In the music video for her debut single “POP!" Im Nayeon dances atop a sign that flashes her name in big, bold letters. It glows an incandescent shade of sky blue, a signature color for the 26-year-old global superstar who for the past seven years has performed as a member of TWICE, the highest-selling Korean girl group of the past decade. With her self-titled solo EP, Nayeon is strutting out on her own and (re)introducing herself to the world.
The eponymous album makes a statement. IM NAYEON is a playful double entendre (both her birth name and a wink to “I’m Nayeon”) that conveys the singer’s own determination to prove herself as her own artist outside of TWICE. As the group’s eldest member, or unnie, Nayeon has always been known for her colorful vocal range and cheerful disposition, adapting to every TWICE concept with self-assured ease. She loves to laugh and tries not to take herself, or anything else, too seriously. She smiles with her whole face, her front teeth peeking out. It’s why her fans call her "여워," an abbreviated version of the Korean word for “cute.”
In that sense, “POP!” is a perfect match. It’s a bubbly and brassy bop, bursting with an enticingly joyful energy. Among the current stream of sad bedroom pop and moody lowercase feelings, it feels almost radical. But IM NAYEON has even more to offer.
The album is a prismatic manifestation of the singer, from the bright synths of “No Problem” (a collaboration with her JYP Entertainment labelmate Felix) to the R&B softness of "Sunset" to the easy groove of the self-penned “All or Nothing,” in which she confesses “even though I know myself best / I still don’t know anything.” IM NAYEON is her attempt to know herself better, written in-between sleepless nights in foreign cities (much of the songwriting was done during the North American leg of TWICE’s sold-out world tour earlier this year) and a packed promotional schedule. She pushed herself to her creative limits, stepping out of the familiar comfort of her group, to embrace the challenge of making something of her own—not as Nayeon of TWICE but as Im Nayeon, the Seoul-born star who’s waited 12 years for this moment. Along the way, she even rediscovered her love of music.
Here, Nayeon talks to ELLE.com from her label’s headquarters in Seoul about her debut album, separating her celebrity from herself, and what drives her to keep creating.
When I was originally planning the album, I was nervous. But when I started actually preparing for it [during the first half of this year], I found it really exciting. Because it was a new experience for me. And I had people next to me who helped me and supported me every step of the way. So I felt really grateful and ready.
Since I’ve shown a variety of concepts as a member of TWICE, I wanted this solo album to show a newer side of me—the sides that have never been explored before. So the moods and images that I get to showcase on this album feel fresh and new. But at the same time they match my personality.
Of course! That’s the color that represents me, and it’s the color I like the best. There would be no NAYEON without TWICE.
I think about this question a lot. I can’t define myself in a single word. Nowadays, it’s impossible to hide oneself because you show yourself to the fans and to the public a lot. So I believe that the things I communicate to my fans, and what the fans see in me as Im Nayeon, is how I define myself. There’s no difference between TWICE's Nayeon and Im Nayeon.
It’s very crucial for my mental and physical health to have designated onstage and offstage time. But these days, my schedule is very busy! So it’s been hard to find a peaceful moment in my life lately. I try to find any time in between working to take a rest and heal myself to prepare myself for the next schedule.
Because I go to broadcast studios a lot, I meet a lot of people. That’s my job. So I try to find a quiet, peaceful and very natural place when I have the time. I find healing in my life when I look at greeneries, like trees and grass. Nature and fresh air bring me a lot of peace.
I’ve never really given much thought to what makes me happy or what happiness really means. I receive happiness from my everyday, normal life. Every time I laugh out loud. Or when I’m talking and eating delicious food with people I love. That's what I think happiness is. It’s a comfortable feeling.
Before I debuted, I wanted to be called Nayeon because that’s my name, and I’m proud of it. But after I debuted, there were times when it was difficult to distinguish between my public life as a celebrity and my life as Nayeon. It was hard, but I realized that I don’t know how to be anyone other than Nayeon. And the fans give me the best nicknames. They call me "여워," which is a way of saying cutesy. I like it a lot!
When I’m working nonstop, I want to take a rest. And when I take a rest, I want to work again because I miss working. So when I’m working constantly, I would prefer to have frequent small breaks, rather than long breaks. I enjoy working. And my driving force is 50 percent TWICE members and 50 percent ONCE [the fans], because I know that fans are waiting for our albums and our concerts. That keeps me going. And the members and I all have similar energies and drives. So we’re all happy to keep going because we know the fans are waiting for us.
I don’t set specific goals. I’m a more fluid person who goes with the flow. I live in the present. I try not to stress about the future. It's my natural vibe. I don’t force it. I sometimes want to set strict goals for myself, but I’m not very successful at it!
The energy is very different! The most important thing is that I don’t try to fill the gap of the other eight members, but rather I think of it as completely different work. The challenge is thinking of it with a completely different mindset. When I’m preparing for an album, there are times when I have to make a decision, and there are times when I have to give up on certain things. With the members, there are eight other members who have the same thoughts as me and who want the same things as me. So when I’m doubting myself, I have them to back me up. But when I'm working by myself, I feel more pressure to be responsible for my own decisions. I have to be really sure of myself, and that can be a challenge!
When I first heard it, a lot of people around me thought it matched my vibe really well and that it was a genre I would feel confident in. But actually, I doubted myself at first. I really questioned whether I could pull it off. The song is really energetic and positive and bright, so I had to re-record certain parts a lot because it was hard to sustain the high tension and energy of the song. So I was a little worried at first! But now when I hear it, I think, “This is Im Nayeon.”
I still think I have a long way to go to master my songwriting skills. I really wanted these songs to be perfect because they were going to be on my debut album, so I did feel a bit of pressure to do well. I was also writing while on tour, which made it a bit more difficult. But I thought of it as another new challenge, another opening in my life. I tried to match the song vibe as much as possible while also expressing myself.
In my trainee years, I was able to practice and sing a variety of songs. I listened to everything. But after my debut, I was really busy and TWICE became my life. I was limited in the music styles I could sing. So now that I have more time in my career, I’d like to explore more genres and wider depths of music. In my album-making process, I liked the recording part the most because it was the first time I recorded an entire song by myself. I got to fill the song with my voice. I studied how I could sing it and interpret the music for myself. It made me realize how much I love singing and music in that sense. Before, it was a mechanical process. And now I get to explore a variety of styles in my own voice. Through this album, I found a new love for music.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.