move. But for this one, I didn’t want it to be like that, I wanted it to be like artwork. I want fans to see little sparkles in the choreography and say, “Oh, I like that moment.”

Do you have a favorite moment throughout the whole video? 

Well, the first verse is very challenging for me. You can see the full choreography in the dance video and in the first verse there are so many B-boy-like moves. I got bruises all over my body, it’s very hard. But what was best about that is that I was working with my dancer friends on moves I can’t do alone. We’re all in contact as they pull me up, I kick out, there’s like a wave—it’s not just me doing the work but we are all connected as a team.

Like “Birthday” or “Paint Me Naked,” your songs are confident in their elements of sexuality. It’s not raunchy but very free and open. How do you prepare your mindset in these kinds of performances?

Wow, well, I don’t really think about that much. It’s like, “Okay, I want to wear these clothes.” It’s just me. This is my body and this is how I want to express it. Wearing too many clothes sometimes in dancing can block your body line. I don’t want to feel like I’m not confident with my body so I was like, “Let’s just do it.” That’s why I don’t really do fitness or try to build muscle for certain clothes. I’m skinny so that’s just me. I don’t need to build it up to impress someone else.

You want to show your natural self.

Yes, but maybe a little exercise for my belly fat. [Laughs] Just a little!

Oh, come on! Don’t worry about that. It sounds that you’ve found confidence in your own body which is great because many struggle with that.

It’s like, everyone has a charm, but I’m still trying to learn how to use mine. I also think about being seductive, right? In music videos, you can try everything—you can’t really do that in real life but there’s no right and wrong in the music video. It’s just, “Let’s try.”

It’s your opportunity to try things because everyone knows TEN’s personality as very bubbly. But on stage, you become very different.

Thank you. It just speaks to a different character of myself and the right time for me to express myself. I can’t do it at any time.

You mentioned you don’t want to be too covered up when dancing. I was wondering about the hat and veil look. Was it difficult to master that look? 

The veil was not the problem, but the hat kept falling off while dancing. I had to fix my hat all the time, but it’s fun to dance with a hat like that. I felt like I’m a mystery guy and no one knows me.

Outfits can help people to feel more confident. A different outfit helps you represent yourself and your personality differently. It helped me become that character. Every outfit has its own reason that I choose it, and I like every outfit, but this time the hat outfit is what I really enjoyed wearing. It really helped me embrace the concept. “Birthday” has a very strong drum and bass sound, but that outfit kind of helped to soften it down and become a bit more mysterious.

After “Birthday,” fans were saying they want a full album from you. Would that be something you’d be interested in?

Yes, I would. I love working as a team, but I also want to do my solo stuff because you can put in your thoughts and personality. Even though I sometimes didn’t write my song, I can check out the demos and say, “Okay. I want to try this or try that.” And when you read the lyrics, it’s like acting. You’re trying to change yourself for that song as you work on it. It’s like, a song can be very groovy or hip-hop or—can I say swag?—swag.

I can simply work on the song process and it’s going to be a lot of fun. As a group it’s also fun, but it’s different. As a team, you put in the element of yourself but you’re still trying to be in motion with your team. Both are fun for me to work so I have to do both.

Speaking of your teams, do you have any teasers about what’s coming with WayV and NCT?

Right now, WayV is preparing for their new comeback. And I can’t spoil anything about NCT yet. If I spoiled it, Mark will send me a text, “Hyung! Bro. What did you just say?!”

We can’t have Mark upset with us. But as we look to the end of the year, are there any ways you want people to remember you in 2022?

Right now, I’m just focusing on myself. To be honest, I don’t know what happened to me but I need more motivation right now. I need to inspire myself. After I filmed “Birthday,” I lost track of something that I don’t even know so I’m kind of figuring that out. I want to improve myself in singing and dancing so I can get to do more unique concepts and better songs in terms of a different genre.

If I don’t practice for that, it’s going to be harder for me to do different kinds of stuff. So, that’s my goal for this year to improve myself and figure out stuff that I’d been thinking about lately. The process for “Birthday” helped me to focus again and be more creative with my work. It was like a fuel that helped keep my engine moving.

That’s very honest. Many struggled with motivation during the pandemic, for example. Do you know what happened? Or do you have advice on how to get over the hump?

I think everyone has that moment in life. So, I don’t really think about it that much, I just need to figure it out. I don’t know what it is and I don’t know if I’d be able to give helpful advice to those who might be feeling down because realistically everyone has their own problems or confusion that only they can relate to.

But for me, I sit down, breathe slowly and talk to myself by asking myself questions in order to break down the situation into small fractions and better understand. That does help me figure things out most of the time! Sometimes I have these moments but it’s happening to me, like, now. So, let me figure it out and then I can tell you next time. 

Jeff Benjamin