Before we begin with this interview (see what I did there!), let’s start with an intro:
Well, kind of an intro. At this point in his career, almost seven years in (if we’re going by his official debut date), Eric Nam is a multi-hyphenate and well-known name in the K-pop industry. Besides being a prolific singer-songwriter (who finished in the top five of MBC’s audition competition show Birth of a Great Star 2), he has found major success in hosting and participating in a lineup of TV shows and web series (notably After School Club and Yang and Nam Show), interviewing a boatload of international celebrities, and even starting his own podcast called K-pop Daebak With Eric Nam. Soon, he’ll hopefully pass on the torch for that podcast to start another called I Think You’re Dope, where he plans on interviewing cool people who he admires. Between all of his activities and jobs, he flies between the US, Korea, Africa, Budapest, and a host of other countries so often that it’s truly second nature to him.
Hi and hello! Ok, how do you balance it all? Are you still inspired by the constant movement, or is it a little too much sometimes?
“I’m at a point where I’ve done this so long that it’s actually started to take a toll on my health, unfortunately. But I also have this passion and energy to really try it. Like, everything. It’s always been my personality. But I do know it’s not always a sustainable thing. Part of the reason why this album is so timely and why I really wanted to put it out now is that ideally in the next year or two, I can start to really transition things back to the States, so I can spend more time here. In Korea, there’s also a horrible work-life balance, which is why I feel like I have to physically remove myself from that environment.”
Congrats on the album! You made it very clear from the get-go that you didn’t want this release to be seen as “Eric Nam’s English album” or “Eric’s US debut,” but rather a warm-up of what’s to come — hence the name, Before We Begin.
“People are like, ‘Why did you go to Korea?’ And I’m like, ‘I didn’t have a choice.’ I’d say in the past year now, we have Joji, Rich Brian, and Jackson and those types of people finally coming up — but there still isn’t enough. And then it’s like, ‘Where are the Asian-Americans [specifically]?’ We’ve had to reverse-engineer people [like me] who have made it in Asia to push them here. Now we’re at the point where we have Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh Off the Boat, and 88rising and we’re finally getting representation, but it’s not enough. I also look at the people who are doing it, and they are very much in the hip-hop and R&B lane. When it comes to [Asians doing] pop, I still don’t think we’re there. That’s also what I feel most comfortable with musically, so if there’s a way for me to build that out and find a place [in US pop], that’s probably the goal and ideal.
But when it comes to this album, again, I didn’t want this to be ‘Eric Nam’s US debut’ — I wanted to leave it open-ended and for this to be a very catchall for me in terms of music. We’ve moved beyond the space where an artist has to stick to one genre. I think everything is so fluid and constantly changing, and I wanted the album to reflect that.”
“When it comes to [Asians doing] pop, I still don’t think we’re there. That’s also what I feel most comfortable with musically, so if there’s a way for me to build that out and find a place [in US pop], that’s probably the goal and ideal.”
What do you think needs to happen in the industry to address mental health and burnout?
“I’ll take it to a personal place because I don’t want to make blanket statements for an entire industry, but when I first started as an artist, I distinctly remember being like, ‘Hi. I need to go on vacation. I need a break. I want to go see my family who I haven’t seen in two years.’ And my manager said ‘No.’ When I asked, he said, ‘Because people in Korea aren’t allowed to take vacations.’ When I asked him to explain it, he said, ‘Well, people don’t like the idea that somebody’s taking a break, because they get upset or jealous about it.’ I don’t think I ever got to take that vacation.
And in 2016, I booked my first vacation since my debut. I hadn’t stopped for five years. And without telling me, my team booked me for a TV show called Law of the Jungle, where I had to go to Mongolia for 10 days and live in a forest. I was so mad and so exhausted, because in May of that year alone, I had done probably like 50 events. I did three to four events a day. That’s not normal.”
“It’s this mentality that you win or lose. It’s 100 or nothing. When you’re building your career, you have to build it every day, otherwise you’re never going to make it. And then once you’re up there, you never know when this is going to go away, so you have to [keep going] and do everything now. And then after that, because you’re ‘coming down,’ if you don’t make your money now, you’re never going to make money in the future. At a certain point I was like, ‘I don’t care. I don’t need or want to make money right now. I just really need to take care of my health.’
What needs to happen is for management companies and artists to understand that it’s normal for people to have breaks. It’s normal for people to go on vacations. People should have weekends. And to really accept that and embrace that. But nobody is out there saying that. That’s the other problem. Even when you think of BTS taking their first vacation in August of this year, it was global news. But that’s how serious it is when it comes to…we don’t stop. It’s unfortunate and I really hope it changes. For me, that’s also something I’m constantly, internally struggling with — like, ‘Can I take a vacation? Can I take a break?'”
“What needs to happen is for management companies and artists to understand that it’s normal for people to have breaks…and to really accept that and embrace that.”
“The first episode of Cheers To What’s Next out of Dive Studios is Jamie (Jimin) Park, and she talked about how depressed she got and how she wanted to hurt herself. First of all, I was shocked but very proud of her for being willing and able to say that on such a public platform. Secondly, this is such a necessary thing for people to hear. It should be a dialogue that we should be having, so I’m glad she did it — in Korean too, so people there can really dive into that message.”
Going back to the album, even now as an experienced artist, what is the toughest part about making an album?
“Lyrics are always tough for me. I’m like, ‘I could say that, but nobody could give a shit,’ so that’s why it’s hard for me to sit down and be like, ‘This is the big picture.’ The hardest part is to be very open and vulnerable with all of my cowriters. Like, we may have met today, but I’m going to tell you something really deep about myself — hopefully we can write a cool song from it.
I wrote ‘Love Die Young’ because I was so burnt out and exhausted from my tour, but I wanted to put it in a way that could represent love and relationships, because I think that’s what most people can relate to. I think once we got into that mode, the lyrics and melody just really flowed out. We wrote the song in five hours. We got very visual with it, like the line ‘Flowers in your hair now on our grave.'”
Besides love, what are other universal themes you want to touch upon in your music?
“The one thing that’s constantly in the back of my head and is very true to me is mental health, and being very open, honest, and vulnerable about it. That’s why I love ‘Love Die Young’ so much, because on the surface it’s just a simple love song, but if you really go into it, ‘love’ can also mean your passion or whatever you’re pursuing in life and excited about. So for me, the lyric ‘Please don’t let this love die young’ means I don’t want my passion, my health, and me to burn out.”
“It’ll take time, but those themes of being very frank and honest about how I’m feeling about random shit in life — things that suck and things that are great — will make it into my music.”
“There are a bunch of songs that didn’t make it onto this album, including one literally called ‘Burnout’ and another called ‘Bad For Me.’ It’s [a theme] I’m still starting to experiment with because up until now, everything has been traditional love songs — but now that I’ve matured more as a musician and lyricist, it comes a little more easily to me. It’ll take time, but those themes of being very frank and honest about how I’m feeling about random shit in life — things that suck and things that are great — will make it into my music. At the end of the day, your relationship with yourself is as important as your relationship with anybody else, and it’s about being able to appreciate and love yourself, your health, and your whole being.”
Which song took the longest to put together?
“Typically in a session, I’d say four hours and we’re usually done, but most of the songs on this album took anywhere from six to eight hours. It took a lot of choice words, intention, and being present. Some people go days working on certain songs, but since I’m in and out of Korea — when I’m in, we have a day to do this one song. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, trash it and move onto the next session. So it’s a very bam-bam-bam structure.
“For ‘Congratulations,’ it was like four of us literally lying on the ground and being like, ‘Ohmygod, this song will not end,’ but we got it done. And ‘Come Through’ took a full day, six to eight hours, as well. I took vlogs of me writing a lot of these songs and I remember us just being very picky, like, ‘Where are we going to take this? Where is this message going?’ and it took a lot of hours to hone it down.”
With both English and Korean versions of your songs, like “Miss You,” and now “Runaway” and “No Shame” on this album, how do you decide what to change in terms of languages, title changes, and messages?
“Whenever I write my music, it’s always been in English first and then I take it into Korean. With ‘Runaway,’ the funny story is that I got this song as a demo 1.5 to 2 years ago as a demo written by Loote (Eric’s opener for last year’s Honestly tour), Ari, who is Lauv, and Michael Pollack, a great producer. I heard the demo and loved it, and said we should try to do it in Korean. But when you mix Korean and English together, it’s hard to give a definition that is not a traditional, ideal definition to Koreans.
When you think of ‘runaway’ you’re either going to think, ‘This kid is running away’ or ‘Let’s run away together’ as a love-dovey thing. However, if you say, ‘if you run away, don’t you ever come back’ in Korean, that’s such a convoluted way of going about it — so we just made it into a love song. But those original lyrics is what we’re putting out on this English album, and I thought it made a very witty breakup song. And then Steve James went in, remixed it, put his touch/spin on it, and gave it an EDM-like dance sound.”
For ‘No Shame,’ it’s the same thing with lyrically going back and forth. In Korean, the title ‘Honestly‘ was obviously the definition and content of the song, so it made sense to keep it that way. For ‘No Shame,’ I just felt the title was the key point of the song, and there aren’t a lot of songs called ‘No Shame’ to begin with — and we wanted to do something different. I also kinda wanted people to be like, ‘Wait, what? This is the same song [as ‘Honestly’], but it’s different and it works.’ A little bit of rewriting lyrics went into it as well. I had forgotten how much I loved this song when it was in English, so I hope people love this version too.”
When you picture your fans (aka Nam Nation), what do you see?
“My fans are so diverse. If you come to a show, it literally ranges from a 7-year-old to 60-year-old. I’m not even exaggerating. Men, women, all religions, and all colors. We share this common experience of life and that’s what really binds us. I think there are points where I’m like, ‘Am I not cool enough? Am I not young enough?’ because when it comes to musicians, age is a very real thing that people worry about. But what my fans appreciate and what I appreciate about them is that it’s about content, reliability, and being able to bond over common experiences. I may not have as many fans as BTS or the biggest or youngest idol groups, but what we do have is a very particular relationship when it comes to understanding each other — and that’s what I really value.”
Since K-pop is such a broad term, where do you personally see yourself fitting in all that?
“Even though I’m here now, there’s always going to be the next big group or thing — a taller, more handsome, and younger version of whoever. You can fight or compete against that or you can say, ‘That’s cool. I hope you do well, but I’m going to focus on what I’m doing well and what feels true to me.’ It’s about feeling secure and confident about my identity and place in the world of entertainment. But every once in a while I’ll still have an insecure freakout like, ‘Am I irrelevant? Does anyone even care?’
The other day I met a K-pop idol kid who said, ‘When my team and I look at you, we’re like, you’re A-list, the top. People revere you.’ And I was like, ‘Me? Me?! I don’t know, bro. That seems like a lot.’ I’ve never, ever thought of myself in that light. People around me tell me that I need a bigger persona and to act a little more A-listy because ‘that’s where you are but you don’t act that way, so people undervalue you.’ But that’s not me. I’m a very blunt person. Even at the peak of my career in Korea — in a year, I did 30 endorsements, did all of the events, and got all of the awards — even then, I knew all of that could be gone in an instant.”
“I’ll scan Twitter once in a while and I find it hilarious that people view me as very old. Because if you look at K-pop, the general trend is for the age to go younger, so you have 10-year-olds who are like, ‘Can I be a fan of Eric Nam?’ I mean, I get it. I’m older and more mature, so you probably can’t relate to me. But because K-pop has become this generational thing — you have your first, second, third, and fourth — and I’m weirdly between second and fourth, everyone knows of me, but [younger fans] are like, ‘Am I allowed to like this person who’s older than my oppa (older brother), who’s like 17?’ That’s the weird thing a lot of people deal with. But whatever — if you like it, you like it.”
Cheers to that! As long as they put out good music, that’s what it’s important.
“I appreciate you saying that. I feel like a lot of people nowadays focus more on the visual packaging, and less on the music. Do they dance well, and are they good-looking or hot? As a musician, it can be very frustrating. Certain songs are just unlistenable and I’m like, ‘Am I outdated?’ But objectively, this is just a horrible song. But then people are like, ‘I love this,’ and I’m like, ‘No, you like them and the image and idea of this persona that you can be a fan of‘ — which is completely fine. But for me, I’ve had to literally split it off. I view myself as a musician and I focus on music — other people may try to focus on the music, but the emphasis is heavily on visuals and performance. They’re both equally valid, but different. It’s just difficult because we’re all in K-pop, and that’s why we’re compared to each other.”
“I view myself as a musician and I focus on music — other people may try to focus on the music, but the emphasis is heavily on visuals and performance. They’re both equally valid, but different.”
And finally, I couldn’t help but include a few ~rapid fire questions~ to put a bow on this interview:
First text you sent this morning?
“It was to my team about the album, that I want everything lowercase. We’re still going through edits for the physical album, printing, and mixing the songs. I got up and that’s literally what I did for the first two hours.”
Name one alive and one dead person you’d love to meet.
What is a song you WISH you had written?
“’Slow Dancing in a Burning Room.’ I love that song. I would also love to meet John [Mayer] and write with him.”
Go-to comfort food?
What’s one song you will never get sick of hearing?
“’Someone Like You‘ by Adele.”
Your Hogwarts house?
“I have no idea. I wanna say Gryffindor. But my friends in college were like, ‘You’re definitely a Slytherin. ‘Cause you’re a savvy business guy.’”
“Midnight in Paris. I just like to keep it on in the background even if I’m not focused on it.”
Favorite TV show?
“Homeland and Billions.“
If you had to dye your hair, what color would you choose?
“I’d be down to bleach it and put a tint of blue in it. Just to say I did it.”
Ultimate K-pop bias?
“Honestly, I should probably just say BTS. I just appreciate how differently they’ve approached everything. Watching them grow from these little kids to become these global mega superstars, and the fact that they’ve been able to stay normal and humble throughout all this time, is enough for me to stan. Maybe not even just in terms of music, but as people. It’s been a pleasure knowing them and being able to cheer for them.”
Check out Eric Nam’s latest album, Before We Begin, and the music video for his lead single, “Congratulations,” both out now!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.