switched on pop

Behold the Indie K-pop Star

Photo: Iris Gottlieb

Eric Nam is an accidental K-pop star. Growing up in Atlanta and graduating from college in Boston, he did not expect that in his 20s he’d sign to a K-pop label, be named 2016 Man of the Year by GQ Korea, and become a go-to television personality in South Korea. His music, imbued with his charisma and charm, has charted globally. As fun as it is, the K-pop machine can be a real grind — it chews up young people as often as it mints them as stars.

Nam is unusually candid about this experience, likely because he decided to quit the label system and take his blossoming music career independent. On his second all-English, full-length album, There and Back Again, Nam has full creative control but also the burden of sustaining a solo music career. Nam spoke with Switched on Pop co-host Charlie Harding about what it is like to go from K-pop star to indie musician.

Charlie: You didn’t intend to be a K-pop star. How did it happen?
Eric: No, I didn’t. Long story short: I graduated Boston College. I was going to work at Deloitte doing strategy and operations consulting. But before I started that, I asked for a year off. So during my year off I got hit up by this program called Star Audition, which is like the equivalent of The Voice meets American Idol in Korea. And they came across my YouTube videos. “Hey, would you like to come out to Korea?” And I said yes.

I promised myself that if the opportunity to pursue music came about, I would take it. Doing music is such a risk for anybody. As the son of immigrant parents, it’s not even a question. You don’t even dream that dream. So it was terrifying. But I told myself, if I’m going to do something for myself, then this is the time. So I got on a flight. Got into the top five of this TV show. And then I ended up signing a record deal, quitting my job. And I tried to make it as a musician in Korea. And that was ten years.

So you get a shot at it. What happens next?
I meet with like 15 different labels, and then I ended up choosing one called B2M Entertainment. So we get there, I start to take dance lessons. And then I start just following the label in terms of like, “You got to sing this song, learn this song,” and that’s kind of how I spent the following six months. And then by January of 2013, I had my first EP, called CLOUD 9, though, if you ask me quite honestly, I did not really know what I was singing about. I didn’t even understand the lyrics. So I was always doing the Korean equivalent of Googling words to be like, What am I actually saying? I was really stressed out because I had no idea what was happening.

It sounds like your schedule was pretty grueling. What does the life of a K-pop star look like?
I was packed out from the moment I started until 2018. In Korea as a singer, songwriter, K-pop star, you’re not just one thing. You are a multi-hyphenate. And what really kind of took off for me is not just the music, but the TV personality stuff. I became the go-to guy anytime a western U.S. celebrity was coming to Korea or was doing a press junket for a movie or a TV show. I was the person there to say hello and walk them through saying “I love you” in Korean. And that was kind of how I, outside of music, became broadly known to masses in Korea.

And you put out a lot of music at this point.
I had put out music, but it was never really a lot of music that I really, really wanted to do.

But the music is performing well. Like, your second album Interview goes to No. 12 on the Korean charts. It seems like the music that you’re making is connecting with an audience, but not with you.
The album actually did very well in Korea. Commercially, it was a very big success. There’s a song, “Good for You,” on it that is probably my most famous song in Korea. And there’s nothing wrong with the song. But I knew that I was writing it to placate a Korean audience. It wasn’t exactly like, I feel this in my bones.

What are some of those strategies that you were taking to meet a Korean audience with where they’re at?
The difficulty I always had with writing music and putting out music and Korea is that anything I wrote, the label would always say that it’s too buttery. As in too American, Americans put butter in everything, or it’s too sophisticated, or it’s too complex, or it’s too pop.

So it’s 2016. You’ve released your second album. The music is performing. Why don’t you just double down on the music and see if you can pull it closer to your vision?
Because the TV appearances, the endorsements, all that stuff was making so much money in Korea. The labels own you 360. So it would be a much bigger and much more stable bet to just say, “Hey, we’re going to put this kid on TV and make him shoot 30 or 40 endorsements in the span of a year.” That’s going to be so much more money than putting out one or two records, and then we have to promote it. So very quickly that shift happened and I felt very bamboozled where I understand I needed to do it for press and to make money, but I wasn’t doing what I came to Korea to do. And that was music.

But you were locked into a record deal. What did you do about it?
I got to a point where I was just so burned-out. I was exhausted. I was burned-out. I felt a lot of anxiety. Like, my health has taken a nosedive. And so there was a big breaking point. And that was probably 2017 or 2018. And I said from now on, music is the way that I want to do it. I’m going to write my own things. I get to take creative control and I’ve made you all this money on, like, the brands and the TV side. So give me music.

Okay, so you get some creative control back, but the music is already doing well. What opportunities are you seeing where you want to take this thing?
There’s so much opportunity outside of Korea for K-pop to do well. And also I felt like I sat in a very interesting space because I am multilingual. I think what for me has always been the guiding light is that I am very much a pop lover. I’m a pop-ophile, if that’s a word.

But here’s the thing. Oddly, I quickly realized in Korea that there was nobody playing to the pop sound, and that was always my thing. Koreans love pop. Like, you go look at the charts — it’s all Charlie Puth, Sam Smith, Maroon 5, Justin Bieber, Adele. But there’s no Korean person doing it. And so I was like, Oh, let me just keep doing this. Maybe I could become the Korean guy, the Asian guy that does it.

Is there a song that you eventually arrive on where you’re like, Ooh, I’m finding something?
If you look at the album Before We Begin, I feel like that album as a whole is a great pop album. “Love Die Young” felt like it was a pop ballad that was one of those songs where I felt like a lot of things kind of clicked.

You’ve got this new album in 2019. It’s your big pop album all in English. And you’re touring with it. You make it to your last show in L.A. in March 2020. And the L.A. show is not just any show. It’s supposed to be a big spotlight, but it’s March 2020.
Yeah. That show was supposed to be a showcase. We had all these labels, all these label heads, all these A&Rs, all these agents, everybody coming to check it out. Do we pick them up? Do we sign them? Do we put out an offer? And then, you know, we get to L.A. and everything shut down. No shows, no gatherings. So I think I was sad, but, like, at the same time, I was more, like, concerned about COVID.

The world shuts down. And even though all of music is a giant question mark, you decide to make a leap to go independent.
What was I thinking? I think if anything I had the luxury of time, to go slowly and build this gradually. But the hardest thing is, how do we put out really good work and really quality? When you look at K-pop idol group music videos — I’m not exaggerating — I know friends who have spent $800,000 on a single music video. And I’m from that world where we don’t have all designer clothes with the latest technology, AR, VR, 4K, 8K, and staff in the hundreds. It is literally me, my brother, and my other manager. It’s three of us kind of running the ship. It’s not easy at all. I mean, thinking about it, like, honestly, thank God that I had money saved from touring so that I could essentially self-fund almost everything.

You call it There and Back Again, the record. I think the title stands for itself. You put out your first single, “I Don’t Know You Anymore.” Tell me about this song.
I think a lot of people can relate to the “I’m working my tail off, even if I’m enjoying what I’m doing, and the music has that vibe of it’s pop and it’s fun, but it’s the music that I want to commiserate with because I’m kind of frustrated with this situation.” There is a duality. And I think, for a long time, I was wondering if it is okay to have this duality to the songs and to who I am on- and off-screen? But at the same time, that’s how we are as people.

I think about the emotional story and the journey that I’ve been taking over the past few years and in this album. It’s like this constant high, low, high, low, high, low thing. And so for me that is like a really great high where we feel good. Like, the world is ours. And then I immediately have a deep low, which is, I’m back again at this, the world is falling apart, nothing is going to work out, and it’s this very chaotic sense of life. But for some reason in this album, it felt cohesive. I’ve kind of synthesized the chaos into something that feels good and generally uplifting.

Are you getting any indicators of whether or not this is working for you? You’ve made this bold effort to go on your own?
I like to think that when I make a decision, I made the best decision for me at that point in time. And that was my optimal choice. And so whatever path that takes me down, the life that I have to live. And then I just have to keep making it better. I’ll say that when it comes to being independent. Yes. There are moments where I’m like, Man, I wish I had a label that just, like, took care of all this paperwork, signed the documents, would wire the money and figure out logistics for XYZ.

You were supposed to be a Deloitte consultant. You bailed on it. And now a decade later, you’re trying to figure out logistics and finances. You accidentally became a consultant.
You should see my Excel spreadsheets to make a decision on how many albums to print and make and ship and all that. Like, there’s so many correlating cells and formulas, and I’m like, Is this what life is? Is this what being an independent musician looks like?

Have you quit K-pop?
No, I don’t think so. People know me for different things in music. Some people will know me for K-pop because that’s where I started my career. That’s where my career has derived from. If I say, “No, I’m not a K-pop artist,” it also excludes me potentially doing more stuff in Korea in the future, which I’m totally down to do. At the moment, I really want to focus on making headway and, you know, break boundaries in terms of the American and western market, rather than trying to be boxed off into A or B, I’m going to make C and that being third culture.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Behold the Indie K-pop Star