This K-Pop Star Is Ready To Shake Things Up
In South Korea, Eric Nam is a pretty big deal. He’s a do-it-all type: he sings, he dances, he’s hosted various Korean tv shows, and has appeared on SNL Korea—and he once fed Chloë Grace Moretz silkworms. Nam is a performer of the digital age: he was born and bred in the US; was discovered on YouTube (is he K-pop’s Justin Beiber? Perhaps); hosts various Korean web series; and, thanks to the internet, has fans around the world, many of whom don’t even speak Korean. We caught up with him about his unlikely path to fame, his plans for the future, and more.
How did you get into K-pop?
I grew up listening to Top 40. I was born in the States, raised in the States, but I never knew what was going on in Korea. We did a trip out there over the summer and I picked up a few CDs. I was entranced by the fact that there were people who looked like me singing in a different language, doing things I had only seen done by *NSYNC and people playing on the radio at the time.
And you didn’t start doing it until after college?
I never really thought I was going to go into music. It was always a dream of mine to be a performer, the same way little kids want to be President or an astronaut. I went to Boston College and graduated with a degree in International Studies. [I received a job offer] at Deloitte Consulting, doing strategy and operations. But I had gone through college so quickly that by the end of four years… I graduated and realized I hadn’t spent any time on myself. So I took a year off and went to India, took a fellowship there, because service work was always a big component of my life. While there, I made a promise that if I got the opportunity to do anything musically, I would take it.
What kind of program was it?
It was a fellowship in social enterprise. We were there to help develop low-income private schools, but [it was unfortunately not well organized.] I was like, “God, if I’m supposed to be here and do this stuff, I’ll stay. If not, send me a sign.”
A few weeks later, I get an email saying, “Hey, we saw your videos on YouTube, we’ll fly you out to Korea, do you want to be a part of this TV show?” My first thought is that this has got to be a fraud. It seemed like it came from a fake email account and was like, “Please send us your passport!” I figured worst case scenario, all they have is my passport number. Best case scenario, I just got a flight to Korea. So I took it.
And this was for Birth of a Great Star 2?
Yeah, it’s like The Voice and X Factor mashed together. I got to the top 5, and then after that I had to decide: do I stay in Korea or do I go back to Deloitte?
At the end of the day I figured, you live once, you have the opportunity to pursue a dream, go for it. Worst case, you can go back to Deloitte or go work somewhere else, but not a lot of people get the opportunity to pursue their dream. So I went for it, and now it’s been four and a half years since I got to Korea.
What do you think you have to offer that is different?
Not a lot of people happen to have a voice like mine in Korea, and that’s what sets me apart. I don’t like to stick to one genre. I try to do things that are rock-y, R&B, or very, very pop-y. I like to think of myself as a very versatile vocalist in that sense. I think music is always evolving—I consider my voice an instrument that can constantly fluctuate. And that sets me apart.
What themes would you say are present in your music?
For me, this album was about healing and trying to overcome. Culturally, [moving to Korea] was very difficult. And socially, there are such different norms, [such as] how you dress and how you talk to people. So while I was writing, I thought, “What would I like to hear that would make me feel better about my life?” because I was [personally] in some dark places. I wanted to hear certain words or phrases and I was sure other people were going through [similar struggles] and didn’t want to hear bubblegum pop or music about breakups. That was the general vibe of my recent album.
What’s next for you, music-wise?
We just released a song in the States called “Into You” with KOLAJ. I’m trying to find the right people to collaborate with and explore singing in English more. That’s what I started as, and that’s what I would like to get into. I’ll keep doing my Korean stuff and I have to keep releasing things out there in Asia to stay relevant and to hone my craft, but the next big challenge and the next big thing I really want to take on is doing stuff in English.
What would you describe your type of music as, if not K-pop?
I think the general image people have of K-pop is like, Big Bang and these huge mega groups with 10 members and dancing on point. Which is fine, that’s what K-pop has become known for, but I think there are so many different subgenres within it that haven’t been represented yet. I guess I fall into one of those subgenres. I think I would like people to take it away as just, when I release stuff in English, I want them to think “This is Eric Nam.” Not, “this is just a Korean guy.” I don’t think race has to be affiliated with it at all.
I know you don’t want race or ethnicity to play into it, but would you say there’s a lack of Asian-American representation?
I think back on it and, this wasn’t intentional at all, but in high school I remember I had written a thesis on the lack of Asian-American portrayals in mainstream media. In college, there was this organization called Kollaboration which was a talent showcase for Asian-Americans, and I was the executive founder of that for the Boston show. It’s cool that in retrospect, I was working for these causes and now I can potentially be one of the people to help really push it through on the talent end. I don’t think I started with that in mind, but it’s developed that way.
I think part of it may be that as Asian-Americans, we were never shown examples of people [like us] who could make it. We need people to give us that chance, to give us the opportunity to say that we’re here and we’re working hard. Part of what I find to be my mission is to encourage more people, who are younger than I am and want to try this or are dreaming about it and haven’t had the right role models or the right people to look up to, to think “It could be possible, we could try this.” I think that’s the best I can do, and I think the general public should just give it a listen, see what they feel about it.
Stay tuned to Milk for more rising stars.
Images courtesy of CJ E&M Music