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Eric Nam and The Art Of Redefining Success

The Korean-American singer-songwriter details his new album ‘Before We Begin,’ opens up about his bout with burnout and reveals how he and India go way back

Riddhi Chakraborty Nov 18, 2019

"I'm not an idol, but a lot of people see me as an idol. It's a very weird place that I have my own niche in." Photo: Courtesy of CJ ENM

It’s 4:30 am in India when I get on a call to L.A. to speak to Eric Nam for the very first time. I’m at a point where I’ve gone over a week without decent sleep and a burnout is looming over my head, but what keeps me going is that Nam is 100 percent worth it all. In fact over the next hour, I learn that there’s probably no one who could have understood my plight better, and facing the upcoming week seems a little less daunting.

Eloquent, multi-talented and enterprising, the 31-year-old singer and entertainer is very much a reflection of what many of us strive to be. He’s a lot of fun to talk to and refreshingly frank when it comes to discussing his opinions around mental health and South Korea’s celebrity culture–a little unusual for a K-pop idol, but then again he never has been one to fit in. Born and brought up in Atlanta, Georgia, Nam had to adapt to South Korea’s expectations of celebrities when he moved there and walks the line between two worlds. “I’ve always been like weirdly stuck in the middle of everything,” Nam confesses at one point of our conversation. “I’m not an idol, but a lot of people see me as an idol. It’s a very weird place that I have my own niche in.”

Maybe it’s not so much weird as it is about wearing many hats; Nam started his career in South Korea back in 2011 after participating in a reality TV competition, Star Audition:Birth of a Great Star 2. While he didn’t end up winning, it led to him signing with Korean label B2M Entertainment in 2012 and then finally debuting as a solo act in 2013. In the seven years since, Nam has established himself as a household name in the country–in addition to being a successful musician, he impressed audiences with his charming personality after taking on the role of a TV personality and presenter, hosting various variety shows and often interviewing international celebrities like Robert Downey Jr., Noel Gallagher, Matt Damon, Emma Stone, Andrew Garfield and more. He’s one of the first solo artists in the K-pop industry to regularly collaborate with Western artists (including Timbaland, Gallant and Arty) and earlier this year he launched K-Pop Daebak With Eric Nam, Spotify’s most popular K-Pop podcast where he reviews new releases, addresses several pressing topics in the industry and interviews various artists.

“It’s… a lot of things to juggle,” he says with a small laugh when we talk about his various achievements, admitting that taking on so many different projects took a toll on his mental health earlier this year, pushing him to the point of burnout. “It was just like kind of a tipping point where I was actually just so tired, so exhausted.” It did however end up giving him the wake up call he needed to focus on his mental and physical health. “So it was important to be able to verbally say and admit that I am tired, that I need a break that I need to change things around.” His new record Before We Begin is part of that change, acting as a channel of catharsis and pushing forward his transition from K-pop star to global pop singer-songwriter.

“I’m learning to be more intentional with my time, trying to take care of my health and really spending time where it matters more for me.” Photo: Courtesy of CJ ENM

It’s an exciting time in Nam’s life–especially with the rise of Asian representation in mainstream media propelling him further into the global spotlight–so it’s pretty great to be able to hear his perspective on it all firsthand. In this conversation with Rolling Stone India, Nam talks about the stories that built Before We Begin, opens up about his bout with burnout, details the process of creating a space for international fans with K-Pop Daebak, and reveals the intricacies of his relationship with India. Excerpts:

When did you start working on Before We Begin and why did you choose that title?

The oldest, probably the oldest song on the album… I wrote it last year. It was in English and I didn’t want to take it back into Korean. I felt like it was a very special record, because people just responded in a very special way to it. It made me kind of hold on to it, looking for the right opportunity to put it out. There was no point trying to redo it in Korean because it was great the way it was, so that’s how we decided on doing an all-English album. The reason we titled it Before We Begin is because I guess I’m in this transitionary phase where I really want to pursue music more in the States and in the West, do a lot of stuff in English. I’m American, born and raised, so I’ve always felt more comfortable writing and singing in English. So more than just a K-pop star, I think I would like to transition into becoming like an American pop singer-songwriter and being perceived that way. It’s not ‘Eric Nam’s U.S. debut’– this is kind of like an appetizer to what, you know, can potentially come in the next few years.

Did you have any reservations about doing an album in English? Were there any points where you were nervous about how it would be received, especially by your fans in Korea?

I feel like there were points where I was a little bit nervous, but I feel like I’ve done a really good job of introducing my fans to me singing in English. I’ve done at least one or two collabs with Western artists a year, in my last EP (2018’s Honestly) we had two English songs on there, plus I do a lot of covers. I’ve always been vocal about the fact that I personally like English pop music so [most fans] are glad that I’m finally able to do what I really wanted and what I really feel strongly about.

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How much do the songs draw from your own life?

There are songs that are directly connected to my story, there are songs that are fired from other people and other stories… Just really kind of a case by case thing. But we picked them and went with them because I relate to them in some way, I feel them in some way. I think being able to tell that story and emote that into a song was my goal and hopefully when people hear it, they love it as much as I did putting it there.

You’ve always been very adventurous in terms of the sounds and themes you choose to go with on each new release and Before We Begin is no different–I loved the sense of nostalgia that runs all through it. Did you start working on this album knowing what you want to explore? Or was it a slower, gradual process?

I think it’s probably the latter, it’s probably much more of a slower gradual process. Thank you for listening to it, I’m so glad that you like it. I think for this album… it wasn’t so much of like a ‘this is the sound we’re going to go for’–it was more like let’s pick and choose what’s right. That’s why we also speak back to why Before We Begin is such a fitting title because it’s me trying to figure out what that ‘Eric Nam sound’ is. It’s just a matter of really experimenting and writing all sorts of different things but I think at the same time, we live in a day where musically people aren’t confined to a single genre. Pop has become a mix of so many different things and I think I wanted to embody that through this piece of work, the breadth of genres that I like and am able to do.

You’ve mentioned that in addition to the theme of love and relationships, “Love Die Young”  is also about one’s relationship with their life and passion, and you wrote it at a time you were facing burnout. Have you managed to find more of a balance now? 

It’s kind of the cycles of life and everybody goes through dark points. Luckily for me, it kind of came out through the form of a song. I’m learning to be more intentional with my time, trying to take care of my health and really spending time where it matters more for me. I think just the nature of my job and like the daily things that I have to do… I’ll never be at a place where I’m completely comfortable. But it is important to be able to have that discussion and to be open about it and say, ‘I hate this,’ or ‘It was really hard’– so this song in itself has been in some ways, a cathartic experience for me to kind of get through it. But I think overall I’m at a much better place right now than a few months ago.

That’s wonderful to hear. Because seeing all the work you’re doing including making music, touring, your podcast–we’re on the outside and don’t see your everyday world. So often as fans I guess we wonder about our favorite artists and celebrities, if you’re doing okay beyond just what we glimpse on social media. 

Honestly, it’s a lot. I think part of it is as a solo artist in Korea… it’s really hard because there’s so much competition. Not only like musically, but just when it comes to like [idol culture] and stuff. I’ve always been weirdly stuck in the middle of everything. I’m not an idol, but a lot of people see me as an idol. It’s a very weird place that I have my own niche in. I think part of where the stress came from is… for years, I’ve been doing everything. It’s a lot of things to juggle. But it was just kind of a tipping point where I was actually just so tired, so exhausted. So it was important to be able to verbally say and admit that I am tired, that I need a break that I need to change things around. Also, I feel that redefining success is important because for some people, by some metrics, I may not be successful but for me, in my mind, my perspective… I’m incredibly successful. I’ve done everything that I wanted to and I will continue to do that. I think it’s important [to talk about this] because I think that people can relate to it, understand where I’m coming from.

You’ve always been very honest and open about your opinions and perspective on life and I feel that has a lot to do with the immense success of your podcast K-pop Daebak. Why did you want to start this podcast and what do you feel is the most important thing it contributes to the global conversation around K-pop?

The podcast is actually the idea of my younger brother [Eddie Nam.] I always thought about it, but I didn’t get around to doing it so he set it up for me. I just feel like there’s such a global community of K-pop bloggers around the world but [the international community] is still largely underserved. It takes a lot of effort for fans to go in and subtitle and caption Korean TV shows and everything to whatever language. ASC (English K-pop talk show After School Club) did so well in its early years because we were speaking to K-pop stars in English and in a way that people could relate to on their own. So I felt like that was a void that I could potentially help fill and create more of an international community around K-pop in that sense. I think the other thing is just providing some sort of context and maybe some explanation for certain things that people might find interesting about the industry itself. It’s also important to recognize that things are always changing and moving, especially in terms of media. From Vine to Facebook, to Instagram and Twitter… there’s trends of things dying out. I felt like podcasts could be a very interesting way for me to connect with fans on a literally a brand new platform, brand new way. It was a lot of work to figure out and I’m glad it’s doing well, but we’re just trying to figure out a way to make sustainable. One thing that I’m still trying to create is a better feedback loop with fans. Like, where can we congregate and where can we write more messages and where can we communicate better?

“India has always been on the radar [but] we don’t have the contacts and we don’t have the context to be able to make those decisions.” Photo: Courtesy of CJ ENM

Jimin Park has launched her own podcast, so has Epik High’s Tablo–how important is it for artists to take these initiatives themselves to get involved in the global conversation their fans are having?

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You know, as creators and artists, our goal and our job is to reach as many people as possible through music or through our content. For a lot of people in the world audio is still the best way of consuming content and so, in many ways, it was this missing piece that needed to be filled and nobody was doing it. So for us finally be able to fill that void… I think it’s a great opportunity and I think the fans appreciate it. I have another one that’s launching very soon called I Think You’re Dope which features conversations with (New Jersey producer) Jeremy Zucker, (Irish singer) Gavin James, (American singer-songwriters) Gallant and Alec Benjamin. It’s not a K-pop podcast, but is kind of about whatever I want and has cool interviews and discussions. I enjoy doing this stuff. I enjoy talking to people and being able to share it with other people around the world.

On that note, I recently learned that you used to work here in India. I don’t think a lot of people know this about you, so I definitely need the whole story!

And I will give it to you all! I was in Hyderabad for two or three months in 2011 as part of a social fellowship. We were supposed to be helping low income schools for education and development. I ended up leaving to be on the TV show (Star Audition:Birth of a Great Star 2) but I think India is a very beautiful place. There’s just so many people, so many senses and so many things that you don’t feel or get anywhere else in the world. It was unfortunate because the program I was with was really a mess. For the first time in my life, I had gone somewhere to really try to do great things and it didn’t work out. But at the end of the day, that was what got me to leave to go to Korea to become a singer.

That’s… really meta for me, I have to say.

[laughs] Yeah, right? But as I left India, I knew I had to go back on my terms, on terms that I feel will do India more justice. I’ve been itching and dying to go back, I just haven’t had the right opportunity.

Since you’re familiar with India, I kind of wanted to get your insight on this–over the past two years the Hallyu Wave has really taken off all over our country. However, what is the perspective that you and other artists in Korea have of India as a market?

It’s hard to gauge what the response is in India, so it’s hard for promoters or my team to say, ‘Okay, let’s make an investment to go India.’ It’s not about money–it’s about connecting people and doing things differently and I think my career has been a testament to that. India has always been on the radar [but] we don’t have the contacts and we don’t have the context to be able to make those decisions. I often say, ‘I’m going to go back and I’m going to do it very well. I’m going to have the most amazing time in India’ and I really honestly want to do shows there. But there isn’t a promoter and the infrastructure for K-pop just hasn’t been set up yet. The moment it happens, trust me, I will be on a flight there. I would also love to collaborate with some Bollywood people and some Indian artists! What people don’t realize–or rather I think still have a misunderstanding about–is how amazing production is in India, how intricate it all is in terms of music and choreography.

Finally, is there a message you have for your Indian fans?

Thank you so much for thinking of me, for supporting me all the way from India. We haven’t figured out how to get there yet but I believe and I hope that we’ll be able to do it sometime soon. If you guys have any suggestions, please do send them our way on the socials. I’m reading everything all the time, so hopefully I’ll see you guys soon!

Stream Eric Nam’s new album ‘Before We Begin’ below: