Born and raised in Atlanta, Nam eventually moved to South Korea in pursuit of his pop star dreams, competing on Season 2 of the Korean singing competition Star Audition in 2011. It’s a common story for Korean-American K-pop artists; with few opportunities to succeed in the States, they seek out opportunities in Korea’s bustling music market. Or, as Nam puts it: “When Asian Americans aren’t represented [in the U.S.] and we don’t have the opportunity, but you still want to pursue the arts, what are you going to do? You’re going to go where you are accepted.”
But a lot has changed in the years since Nam got his big break on Korean television. For starters, thanks to the global visibility of artists like BTS — who have broken records and defied all expectations — K-pop is more mainstream than ever in the U.S. Korean artists are booking televised gigs, playing Coachella, and being personally invited to The Tonight Show by Jimmy Fallon. But for all the momentum K-pop has shown globally, a solo artist has yet to break through in the States the same way the idol groups have. With Before We Begin and his forthcoming North American tour, Nam hopes he can help lead the charge.
Throughout his conversation with MTV News, Nam opens up about digging “deeper” on his first English release, finding acceptance as a Korean-American artist in the U.S. market, and how he pushed through personal and professional burnout to create his most honest work to date.
MTV News: You were born in the U.S., but you’ve been living and making music in South Korea for nearly a decade. But now you’re making a big push in the States with your new album, Before We Begin, and the tour. Why did you decide that now was the time?
Eric Nam: It’s now or never for me because I think I’ve really ticked off all the marks in Korea that I can do.
MTV News: Like what?
Nam: I’ve done TV, radio, reality shows, concerts, festivals… I’ve done at least one festival every month this year in Korea. I feel like I’ve made it and I can live comfortably — but I’m never about comfort. I’ve never been about being complacent. It’s always been about what’s next, how can we build, how can we do things differently and approach things from a different perspective. People always ask me, “Why did you go to Korea to pursue music?” I’m like, well, it’s not really about wanting to — it’s not having a choice. When Asian Americans aren’t represented here and we don’t have the opportunity, but you still want to pursue the arts, what are you going to do? You’re going to go where you are accepted.
MTV News: As an Asian-American artist, do you feel more accepted in the U.S. now?
Nam: When it comes to just the climate and where the culture is right now, you know with BTS being so big globally, Blackpink doing their thing, and over the past year or so you’ve had the prominence and rise of Rich Brian and Joji and 88rising. For me, the goal and the dream was always to be able to do stuff back home, back in the States. I’m born and raised here, I’m American. That’s what I consider home. It took a lot of time and reverse engineering to get to the point where I’m like, “OK, we can try it.” The discussion right now with K-pop is pretty hot, so why not.
MTV News: But you’re not the typical K-pop artist. For starters, you’re not part of a group. There’s no choreography. You’re a singer-songwriter.
Nam: That was the thing: The momentum is there, the groups are there, but where are the solo artists? Even within K-pop, there should be more representation. It’s not just groups, and it’s not just incredibly produced, highly choreographed pieces. There are vocalists, there’s R&B, there’s hip-hop, there are other types of people and voices. There’s space for all of that to be shared and to be appreciated.
MTV News: Your song “Love Die Young” is pretty emo. One, who hurt you. Two, why was this the song that you wanted to showcase first in the Before We Begin era?
Nam: It’s titled Before We Begin because I didn’t want this album to define me as an artist. I didn’t want it to be, this is K-pop Eric. No. I want this to be Eric Nam’s U.S. debut. In an ideal world I would have a major U.S. label say, “We get behind this artist. We don’t see color. We just see this great music and we want to push it.” Until we get to that point, I just have to keep building. I didn’t want to define who I was before I even got started. That’s why we named it Before We Begin. Then the music on the album, it’s a little bit of a departure from what I’d been doing recently. A little deeper.
MTV News: Yeah, because a lot of your recent stuff has been very bright pop, a kind of a very bubbly ring to it.
Nam: Right. I wanted to come in from a more mature angle. So we wrote to that and did sessions to that narrative and to that feeling. “Love Die Young” came together because I think I had just gotten off tour, I did 12 shows in 18 days in Europe, and then I was just flying all over doing different things. But I had to put this out. It was like this looming album. I was like, “I have to put this together.” I got into the session in the studios, and they were like, “What do you want to do?” I was like, “Honestly I just want to write about being exhausted and burned out.” I’ve been in K-pop in Korea for eight years now and I feel like I haven’t taken a break. I haven’t stopped. It’s just been nonstop, not a day off. I wanted to write about feeling burned out, but how do you do that in a way that people can understand or relate to? So it turned into a really deep love song where you can feel burned out about a relationship. You can feel the end coming. You could see this looming breakup happening, but you don’t want it to happen. That’s I think kind of where the inspiration for that song came from.
MTV News: And then you have the single “Congratulations,” which is another breakup song but this one is more fun. A fun breakup song, if you will.
Nam: It’s a much brighter, happier breakup song and it features Marc E. Bassy, who I’m personally a big fan of for a long time. It’s a very diverse album. A lot of variety, a little bit more maturity and hopefully people love it.
MTV News: When you’re in Korea, what is your schedule like?
Nam: It’s a lot. It’s a lot wherever I am. I travel so much, so that when I am in Korea, it’s playing catch up to everything. It’s like 10 days of work that I have to make up for when I’m back [in Seoul]. Almost every time I land, I land at 4 or 5 a.m., and I’ll have a full day until midnight.
MTV News: What does a full day entail?
Nam: Radio. TV. Podcast. I’m putting an album together. Photo shoots. I’m involved with every single piece of content.
MTV News: Do you want to be involved in everything, or is it more out of necessity?
Nam: I don’t have the luxury of not being involved in everything. I would love to let go. It’s just, I can’t. There are a few people that I’ve selected to be on my team where they’re great and I can delegate things to them, but other points where I’m working with people who I don’t handpick and I’m just like, let me just do this myself. Little small details that for me are important, like capitalization or spacing, that they just don’t catch. I’m just like, you know what, I’ll just do it. That’s just the reality of how I work.
MTV News: I don’t think the average person understands how much content there is in the K-pop industry. K-pop delivers content in unfathomable ways.
Nam: It’s a lot, especially for one person. That’s when I’m jealous of teams because they can split it up. For me, I do a vlog, I do a podcast, I shoot my vlog, I write the subtitles for my vlog.
MTV News: You write the subtitles yourself?
Nam: Yes. That’s what I did this morning when I woke up, I was subtitling. I go through everything with a fine-tooth comb. It’s a lot.
MTV News: One thing that I’ve been learning in my 30s is that your time is valuable and that it’s OK to do things for yourself and only yourself sometimes.
Nam: Absolutely. That’s kind of been the dialogue of this discussion. A lot of interviews ask, “What advice do you have for people in their 20s?” I’m like, “Eh, well, you can do whatever you want in your 20s, but when you hit 30 you’re going to want to take time off. Take care of yourself.”
MTV News: How do you make time for yourself when your schedule is so crazy?
Nam: Honestly, I still haven’t gotten to the point where I can breathe. I told myself I’d take December off, but now they’re starting to book a bunch of gigs, and I’m just like, do I take the time or do I take the money? But it’s also about balance. One way I deal with stress is when I feel a certain way, I just do it. It’s like, I want a hamburger, so I’m just going to eat a hamburger. I don’t want to answer your phone call right now — I’m not going to answer your phone call. Just be able to say, “This is how I feel. This is the way it is, deal with it.” That’s the best way for me to deal with work and stress.
MTV News: When you start promoting more heavily in the U.S. and touring, is there an intention to move here to really like settle and lay down roots?
Nam: I’d like to. Realistically, over the next few years, it’ll be a lot of time spent half and half, going back and forth. I would like to be able to book more stuff here in the States regularly for me to justify that because it’s just a lot of flying, and it’s hard. But my parents would be much happier if I moved back.
MTV News: When it comes to Before We Begin, would you say that this is your most honest work?
Nam: This album is probably the most honest, probably the most vulnerable album I’ve put together. Not to say other ones weren’t, but this one just feels a lot deeper in terms of where the inspiration came from for a lot of the songs. The opening lines of “Love Die Young” is, “What happens when it’s over, when we breathed our last breath.” It sounds like an existential crisis, and it gets people thinking in many different ways, right? It can be in relation to love. It can be in relation to life. It could be whatever.
MTV News: It sounds like something you would have found on my Tumblr in 2007.
Nam: Right! We’re like, “This is such a simple, almost cliche phrase, but it’s still so real and it will always be real and it’s universal.” It’s a lot deeper, a lot more mature, vulnerable, honest. And I think people will take it and apply to it whatever situation they’re in.
MTV News: How would you define your sound?
Nam: I don’t know if I have a sound yet. We live in a time and period for music where genres don’t matter. Everything is fluid. Everything moves in and out. I’m just whatever I feel like singing is pop, and that’s pretty much it. Right now, it’s just about the vibes that I get just living life. I don’t know where we’ll go from here. That’s why it’s called Before We Begin. It’s just things left out to the open.
MTV News: You’re also still making music in Korea. So you’re in two different markets. For example, Koreans love ballads, so you’ve released a lot of Korean ballads. Do you feel like since you’re now straddling both lines, it must be maybe a little confusing?
Nam: Yeah. Absolutely. Over the past few years I’ve had a realization. It was like, what the hell am I doing? Because I don’t particularly like doing Korean ballads. I don’t like Korean ballads in that way, because only Korean people can sing those songs. There’s this certain vibe that only Korean people have, and so to be able to relay that emotion is so hard. I don’t get it. The only person that I’ve seen that’s been able to, is Ailee, but that’s because she has a deep understanding of Korean. For other people it’s very, very difficult. I would be criticized, like, “You don’t talk Korean enough. You sound very American. You sound very white in your music.” And I’m like, “Whoa.”
Courtesy of DAC BIET
MTV News: That must be confusing for you to navigate.
Nam: It’s very weird. It’s like, “I just don’t know what you want me to do.” So then, probably two years ago, I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to do whatever I want. I’m going to write it the way I want. I want to sing the way I want, and if you like it, great. If you don’t, too bad.” And I’ve learned not to be apologetic for the way that you pronounce your words, or the way you sing your song and write your music. It’s supposed to be art and you can like it or you can hate it, but just take it for what it is.
MTV News: That’s very American of you.
Nam: Part of the reason that it’s hard to do it in Korea is because Koreans are very vocal on the internet — the netizens and the comments can be hyper critical. And so people can get very freaked out, like, “Can I do this? Am I allowed? What will happen? What about the backlash.” But I’m just like, “Let’s go.”
MTV News: You’ve had this label of “different” your entire life. First, as an Asian kid growing up in suburban Atlanta, and then as an American in the Korean music industry. Now, as an Asian-American in the Western pop market. But at the same time you don’t want the thing that makes you different — your identity — to define you and your music. How do you navigate that?
Nam: Right. It’s weird. To be very frank, even with Tiffany [Young] and Amber [Liu], none of us have really found our way to this level of success that we’ve had in Asia. And that’s the goal: to find acceptance and to be on the radio and to be on Jimmy Fallon or whatever, not as a K-pop boy band like BTS but as a local singer-songwriter from LA or Atlanta or New York. So it is a very fine line. But I was born and raised here. This is home. This is where my friends are. This is where my family is. But I have to go to Korea to try to make it as a singer so I could come back here and do music, which is mental, but that’s just the reality of it. You can be bitter. You can be upset that we have to do so much work to be accepted again, but I’m like, “That’s just the way it is.” You’ve just got to accept it. You’ve just got to believe that people will see and appreciate the value in the music and the artistry that we bring when they hear it.
MTV News: An entire movement rests on the shoulders of just a small handful of people.
Nam: I don’t know if it’ll work out, and if it doesn’t, that’s OK. We got to try. Maybe it will inspire the next generation to try even harder.