DAWN has broken all the K-pop rules. Well, almost all of them. “I want to try getting my nipples pierced,” he tells Rolling Stone over a video call, his smile embellished with a diamond-studded lip ring, “but I’m scared because I recently got a tattoo near my nipple and I went through hell.” Tattoos and piercings are the least of the rapper’s transgressions. For the past five years, in an industry where dating is often contractually forbidden, DAWN has been known as one half of South Korean entertainment’s most notorious and beloved It couples. His partner-in-crime? HyunA, an industry legend.
When the pair began dating in secret in 2016, she was already a K-pop superstar and he was training to join her label’s boy group, Pentagon. In 2018, at the height of Pentagon’s fame, DAWN and HyunA went public with their relationship, pushing back as their label denied they were together. The move got them fired, and cemented the duo as K-pop’s puckish provocateurs.
Psy scooped them up, signing them to his label, P Nation, and they released music as soloists and as a duo, each acting as the other’s muse. Their releases were quirky, bright, and bonkers, a deliciously delirious combination of their creative ethea.
HyunA and DAWN announced their engagement in February 2022, posting a photo of their asymmetrical rings in matching seashell-shaped boxes. The news felt karmic, a well-earned triumph over the obstacles their relationship went up against in the public eye. In August, they surprised fans when they decided not to renew their contracts with P Nation. Then, in November, HyunA posted a simple note to Instagram. “We broke up,” it read in Korean, “We decided to remain good friends and co-workers from now on. Thank you always for your support and care.” A few days later, DAWN added, “[HyunA] is still just as precious to me, more sincere and cool than anyone and the artist I will continue to love most.”
Now single and solo, DAWN has found a new creative partner in the Korean producing duo GroovyRoom, who signed him to @Area, their imprint on Korea’s leading hip-hop label, H1gher Music, in January.
Nursing the wounds of his very public break up, DAWN is crafting a new sound grounded in simplicity and sincerity. His latest single, “Dear My Light,” is an unvarnished ode to the unbridled brilliance of a partner. “You know you were my everything, I was happy enough to forget myself,” he sings. “It’s OK if I lose everything, as long as I can see you dazzling.” Rolling Stone spoke with DAWN from his art studio in Seoul to learn more about the creative partnerships that have shaped his music and how he is redefining his singular sound.
I think of your sound and style as bold, edgy, and bright. It’s surprising that this first single is a ballad, then, because it’s so simple in a lot of ways. Why did you choose to go in that direction?
When I first joined At Area and discussed what kind of music I wanted to make with them, we agreed we had the same heart to create music that is sincere. At that time, I had just gone through a breakup, so naturally, those feelings and experiences were reflected in my music.
I had a lot of meetings with different labels — some were small, some were big — and GroovyRoom was the last team I met. I actually didn’t have high expectations for the meeting, but I just felt it from them, that these people were sincere and honest, and I could envision what they wanted to do, so I thought it’d be fun to make music with them.
What did that vision look like?
Within the Korean music industry, my and GroovyRoom’s style of music is not common. It’s not a genre of my own, nor is it a genre that can only be produced by GroovyRoom, but we’re all about experimentation and trying something new. In a way, our work could be more suited for a global audience, but we also want to reach out to the Korean audience, too. GroovyRoom talked about creating something new, and this is something that I want to do, too.
How is work split between you and GroovyRoom?
Prior to joining GroovyRoom, I had a team to support me, but did everything creative by myself: writing lyrics, melodies, choosing the vibe of my music. And if there was a music video, I chose how to shoot the video, what kind of clothes I was going to wear, and my choreography. Because I was doing it all, there was always something that I was disappointed in when I saw the final result, and maybe it would have been different if I had another creative mind helping to direct it all.
After meeting GroovyRoom, the pressure of doing it all myself went away. Before, I had to do everything by myself, so even though there were a lot of things that I wanted to do, I only had the capacity to do one of them. But now, I have the GroovyRoom and At Area team supporting me, I can attempt everything I want to try. I love that, regardless of who starts the music, we’re able to collaborate and share ideas together. The production process is a lot smoother, and there’s more diversity in terms of genre and style of music as well.
Is there one element you’re really excited to be focused on or devote yourself to?
It has to be music. My heart is more comfortable here because I am able to pursue the music that I desire, so I am able to focus solely on that.
Working with P Nation and with HyunA, there was a greater synergy when I did dance music because the image they had for me as the artist DAWN was about dancing and performance. I knew I’d receive a lot more energy and support through that genre, so I had to prioritize it when creating my music. But with GroovyRoom, there is no restriction on the genre of music, and I can express music through rock, or alternative music, dance, pop, ballad, R&B. There are no limitations. So it’s very different.
The lyrics to “Dear My Light” go “It’s OK if I lose everything as long as I see you dazzling.” Can you explain what that feeling is?
It means exactly what it says [laughs]. While I was dating HyunA, I experienced lots of new emotions. Just as the lyrics say, I felt that I would be happy only if she was happy too, and whether we have broken up or are together. I felt true happiness when I saw her happy.
After a breakup, it can feel like you’re redefining yourself as a person, shaping a new identity and learning who you are outside of the relationship. Did you have a period like that?
At first, it was very difficult to deal with and I couldn’t get used to it. It was an extremely difficult time. But what I realized in that process was that I wasn’t in love with HyunA’s looks or social status — I was genuinely in love with her soul.
I was able to overcome that pain by realizing that I want her to be even happier even when she is not beside me — even more happy than when we were together — because I really love her, and her happiness is my number-one priority. I learned that I can love someone even though we have broken up, and I felt better after I acknowledged that.
How did you take care of your mental health at that time?
I walked around outside a lot without taking a break. Once I walked for four hours. It was more difficult for me the more I thought about the breakup, so I moved my body all day until it was so exhausted that I would fall asleep as soon as I got home. It didn’t even have to be my bed, it could have been the floor. I wanted to feel like I could just crash and fall asleep, because I was so exhausted. So I kept myself busy.
Is that your suggestion for people who are going through the same thing?
[Laughs.] Just walk. You have to keep walking.
How did you find your own light again?
What triggered me to find the light was, at the end of day, myself. It began with knowing that I am someone who can shine, and I continued to work on myself to be that light. And that led me to see the light in everyone around me. So the most important thing was to remember myself. There was no way to escape. Someone else can’t find your light for you. You have to discover it within.
Can you tell me a little bit more about what has been inspiring you lately?
[DAWN cranes his head toward the ceiling, then looks around the room.] My studio — because now I have a spacious room for myself — and people. In the past, I don’t think I tried to be inspired by people because I concluded that the other person would not be able to understand me, and I wouldn’t be able to completely understand them. But after opening my own studio space, lots of people have come to visit me, both new and familiar faces, and I have a lot of conversations. I’ve been inspired through their stories, things that happened to them that day or thoughts they’ve had.
They’re people who create art, who craft things. And we’ll get together and talk about how to express our feelings in a fun and artistic way. And that process can turn into music, or a painting, or a sculpture. We all have such different roles and talents, so we never know what our collaborations will turn into.
Next to my studio are studios of friends who paint or sculpt, and they have all the equipment, so I hop over and have a go when I’m bored. I love having that time to enjoy those experiences. And the At Area office is right next to my studio, so I go over there to work on our music.
How would you describe the music that will come from your time here, from your collaboration with GroovyRoom?
It’s very diverse. There’s a bit of rock, hip-hop … I think “band” music might be a better word than rock. I’m not doing any rapping so far. I think the biggest change is that I’ve worked on expressing myself through my voice rather than my body. GroovyRoom has helped me with that. My voice is my own instrument, and it’s like I’ve learned a different way to play it. So whatever music I create, it sounds different to what I’ve made in the past, and that amazes me. I am completely free. To be honest, I can’t see any limitations to what I can produce with this team.