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Lay Zhang on stepping away from the group act and making his latest EP ‘West’

By Lé Baltar Published Oct 27, 2022 3:40 pm

It has been over ten years since Lay Zhang, more popularly known as LAY, established himself as a household name in Asia, debuting as a member of the South Korean-Chinese pop sensation EXO under SM Entertainment in 2012. 

In 2013, EXO made a major breakthrough upon the release of their first studio album “XOXO” and hit single “Growl,” which sold over a million copies – a feat only the group achieved in 12 years. The Korean act would later find further commercial success, with their sixth studio album “Don’t Mess Up My Tempo” in 2018 peaking at Top 23 on the Billboard 200 chart in the U.S. and becoming their best-selling album domestically. 

Once named “Kings of K-pop” and having taken five consecutive Album of the Year awards at the Mnet Asian Music Awards, alongside countless headlining acts and concert tours worldwide, EXO certainly cemented its name in the Korean entertainment industry over the last decade.

As the Korean sensation act celebrated its 10th anniversary in April this year, LAY formally announced his departure from the group. On Instagram, he shared a handwritten letter expressing his gratitude for the past decade, which he called “one of the greatest gifts [he] could’ve ever received.”

But since 2015, LAY has been hands-on in making career-defining moves outside the best-selling K-pop group and proving that he can be more than who he is as an EXO member.

At 31, LAY has turned out to be a multi-hyphenate global superstar. As a solo artist, he has broken records with his chart-topping music, breaking into the Billboard 200 chart as China’s top-rated Mandopop idol and becoming the first Chinese singer to make it to the U.S. iTunes Top 60 after releasing his third album “NAMANANA.” He has also ventured into acting (both in film and television), hosting, and fashion. Since 2020, he has been managing his own talent label – Chromosome Entertainment Group.

However, months after he stepped away from the group act and focused more on his solo career, LAY admitted that the decision was no walk in the park. 

“To be a solo artist is tough because you have to hold the thing by yourself,” said LAY in a sit-down interview with Philippine media including PhilSTAR L!fe. “It’s tough but also it’s cool, right? My achievement [is that] I have a lot of fans who support me. And through the fans, their love and support, I can get motivation to do a lot of things, keep going, and do what I want to do.” 

This motivation allowed LAY to forge on and come up with his latest EP “West” released in September this year. The EP boasts five dreamlike and upbeat tracks, led by the single “Veil,” with its accompanying music video and versions in Mandarin and English.

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A post shared by Lay Zhang (@layzhang)

Producing ‘West’ 

But how did the EP come about? LAY said “West” complements his 2021 EP “East,” which highlights his signature M-pop style. “It’s about my journey to the west and the history around it. There are challenges I’ve seen and faced along the journey that people can relate to in their everyday lives.”

“This one is about having [a] fun life while telling my truth,” he added. 

It’s very important to have my culture [in my music] because my culture is who I am. I’m a proud Chinese person first before [becoming] an artist. So I just want to share all the good things about my culture, and I hope this inspires others to do the same.

LAY also said that his creative process for “West” was not as difficult as one would imagine it to be. “Every day, [you] just try to do something. It’s not difficult. I think everybody can create something new.” 

Yet, he shared that “it’s hard to [connect with your] emotions. It’s hard to make people like it.”

Central to the EP is LAY’s invocation of traditional Chinese art forms into his music, and the Mandopop star said that it was a conscious effort for him to incorporate these cultural elements.

“It’s very important to have my culture [in my music] because my culture is who I am,” he explained. “I’m a proud Chinese person first before [becoming] an artist. So I just want to share all the good things about my culture, and I hope this inspires others to do the same.” 

This is also part of the reason why he opted to release Mandarin and English versions of the focus track “Veil,” which has reached over 4.7 million views on YouTube in just a month. “As a Chinese person, Chinese comes easier to me. But I also want for more people to know what I’m singing about, so [I made an] English version as well,” said LAY.

LAY added that the song is about “being more real and taking off your mask.”

Apart from dropping his new music, LAY has also been holding his concert tour, “Grand Line 2: Infinite Lands,” since October this year beginning in Malaysia and Singapore before heading to North America. The global sensation will also headline the MetaMoon Music Festival in New York this November.

Asked about what “Infinite Lands” meant for him, LAY said that it’s about relentless trying. 

“You’ll never know what’s going to happen next. So you want to try something, you want to do something, you want to find something,” he noted. “I think that can make me bring my fans and my audience to see beautiful views and dream bigger and see the bigger visions. We don’t know if we can get there or not, but let’s just try.”

Never wasting time

But despite the heights the Mandopop icon has reached in his young multifaceted career, he refuses to settle for less and continues to improve on his craft. 

In fact, LAY shared that when he was 17 years old, he never imagined seeing himself at where he is now. “I don’t want to waste time, so every day I just do my best, whatever I can.”

Yet, the Chinese artist believes that he’s far from being successful. “For me, [being] successful is just one moment. At that moment, maybe you’re successful. But I think our lives have no [unlimited] time, so we have to keep in [our] mind to always look ahead, dream big, and never give up. Always try your best. That’s when great things happen.” 

LAY also said that he still hopes to pursue plenty of things, especially now that he’s actively plotting his solo music career.

“I have more freedom to choose a concept,” he said. “That’s what I try to experiment [on] as much as I  can. I’m still finding my sound. It’s a process and it’s fun to make all kinds of music. My goal is just to get better each day and discover my sound.”

He added: “I want to try a lot of things. I want to try a lot of genres. Hip hop is different for me because I grew up with ballads, but I love the energy and autotune of hip hop. I hear that house music is getting more popular. Maybe I’ll try that next. I’m open to all kinds of music because it is art.”

As he navigates the tides of his solo career, LAY remains committed to one thing: “I want to make a new generation of artists.”