Interview by Woojin Lim and Celina Hollmichel
The following conversation belongs to a series of interviews with Asian artists with international upbringings who have traveled across continents to share their art with audiences in both the East and the West, and sought to bridge the divide between identities and artforms. Their works have served as a powerful testament to Asian representation across the world.
Myself a Korean-Canadian, I sit down with these artists to ask about their lives as eager students and inspiring mentors, travelers finding their way around roadblocks, creators of art.
We met Eric Nam backstage at the Royale moments before his concert in Boston, one of many venues on his North American tour which were completely sold out. Clad in a flashy orange jacket, Eric sat cross-legged on a rolling chair, smiling at us. After a warm handshake, he offered us a bottle of water and some cashews that Celina turned down, “I just had some earlier today”—to which he laughed and said, “yeah do your thing,” as we sat down beside him on the couch. The Korean-American artist, known for his smooth pop and R&B hits, had just arrived from New York earlier that day—he’d been traveling all across North America for the US leg of his Before We Begin world tour.
Eric calls Boston his “second home.” Though born and bred in Atlanta, Georgia, he graduated from Boston College, where he studied international relations and Asian studies, and interned at Deloitte over a summer right by the Prudential Center. As a young man preparing for a career in finance, Eric turned his world upside down when a viral YouTube cover secured him a place in one of Korea’s popular TV series, Star Audition: Birth Of A Great Star 2. Since placing in the top five on Star Audition, Eric has hosted a number of TV programs and interviewed some of Western media’s most famous celebrities, making him an all-around talent on top of being a widely acclaimed musical artist.
The crowd’s expectant enthusiasm could be heard from the chartreuse-wallpapered dressing room where we interviewed the renowned interviewer himself. Eric told us about his artist’s vision, his belief in ghosts, the crucial balance of happiness and health, and why Asian and Asian-American representation matters.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: So Before We Begin, how has your global tour been so far? Are you enjoying life on the bus?
A: It’s exhausting, but when your job is to do what you love, you can’t complain too much. [The North American tour] started like February 1st, and it’s been twenty days. We have about 40-something days left. I’ve been seeing a lot of people around the States, visiting and connecting with old friends. So it’s been a great time.
Q: You’ve conducted quite a number of interviews yourself. What is your favorite question to ask your guests?
A: Do you believe in ghosts or have you seen a ghost?
Q: How would you respond to this question?
A: I think there are probably ghosts in the world. I have not seen one but I feel like I felt the presence of one. In Korea there’s been a superstition that ghosts love music, so they’re always in a studio or a dance-training place. I’ve had, like, very scary moments. [...] I’m sure there are.
Q: So you’ve been to a lot of places, especially now, but also in and out of college. What have been some of the most valuable lessons that you’ve taken from these experiences?
A: Even throughout college and post-college, I’ve always been incredibly hyperactive. Even at Boston College, I was involved in so many different organizations and initiatives. I remember my friends saying to me, “you’re actually insane.” It’s because I never slept. I still don’t sleep, but it’s just kind of the way I’m wired.
I’m the type of person that if I feel strongly about something and if I really want to do something, I’m just gonna do it. And if it works out, amazing, and it’s like “I told you so,” but if it doesn’t work out, that’s fine. It’s a learning experience for you to take opportunities and things that you are passionate about, and take calculated risks full steam ahead. That’s probably been my career as well. All common sense says, “why would you give up a perfectly good paying job in New York with your friends to appear on a TV show and maybe make something of yourself?” But I’m a testament to living that way.
Q: Before We Begin is your first all-English album. How has being an artist in South Korea influenced how you approached being a musician here in the United States?
A: This album was meaningful in the sense that it is my first English album. For the past nine years since I’ve been in Korea, the big goal has always been to come back to the States and become a recording artist and entertainer. So trying to say, “how do we reverse-engineer success we’ve had in Korea and try to make it apply here in the States?” I thought that putting out an album in English would be the first step. I wanted this to make an introduction to Eric Nam, which is why we titled it Before We Begin. It’s different from Korea since there’s a very distinct and defined way of promoting an album in Korea. The States is [...] new territory for me and my team.
The other most important thing is that it’s still new for so many Asian and Asian American people. We don’t have a lot of representation, and we don’t have a lot of people who are going to fight for us to be in certain places. I think that was the biggest challenge. But what’s been encouraging is, since we’ve released the album, we’ve been meeting so many incredible people who are willing to take a chance and be allies and say “K-pop is cool, Asians are cool, Parasite is hella awesome.” We’re having a moment as Asians and Asian Americans, and it’s about time. I feel like it’s a very timely album.
Q: How has the reception been to your album in the United States? Have there been any particular responses or interactions that stuck out to you?
A: For me, it’s always great to have fans react well to it, and have the press react well to it. But the most validating thing for me is when other artists really like my stuff. So after I released [Before We Begin], a lot of different artists, particularly in Korea, reached out and said things like “this album’s amazing,” “how did you put this together?” “there’s nobody else into music like you,” and it’s true. In Korea right now, you’re either going to go towards the idol route where there are highly produced dance tracks, or you’re going to be going the R&B and hip-hop route like Zico, Jay Park, or Zion-T. But there’s nobody [in Korea] who really does pop, and that was kind of the intention for me. [...]
But [my label] was like “well, you should do ballads.” I don’t like ballads. So I was like, “Look, instead of trying to make me like Zion-T and instead of making me like somebody else, I can do something that’s distinctly Eric Nam that only I can do because I’m Korean American.” That was, like, years of discussion, but we got to that point. I’d say from the Honestly album to this last album, there’s a color that I’ve established as Eric Nam sound that people in Korea are excited about.
Q: If you could collaborate with anyone, who would you want to collaborate with?
A: I’m down for anybody. My last answer was John Legend or Bruno Mars. They were just so formative in my music career. In Korea, I’m legit down for anybody. [...] I think part of what I’ve realized is that people view me as this hybrid of celebrity because I did some TV. Some people see me as unapproachable in the scene because I’m just everywhere in so many different ways. So they’re like “he would never do it,” but when they do come and I’m like “yeah, I’ll do it,” they’re shocked. I haven’t done a lot in Korea, but I’m down for anything really.
Q: What is your vision as an artist, and what makes your work so meaningful for you?
A: I don’t know if that’s so much of “as an artist,” but just as a person, trying to be happy and healthy. No matter what you do, you should enjoy it. You should really find passion in it. I went through my 20s working so much, and I still do. The last vacation I took was 2018. I’m dead serious. It was like three or four days in Bali. That was the last time I had a break. I even work Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, New Year’s Eve, Christmas Eve, like every day. When you work like that, you think you’re going to be okay, but then I started having health issues because I was over-stressed and overworking. Then I realized how important it is to be healthy and to take care of yourself. For me, yes, I’m happy because I do what I love and I love what I do. But without health, you’re screwed.
Q: Since you spent your undergrad here at Boston College, what were some fun or embarrassing moments in college? How is it to be back in Boston?
A: I can’t tell you the embarrassing ones. Way too many.
No, I had a great time in Boston. Boston is one of those cool cities where it feels like a second home. [...] I obviously spend my undergraduate years here. I also spent a summer here interning at Deloitte, where I lived right next to the Prudential Center. Summer here is great as well. There’s something about it that makes me feel like I’m kind of coming home, every time I’m here. I’m excited for the show tonight, and I hope to just keep coming back whenever I can.
Q: If there’s any advice that you could give to yourself back in college what would it be?
A: Do what you want to do. That’s such a cliché thing to say, but I truly feel like if you are doing what you love, and if you are loving what you do, you’re going to be fine. Even if you don’t make the most money in the world or whatever. I didn’t make money for years. I took a job becoming a singer, giving up a great-paying job at Deloitte. I didn’t make money for like the first four or five years. That’s incredibly disheartening in many ways. But for me, because I was so excited and passionate about music, it didn’t matter. I was like, “I’ll get there, I’ll get there.”
I’m glad I graduated from college. I’m glad I got a job. I’m glad I did everything. But every once in a while, I think, “Man, I wish I had just gone to Korea earlier and started even before.” I’m so thankful that I am where I am, but I wonder what it’d be like if I had had a couple years of actual training, because I never got training.
The other thing to keep in mind is that life is long, and you have so many opportunities. Take all of whatever you want to do, and just take everything you can. You should just be unapologetically you.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us that we haven’t yet touched?
A: Outside of music, I’m always working on podcasts and TV shows, bringing all these different things together. As an Asian American, we’re at a very critical point where we need more young people to be excited and get involved. You can do whatever you want now. The barriers are coming down and it’s an exciting time for anybody. Just pursue what you love and you’ll get there. I keep repeating myself, but that’s it.
After the interview, Eric asked us whether we’d be staying for the show. Of course we would.
The Royale, at full capacity, did not leave us much standing room. Yet, we found a space in the back from which to cheer for Eric’s entrance, heralded by blue strobe lights shining across the sea of fans, and even to catch Eric’s smiling eye for a brief moment. It was a long night of music, body-rolls deemed “too sexy” by his mom, and interludes of “TED talks and backstories.” Here’s one story:
Let’s slow down for a minute, I’ve got a little story to tell you. So I’m gonna tell a story about mom again, ’cause aside from the body rolling, she also after a show came up to me and goes “Eric, I’m so glad it’s over.” And I’m like “Thanks?” “Yeah, whenever you do a show, I have the worst anxiety because I know you’re just gonna mess it up.” “Thanks mom.”
That’s kind of how I was raised. She was never the most accepting of my career choice to be a singer. But I realized more recently: she’s becoming more “American.” Let me explain [...] For example, a few weeks ago, I got a text that goes, “Dear, Eric...” If you have an Asian mom, you know no Asian moms start with “Dear Eric.” It starts with “야! (YAH!)” That’s how it starts. So I get a “Dear Eric” text and it’s like “I’m so proud of you.” WHAT? She’s definitely hacked or abducted. [...] And then she says “I’m so proud of you for pursuing a non-conventional career path.” Again, she’s definitely abducted. That is an SAT word she would not use.
But why am I telling you this in the middle of the show? The reason I tell this story is because I truly from the bottom of my heart, appreciate every single person that is here tonight. It’s a Friday night in Boston, and you guys could be doing anything else. But you guys are here. The reason that’s crazy is because, me, a southern Korean American kid from Georgia had to go to Korea to be able to come and sing for you guys in Boston. It took 10 years for me to be doing the tour that I’m doing today.
The point is: you being here is not only a cool moment and a great memorable experience for me and hopefully for you, but you guys are taking part in a cultural movement that pushes for diversity. So thank you so much.