In an incredibly insightful conversation, we get to know more about Eric Nam as he opens up about everything from K-pop, being Asian in this day and age, his evolving music, finding joy in being alone, and yes, puppies.
There is a palpable sense of focus that besets Eric Nam in conversation. Make no mistake about it, he’s no square, because after a quick search on YouTube or TikTok, the results yield the Korean American singer-songwriter as ebullient. Whether it be letting a performance breathe with a stab at humor or powering through a deluge of thirst tweets, there is a lot of self-awareness and joy that courses through the words that tumble from his lips. It is a nice contrast to the pensive and passionate quality of his music and his advocacies, which makes for an all the more compelling chat. Here, he zeroes in on you, and thoughtfully strings his thoughts into words of gospel truth. Not even a puppy playfully barking incessantly can derail him.
“Hi puppy,” he says to the dapple dachshund off screen, before continuing his exposition on continuing to carve out authenticity in the work that he does, all extensions included. “It’s a natural progression of how people are. I don’t know if doing the same thing over and over is exciting for me. Everybody is searching for something new, fresh, more impactful, more honest…things that are going to make us feel,” shares Eric Nam. “I used to think that I had to match whatever the trends are. But at a certain point, maybe four or five years ago, it was like, ‘I should just do what I want to do,’ you know? Instead of trying to emulate or imitate other artists, what’s something I’m really good at and what is something only I can do?”
For the consummate artist who traces his roots in the Korean music competition, Star Audition: Birth Of A Great Star 2 in 2011, it is about mixing the performance of K-pop with the sensibilities of pop and R&B. More so, he asserts that as a person, he is always evolving. “In terms of what is going in with my life, what is the story I want to tell, what genre do I like right now, and what’s inspiring me. And as I change, my music changes. It is important to say that art changes constantly. And if it doesn’t, I’m curious: Are you living?”
Eric Nam, Not Your Typical K-Pop Star
It comes to no surprise that in the persistence of his passion and purpose, Eric Nam is extremely mindful. If his music is any indication, and this includes the lyrics, emotions, and orchestrations, there is a clear intention to everything he does. “I’ve always been different, particularly in K-pop. When people think of K-pop, typically, it’s a group of guys or girls with four, ten, twelve members who are doing really incredible things on stage. I think I’m one of the very few solo K-pop artists that isn’t from a group,” the accidental pop star explains. “I bring that up because that informs my music and what I’m able to do onstage. So, when I’m writing songs, I can’t have a verse, a pre, a rap portion, a dance break, an R&B moment with mumble rap, and then go back to the chorus. It has to be one cohesive piece. That’s why my music and performances are very different.”
As with anyone who has had to straddle a multiplicity of identities, which in his case is racial and cultural, there was always a struggle to reconcile the often extreme of ends. “Being from the States, in Korea, it was your music is too American, too pop, we don’t get it. But for me, that was the music that I love and I wanted to do that. It’s a choice for me to say, but I’m not going to do these massive K-pop things, whatever you think that might be. I am going to do what I really want to do, and that is something that I’m actually pretty lucky to be able that I say that I do,” he asserts. To his end of the blossoming of k-pop over the last ten years, this means treading the lanes of simplicity and subtlety, all while being big on heartfelt storytelling.
However the rest of the world sees him on the incredibly intense and exciting plane of K-pop, Eric Nam is more than happy to contribute, in his own way, of course. And for him, to contribute to its further dominance is more than just for his singular benefit. “It’s also exciting because it opens up the doors not only for Koreans, and Korean Americans, people who love Korean culture, but anybody that’s Asian, because it puts us at the one of the highlighted portions of pop culture,” he says. “And to say who look like us, people from Asia are able to create incredible music, film, TV, and products just like everywhere else when historically, it’s the West that’s been leading in that sense. It’s really cool and it’s been really fun to see that blossom over the past decade.”
There And Back Again
Ahead of his pit stop in Manila for his There And Back Again tour, which finds a home in the country at Samsung Hall in SM Aura Premier on November 10, this is all but a fitting conversation. “You know, I want there to be more Asian American artists and people of influence who are Asian, because we are a very important piece of the fabric of the world. Asia makes up more than half of the world’s population, right? Yet we are still highly, severely underrepresented in terms of media, company leadership, and politics, in so many ways,” he details. “In order for us to have cultural moments and change, and things and systems that include us, we have to be in the room, in the decision-making places, so that we can create the systems for us and that include as well. And if you realize and know that, you have to speak up.”
Eric Nam cares a great deal, and that spans far from his typical points of concern to the world in general. This is why, whether it’s mental health, artistic integrity, or Asian hate, he will stand up and speak out. While it is something he finds great fulfillment in, this wasn’t always the case for him in his early career. “For a long time, I was discouraged from saying anything. They’d say, ‘don’t talk politics, don’t talk about issues, because people can just dislike you,’” he recalls. “But my thing has always been, if you don’t use influence for positive impact, then what’s the point of having influence alone? If I’m able to channel that and say, ‘hey, let’s work together, let’s mobilize. Let me bring awareness to this and help encourage more people to do that together.’ I think that’s a very important thing that I feel called to do and would love for more people to take part of.”
This consciousness to subvert the systems that benefit only the few, is something that Eric Nam walks and talks. Take the way he built the world he traversed in There And Back Again, particularly with the singles I Don’t Know Anymore, Any Other Way, And Lost On Me. “Across all three, we shot [the music videos] in Savannah, Georgia, which kind of had this fantastical Southern charm. But whenever you go to a place in the south in the States, I feel like there’s a racial tension. There’s not a lot of diversity there,” he says matter of factly. “But for me, I’ve always wanted to say: Where can I see myself? Where can I paint myself? Where can I force myself into a world where I’m not represented, where it’s weird for me to be, but it doesn’t make sense for me to be there? Why not? I picked that place to go and show an Asian dude in really clothes in a very kind of weird, haunting background.”
While it may not be blatant as in the rah-rah-rah kind of way, Eric Nam is able to send his message across perhaps a little belatedly, but much more profoundly. The impact and statement intertwined with stories of longing, love, and life as we know it is much more effective when that light bulb moment finally and your mind is blown. The work, in its ever-progressive state, has to be done, and he is all but willing to keep on going.
Happy To Be Here
In the same trajectory of his identity and music, Eric Nam likes to take things the personal, give-it-all-your-all approach. In all his expositions, he puts every bit of himself in it, making sure that whatever it reveals itself to be gets the respect it deserves. “All the songs in this album were very personal in many ways. They are all from a sentiment or experience that I was processing at the time,” he begins to expound. “Lost On Me, I feel like there are people and places and things and events that happen in your life that can be damaging, hurtful, just not the best, but rather than thinking about it as a negative experience, flipping it, yeah, these are the things that I learned and took away from it. Your words, your love, and that experience, even though it’s hard to understand, it’s not lost on me. It takes time and perspective to take a step back and say, ‘oh, that’s what it means and I understand it now.’ Maybe it’s very heady and philosophical, it felt just right when we were putting it together.”
It may seem existential, sure, but what is the point of life if not to exist truthfully and without apologies? This is precisely why for the artist at heart that is Eric Nam, the goal is to create and cultivate on what will essentially make living a tad bit bearable. “All those different ideas and experiences I have, it all works synergistically, and it allows me to create more. That’s my entire way of functioning and thinking. Anytime I meet somebody or see something, I think, what can I do to enhance that and make it better,” he says, before pausing for a deeper thought. “I’m a very curious person, I think that’s the best way to put it.”
With a great deal of affection for the human condition, it is a surprise to know that for the charmer that he is, Eric Nam enjoys being alone. “I know for some people that’s crazy, but I love it,” he says, laughing. “Honestly, it gives me time to recharge, reflect, and create more things, which I really love to do.” It sure isn’t the explosive, cathartic end to his live performances, but in this distilled moment he carves out of his day, this is where he gets to ponder and plot his next great adventure. It isn’t lost on us that why despite such a saturation of sound, Eric Nam is able to find a quiet and just focus in the moment. More than anything, just like the cup of coffee in the morning, his favorite TV show at night, or the puppies greeting him from the other side of the world that puts a smile on his, he is simply put, happy to be where he is.
And yes, he wouldn’t have it any other way. (Whistles.)
Presented by Live Nation Philippines, Eric Nam’s There And Back Again World Tour in Manila is set to take place at the Samsung Hall, SM Aura Premier, Manila on November 10, 2022.