Jackson Wang has a message for fans Friday (April 12) with the release of his new song “Oxygen”: The title is an expression of his appreciation for their support and love for him, which have helped him live his life.
The star, who straddles the Korean and Chinese music scenes both as a member of boy band GOT7 and a soloist, spends the song dramatically expressing these feelings over a despondent melody and gritty trap beat.
While in New York City in March, Wang sat down with Billboard to discuss some of his more recent releases, work ethic and upcoming plans.
You recently worked with Dough-Boy on "MK Circus." What inspired that song?
There’s a specific location in Hong Kong called Mong Kok. There’s a stereotype that people there dress funny, they’re rude, etc. Just negative stuff that made me think to myself, “Why is everyone looking at it in a bad way?” It’s actually good. It’s just a matter of how you think of it. So I made a song about it not being bad at all. It’s just trying to change some visions about people. And also I wanted to tell people who don’t know Hong Kong about this place because it’s a dope place. It’s where all the trendy people gather. The people in Mong Kok, I would say, they try a lot of different stuff. So when you try a lot of different stuff, there’s the weird part, the awkward part. But there’s some good parts. Everyone tends to focus on the bad part where they forget that it’s actually leading the fashion trends in Asia, in Hong Kong. I just wanted to point that out.
How was it working with Dough-Boy?
It was good. Actually, it was so random. I was at his studio, listening to some tracks he produced, and then I really liked a beat, and was just like, “We should do a song together. Let’s vibe out.” On that spot, we made up the chorus. I think in two minutes? Five minutes? I went back home to my hotel and on the way in the car I started writing lyrics. We actually recorded the track like three days afterwards. We just didn’t get a chance to release it right away because of all of the schedules, mine and Dough-Boy’s.
You’re pretty busy, straddling both your own solo career and your work within GOT7, right?
Throughout a year, I’ll spend half the time in Korea and half the time in China doing my own stuff. In Korea, I’m still in a K-pop group, GOT7, we’re doing our stuff in K-pop. But in China, I’m doing my music, just everything about Jackson. When they, the rest of GOT7, rest, I go to China. When my Chinese label’s employees rest, I go back to Korea. I have to fit a year’s schedule into six months, which is difficult. It’s tough. But at the end of the day, I love what I’m doing so it’s okay.
How do you balance these two parts of yourself, being GOT7’s Jackson and Jackson Wang, soloist?
I think it’s the same. I would say the most different part is the genre of the music, maybe. In GOT7, you have seven people. It’s like Skittles. You get all the flavors, you get what I mean? But in my world, you get Jackson Wang. It’s everything about me. Let’s say I’m red. You get my flavor exclusively.
So you’re a red Skittle?
Why not? Red, yea.
How does the creative process differ between the two parts of your career?
Regarding my music and the direction of me doing my own stuff, I’m more comfortable doing things along with my team, my production crew, my producers, the Team Wang team. I’m more comfortable and free to do different sort of stuff. But for GOT7, it’s just not about me. It’s us. So when you want to do something, if you want to be specific on a certain style or color, it’s not as easy. I’m one-seventh of the group. And also the company itself has their own thoughts on what kind of music we should produce, the direction we should go in. K-pop is on another level. It’s a different world from what I’m trying to do right now.
You had solos on GOT7’s 2018 albums Present: You and its extended version Present: You & Me: “Made It,” and “Hunger,” respectively. Did working on your own individual songs within a GOT7 project feel familiar, like your solo work in China, or was it a different sort of experience for you?
That was new. I was talking with the whole team, my members and the staff at the company, JYP [Entertainment]. I was just saying, “We’ve been releasing so many songs, but don’t you think it’s time to show our own colors in our album for our fans, and to the people who don’t really know who we are? To show them all the different colors that we have in our GOT7 album." They thought, “Why not? Make songs. Produce songs. Show us.” So we just started working on it, and that’s how we got it. ["Made It"] definitely something I’d do with Team Wang. I was more ambitious about the song that was going to be included on the GOT7 albums because it was my first time in Korea-- All the stuff that I’m releasing right now isn’t released in Korea. It’s released everywhere else aside from Korea and Japan because of issues. But it’s cool. I was more ambitious and passionate about this because it was the first time I could show the Korean audience what I’m capable of, what type of music and direction I’m trying to achieve. So, yea, I tried really hard on that song.
You release music in a variety of languages. Does your approach to music change when you’re performing in English, Korean, or Mandarin?
Oh no. I feel like there’s no barrier or boundary. It’s not about the regions or languages. I could be doing something in Korean, in English, in Chinese. At the end of the day, it’s about the music itself. The genre. The type of sound. The production. It’s just in different languages. It’s the same to me. I’ll try to work to my fullest and max out on every song, on everything I produce.
In China, you don’t only write your own songs but manage your company, Team Wang.
Yea, Team Wang is a label I made. I’m the founder. We have 20-plus employees right now. It’s hard. I started with nothing. I told [JYP] that I wanted to start a label for myself, to do my solo stuff, and they were very supportive. They offered to help me, or give me advice, because they’re the pros. I’m still learning, but the reason I said, “Let me do this myself” was because I feel like that will be the only way I, as a person and the head of the label, will grow. I need to figure this out by myself. At first it was hard, preparing for my first single in China, “Papillon.” I had to organize all the staff, the transportation, airplane tickets, hotels, all the fees, all the salaries, all that stuff. I had to look into contracts. It was crazy.
To be honest, I’m a performer. I’m an entertainer. I’m not supposed to do the stuff like that. All I need to do is improve as a person and on-stage, to make better music. That’s not my region. But I was looking through contracts. At first it was hard, but I learned a lot. I’ve been through a lot. So many different dramas. Ups and downs. But now I’ve learned a lot, and I’m so much more comfortable now since I know what’s happening in every department of my label. I know if they are doing good. I can evaluate because I did it myself. Every production that’s made, I write my own topline, my own lyrics, I produce my own track. I brainstorm all the music video contents. The outfits. Editing my own music video, etc. It’s like a puzzle. And if I do that, I have the confidence to tell everybody that I produced it. It’s a song that I produced. It’s a production that’s made by Team Wang, which is me. Of course, in the process there are other producers and music video directors. And staff, they’re helping out all the time. I wouldn’t take all the credit for it. But I would say I’m 60%, 70% involved because it’s exactly how I wanted it.
Is it difficult to balance your artistic needs and the business side of things?
Sometimes it’s tough. Honestly, I’ve been working like every day is my last. I’m always ready. I always feel like I have to be ready. Because you never know when opportunities are going to appear in front of you. It’s hard. Sometimes I’m working so hard… I didn’t rest for three years. But contracts can be very sensitive and take time. Lawyers, especially, man. It’s so tough. Sometimes it’s just a simple statement in a contract that I don’t really care about-- But the thing about collaborating, cooperating with people, it’s the trust. I know there are risks for things to happen, but I feel like, who would want to cause problems? If you guys are really down to cooperate, why would you want to make problems? It’s always about the give and take. I want something, I’ll give you something. You’ll give me something, and you know what you’ll want from me. That’s reality. But sometimes all type of drama ends up happening and I’m so tired of it. It could be like 4am in the morning and someone can call me from New York, or America, talking about this or that. But I’m used to it. This is the path that I chose, and I’m enjoying it. I’m doing my own stuff. It’s hard to balance sometimes, especially because of time differences and different countries. Sometimes I’m working in China, getting all these messages from Korea about the upcoming album… That kind of stuff. I’ll wake up everyday with 100-plus messages to discuss this or that. I have to be involved with everything. This is killing me, but what can you do? I’m the founder.
Do you ever want to turn off your phone?
I can’t. This is the thing… My employees, they’re very passionate. They have the ambition to work to their fullest. But sometimes I feel like, in reality, at the end of the day it’s my label. It’s like my son. It’s a part of me. Nobody can care about this more than me. You just gotta push the car. Sometimes it’s not going to move by itself. You just gotta push it every day until you reach the destination.
When was the last time you had a day off?
Today’s a day off? You’re doing a bunch of interviews.
For me, if it’s not something like I have to record a TV show or I have to host a program... To me, as long as I can sit down to talk to somebody, I feel like it’s a day off already. But as long as I’m doing something that I love… A lot of people could be having a good salary in a company that they work in, a very decent salary, but they don’t like their job. I feel like this life is too short to do stuff that you don’t enjoy. What’s left? At the end of the day, if you’re dead, what are you going to do with the money? I think it’s about doing something that we love, every single day. For me, this is it.
Does it feel like work?
This is the thing. In school, I hated homework. I hated essays. I didn’t even graduate high school. I feel like this is my path. I didn’t like doing homework because people forced me to do it. When people force me to do something, I’ll do it, but it’s not going to be the best of me. For me, if I love doing something, nobody’s going to force me. They don’t have to force me. I’m doing what I love everyday. I’m blessed and honored to have all the supporters paying attention to me on every move that I make.
You have recently begun to turn your focus outside of Asia, and put out “Different Game” with Gucci Mane last year. What was that experience like?
It was good. It was a moment in the life. Collaborating with a legend. I actually thought it was not going to happen. One day, I made the track. I produced everything. And I just thought, “It would be crazy to have Gucci on it.” So we reached out. My American team reached out without any hope. But after two days, he replied. “Let’s do it.” I didn’t believe it. I double checked on his account. “Is this really him?” He said, “Let’s shoot this music video in Hawaii.” He was going to bring his wife for vacation, and to shoot the music video. So I went to Hawaii, we shot everything there. After the collaboration, I thought that everything was done. But he was really nice. In interviews he talked about me like, “Yea, I like Jackson, he’s a lot like me.” I was like, “Woah! Omigod. Did he just mention me?” It was a memorable experience.
What else are you working on this year?
At the end of the year, I’m hoping to release an album in America. It will be called Journey to the West.
The name is inspired by a traditional Chinese story. Why do you want to release an album under that title?
I just want to make that traditional story as if I’m the five people in it heading to the west. For me, I want to make this, in the modern world, like Jackson Wang is heading to the west. And the west is America. It’ll be in all English. An emphasis on pop. Much better production than what I’ve been doing. What I’ve been doing so far, I’ve been growing as an artist.
You straddle all these musical worlds, and right now K-pop is definitely having a moment in the U.S. What do you think it will take for Chinese music to have an impact here?
I feel like my goal isn’t to break in to the American market. “I want to break into this market. I want to be successful.” It’s not about that. I just want to take what I’ve been doing, and what I will do, to an international platform to share with people so they see that this guy, this Chinese dude, this Chinese kid, is trying really hard with his music, he’s trying to share his stories, his experiences. I wasn’t a music guy originally. I was an athlete. All those stories about going for your dreams, making them come true, working for those dreams, I’m just trying to share stories like that.
You mentioned you’re going to be moving into a bit more of a pop vibe?
You’ll still have the hip-hop drum in it, but it’ll be more melodic toplines.
What made you decide to switch towards that?
I feel like I just want to try something else. I dunno. These days I’m really into melodies, that’s why. It’s just me. If you see all my work, maybe after 10 years, you’ll be able to see, “Oh, he’s been through that. Oh, this is when that sort of music came out.” My entire story. I don’t want to receive any songs or tracks from other people -- I mean, I will. But I don’t think it’s the time right now. I want to be original. I want to talk about every stage for me in life. Just the basic story of me.
Watch the music video for Jackson Wang's newly-released "Oxygen" here: