It’s a Wednesday evening at the 88Rising offices in West Hollywood, California, and Jackson Wang just got back from boxing. It’s only his third day in the United States, and Los Angeles is especially sunny amid a spring heat. But the Chinese star, who splits his time between China and S. Korea, is not here to soak some rays, he’s very much focused on work — specifically his upcoming appearance at the Coachella music festival as part of 88Rising’s “Head in the Clouds” Saturday evening set. He’s been prepping and rehearsing nonstop, all the while watching the view count rise — 15 million and counting — for his new single and visual, “Blow.”
Wang boasts a massive fanbase — 27.4 million followers on Instagram and 5.4 million on Twitter alone — and he’s sharing with those devotees one the darkest moments in his life: the nervous breakdown that led to “Magic Man,” his soon-to-be-released album. Wang reveals that the project was birthed after constantly feeling the pressure of not doing enough — or being enough — ironic considering, in the eight years since he began doing music, he has yet to take a vacation.
Mental health is top of mind for Wang, and the K-Pop star wears his heart on his sleeve when talking about what led to the breakdown, and how he coped, as he details in an interview with Variety.
Will this be your first time at Coachella?
It is my first time. It’s once in a lifetime. I’m very honored and at the same time, I’m nervous. … It’s not a negative nervous. I’m excited.
What’s it like working with 88Rising?
We’ve been working together more than four or five years. Now it’s totally family. We talk about work, yes, but we talk more about personal stuff. Especially when it comes down on the creatives: what’s the strategy? What’s our next move? What kind of music do we want to put out? Strategizing together. Not just at work, like families. Because working in this industry, honestly speaking, you have different emotions. Mental health is so important in this industry, in every industry but especially this industry.
For me, as an artist that travels around from Korea to China to all these different places, also working as a member of a K-Pop band and now I’m solo, everything’s different. Last year, I was in a mental breakdown, with depression and huge anxiety because everything changed around me. It got to a point where I’ve been in this industry for eight, nine years: it’s always traveling; show after show; programs; commercials; tour; it’s almost in a loop. I started to feel lost. I don’t know what more can I do and what should I do? I don’t even know who I was. I started drinking every day, but I was still working.
Growing up, I grew up in this family full of athletes. My parents were both athletes, national team athletes. I was an athlete, my brother was an athlete. So I always said that if I had obstacles in my life or stress, the way that I deal with it is I’ll just overcome it. I’ll find a solution, or I’ll always tell myself that I have to work harder. Maybe I’m not good enough, or I’m not working hard enough. The reason why there was a breakdown was it got to a point that it was above that. I felt like maybe I just suck.
What triggered it?
Just everything. I was completely lost. I thought, “You know what? Maybe it’s time for me…” By the way, I never believed in talking to other people or to friends. I always solve my own problems when I’m stressed out by myself, because what’s the point? It’s my problem. It’s not anyone else’s problem.
My producers, my team, my friends around me, they insisted to sit down with me. People have been always telling me: “You need a break. You work too hard, you need to chill for a bit. You need to recharge, to refresh, so you could come back inspired.” I was worried that if I take that break, I’ll be lazy forever. What if I can’t come back? I was worried about that.
We sat down and I didn’t know there was power in those words they shared. It feels so magical to me. This is magic. I never used to believe in this for all my life, then I accepted it. Whoever I was in the past, whatever I had with all my music or whatever — me, Jackson Wang as a character, as an artist, as a person — I wanted to leave that behind and start fresh. Then we created the album, and it’s called “Magic Man.”
How did you and Daniel “Cloud” Campos come together on the music video for “Blow?” What was the inspiration behind the look and the costumes?
“Blow” is the intro of Magic Man, of the various worlds that are about to be exposed. Cloud’s such an amazing director, and an amazing artist and dancer himself. He has that world in his mind, and I had my world when I listened to the song. We had different thoughts, but it was such a good mixture — because when you see this, the whole thing’s like a musical. That’s a very strong color that Cloud has in his world. I’m the leader of this world, I control everything. It’s a party and I’m leading everybody, that’s the whole concept.
What happens at the 48-second mark when everyone starts convulsing?
Oh yeah, you want me to spoil that? This is the thing: every freaking time I release some stuff, people will ask, “What does that mean?” The interesting thing is, one video or one product, a hundred people are going to have different emotions and different feelings towards it. There’s no point in me saying, ”Hey, this is what it is.” Whatever you guys think is not what it is. so I decided not to talk about it.
Now more than ever, audiences are responding to songs that aren’t in their native language. Do you feel pressure to sing in English?
No, not at all. This is the thing, art is art. Music is music. What does it have to do with nationality? There are so many elements. People ask me this question too: as an Asian, what does it feel like to be at the top of this chart or that chart? What are you even asking? Music is music, a product is a product. This water is from Japan. [Points to Fiji water bottle]. Fuck man, water is water. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, it’s bad. It’s very personal.
Why do you think American audiences have embraced K-Pop so enthusiastically?
Definitely put this in: K-Pop is not good because it’s K-Pop. K-Pop is good because it’s good music — it’s good quality. There’s no such thing as American artists. Yes there is, but at the end of the day music is music. The thing that matters is how many people can relate to that? That proves a lot of people can relate to K-Pop. That’s the answer, that’s what I think.
There’s an arena being built in Seoul specifically for K-Pop music. Popularity of genres is always changing. Will K-Pop last forever?
K-Pop will definitely last forever. J-Pop will last forever. You never know what happens tomorrow, right? To me, I personally think it’ll keep evolving. I just wish that entertainment has nothing to do with any other stuff, because entertainment is entertainment and is supposed to make people happy. … Artists like BTS, like Blackpink, I respect them in art. The direction that they’re going, me as an audience watching, I’m proud.
“Blow” is a new sonic direction for you. What inspired the sound?
I’ve been doing music for eight years and I’m always in a position that even daily, I’m exploring. I used to not sing. I haven’t been in a vocal lesson. I have zero experience in vocal lessons until this year. Back in [Korean entertainment company] JYP, I was trained in dance. I was trained in rap. I was trained in martial arts. I wasn’t a vocalist.
But during the process of a journey of me exploring, exploring, trying and trying — with the help of the people around me, with 88, Team Wang, producers — they kept inspiring me, inspiring me, inspiring me, and also encouraging me to try out new stuff. I surprised myself, too. Oh shit, this can be my sound. Or even hitting notes. I kept training. It’s all about sharpening my weapons and absorbing all these energies around me, knowledge and information. How do I turn all this stuff into mine? That’s my current status: “Blow” and this album.
You’re big on fashion. How do you go about picking your outfits for a big moment like Coachella?
Anything that’s comfortable. We’re doing art; we’re entertainers; we’re supposed to have fun with it. Because art itself is very personal. Fashion’s the same, it’s art. So I take it easy and have fun with it. If tomorrow I feel like going out in pajamas, I’ll do it.
Since you’ve been so vocal about mental health, do you have any advice for others that are struggling?
I can share my own experience, but it’s not a lecture or anything. I can say being serious in the process of making art is good, but don’t lose the fun of it. When you have fun with it, you’re happy. The second thing is, it’s important to have a circle of positive people around you. No matter how incredible you are as a person, as an artist, if you have all these negative people around you, it’s going to break you down.
What are your personal goals and what do you consider success?
I hope one day I can make all my supporters or fans real proud, and for my people in the East.
I feel like you’re already doing that…
Not yet, I’m so far away from it. Does everybody know my music in the street, in Beverly Hills or whatever? No, right? That means I’m so far away from it. Second, what do I want to be? Hopefully one day, I want to be the bridge to connect East and the West. People in the West know about East, East knows about West through internet, or even through traveling or working. But there are a lot of layers underneath that people don’t know. I hope one day I can do my best to make that happen.