Like many 30-year-olds, Eric Nam is looking to make big changes in his career in the near future. He’s not quite there yet, though, but he’s sending out some feelers with his new album, Before We Begin. Out Thursday (Nov. 14), Nam’s latest is his first wholly English album, and it sees him delve into emotional depths he previously didn’t touch upon throughout his prior, primarily Korean-language releases. Based out of the K-pop world, it’s a new look at the Atlantan artist, who spends the album’s eight tracks singing about things like celebratory breakups — on single “Congratulations” — and hard times, like on the album’s pre-released track “Love Die Young.”
On Before We Begin, Nam serves up a breezy pop homecoming of sorts. In comparison to his past offerings, his own experience is on display with lyrics that are inspired by his own life, as he tells his story unhindered by any linguistic or stylistic barriers that the artist feels have occasionally impacted his Korea-oriented releases. “I was recently doing a TV show in Korea where they were just like, ‘You sound so American when you sing in Korean,'” Nam tells Billboard. “I was like, ‘I know! It’s [only] been like seven, eight years. Obviously my pronunciation is not going to be the same way you do it.’” Despite his stylistic differences, Nam has still become a prominent singer and television personality in South Korea and released numerous hits, typically vibrant pop songs or sweet ballads.
Nam is one of several young Asian-American artists — along with the likes of Tiffany Young and Amber Liu — who have pursued careers in the K-pop industry as an alternative to the U.S. market, where musicians of Asian descent are few and far between. But now he’s taking that first leg of his career and taking a step in the direction of his homeland at a time when the entertainment industry is seeing shifts in representation, with the likes of Crazy Rich Asians and 88rising bringing attention to Asian talent in Hollywood, and the world at large. “Asian-Americans are fighting for space and fighting for visibility and for acceptance,” he says. “I think we’ve come such a long way, even in the past few years. I don’t think we’re there yet. I think we still have so much to do and so much to fight for.”
After moving from the U.S. to compete in an American Idol-like show in Korea as a post-grad, Nam gave up his planned career path in the U.S. financial world and became a staple in K-pop, often serving as a connector between English-speaking audiences and the biggest names in K-pop, through his music and television work, and through social media. K-pop’s rise in the States, with BTS at the forefront, is just the first step, Nam believes. “I love BTS, they’re my friends. I’m so excited and happy and proud of them, but I think we need more. Like, not only from BTS but from other acts who can say, ‘Look, this is not an anomaly.’ We have incredibly talented people all around the world [who] deserve to be heard and be seen just like any other artist. And so I think we’re in that movement still and we’re still building towards it, and I’m excited to be part of that. I consider myself to be a very big advocate for it and hopefully, you know, this new album can fuel and fan the flames.”
Before We Begin is a fully fleshed EP with some new songs along with English versions of older Nam songs, and it’s almost like a sonic tiptoe into the U.S., as he tries to sort out a new market. He spends the album ruminating on love over airy melodies, offering up a bit of happiness alongside some bitter truths and sexiness. The lead single, the Marc E. Bassy-featuring “Congratulations.” is a festive hurrah to a breakup, inspired by a past relationship where Nam had a hard time ending things. But it’s on the ambient “Love Die Young” where Nam creates a tune inspired from burnout.
That song premiered Oct. 30, the day before Nam sat down for this interview, and he says he spent time reading comments on the song where listeners interpreted it both as a sad love song and also a calm reflection on “what happens when we breathe our last breath,” as the lyrics suggest. The dichotomy of interpretations is exactly what he hoped for. “I feel like right now in music, especially in pop, there aren’t a lot of love songs, like sad love songs or ballads, and so if I can do it, that’s great. But beyond the surface of it being a sad love song… For me, I went into writing that song where I was just exhausted, you know?” While preparing the album in a series of songwriting and recording sessions Stateside, Nam had also been touring and traveling between Asia and Europe. One day, it was just too much for him, and when someone asked what was inspiring him that day, he could only focus on his current state of being.
“I was like, ‘All I feel is, like, unhappy and I’m burnt out. So how do we write about this in a way that people can relate to and understand, and they don’t feel like this is like a weird ass song?’” he recalls asking co-writers. “As we were doing it, I had these moments, kind of an existential crisis of like, ‘OK, I’m exhausted. What happens when I’m done with this career? Or I’m actually burned out and I call it quits?’ So for people who don’t listen to lyrics, there’s a great melody, it’s a pretty song. But if you actually look at the lyrics and you read into it, it can be very hard-hitting. It doesn’t come from a place of negativity, but from a place of me trying to process what I was feeling and going through.” The experience resulted in Nam making some changes in his life, trying to manage his personal and career stresses, and sharing them through his new beginning of an EP.
As a professional entertainer, Nam has spent much of the decade moving at full-throttle, moving between projects at lightning speed with little time to rest. Along with his mental health suffering, he recognizes he hasn’t always taken care of his physical health, prioritizing his career over self-care. “I just wish somebody around me [had been] like, ‘You need to stop and go take a break.’ Nobody ever does that for you.” He now works with a close team, including brother Eddie Nam, to facilitate a healthier lifestyle while still moving forward in the direction he wants to go.
Signed to Stone Music Entertainment, a subsidiary of South Korean entertainment behemoth CJ ENM, Nam knows that time is a matter of profitability, especially in the highly competitive K-pop world. “If you’re on break, you’re not making money.” Over the years, he’s managed to keep momentum going while working more or less on his own terms, looking to grow his audience both in Korea and beyond; the general feel from his management label gradually became more hands-off. “From a strictly business perspective, it’s like, ‘Even if you leave Eric alone, he’ll do stuff. He puts his own album together, he gets his own gigs, he does everything on TV. Let him be, he’s fine.’”
Nam’s approach to working in the South Korean entertainment industry is a rarity; K-pop stars are more often than not bound to company decisions rather than artistic inclination. As an American-born college graduate, Nam thinks his education and professional approach had something to do with it: when he wasn’t getting enough work in the early days of his career, he called together a meeting with his management team and gave a presentation on what he wanted to achieve, bypassing the top-down approach. He recalls shell-shocked silence from the team, and one comment of, “You’re so American.”
His American-style approach to the K-pop world has helped him thrive, and he thinks now is the time to spread his wings further. Before We Begin is a precursor, but he also recently launched the weekly podcast K-Pop Daebak w/ Eric Nam, where he reviews new music, continuing to hone his identity both as a singer associated with the K-pop world and also an expert voice on it. K-Pop Daebak has rapidly become one of the most popular music commentary podcasts on Apple Music. “I did not expect it to be that big,” he says, though admits that he’s still trying to find a balance between his desire to express himself and the reactions from listeners. “I enjoy it but there are times, like… You want to say something about a song and you can’t actually say it because people get very upset. That’s kind of sometimes a difficulty around it because I think it’s hard to be an objective commentator on it without people just really getting upset.”
Nam says his trepidation comes from observing how careers in the South Korean entertainment world often are shattered when the wrong moment or conversation comes to light, an intense form of cancel culture that is often propelled by commentary on the Internet; the repercussions for stars are life changing and, on occasion, have resulted in the untimely passings of stars. As an outsider to the industry, Nam — a self-proclaimed “soft nice boy” — says he’s tried doubly as hard to ensure that his actions are not misconstrued, and hopes that by talking, and singing, about topics in a more relaxed, approachable way he can help spur conversations. It’s yet another reason he was intent on putting the focus on “Love Die Young” as a pre-album release track. “How can we talk about [things] in a way that enhances the experience so that people don’t get to a point where it’s horrible?” he reflects.
Eric Nam’s “so American” approach to the Korean market has taken him far, but now he has to learn how to play by the American industry’s rules. He’s released a handful of songs in English in the past, and toured occasionally in the U.S.; he’s even held multiple sold-out shows in small venues. Before We Begin is a bridge he hopes will introduce himself as a player in the States as well as Korea, and he hopes its release will see him grow both as an artist and in popularity. He aims to be the pop counterpart to 88rising, which is bringing Asian and Asian American hip-hop and R&B talent to the foreground. “I still think there’s space for that Asian American story to be told, and I still think if they’re doing hip hop and R&B, there’s a space for pop. Nobody’s filled it yet, and I don’t know if I will but I’d love to try and I’d love to build to it and hopefully it works out, you know?”