If you’re a fan of K-pop acts such as EXO, f(x), SHINee, NCT, and TAEYEON, you have probably heard songs created by Adrian McKinnon. Credited in songs like Baekhyun’s “Candy,” Taemin’s “IDEA,” EXO’s “Tempo,” and Taeyeon’s “Starlight,” Adrian has years of chart hits under his belt.
The American singer, songwriter, and producer’s experience in the K-pop industry dates back to the track release of EXO’s “December, 2014 (The Winter’s Tale)” in 2014. Since then, the “4 walls” writer has gone on to create sounds for several SM Entertainment acts, as well as penning songs for ASTRO, ENHYPEN, MONSTA X, and more.
EnVi chatted with Adrian to celebrate his creations, his inspirations, and the importance of collaboration.
Music Is Celebration
For Adrian, the link between music and celebration is part of human nature. “Celebration and music have been in hand since the dawn of man,” he told EnVi. “All the way back to the caveman days,” he detailed, “people would dance around the fire and really celebrate whatever.”
Adrian’s own soundtrack to celebration is inspired by family and ‘70s and ‘80s pop, funk, and soul classics. First and foremost, comes the legendary singer, songwriter, and pianist, Stevie Wonder. “I mean, he made his own version of “Happy Birthday,” said Adrian, “which is celebrated all over the world.” Songs by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted group, Earth, Wind & Fire, are also a staple for picnics, barbecues, and other gatherings. “My mom is a huge Earth Wind & Fire fan, so we always play “September,” he shared.
Songs from these decades are now a major influence in Adrian’s writing. “Michael Jackson was a big influence to me, as just a kid who loved music growing up,” he said. “But a lot of writing wasn’t just MJ,” he added, “that was Rod Temperton and Quincy Jones in a lot of respects.” Describing his admiration of songwriter Temperton’s work, Adrian carried on, “his writing is very fluent, it’s a little more traditional.” A more modern influence is Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper, Kendrick Lamar. “It’s not really applicable to say, K-pop, for example,” he said, laughing, “but I’m definitely inspired by his play on words, and how he’s able to put ideas together.” Melodically, Adrian’s inspiration can come from various forms. “I try to take from everything,” he commented.
On the topic of influence, the conversation covered interpolations found in WayV’s “Miracle” and NCT U’s “90’s Love.” While WayV’s Universe track references Kirk Franklin’s “Looking For You,” the Resonance Pt. 2 track interpolates Busta Rhymes’ “Pass The Courvoisier Part II.”
“Okay, I can’t take credit for either of those things!” confessed Adrian. “I actually did not even put together the Kirk Franklin “Looking 4 You” reference,” he added, “that blew my mind!” While he credited the bulk of the song to Justin Starling and Jeffrey Misunderstood, Adrian assisted later on the bridge and other adjustments. “90’s Love” was a similar situation. “I came in and made some changes on the backend of the creation,” he explained. “Sometimes it will be something I do initially from the beginning, and other times it’s just a request to make some changes,” the musician told EnVi. According to Adrian, a reference to these Hip-Hop and Gospel heavy-weights “ties in with culture”. “It’s a nod,” he expanded, “it’s a show of respect.”
The Neo Vision of A&R
For Adrian, creating music for K-pop acts is a balance between following a brief, and letting the creativity run freely. Discussing the differences between NCT subunits NCT 127, NCT DREAM, and WayV’s signature sounds, the songwriter explained A&R (Artists & Repertoire) form much of the vision. “The A&Rs do a great job of giving you references,” he said. When writing, Adrian described a loose formula considering the number of members, their vocal capabilities, and the ratio of singers to rappers. The reference songs give pointers for aspects like heaviness, tone, and color, but a lot of this is figured out with the production. “The melodies and stuff will just kinda follow through,” he elaborated, with a hand gesture mirroring his words.
However, rather than heavily adhering to references, sometimes he prefers to try something from scratch. “As a creative, if you get too many references, it kind of, it kind of pigeon-holes you a little,” the songwriter revealed. “Maybe towards the end, when I’ve finished my idea, I’ll go back and check it, and see if it kind of lines up,” he added. But this isn’t always the case. “If I’m really into what I did, then I might just pitch it like that,” Adrian confessed. “Sometimes another idea might kinda, give them another perspective on it,” he resumed. “That’s the beauty of music,” Adrian concluded, “there’s no locked-in way to do anything.”
After submitting a demo, the final sound can be difficult to predict. “The concepts and lyricism within the demos are usually different from the final product,” Adrian acknowledged. He told EnVi: “These A&R are the ones that can hear the potential, just in the musicality. They’re not really stuck on lyrics, or the concept, the title.” The NCT U celebratory anthem, “Birthday Party,” is an example of this. Having worked on the bridge, Adrian revealed, laughing: “What they [A&R] liked about it was a completely different concept! In fact, the original version was on some Megan Thee Stallion kinda level of stuff!”
For the “Love Talk” writer, the moment of listening to the final release of a single, album, or B-side is an act of celebration. He shared: “We all sit down in the house and we’ll play the song a few times, talk about it. We’ll celebrate.” The songwriter also secures a physical copy of every release he is involved in. “Just from a trophy perspective, I make sure I get a copy of the album that my song happens to be a part of,” he proudly said.
“Collaboration Is A Celebration”
“Collaboration is a celebration!” enthused Adrian, talking about the relationships he has formed with fellow songwriters and producers across the years. Among these are Kenzie and DEEZ, who have penned years of hits at SM Entertainment. Adrian fondly referred to Kenzie as “one of the best” and DEEZ as the “Korean Maxwell,” due to his sultry voice. “We celebrate every time we’re together,” he relayed. “We hug, we chat a little bit, and then we get started on music.” Another collaborator is Chikk. “She’s got this energy that I haven’t found with anyone else in a studio session,” he said with a chuckle.
The “Jopping” writer also referred to the British duo, LDN Noise, as “my brothers from over the pond,” and described how he and Tay Jasper “always celebrate” when they’re together. The artistic chemistry between the four musicians inspired them to create a group called WAYOUT, releasing a single called “2UP” last year. The song was born from Adrian and Tay Jasper jamming to LDN Noise beats, over a glass of wine. “What’s cool about 2UP, was it sort of sparked the idea to collaborate on more music,” Adrian told EnVi. They then worked on seven or eight more tracks during a visit to London. This allowed the creatives to explore a different side to their previous K-pop collaborations. According to Adrian, what works about this collective is knowing each others’ strengths. He expanded: “We know when to kinda chime in, kinda step in, step back and let the other guy do the work. It’s a really neat sort of chemistry we have.”
Less frequently, Adrian has also collaborated with idols in the studio. Among these are f(x)’s Amber, former Super Junior member Henry, and SHINee’s Jonghyun. “One of the things I’ve noticed with each of them is that they were open to ideas and suggestions, they were very courteous, and obviously very talented,” he listed.
Even with a language barrier, working with Jonghyun was “a very memorable experience,” communicating through melodies, riffs, and nods. “A lot of our collaboration was just singing ideas back and forth to one another,” Adrian fondly recounted working with the gifted songwriter and “Moon” singer.
Adrian also told the story of his visit to SHINee’s “Married to the Music” music video set. While it is rare for songwriters to go to filming locations, he met the quintet on set and got to see them rehearse choreography in between takes. Told by the SHINee members their already flawless dancing was “just warming up,” he was immediately impressed. “If that’s just 50-60% of what you guys are going to be,” he recalled thinking, “I’m already sold on you!”
Songs to Celebrate
Having penned some of the most recognizable songs to come out of the K-pop industry in the last decade, Adrian has more than earned some bragging rights. However, his descriptions of the processes behind these songs were humble and peppered with laughter and smiles.
Now a summer anthem among SHINee fans and casual listeners alike, Adrian vividly remembers the creative process behind SHINee’s “View.” “That was one of those moments where I remember precisely how that day went,” he described, beaming. During his first time working directly with LDN Noise, he had some initial nerves. “They were known as these amazing guys,” he confessed, and he was unfamiliar with the UK Garage sound they were after. “I was like, I don’t even know what that means,” he said laughing. Hayden of LDN Noise sent him an example to get him up to speed before they headed to the studio. Aiming to recreate a club atmosphere for the dance genre with dimmed studio lights, Adrian started improvising a melody. “It’s a rare occurrence for me to do the first take, and then keep it,” he revealed, “but the melody, the pre-chorus, and chorus were all done in one take.” Adrian was relieved. “For guys from the UK to say that what I did was really cool, over this genre I wasn’t too familiar with, was very motivating,” he recalled.
Praising LDN Noise’s mastermind production on the song, he said: “View is still one of my favorite songs. I celebrate any time somebody brings it up!” Another of his favorites is NCT 127’s “Superhuman.” From the music to the visuals “the way everything was put together, I was really proud of it,” he told EnVi.
Go Big or Go Home
Having already worked with some of the biggest acts in K-pop, there are still several artists Adrian hopes to work with. “BTS is like the obvious,” he confessed, “they’re really talented guys!” Another act would be SUGA of BTS’ recent collaborator, PSY. “He’s wild,” Adrian said, chuckling, “like he doesn’t give a crap, as long as it’s big, and it feels good.” He would also like to explore different sides to songwriting with more girl groups and female artists, such as ITZY, Red Velvet, BLACKPINK, and Jessi. “It kinda gives you a different perspective on how to write a melody,” he explained, “with different types of voices in mind.”
If he had to give advice to any writers at the beginning of their careers, it would be to “not give up, and try to be inspired by everything.” Not wanting to seem cliché, he expanded “there are gonna be times that might feel like, it’s not gonna work out.” Outlining three main points, he continued: “As long as you’re passionate about what it is you’re doing, and you’re consistent with what it is that you’re doing, and you’re learning…then there’s only potential for growth.”
“Keep your network strong,” he also recommended, “you’re not just selling your product, you’re selling yourself.” Aspiring songwriters should also keep up to date with technology, and how to record themselves with a clean sound. “I’m glad everybody is getting back into the meeting in person again,” he said, referring to pandemic-time changes, “but there’s a very good chance that some of that stuff might stay.”
In terms of Adrian’s next moves, you can look forward to more music, both in the K-pop market and with WAYOUT. “We might have something this summer,” the singer revealed. “We’ve got a lot of songs that are really inspirational,” he spilled. “I think these are some songs that would be good for people to hear.” “We just want to make sure,” he slowed down, “they’re as pristine as possible.”
As for the K-pop industry, “there’s a few things coming down the pipeline,” he teased with a smile. “But I can’t really say, because I don’t think they have announced,” he said. The musician resumed, leaning in slightly: “But I, we are working really hard to share more ideas and more music with the world.”
Want more exclusive interviews with the writers and producers of your favorite songs? Check out our Creative Spotlight with Grammy award-winning producer and “Sticker” producer, Dem Jointz.