“It’s kind of hard to explain in English, but Gaho means extra. It’s not like ‘attention-seeking,’ but just like a little bit extra. My friends gave me that nickname, and it just stuck.” Gaho says during his chat with Rolling Stone Australia. Speaking from Seoul, South Korea, on a fine afternoon, the soloist is relaxed, composed, and more precocious than one would expect a 24-year-old gearing up for his first full-length album to be.
Like his stage name, however, Gaho believes in going the extra mile, whether in life or in music. Born in 1997 as Kang Dae Ho, the 24-year-old initially trained to be a K-pop idol, before the creative freedom and ownership of being a singer-songwriter lured him down the path of a soloist.
“A really core part of being a singer-songwriter is that you can literally do this until the day you die,” he says. “So I hope that I can literally make music up until like the day before I pass away.”
On his first full-length album Fireworks – coming after an illustrious rise marked by his 2018 mini-album Preparation for A Journey and a diverse roster of soundtrack appearances on some of Korea’s most beloved shows, such as Itaewon Class and The Last Empress – this manifests in his acute, poignant, and heart wrenching dissection of youth. With every track on Fireworks, Gaho shapes pulsing, distilled emotions into songs as engaging and memorable as the glory of youth itself, positioning himself as one of K-pop’s most exciting rising stars.
Below, Gaho talks about his first full-length album, Fireworks, his musical evolution, and why he feels he still has a long way to go.
RS: What was the feeling going into this album?
Gaho: I’d been preparing for this album for about a year to two years now. It’s got all of my thoughts in it. There’s like a keyword that you can put on the album: youth. That’s something that I really would like to express.
RS: I like the connection between youth and fireworks. What inspired this?
Gaho: Like you mentioned, fireworks are beautiful but they’re only there for a short time. I feel that youth can be kind of similar. Youth is always fleeting, and beautiful. When you think of fireworks, they go up and are really bright and beautiful. Youth is like that.
RS: You’ve covered a lot of aspects of youth and feelings across the tracks on the album. How did you decide on what feelings you wanted to talk about?
Gaho: I felt that [the emotions are] not only something that I have experienced, but a lot of people in their twenties can relate to as well. Especially the concept of youth, you know, everybody experiences it. Although it’s different from person to person, everyone experiences these emotions.
RS: Sonically, Fireworks seems more pop-leaning than your previous works. Is pop something that you associate with the feeling of youth?
Gaho: Like you mentioned, fireworks are kind of like youth, [which is] kind of like a pop feeling. But rather than saying that my style is changing, it’s more like this is what I wanted to try out in a way.
RS: Is there any particular song on the album that’s close to you because of the emotion that it’s related to?
Gaho: The second song on the album is called “Lost My Way”. I guess [for] the past few years – in the media, there are so many artists. K-pop idols, pop singers, different celebrities here and there. We’re always faced with different types of media every single day.
Even from my perspective as an artist, [I thought] ‘What should I look at? What should I not look at? What am I supposed to take from this?’ I kind of felt like I lost my way in a sense. There’s actually a part of the lyrics that says, ‘How can I get people to listen to my music?’
RS: I think it’s interesting that “Lost My Way” is the track you mentioned, because I read that you were initially training to be an idol. What changed and made you go the solo way and not the idol way?
Gaho: When I was younger, there was the option to either go towards [being] an idol or go towards [being] a singer-songwriter. In high school, there was always the opportunity for kids to audition. [People] always said: ‘Oh, you should become an idol.’ So, it was not really apparent that [being] a singer-songwriter is an option in a way.
I did a lot of auditions and kind of went through that path. After a while [though] I kind of figured out what a singer-songwriter really was and what they could do. I found that very attractive. I ended up going that route just because it fit me a little bit better. Of course, I respect all the many idols out there and I think what they’re doing is just amazing. But for myself, singer-songwriter was more of my path. I don’t regret it at all – I am content with what I chose.
RS: What’s the best part about being a soloist for you?
Gaho: The biggest part is that I can write whatever I want. What I feel, whatever I want to try out – just anything. Like I mentioned, all the songs on this album are really near and dear to me. A lot of them are emotions I’ve felt or seen. A really core part of being a singer-songwriter is that you can literally do this until the day you die. So I hope that I can literally make music up until like the day before I pass away.
RS: Let’s go back to “Lost My Way” for a second. When you were feeling like this, what brought your confidence back?
Gaho: So, rather than saying that I found my way, I think it would be more accurate to say I’m still finding my way. When we’re going through life, you don’t necessarily always know where you’re going. When I was making this album, there were a lot of things that to me were not perfect, that didn’t work out the way I wanted. This album isn’t everything I’ve ever felt in his life, but it does [show] a lot of what I’ve felt before.
I spoke to a lot of sunbaes (the Korean word for ‘senior’) in the industry, and whenever I asked them whether they had found their way, even in their forties and fifties, they still say that they’re still looking.
RS: What is something you learnt about yourself while working on this album?
Gaho: I feel like this is something that we all can relate to, but I realised that being alone by yourself for too long is not necessarily a good thing. Being alone with your thoughts, 24/7, keeping all your thoughts, all your worries inside your heart is not really a good thing. It just stays with you. It never gets handled and it never gets solved. It’s good to take time to be around people and work through it.
RS: We really have to talk about your song “Start Over” for the K-drama Itaewon Class and how it exploded. Did anything change after the song blew up like that?
Gaho: Nothing really changed for me. I’ve done a lot of OSTs, but I’ve also done a lot of my own music. The reason why I actually chose to go into the OST ‘career’ is not to say that ‘the OST is me’, but rather to say that this is my voice, and that I can do lots of different styles. The person who sings OSTs Gaho versus Gaho who [has his] own songs is kind of different. I put them into different categories. Whatever you hear in a drama, that is OST Gaho, but then what you hear on this album are my own personal songs.
RS: How are OST Gaho and personal Gaho different?
Gaho: So for OSTs, you know, it’s like the producers, they come out with an idea. They come out with a feeling that should be portrayed when I sing the song. So, it’s not a hundred percent my feeling, or my style. I try to match the feeling of the drama, try to match what the actors are feeling, what the drama is trying to portray. As the Gaho [who writes] personal songs, the albums that I record are what I feel, what’s my style, what I would like to express to people.