Eric Nam Discusses Working in K-pop Industry and Representation: 'People Need to Try'

CJ E&M
Eric Nam

The flash of K-pop isn't unfamiliar to Eric Nam, but he chose to keep things simple for his stateside homecoming at New York's Irving Plaza last week. As he performed in front of a packed house during his first-ever solo U.S. concert, the singer offered up a taste of the music that's made him one of South Korea’s most popular young male soloists, which he hopes will translate over into the local market.

“Typically in Korea when I perform I have a full band, a ten-piece band, and that’s a completely different monster in itself to prepare and rehearse,” Nam tells Billboard the morning after his NYC show. “We were just trying to make it as authentic as possible. A typical American show in my perspective.”

To introduce himself during his first US solo tour, Nam did without the big stage productions and sleek choreography typical of K-pop acts performing in the U.S. Aside from backup dancers, the concert crew was made up of five people, including the artist himself. (Because his usual dancers’ visas were denied, Nam sought out local dancers and taught them the choreography in two days.) Tickets for the single stop of his tour in New York on Aug. 6 and two stops in Atlanta on Aug. 12 and 13 sold out.

Pop is the word when it comes to Nam, who sprinkles his songs with jazzy funk and feel good electro-pop. Like the genre-blending favored by many mainstream Korean artists, the 28-year-old doesn’t limit himself, and has explored other genres like alt-R&B, house, and synth-pop, through collaborations with the likes of Gallant, Arty, Girls’ Generation’s Seohyun, Kolaj, and Timbaland.

Prior to appearing on a Korean star-search television show in 2011, stardom wasn’t on Nam’s mind. As a post-grad from Boston College, he had accepted a position at Deloitte Consulting in New York City and was in India for a gap-year social enterprise fellowship when he was approached by the team of MBC’s Birth of a Star 2. They had discovered him through some covers he had posted on YouTube and wanted to bring him to Korea for the show. After making it into the top five finalists, Nam signed with a label and put his white-collar career plans on hold. “I knew that if I didn’t, I’d regret it my entire life,” he says. “‘What would have, what could have happened?’ I don’t want to live like that.”

Though he gained renown as a popular television personality on reality shows, it was only in the past few years that Nam gained recognition in South Korea as a singer. He's since seen success with hits like the funky “Can’t Help Myself,” which peaked at No. 4 on the World Digital Song Sales chart last August, and “Spring Love,” a duet with Red Velvet’s Wendy. Last year, he was named one of GQ Korea’s men of the year, and earlier this year the 28-year-old was included as one of Forbes' 30 Under 30 Celebrities in Asia.

Nam’s like few others in the K-pop industry, and not just because his affable image differs from the lofty idol-like personas of many other stars. Along with being a bit older than many in the field, he never went through the rigorous training that most K-pop singers do, has a heavy hand in his music production, and doesn't even sing like others in the industry: when he arrived to work in Korea, Nam spoke little Korean, and wasn’t particularly familiar with the type of music that is popular over there. He preferred, and continues to be influenced by, the music of Maroon 5 and similar bands. “When I go to Korea and they say, ‘Sing like a Korean person,’ I can’t do it,” he says. “I didn’t grow up with that sound.”

Korea’s brand of evocative ballads in particular are a struggle for Nam, who admits that he “physically cannot” emulate that specific style of music. Instead he favors pop ballads by the likes of John Legend, Adele, Sam Smith, and even BIGBANG’s Taeyang, whose “Eyes, Nose, Lips” Nam performed during the New York show.

While the Korean-American experience isn’t the subject of his music, it plays a role in Nam’s creative process. He writes music in English and then later comes up with Korean lyrics, and he often records in the States, usually in Los Angeles. In Korea, he’s worked with other bilingual Korean musicians, like Epik High’s Tablo, Red Velvet’s Wendy, f(x)’s Amber, Park Jimin of 15&, and Jeon Somi, formerly of I.O.I. Earlier this year, Nam told Billboard it’s primarily because there are few places in U.S entertainment for Asian-Americans to showcase their talent that he’s working in Korea.

Revisiting the topic while in New York, he expresses hope that social media campaigns for diversity and K-pop’s growing visibility in the States -- thanks to the likes of KCON and BTS -- have made it a great time to at least try to break into the U.S. music industry as an Asian-American.

“People need to try,” he says. “Like, I need to try. People who are able and willing to [need to] try so that people in the future have people to kind of build off of. The coolest thing for me now is when I’m in the States and I meet other Asian-Americans who are like, ‘Dude, thank you so much for doing what you do. I love your music, I love whatever. But whatever you do, we’re gonna support you because there aren’t many Asian faces doing music.’”

While he may be a popular artist amongst American K-pop fans and is already able to sell out venues, Nam recognizes the difficulties of the U.S market, so he isn’t isn’t trying to force anything. Through collaborations and concerts, he hopes that a larger presence in the States will grow in a rather grassroots, organic way.

Nam has plans to release some new collaborations, including “Like You” with AOBeats, which he performed at Irving Plaza. He also intends to hold another series of tours in the States, now that he’s proven that an Asian-American soloist is able to draw a crowd. He also aims to drop a new album, tentatively in October if everything comes into place. “I’m just looking for that one song that I know everybody’s going to be like, ‘Damn, that’s a good song,’ Nam says. “I’m not sure if I have it yet. I have a couple that are really close. I have a month to find that next song.”