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In The Garden Of Eden: How This Self-Taught Producer Is Crafting K-pop’s New Sound

By Elizabeth de Luna

It’s March 24, 2019, and Warsaw feels like it’s about to explode. The small Brooklyn venue, housed in a humble Polish community center, shakes with the anticipation of over 1,000 people waiting for K-pop group ATEEZ to take the stage. It’s been less than five months since the band debuted, but their popularity in the United States has already outgrown this space.

Up in the balcony, ATEEZ’s main producer Eden leans over the banister, watching as the crowd screams the Korean lyrics he wrote. At the end of the concert, ATEEZ’s leader and rapper Hongjoong points to Eden from the stage and calls him the “father” of the group’s music. The entire audience turns to look up and wave, and Eden bows gratefully. When asked about that night eight months later, Eden confesses that he is still shocked that ATEEZ has found such a loving audience in the U.S. “I thought, ‘Where did they first hear this music? How have they listened to it to a point where they’ve memorized the lyrics?’ I was very surprised,” he tells MTV News.

The 31-year-old producer sits in his studio, a plush sanctuary in the trendy Sinsa neighborhood of Seoul. The only connection to the world outside is the faint chorus of shouting and laughter floating up from the street through a cracked window.

This is where all of ATEEZ’s music is produced. When Eden and his crew moved in, they designed the space to feel like a second home. It’s padded with rugs and lit by an assortment of shaded lamps and clusters of vintage bulbs hanging overhead. A substantial crimson sectional sits across from a brick wall lined with albums bearing long, heartfelt notes from the artists with whom they collaborate. The scent of fresh flowers mixes with smoke from two cigarettes that lie extinguished in an ashtray on a coffee table. Adjacent to this common area are individual studios separated by frosted glass panel doors that are lit from within by the glow of computer screens. Before the archway a pair of plain black slippers await the return of their owner.

Eden wears a pristine black Stussy sweatshirt, vinyl sweatpants, crisp white socks, and Nikes. His dark hair frames his face; he has a habit of running his hand through it to push it up and out of his eyes, only for it to fall back down. Though his lyrics articulate a spectrum of visceral, aching emotions, Eden himself radiates meditative calm.

Not much is known about Eden outside of Korea. Even the basic details of his history as a producer and performer are diffused across the internet, some true and others false: He is a singer-songwriter under KQ Entertainment (true); he is currently the primary producer for labelmate ATEEZ’s music (true); and he once worked for CUBE Entertainment (false, he only rented a studio in the building’s basement). Eden’s compositions will soon fill arenas 15 times the size of Warsaw when ATEEZ tours again in March, and he’s ready to set the record straight. Eden prepares a cup of coffee and takes a seat on an ottoman. His hair is in his eyes again, so he pushes it away as he says, “I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”

The Origin

Eden was born in 1988 as YongHwan Kim in Yeosu, South Korea. As early as he can remember, he was playing the piano. “It’s kind of a given that every Korean child learns the piano,” Eden says, but he had natural flair for the instrument that singled him out from his peers. His admiration for virtuosos like Frédéric Chopin and Sergei Rachmaninoff led him to pursue a career in music. He wanted to become a singer, and then a composer, but the only style taught in his hometown was classical, which he mastered. To study pop, he needed to go to the heart of Korea’s bustling music industry: Seoul.

At 15, he moved alone to the country’s capital with the blessing and financial support of his family. “I told [my parents] I was studying in some formal setting when I was actually learning in my room by myself, using the internet.” His education was simple: He bought books about programming, listened to music, and explored different genres on the piano by ear.

“I was obsessed with the idea of becoming a real musician,” he scoffs, shaking his head.

In 2010, a music file he sent to a friend reached affiliates of Source Music, and he officially debuted as half of a producing unit called Eden Beatz. His stage name references the biblical garden because he sought “to make music in the most natural, basic way.” As a 22-year-old composer, he was an anomaly in South Korea; most are older, many twice his age. “That made me overconfident,” he says with a chuckle.

Eden / Courtesy of KQ Entertainment

The short-lived high was followed by years of financial and artistic struggle. Source Music was no longer able to provide the resources to continue the Eden Beatz partnership, so he joined the military to complete his two years of government-mandated service. Upon returning to Source in 2013, he found that the company was interested in taking his music down a different path than he envisioned, and they parted ways amicably. For the first time in his life, Eden had to sell his own music.

Between the ages of 25 and 29, he sold only a single song. “I was confused,” he recalls, brows furrowed. “I debuted at such a young age and thought, Am I a genius?” he says. Part of the problem was that Eden didn’t want to focus on just one genre. “In the industry, my potential as a composer was perceived like this: Eden can do everything, but he’s not great at anything.”

And then, KQ Entertainment reached out. Minutes into a meal of Chinese eggplant, the company’s vice director proposed they work together. “Actually the wording he used was ‘I like your eyes,’” Eden says, still bemused by the turn of phrase, which was likely meant to imply that a certain “it” factor was apparent in his gaze.

But Eden wasn’t in a place to question the offer, which felt like his “last hope.” He joined KQ and lived in his studio for the next two years, producing music for his solo debut. During that time, things “radically started to change,” he says, shuffling his hands. At a party, Eden was introduced to singer-songwriter Hyun-sik Im of boy group BTOB, as well as singer and producer Seungyoun Cho, then-member of Chinese boy group UNIQ. This encounter led to the deepest friendships of his life and some of the most important collaborations of his career.

Eden, Cho, and two other producers formed a collective called Drinkcolor in 2016. He then produced two tracks for BTOB, 2016’s “I’ll Be Your Man” and 2017’s “Missing You,” releases that marked a “turning point” in his career. The songs were hits for the group and helped establish Eden as a versatile talent in the Korean pop industry.

In February 2017, at 29, Eden released his first single as a solo artist. “I’m Still,” a pop ballad about lost love, was well-received and the higher ups at KQ “gave a sigh of relief” that their bet on him had paid off. And then, one day, the vice director of KQ visited Eden’s studio with a bright-eyed teenager in a school uniform trailing behind him. “They told me, ‘He wants to become an idol who writes his own music,’ and asked me to teach him,” Eden says, smiling. “That was when Hongjoong entered my life.”

“The Father of ATEEZ’s Music”

Hongjoong Kim was the first member of ATEEZ to join KQ as a trainee. Eden, who had no formal training, wasn’t immediately thrilled about becoming someone’s teacher. “There was a song of his that he brought to me, and I couldn’t get a grasp on where to start or what to work on with him. So I thought, I’ll find a way to make him give up on music,” he says, snickering at his former ruthlessness. Eden showed the teen an online encyclopedia with 200 vocabulary words related to composing. “I told him to memorize all of them by the next day. I thought he wouldn’t be able to do it and that, when he came back, I’d go, ‘Hey, you can’t do music,’ and he would quit my lessons.”

But the timid kid surprised him. “He came back with all the words memorized. He spent the whole night doing it. He hadn’t slept at all.” This effort thawed Eden’s remaining resistance, and Hongjoong became his first pupil. “What I highly praise about Hongjoong is that he was below average in every discipline when he started as a trainee. He wasn’t a natural dancer, and he couldn’t rap at all. But he sacrifices rest for practice. Watching him improve, I thought, I should think of Hongjoong as my younger self and help him grow.”

Today, Hongjoong claims his own space in Eden’s cozy studio. “He knows what he needs to work on, and I give him support and direction. I don’t try to make him sound like me but, ironically, he is becoming more like me,” Eden notes. “His style of clothing, even the way he talks — he’s not just copying the good things but also the things I don’t like about myself.” He trails off, then says softly, “There are two people in my life that are like my sons: Hongjoong and Seungyoun Cho.” He emphasizes that they would process this information differently. “Seungyoun is a rebellious type. If you asked him, he wouldn’t really agree that he’s my son. But Hongjoong embraced me. I never learned music in a formal setting from somebody else, so I didn’t want to teach anyone. But if there was one person that I had to teach music, to pass on what I know, it would be Hongjoong.”

That mentorship has had a profound effect on Hongjoong, who felt that Eden respected even his earliest attempts at composing. “I was a high school student who didn’t have any significant achievement in the music industry, but he always listened to my ideas and helped me develop them,” Hongjoong says. “That’s why I was able to grow and reach where I am now.” Though he isn’t copying Eden’s style  he admits it’s inevitable that he will “probably start resembling him,” given the amount of time they spend together.

Eden has also warmed up to the seven other members of ATEEZ. There are small moments during the group’s first reality show, a documentation of their pre-debut preparations, where his fondness for them is apparent. When the members file into a recording studio, visibly nervous while holding lyric sheets for their debut single “Pirate King” with both hands, Eden stifles an affectionate chuckle. The recording begins and every member takes a turn in the booth to receive Eden’s warm feedback.

Members (L-R) Yunho, Seonghwa, San, Yeosang, Hongjoong, Wooyoung, Jongho, and Mingi / Getty Images

In these interactions, he comes off like the group’s older brother. “I can’t yell at them when I’m on national TV,” Eden jests. But his connection to the members is real. “I witnessed their whole journey. I was there when each of them joined the group and was a judge for their monthly evaluations. Mental resilience is a huge part of training to become an idol. Even if you’ve been told you’ll be a member of a group, you don’t know when or if that group will debut. Everything is uncertain. I was there to give them mental support and advice, to be a mentor, to eat with them. That’s how we built our relationship.”

But when recording for ATEEZ’s first album began, the relationship shifted to become more professional as pressures increased. “If I don’t produce good music, the impact is greater for the eight members than it is for me,” Eden notes. In Korea, where idols are trained from a young age and forgo schooling to debut, failed careers can leave performers with limited prospects. “The possibility of ATEEZ ending up like that makes me sleepless at night. I felt that pressure like a heavy weight. So when we were working on the first album, I had very high expectations for them. During that process, a couple of the members shed some tears. I scolded them a bit.”

However, Eden never intended to have such a large role in the group’s development. “Everyone was worried when I said, ‘I will produce ATEEZ! Leave it to me!’” Eden says with a smirk. Despite his reputation as a well-rounded producer, he had become known for the signature ballad-like sound of his greatest hit to date, “Missing You.” No one at KQ was confident that he could make music for what he calls “dancing idols.” But Eden had a plan. Through network connections and word-of-mouth, he gathered a team of talented producers to help him prove his creative vision to KQ. He called them Edenary.

Introducing Edenary

Edenary’s four members — Eden, Buddy, LEEZ, and Ollounder — all work in this studio. Eden rises from the ottoman and begins knocking on doors. Buddy isn’t in, but he manages to coax LEEZ and Ollounder from their rooms. “What do you have to do?” Eden asks them, as they look around shyly. “Come on, sit down.” Ollounder, who claims the pair of black slippers, runs to put on socks.

Buddy was Eden’s first recruit; the two had worked together on a project of solo collaborations called “EDEN_STARDUST.” LEEZ, who produces the brooding rock-pop of girl group Dreamcatcher, followed. Together the three of them completed all songs on ATEEZ’s first and second albums, Treasure Ep.1: All to Zero and Treasure Ep.2: Zero to One, in a span of a single, stressful month in the spring of 2018. The group’s potent blend of trap, pop, and hip-hop was a hit with KQ.

For ATEEZ’s third album, Treasure Ep.3: One to All, the team realized they needed more help and pulled in Ollounder, their final member, who still works with LEEZ on Dreamcatcher’s music as part of a trio called Super Bomb. (“He’s probably working on Dreamcatcher right now,” Eden says, chucking a thumb towards Ollounder’s open studio door.)

Ollounder’s name is a play on the Korean pronunciation of “All Rounder,” which is apt considering that each member of Edenary was chosen for their high level of skill across multiple disciplines. “What differentiates us is that the members of other teams usually have set roles, but all four of us do everything: the tracks, lyrics and melodies,” Eden explains. “It’s like having four of me.”

And their creative process doesn’t leave much room for ego. They are bound by deep mutual respect and claim to have never had a disagreement. “What I’m grateful for is that they believe in me,” Eden says. Their working relationship is unusual in an industry where entertainment companies fill albums with songs cherry-picked from across dozens of different composers. By contrast, Edenary has been involved in ATEEZ’s music and identity from the beginning. That’s because the members of Edenary aren’t composers; they’re producers. Eden explains the difference: A composer is “someone who makes music and sells it to someone else,” whereas a producer “sets the foundation for a group’s entire creative concept with their music, envisioning the piece’s visuals, creative, and choreography, and working with other teams to bring that vision into focus.”

They’ve maintained that identity across a sizable body of work, spanning five EPs and two albums in just over a year. Using the confident “Pirate King” as their guide, the team visualizes ATEEZ’s story “like scenes from a movie,” creating music themed around exploration, teamwork, and the search for symbolic treasure. “If you think ATEEZ’s universe is like a movie, we’re probably 15 minutes in right now, in terms of the timeline,” Eden hints.

Musically, the group’s sound pulls from far-reaching influences. “K-pop as a genre is like a total art that encompasses all music. It’s very flexible,” says Eden. “We want to combine many genres, instead of focusing on and identifying with a single one. If you listen to the work we’ve released so far, you can see our attempt to mix in sources and sounds from across the world — from the U.S., India, and Brazil, to various countries in Africa.” LEEZ adds, “It’s a bit of rock, a bit of hip-hop, a bit of everything.”

As Eden continues to release music solo and through his ongoing collaborative series EDEN STARDUST, Edenary has begun producing other projects outside of ATEEZ. The same day that ATEEZ’s fourth Treasure series EP Action to Answer dropped, Korean artist YounHa released “Winter Flower,” a collaboration with RM of BTS. Produced by Edenary, the song rocketed to the top of the charts. Later that week, ATEEZ’s Action to Answer bows at No. 5 on Billboard‘s World Albums chart.

“When I first met Eden, he didn’t have any hit singles,” Hongjoong says. Watching his mentor work towards his current success taught Hongjoong the value of persistence and humility. “He always told me, ‘Be humble but noble,’” the rapper says, smiling. Since meeting Hongjoong, Eden’s mentorship has matured to reflect that advice. “During my 20s, I thought mentoring was about changing someone by transferring knowledge to them,” he says. “Now I focus on supporting an individual’s discovery of themselves. I see our relationship moving from a mentorship towards a friendship.”

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