Woosung isn’t afraid of the unknown. The 28-year-old singer, songwriter, and frontman of K-pop band The Rose has learned that the joy of life blooms in serendipity. “If you know how everything is going to happen, there’s no point in living. It’s like using a cheat, if everything goes the way we want it to,” he tells Teen Vogue over a phone call from Seoul, South Korea. “I like the hope of life. You hope for things and you create a purpose, you keep going towards that, working hard. That’s the fun part, the moments where memories are created.”
It’s the speech of someone who has been turned over and around by the tides — but learned to come ashore everytime. From his upbringing as a Korean kid in the United States, to his crushed dream of being a football player, and later to the ups and downs of becoming a K-pop idol, Woosung’s journey led him to an unwavering self-confidence. He shares the story of how he got here in an eight-episode series out Sept. 14 on Mindset, an audio platform established by brothers and DIVE Studios co-founders Brian, Eric, and Eddie Nam. It’s the first time Woosung has laid everything on the table.
“I don’t think I’m nervous,” he says. “No matter what the reaction [of the public], it is what it is.” After a long period away from the spotlight — partly increased by the pandemic — he felt like now was the right time to share his learnings with the world. “I kinda liked staying inside and not being surrounded by so many things to do, you know what I mean?” he asks. “When you have nothing to do, you start to think about yourself, and you have time to realize and grow. I think that was good.”
While Woosung’s singing voice is swoon-worthy in its husky yet smooth modulation, immediately recognizable in any song, his talking voice is a serene lake. “I hope that it can heal their minds, give them comfort,” he says of his Mindset series. “You are not alone, and when you feel like everything is going bad, everybody else goes through similar things in life. I think that’s what I want them to get out of this.”
He often defines himself as “Lazy,” the title of his latest single, although his extensive career defies that — throughout a decade, he participated in two competition shows, released music both as part of The Rose and as a soloist, toured the world, and was an MC for Korean talk show After School Club. Today, he also talks about feeling old, in that quiet acceptance that only your late-twenties are able to provide. “I always wanted to be a little older than I was,” he explains. “I feel like the older you get, the more things you are capable of, and you have knowledge that could make you survive a little bit easier in life. I’m all about getting old. I mean, except I want to enjoy it. I want to be healthy.”
I ask if he has ever heard of Saturn returns. He hasn’t. Astrologically, when Saturn, the planet of old age, diligence, and responsibility, returns to the exact sign it was when you were born — which takes roughly 28 to 30 years, so Woosung’s first Saturn return has just started — life confronts you with the consequences for your actions and choices so far. It’s a time of maturing into a more accountable version of yourself. “Oh my God, no way,” Woosung exclaims after the explanation. “I think that’s why I started to be more responsible for myself. But I’m glad, I’m happy. Thank you, Saturn!”
While Woosung enjoys growing up, that doesn’t mean he feels like an adult. “I act like one, but we all just get better at pretending,” he infers. The statement recalls one of the episodes in his Mindset series, which is focused on Woosung’s tight relationship with his mother. In it, he talks about the stigma of being a child of divorced parents in Korea, and how his mom’s decision to move to the U.S. with him impacted his life. Ultimately, it also brought them closer. “Because I’m getting to the age when she had me, I understand how scary that must have been,” he says. “Right now, I don’t think I could have my own kid. I don’t think I’m ready. So, much respect to my mom.”
But Woosung has had the taste of a different parenthood lately. He’s the doting, self-proclaimed “daddy” of Woolfy, a pomsky puppy who’s currently in the U.S. with his mom. “I miss him dearly. Because I’m in Korea right now, I haven’t seen him in a while, I can’t wait to go back,” he says. “I have a lot of photos of him, but I didn’t want to upload them because I always care so much about what I post [on Instagram] and how it looks and everything. And when my mom takes photos, it’s just… Not aesthetic ones. I’m okay with seeing that because it’s my Woolfy,” he says, his voice welling up with a warmth and a cadence that can only be described as love. “And I’m pretty sure everybody else is okay with seeing that too, but... You know,” he bursts into laughter.
Aside from being a highly visual person, with a fondness for interior design and a preoccupation for making things look beautiful (“I like my Instagram being like a gallery. It feels good when it looks ‘in place,’” he explains), Woosung has a special fondness for wolves — even his first EP is titled Wolf. When reading about the animal, he felt a strong connection to how they are wrongly perceived on the outside, as opposed to their true loyal, social nature.
When asked if he sees himself as someone who holds a similar duality, Woosung says, “I don’t think I have two sides, I think I have too many sides.” His thoughts and purposes change as time passes, he explains. One example is the Mindset episode focused on his crushed dream of becoming a football player.
When Woosung was in 9th grade, a dislocated shoulder sent him to the surgery room and shattered his prospects on the field. “I always say it’s funny because if you look at me now, come on, I wouldn’t have been able to play football,” he laughs. “But that was once my dream, and I wasn’t bad at it.”
He believes that going through such a life-altering experience so young prepared him for the challenges of pursuing music later on. “I think life always gives you all these problems, but it doesn’t give you problems that you can’t solve.” Back in Korea, by the end of 2011 he auditioned for the first season of SBS competition show K-pop Star, but was eliminated just before the Top 10 contestants were announced. “I started [this path] because I love music. It was a surprise and it came too fast,” he says, defining his relationship with music as a “love/hate” one. “Because I chose music, I did go through my hardest times in life, but then again, I could get through them because of music. Because I love it so much. It’s something that I can’t take out of my life.”
However, if the forces of life may be that he has to change yet again, Woosung isn’t worried. “Yes, it [would be] a big deal, but I’m gonna be able to go through it, because music isn’t the only thing in my life,” he says. “I don’t want one thing to describe who I am, to be the sole purpose of my life. Even though I think and act and set my goals for music, if there is a time I can’t do it, it won’t be the end of the world. I’ll be okay.”
That same self-reliant resilience is shown in the way he dealt with the mental and physical toll of being a K-pop trainee. As detailed in one of the Mindset episodes, the hardships he faced after K-pop Star and before debuting with The Rose spun him into depression and an eating disorder. “One day I woke up and I didn’t know what I was doing. Why was I even practicing? Why was I in this company, wasting my time away? Not being able to do a lot of things that normal people could do? For what reason?” he questions. “I didn’t tell anybody, to be honest. And I knew that nobody could tell me [what to do] while I was going through it. I knew that I couldn’t listen to anyone but myself.”
However, his outlook isn’t bitter. “I got to discover new things because there was nobody to look after me. I am who I am because of those moments,” he says, adding that as soon as he started to make small changes, his life slowly went back on track. “I mean, who else would do it for you? That’s why I just had to step up myself. I started changing my routine, my lifestyle, thinking healthier, being positive. Little things.”
Nowadays, Woosung keeps busy with the things he loves. He is focused on building his own company, Woolfpack. “Just mainly creating something that, when the members of The Rose come out of the army, is a safer spot that they can come back to, rather than having to start from the beginning,” he says. His single “Dimples,” to be released on September 23, has also been produced under his own label, and is part of his upcoming album, date yet to be announced.
Because Woosung learned to trust himself so much, he is able to rely on his trusted pack, and hopes others find that same, healthy interdependence. His wisdom comes as freely as his smiles.
“People sometimes feel like one thing happens and wow, everybody’s gonna think it’s a big deal. But people forget, because they are busy worrying about their own lives. They didn’t even give it half the thought you gave,” he says. “If you love yourself, and you realize that your life is important to you, and you’re the only one who can kinda take care of yourself, it becomes a little bit easier.”
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