Harold “Alawn” Philippon hails from France and is an established producer and songwriter with credentials ranging from Snoop Dogg to k-pop frontrunners like SuperM, NCT 127, and WayV. Songwriter Keynon “KC” Moore has co-written some of the biggest hits for veteran k-pop groups like NCT 127’s “Punch,” EXO’s “Trauma,” and NCT Dream’s “Boom,” and is also pursuing a career as an individual artist. Alawn and KC have previously worked together to create NCT 127’s latest title track “Punch” and both have credits on the newly-released Super One album by the k-pop supergroup SuperM, which recently debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200. Alawn and KC sat down with The Industry Spin to discuss their careers, creative processes, and future plans.
Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did you first get your start in the music industry?
Alawn: I’m originally from France. I grew up in Lyon and moved to Paris, so that’s where I started learning music production and how to write and produce when I was early fifteen, sixteen years old. I had my first breakthrough over there in France. I had a couple of charting records over there that allowed me to get my visa to move to the U.S. and move to a whole new market. I always wanted to move here for the opportunities, so that allowed me to do that. Since I was nineteen, twenty years old, I’ve been working here, from Houston, and I’ve been recording a lot of local people, working in hip-hop, pop, EDM, all those different genres. I only came to k-pop a year and a half, two years ago. I was commissioned to work on the Under Nineteen theme song, and that was my first introduction to k-pop. Since then, I flew for the first time to Seoul,—that’s where I met KC for the first time—and we did our first songwriting camp together. Since then, k-pop kind of took over my everyday life.
KC: For me, growing up, I was always in music. I mean, even from preschool, I always sang. But what I think really started it off was my stepdad at the time had a “recording studio,” which was kind of crap, but he had a recording studio and I kind of got into tinkering with different things. I actually started not as a songwriter but actually more started as making beats and stuff. As I progressed with that, people were like, “You need people to write for your stuff,” and I never had that, so I went that route and said, “Well, if no one’s going to do it, I’m gonna write my own stuff,” and writing took over more so than the producing. In 2009, I moved to LA, and that’s when I started taking it more seriously. Since then, I’ve just been working towards this goal that I’m finally starting to see flourish. As far as k-pop, I never actually pitched anything for that. I would just send my manager records, and I remember one time in 2012, it was a record, and it got into the hands of Ryan Jhun. Three years later, that was my first k-pop track that came out. I had no idea what k-pop was at all, so as soon as I heard that my song was being used in Korea, I was like, “That’s interesting.” So I kind of dived all the way into k-pop, and like Alawn said, it’s taken over our lives.
What would you say your role is in the songmaking process as songwriters and producers?
Alawn: I think there’s different aspects of it. Purely working in the k-pop industry, the record labels are very involved in how they want their artists to sound, and they have an idea for the concept and how the sound is. So our job is to really embrace that and take what they give us as far as leads and information and really embrace where they want to take the sound, and also come up with innovative things to also show them. You know, sometimes we send them songs and if a song is strong enough, obviously they will love it and take it, so it’s also our job to come up with innovative sound and innovative songs to also make the k-pop sound evolve.
KC: Going off of that, I think the structure of the song is very precise with them. I feel like me and Alawn kind of found the formula and we know how it should be structured, but before we figured that out, it took me forever. I would send tracks and they’d say, “No, this is not it,” because it would be structured verse-pre-hook-hook, you know, how it is in the U.S. With them, there’s so many more elements that they want to attract because they constantly want the listener to not lose focus on the song—it’s forever changing. I think for me personally, it took until the second camp that we had went to for me to fully learn that.
Alawn: K-pop style and structure is definitely so unique, and just like [KC], I think I really understood it during our second camp because it’s so complex. Within one song, you have so many different genres and sections, and especially when you write for groups that have seven, eight members, each section has a different vocal range and different flow to match each member as well. So it’s a real learning curve, but once you get the formula and you understand how it works, you can get so creative. There’s such a creative freedom within k-pop, too, that I love that we are able to do.
For those of us who aren’t familiar with song camps, can you describe what they are and what their purpose is?
KC: As far as the purpose, they tend to bring who they think are the best for that project they are putting on who are best to fit those molds. They put together this big thing where they have these great musicians come together. Like the first time me and Alawn met, we didn’t even know each other. They bring all of these people together that don’t even know each other, so it’s a great mesh of different genres. And like Alawn said, title songs especially tend to have multiples genres in them. So we get there, we meet-and-greet and hang out for the first day, and then they just throw us in there. They throw us to the wolves! The first day, they give us the brief. They tell us “This is what we’re looking for,” and then we just kind of dive [into things]. We go to our separate rooms, they pair us up, and then we have the whole day to just have fun and create. So it’s really comforting to know that they don’t—they give us a brief, but they don’t jump down your throat and say, “This is exactly what we want. This has to be perfectly like this.” It’s like, “Have fun, be free, and do what you know you can do,” and I think that what’s great about the song camps. Not only are you meeting new people, you’re creating new friendships, and you’re learning from different people around you constantly. I think that’s a great thing about those camps—you’re constantly learning, so you’re constantly wanting to make the best product.
Alawn: Yeah, exactly. And also, I have to say one thing that I absolutely love about it is to be in the city, you know in Seoul, in South Korea, and just the fact of being there and feeling the energy of the country and the people. When you go in the streets and you see those huge billboards, SM buildings, and all of that, you’re immersed into the real k-pop culture, and that’s so inspiring too, to create. And like KC said, there’s four, five rooms in one floor, and there’s a producer in each room and a songwriter or two or three paired with each producer, and every day you just switch. Being able to write with people that you’ve never met before, there’s great chemistry that happens. Obviously, if you’re there, you’re already at a certain level of songwriting and producing. The energy is amazing. It’s so much fun.
KC: I think also, just the fact that they make you feel comfortable. I’ve been to a few writing camps here and there and sometimes they’re “off.” But this one, you get there, you go to dinner, you laugh, you have fun, so you feel comfortable going into the next thing when you start working. It’s really a good thing and I love it.
What is it like working with a team of songwriters and A&R personnel who work to take your creative ideas from English to Korean, which is perhaps a language that is completely foreign to you?
KC: I think specifically for me, obviously they’ll translate pretty much the majority of the song. They might keep the title phrase or the tagline, like “Hey we ballin’” [in NCT 127’s “Punch”]—that was in the original. I feel like these groups always talk about the energy of their songs. Even though the lyrics change, for me, still the energy is there of what it was originally. I think that definitely is always held as a standard for them. They always want to keep exactly the energy that is given on the original track, even if the words change.
Alawn: Like KC said, it’s all about keeping the energy. Most of the time, the songwriters, we come up with the concept, and as you know, in k-pop they always, even if it’s in Korean, they always like keeping [those] one or two little English words that people will remember, and that will be the title of the song. So we’re painting the picture for them, and then obviously, they have to rewrite it in a way where it sounds good in their language and it makes sense, but I think they’re keeping the integrity of the original demo every time.
COVID-19 has obviously limited your ability to be in Korea and in the studio recording with the artists you write for. How has that changed your creative process, if it has at all?
Alawn: Well, at least for me, it hasn’t really changed. I think for us songwriters and producers, it doesn’t really change that much because we live in the studio 24/7 (laughs), and it’s kind of our everyday life already. Obviously, not being able to travel to those camps, I really miss traveling and doing those camps, but as far as the amount of work we can get done and the amount of songs that we write, it doesn’t really change anything at least for me. If anything, I’ve never been as busy since the beginning of this whole pandemic, and I haven’t been writing that many songs in so long. So there’s a good aspect of it and trying to make the best of it, staying creative and writing every day. And since record labels can’t have those camps taking place, then they have to source everything from us being at home, so it’s also making it easier to just make songs and sending them and getting placements that way.
KC: I agree. I think for musicians, well songwriters and producers for sure, not much has changed. I think we all originally, when we first grew up wanting to do this or first tinkering with making a beat or first writing our first song, we were in our basement or in our rooms, so it’s kind of going back to that for me. Alawn has a full studio, I have this (motions) in my room, I just have a setup. I feel like I’m back in my mom’s house in the basement just going at it. Also, a lot of people are doing Zoom calls and sessions like that, which I just had for the first time a week and a half ago, which was pretty cool. It’s different meeting someone through the internet for the first time and then writing a song, but it worked out. Other than that, I think creatively, I have my ups and downs with just being solely in my house. Like, I do miss going to the studio or getting in the room with the artist ’cause that vibe is still different, but overall, I think it still works out for us regardless. But we were supposed to back to Seoul, like what, a few months ago?
Alawn: Yeah, it’s so sad. I don’t even know when will be the next time.
Let’s talk SuperM’s “100.” “100” was, as of the date of this interview, released 3 weeks ago. “100” is definitely not a typical k-pop song, and it even ventures into dubstep—how was producing this song different from other songs characteristic of the industry?
Alawn: “100” is definitely not your typical k-pop song. It’s super different, and I actually produced it and co-wrote it with my good friend Andy Love, who was at our writing camp as well. I think we did it on the third day or something of the last camp, so it was a year ago already. It was November or the end of last year. But for this particular song, I have to say that SM had a great idea of where they wanted to take it. So they specifically asked me, “Hey, we have this concept”—at least the way it sounded, faced-paced, a lot of energy—and I took it from there and got really creative with it. So yeah, it was made during the camp, and it was so much fun to try something that hasn’t really been done before. Obviously, SuperM is a group that’s different than all the others since they took the lead members from so many different groups and put them together, so you have to approach it differently and especially make sure that each member has their part to shine and embrace their style.
I know that for “100,” Mark took part in the composition of the song. I’m not sure if you were there in person to see that take place, but how did you see the song change after he took part in the creative process?
Alawn: I wasn’t there, but he wrote his entire verse and I think he did amazing. We had a different—I mean, the flow was kind of similar, but he definitely took it somewhere that’s even better than what we had. He wrote his own lyrics, wrote his own flow, and I think he really embraced his style. I absolutely love especially the choreography that goes with his verse. I think it’s so cool.
Similarly to “100,” NCT 127’s “Punch” was definitely an unorthodox choice, especially for the title track. How did “Punch” come about?
KC: [It was] the same camp. I remember Kenzie came. They were like, “KC, we want you to write with Kenzie,” and they told me Kenzie’s long rap sheet of just a million and one amazing k-pop songs, and I was just so nervous. Like really nervous. Then she walks in with her coffee and we went in the room, and met each other, got to know each other. We picked a few tracks from Dem Jointz, and that was the first one we did I believe, that song. Originally I did not really like the beat because it was just something that I wouldn’t normally write to myself, but I just knew that it would be challenging to write to it. Me and her just connected and went at it with that song. It was just different for me. It was just so many different melodies and so many ways—like I would record something, and she’d be like “Okay actually, do it this way and then add this harmony.” It was just very interesting. Such a great session. Then, Alawn came in as a co-producer and he enhanced it to the max, in my opinion. It was a very simple track, and he enhanced the hell out of it.
Alawn: It was started during the camp like he said, between him, Kenzie, and Dem Jointz, and then a couple month[s] after, they came back to me and they asked me to put my own touch to it and add different sections [and] a lot of new sounds. I did my best to improve it because it was already so good, so I tried to find ways to really take it to the next level. I’m so glad at how it came out, and the whole “Punch” concept is so cool—the video is so cool. I’m really glad to have been a part of it, and co-writing with KC because we’ve been friends for a long time now, but I think that was out first song we worked together on.
KC, you mentioned that writing “Punch” and catering to it as a title track was difficult. What was the editing process like, and how did it get to where it is today?
KC: There’s so many different parts that were edited. There’s one part in particular where Doyoung does the slow (hums) on the second verse, it’s very mellow. Originally, that was a very rap-singing thing, it was very up, it was really loud. I wouldn’t have even thought to edit it to make it even more r&b sounding, so I think that was one that was really interesting. The whisper rap was a random thing we did. I can’t remember—I feel like Kenzie—I think I said something, and she was just like, “Why don’t you whisper it?” or something weird like that. So I think that, and then seeing the outcome of how they did it was very interesting. The bridge was done by I believe Kenzie as well, so that was something she did separately, so that was really amazing to see connect everything together. I mean, a lot of the track was edited in the biggest favor that it needed to (laughs).
Alawn: There’s always so many edits, and I think when they’re recording it, too, each member really puts his own—they have such unique voices that they really embrace every melody and they put they own [touch] into it.
KC: That’s why I like when they release the YouTube about when they’re recording where they show you the process (Alawn: Yeah). You see each member being like, “Hmm, would I do it like that?” and then they will edit it a little bit depending on their persona.
Nowadays, producers and songwriters are much more recognized by the general public. You guys are both very active on social media, so what is it like to see fans’ reactions, live, as the music premieres?
Alawn: It’s cool! It’s exciting because a lot of songs get released a long time after making them. You know, “100” took almost a year, “Punch” took a few months. “After Midnight,” the WayV [song] I produced, I wrote it with my great friend and manager Taylor Jones, and we wrote it almost three years and a half ago, and it came out this year as well. For us, it’s already kind of old and we already moved on to new sounds and we’re excited about the ones we’re making now, but obviously for everybody who hears it for the first time it’s brand-new and fresh. That’s why it’s really exciting to see how people take it and react to it.
KC: I’m kind of like a crazy person; I literally will research everything for the filth of it (laughs). Like, when “Punch” came out, I’m just on YouTube, “Okay, let me watch every person’s reaction video,”—(Alawn: I love watching reaction videos)—like, “What are they saying about this? Is it good? Oh no, this person doesn’t like it, oh, this person likes it,” so I’m just always researching my stuff. I mean, that’s what we do it for. Music heals the world and touches the world, so that’s what I love to do music for—to see what people’s reactions are.
Do you have a favorite reaction channel that you watch?
KC: (Laughs) It’s these two black guys. They go crazy like, “oh shit!” (gestures).
Alawn: I think I’ve seen them (laughs). I watch as many as possible, but sometimes they do this compilation—for example, for “100,” there’s a video [where] for 11 minutes, they just show reactions of Baekhyun’s high note. It’s the funniest thing ever.
KC, many fans, myself included, have been looking forward to the release of “Drip” since the snippet premiered during the Beyond Live concert. Within what you’re allowed to say, what can you tell us about “Drip”? [“Drip” has since been released as part of Super One]
KC: I think it’s a bop! I like what they played you guys. I guess I can say it kind of progresses a little bit in the song, and my favorite part is the end hook because there’s added stuff that adds to it. I guess that’s all I can say.
What’s in store in the future for you guys?
Alawn: We have a new song that we wrote together coming out soon. Obviously we cannot say who or anything, but that’s exciting (KC: Oh I can’t wait for that!). I think we both have a lot of other cuts that are coming out soon. I have quite a few coming out this year for artists that I haven’t done stuff for before, so I’m excited. I spend every day writing new song and submitting them, and it just keeps on coming and coming out—it’s really exciting. It’s a never ending cycle. You keep creating, and they keep coming out, and it’s such an exciting journey. It’s really exciting to be a part of k-pop because the fans are so passionate about it, the artists are so talented, so lovable, the visuals are also amazing. I think it’s really cool.
KC: I think for both of us, definitely k-pop is like, here for us. We’re in it, so we’re gonna definitely keep doing that. I think for me specifically, I definitely want to fully engulf myself in the U.S. market just because I haven’t really done much yet, so that’s a big thing on my 2020 finishing-up list, is getting placements here. Other than that, one of my goals is to, with my friends or people that I know that are in the k-pop industry, if one of those labels would just give us an artist and let us mold the artist to what the sound should be, I think that would be clutch. Hopefully in the future, we can get something going with that.
Alawn: Yeah, that would be cool.
What advice would you have for aspiring musicians who want to become songwriters and producers?
KC: I think, number one, stay grounded. The ego thing and big-headedness in this industry is just not it, it doesn’t work. Also, a lot of people think that things happen overnight. It’s definitely a “hundred thousand hours in it” kind of thing. Some people think they can just start writing a song and their first song’s gonna be it. I mean, I don’t even know how many bajillions of songs I have sitting around. You just gotta keep going, keep going until you’re heard. And constantly creating relationships I think, is another big thing. I’m pretty shy, but you gotta constantly meet people and create relationships in this industry. And also just study—study the greats and the people that came before you. Especially for me as a writer, poetry and reading books and watching different creatives’ work, I feel like all of that molds you as a songwriter.
Alawn: I agree with everything he said. There’s so many things that I always tell to producers who come to me, and one thing I usually [give] advice to do is something I’ve done a lot, is to reproduce popular tracks and have them sound as close as possible to what you hear. I’ve tried to reproduce countless Timbaland productions and Pharrell, and all of those people that I admire, and it teaches you the layers, which sounds to use, the chords. If you really want to cater it to k-pop, obviously, a lot of study goes into learning the structures, the melodies, the harmonies, the complexity of it. It takes a lot. Just as a musician—songwriter, producer, whatever—I always tell people to not compare yourself to anybody else because that’s something that I used to do as well years ago. Everybody has their time, so don’t compare yourself to anybody. It’s not because someone is “making it” now and you’re not, it’s not going to happen for you a week later or a year later. Everybody has their time, and everything happens for a reason at the right times, so just do the best you can every single day. Write, obviously, the best songs you can, and keep writing and writing and writing because out of a hundred songs, if there’s one—(KC: It only takes one sometimes!). Don’t get discouraged, and do the best you can and love what you do. Do it for the right reasons, and if you do that, great things will come out for sure.