There’s an air of untouchability to idol culture in Korea. K-pop’s biggest stars are part of such flawlessly executed packages — both in terms of their music and public image — that sometimes it’s hard to believe they exist in the same reality we do. Eric Nam, the Atlanta-born, Korea-based musician and personality, is the grounded exception to the rule. Nam left the States after briefly working as a consulting analyst to pursue music because the soon-to-be 31 year-old felt it was the only place he could do so. Now, he has his sights set on a triumphant homecoming.
“’Pop star’ is cool. ‘Singer-songwriter’ is cool,” he says when asked how he would define his musical career. “At the end of the day, so much about music is perception, but as long as the music speaks for itself, I don’t think I really care that much.”
A high-wattage star since his 2011 appearance on the reality competition show Birth of a Great Star 2, Nam is unsurprisingly charismatic in person, but he’s also witty and self-deprecating. Of an upcoming performance of new material, he says with a wry smile, “Hopefully, I don’t fuck it up.” There’s an inexhaustible excitement in him that’s evident, whether he’s imploring his manager to try a bite of his Dig Inn brussel sprouts, discussing ways Korean music culture could be healthier, or most emphatically, talking about Before We Begin — his first record entirely in English — which comes out November 14.
“In the States particularly, music is going through a moment where being honest, relatable, and very vulnerable is the thing to do. I think people want that authenticity and that story,” he says. “When it comes to K-Pop, I feel like that’s not as much of a defining factor. I think it’s much more about, ‘Is it shiny? Is it glittery? Is the choreography on point?’ Which is all valuable, it’s just a different way of valuing things.”
While a full English album might seem like a big pivot for an artist whose three EPs are largely in Korean, the decision was a natural extension of his writing process, where he first crafts lyrics in English before going through the meticulous process of translating.
“I feel like I’m much more expressive in English,” says Nam. “It’s painstaking and it’s hard to keep the original feel of the song from demo to recording all in English, but to do it demo-to-recording in Korean, you just lose so much of that sentiment.”
Nam wants to bring the candor and emotional honesty that has permeated mainstream pop in America courtesy of artists like Billie Eilish and Lana Del Rey to K-Pop. Before We Begin is noticeably more vulnerable than his previous releases, with stirring ballads like the single “Love Die Young” and “Wonder” marking a bold new direction.
“Wonder,” a dusky piano ballad showcasing Nam’s sweet tenor voice, is one of his most affecting songs to date. It’s an autopsy of a failed relationship, an attempt to pinpoint exactly what led to its end and how things might have turned out different.“What if you weren’t so depressed? / And what if I wasn’t so obsessed with love when we met? / Maybe then it’d be different / You wouldn’t be scared and I’d learn to listen,” he sings.
“I was in a period where I really wanted to create a ballad, and I wanted to tell a great story. Everybody was like, ‘If you want to tell a great story, if you want to write a great ballad, you’ve got to go to Nashville,’” says Nam, who typically works in LA and had never written in the country music mecca.
Nam worked with songwriters Emily Weissband and Alysa Vanderheym on a song tentatively titled “Burnout,” which will likely appear on a future project of his, as well as “Wonder.” The writers pitched the song to Nam, but asked whether he’d want to change the lyrics to fit more historically conventional gender roles of love ballads.
“They were like, ‘It’s kind of written from a girl’s perspective. Maybe we should change the lyrics,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘I feel like it’s universal. Anybody can feel this way.’”
Though Nam has a solid following in the United States, it pales in comparison to the fanbase he’s built as a performer and TV host in Korea. He says that his renewed focus on achieving success in his home country came with the realization that his songs must be able to compete in a music culture crowded with nascent, slickly-packaged pop stars and more confessional artists, too.
“In the back of my head, I was like, I’m going to be in the States one day. I will at least fucking go for it and try to push the envelope and move the culture forwards,” he says. “When it comes to music, then mine needs to stand up to any standard, meaning the US and global standard.”
While he’s making a play for success in America, Nam also says he hopes Before We Begin and his present trajectory will be inspiring to his Korean peers. He speaks candidly about the physical toll of his career, which includes chronic pain stemming from neck and back issues, and the relentless, breakless pace of the industry. Nam also recognizes this as a pivotal time for K-pop, one where major positive changes could take effect.
“I think there used to be [a clearcut path to success in Korea]. I think I was at the very end of that period of time. I think right now, the discussion that keeps happening in Korea particularly is like, ‘What makes a star and what makes a hit?’” He says. “Nobody knows, because traditional forms of media have gone out the window.”
The path to Before We Begin wasn’t easy, including pushback from his label and personal team about doing an English language release at all, as well as the choice of “Love Die Young” as a single. But Nam persevered, driven by a desire to increase the prominence of Asian-American artists so the next Eric Nam doesn’t have to travel 7,000 miles to start their career.
“One of the most rewarding things is when I tour and meet people who say, ‘Thank you for doing what you do because you literally had the perfect Asian-American story of going to university, getting a job, and saying fuck it and pursuing a dream. And you made it,’ he says with a smile. “But now, it’s about increasing visibility across the board for everybody and allowing a 10-year-old kid to dream about being an Asian-American Justin Bieber.”