Courtesy Photo: CJ ENM
K-Pop Phenom Eric Nam Talks New Mini-Album 'The Other Side' And Life As One Of Korea's Biggest Stars
Eric Nam's journey into K-pop stardom is a fairy-tale-like story that almost didn't happen.
Born and reared in Atlanta, Ga., the breakout Korean-American singer had hopes of being a performer. (His parents, on the other hand, did not share his vision.) As a kid, he took up several music-centric extracurricular activities as a means of getting into a good university: He trained as a member of the Atlanta Boy Choir and played in his high school orchestra.
After graduating from Boston College, where he majored in international studies and minored in Asian studies, in 2011, he began a career path that initially took him in the opposite direction of his dreams. He landed a consultant job at Deloitte, the multinational business advisory and accounting firm, which he ultimately deferred to follow nonprofit initiatives in India. Life as a world-class singer was put on pause.
Things began to change, however, while he was in India. His YouTube videos of him singing K-pop covers landed him a spot on "Star Audition: Birth Of A Great Star 2," South Korea's answer to "American Idol." He placed in the top five in the show's 2011 season, and his journey into music took flight.
Nam has since worked his way to become one of the most recognized names and faces in Korea's mammoth entertainment industry today. Over the course of nine years, he's released four EPs and one English-language album, 2019's Before We Begin.
His latest mini-album, The Other Side, released in late July, is a melting pot of playful, upbeat sounds that combines elements of pop and house music. Largely written during the coronavirus pandemic, the album contains a message of freedom, as heard on the lead track, "Paradise."
"It was not easy," Nam tells GRAMMY.com about the making of The Other Side. "Luckily, two or three of the songs we had already written prior to the pandemic. We did a lot of Zoom calls. But I also found it challenging in terms of content, because the only thing that was on my mind is everybody being locked down and the realities that we're living in. So I was a little stressed about that, but then I realised this is something that everybody is feeling right now. The frustration, the heartbreak, the pent-up energy—whatever it may be, let's write to that. That's kind of how 'Paradise' and 'How You Been' came to life."
Outside of his music career, Nam has hosted multiple TV shows in South Korea, including "KCON:TACT" and "After School Club," as well as the podcast, "K-Pop Daebak w/ Eric Nam." As South Korea's go-to host for Hollywood stars, he's interviewed Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Will Smith and many others. It's no wonder he was declared one of GQ Korea's Men Of The Year in 2016 and featured in Forbes' 30 Under 30 Asia list in 2017.
GRAMMY.com spoke with Eric Nam about his new mini-album, The Other Side, his double life as a host to Hollywood's elite stars and the urgent need for dialogue and social change within the entertainment world and beyond.
You're a singer, songwriter, TV personality and host. Was this always your dream growing up?
Not really. I fell into it in many ways. It was a dream to be a singer/performer, but I never thought I had a chance or had a real shot; I never thought I was good enough. And I think a big part of it was [that] I never saw an Asian face on TV or doing music, particularly in the U.S. where I was born and raised. So it was never a realistic possibility for me, but I think it's fascinating that I am doing it, and I'm very thankful.
Did you have a backup plan? Did you say to yourself, "I'm going to give myself X amount of years in Korea"? Or was it success as a singer and nothing else?
I think it was the former. I said, "Let's give it two to three years. And within three years, if it's not going to work out, then let's not waste valuable time in my 20s." And for me, the backup plan [was] to go back to consulting or finding another job.
What are the differences between your new mini-album, The Other Side, and your last album, Before We Begin?
I think Before We Begin may have been a little more understated and mature in the musicality. I think this one is a little more playful, a little more upbeat, a little brighter. And I think that draws more from the K-pop side.
Why did you pick "Paradise" as the lead single?
I really wanted to experiment with sounds in a way that I hadn't done before. I wanted something that hasn't often been heard, particularly in the K-pop world. A lot of my peers, be seniors or juniors, they'll text me or they'll call me and they'll say, "Thank you for doing the music that you do because it pushes the genre forward in different ways." It's a very rewarding thing to hear.
How was the process of making an album during the pandemic?
It was not easy. Luckily, two or three of the songs we had already written prior to the pandemic. We did a lot of Zoom calls. But I also found it challenging in terms of content, because the only thing that was on my mind is everybody being locked down and the realities that we're living in. So I was a little stressed about that, but then I realized this is something that everybody is feeling right now. The frustration, the heartbreak, the pent-up energy—whatever it may be, let's write to that. That's kind of how "Paradise" and "How You Been" came to life.
Young K from DAY6 wrote four out of the five songs on the mini-album. How did that collaboration happen?
I'd worked with him in the past on some songs that haven't been released, but he's a great lyricist. I was in California and I texted him, "Hey, I have a bunch of songs. I need lyrics. Would you be down to work on these with me?" And he quickly responded "yes" on them all. And then we just started the process of collaborating.
You've worked with some amazing producers in the past, including Timbaland. Are there any other producers you would like to work with in the future?
2020 has seen some real shifts in social dynamics: racism against East Asians in the U.S., the killing of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement. Do you think those social dynamics are going to impact the Korean music industry?
I really don't know how it's going to affect the Korean industry, because I feel like in Korea, people feel very far-removed from the realities that are going on outside of Korea. So I'm sure while people may be more sensitive to it, and maybe more cognizant to what's going on, I don't know exactly how that will change the industry itself. Does that make sense?
The one thing that we strive for—not as a Korean artist or not as somebody working [or] living in Korea, just as humans, as a citizen of the world—is for more dialogue and for social change. I think it's something that's needed. I think it's something that's way overdue. I can't wait for somebody to say, "OK, let's open up dialogue and have public discourse in a healthy manner so that we can all learn from these experiences that we're having."
If there were any three songs in the entire history of music that you wish you could have written, what three songs would they be?
Adele's "Someone Like You". I think that was a song that truly captivated the entire world. And it was a song that anyone and everybody could relate to globally. "Blackbird" by The Beatles. And I'm going to go with a collaboration: Alicia Keys and Usher, "My Boo." I love that song: two of my most favorite artists growing up in one song together.
What was the moment in your career where you wanted to pick up the phone and say, "Mom, I made it"?
I feel like I have an imposter syndrome where I'm like, "Why am I here?" You think about it, like, I was this kid from Atlanta, Ga. I can barely speak Korean. I'm the one of the few active people from three seasons of that one TV show. But I think it's the tours. It's so wild to be able to say that I can do shows in front of thousands of people and have them sing my songs in Korean and in English—that is wild to me.
How did you become the go-to person in South Korea for A-list Hollywood interviews?
I had to do all these different TV shows all the time. They were putting me on TV to become a reporter for international people coming in. That really kick-started my career, because for the first time in Korea, I was asking very straightforward questions. One of my first interviews was Robert Downey Jr. for Iron Man. Then the movie houses started calling: "Hey, we'll fly you out to London to meet with the cast of Justice League. We'll fly you out to Hong Kong to meet with Benedict Cumberbatch. And that's kind of how it happened.
Is there anything else about The Other Side you'd like to share?
I think this is an album that is, hopefully, just going to continue to help progress my music. But my hope is that in the next year or two, I can really start to make bigger moves on a more international level, in the States and Europe [and] in Latin America, that are interesting. Fight for acceptance, fight for representation, but also at its core, great music and content.