[Exclusive] Interview with Eric Nam: The Unexpected K-Pop ArtistEric Nam, following his 5th place finish on MBC’s “Star Audition: Birth of a Great Star” Season 2, is the newest member of the B2M Entertainment family, which includes popular artists such as Lee Hyori, SPICA, and SS501 members Kim Kyu Jong and Heo Young Sang. He is currently promoting his first mini-album “Cloud 9,” which dropped on January 23rd, including the title track “Heaven’s Door.”
I was introduced to Eric through my friend Christine, an OG Soompier and the producer of Kollaboration, the nationwide talent competition that empowers Asian-Americans through entertainment. She got to know him when he directed the first-ever Kollaboration show in Boston. When I heard that Eric was also an old-school Soompier, I thought of presenting him as a fan, like the rest of us, who managed to bring his dreams of becoming a K-Pop artist to life. As we exchanged emails over the days leading up to his debut, I found that while this is all true, there was a surprising depth and breadth to his life experience that was both intriguing and refreshing.
With the constant flow of new idol groups and singers debuting each week, it could be easy to overlook him as just another pretty face. Take another look, and you’ll find the most unexpected resume for a K-Pop artist. His extensive time abroad helping the underprivileged all over Latin America and India makes him seem more fit for the Peace Corps than the Music Bank stage. His education and work experience suits the job at the prestigious consulting firm he left behind. Instead, we meet him as the rookie singer who made his first stage appearance as a solo K-Pop artist just a few hours ago as I work on this interview.
Right off the bat, I really liked the importance he put on connecting with fans outside of Korea in their own language, which luckily for us is English, as well as Spanish for our Soompi Spanish friends. In this in-depth interview, Eric opens up about his days as a Soompier, his path from uploading a YouTube video to getting signed at B2M, his feelings just days before his debut, and more.
Let’s start with some basic information. Where are you from, and how old are you?
Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. Went to school in Boston. I am 24 in the States (26 in Korea). Born in ’88. I guess I’m considered older in this industry, especially to be debuting just now, but… I think age is just a number! Haha
What’s your musical background? How did you get exposed to music?
I grew up singing… always, always singing. I would memorize cassette tapes of Korean folk songs from beginning to end and was always singing in church. So I kind of just grew up with it. I also started the piano when I was 4, switched to the cello when I was about 9, and just kept singing on the side. The one time I did organized singing was with the Atlanta Boy Choir, which was pretty cool because we went on tour in Italy and I got to sing for mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Otherwise, singing was always on my own. In my later years of high school I started uploading YouTube videos for constructive criticism and continued throughout college. It was also my only real outlet to perform.
When did you first get interested in K-Pop?
I first started listening to what’s commonly known as K-Pop in middle school. I started off listening to some H.O.T., Fin.K.L., S.E.S. and then the following generation of musicians, Shinhwa, god, BoA, Fly to the Sky, etc. I would rent VHS (video cassettes… yeah remember those?) every week to watch shows like Music Bank, Inkigayo, Music Core, etc. I took a few years away from K-Pop and became re-interested in the genre around 2009/2010 while I was studying abroad in Beijing for a year. I started to see the impact that Hallyu was having in Chinese popular culture and started to follow groups like Girls’ Generation, Wonder Girls, Big Bang, 2NE1, 2PM, 2AM, etc.
Throughout, I’ve always tried to listen to other genres of music, that’s weren’t always necessarily considered “K-Pop” – such as Brown Eyes, Brown Eyed Soul, Gummy, Wheesung, 4Men, etc.
Who were your first K-Pop crushes and idols?
I think my first ever Kpop crushes were BoA and Lee Hyori (is it awkward that I’m in her company?) I remember seeing both of them and thinking WOW (hahaha). In terms of performance, my family and I used to watch Shinhwa a lot and my brothers and I would try to mimic their dance moves and songs!
Who are your favorite non-K-Pop artists?
Bruno Mars, Adele, John Legend, John Mayer, Maroon 5, Marc Broussard, Alicia Keys, guilty pleasure – Taylor Swift (though she should really do something about all her heartbreak).
In K-Pop, I’m a big fan of 2NE1 and Big Bang, my mentor Lee Seung Hwan, Urban Zakapa, Naul, Ra.D, Ailee, the list goes on and on and on.
You mentioned that you used to be an active Soompier. How old were you when you were a Soompier, and how serious were you at that point about trying to “make it” in Korea?
I was probably 13 when I first started going on Soompi. For me, Soompi was very much about connecting to other Korean-Americans and people who were interested in Korean/Asian culture. When growing up in Atlanta, there weren’t as many Korean-Americans as there are now. I also went to a predominantly white school, so for a while it was actually really difficult for me to relate to peers and I think Soompi played a role in filling that gap. [Soomp's sidenote: I've heard stories like this so many times, but it always feels good to know that the Soompi community actually makes a difference in people's lives *sniff*] At a certain point, after a lot of pumping myself up, I developed the courage to upload some of my own music. I still remember being so incredibly nervous, because it was the first time that I was presenting myself to people and just putting myself out there for people to respond to.
Honestly, for me, becoming a singer was always just a dream. I wanted to be a singer so bad and I wanted to audition for companies, but I never had the opportunity. YouTube and technology weren’t the way they are today, and even K-Pop wasn’t the huge cultural entity that it is now. In addition, my parents were also very much against me becoming a musician or a singer, so I always felt nervous and maybe even a bit guilty about trying to pursue music behind their backs.
I remember in high school, SM (Entertainment) had come to Atlanta for auditions, I hadn’t known until an hour before the audition, so I went in unprepared and extremely nervous, and obviously didn’t make it (hehehe). For me, I think my mentality was, I’ll keep uploading YouTube videos and if people like what they see maybe there’ll be a chance for me to audition or fate will take me somewhere, and in a way, that’s kind of what happened. There were definitely some really cool things that came up through YouTube.
At college graduation, I remember thinking, “Well, I guess there’s not much of a chance for me to be a singer anymore…” because I guess I had assumed college would be the last time I had enough “me time” and freedom to try to pursue it. But God always has other plans!
What motivated you to take the next step to audition for MBC’s Star Audition program? What was that whole process like?
I was selected to audition through the YouTube rounds. I never ever expected to make it. Honestly, I hadn’t even remembered that I had submitted, so when they contacted me, I thought it was a joke! When I was contacted, I was in India doing some non-profit work, having asked for a deferred start date at my “real” job in management consulting. It was really just a surreal experience. I kept making it through the rounds and I was being coached and mentored by some of Korean music’s biggest names and legends. It was definitely really hard as well. I remember just not being happy at parts of the show because of the toll that the stress and cultural differences take on you both physically and mentally. So, I’m definitely thankful, and I don’t have any regrets, but yeah, it was rough at points!
Did you already have a fan base before you made it on the show (from YouTube, etc.)?
I had a small and humble one from YouTube. Probably more of my fans were just friends and family. :)
How good was your Korean when you first went to Korea?
I had grown up speaking some Korean, I guess Konglish would be the best way to describe it. It definitely wasn’t the best, but I think some people actually thought it was a “cute” that I couldn’t speak too well (haha). It’s gotten better since when I first arrived, but it’s something that I still have to consciously work on.
How did you feel when you came in 5th place?
Honestly, I was relieved. The show had been going on for like 8 to 9 months and I was excited that I would be done with the constant stress. Obviously, there’s always disappointment as well, but I think it was a well-balanced, bittersweet moment. I knew that companies had called from early on while I was on the show, so I always thought that I would have a shot with signing, but yeah, I dropped a bit earlier than I had hoped and expected, so I was a bit concerned.
What I realized and kind of taught myself was that every single impression matters and counts. Every chance that you get to perform, or film a short segment, or present yourself to anyone, in any way, even if it’s just a meeting, is very important. First impressions go a long way and in the world of entertainment, you’re ALWAYS being watched, so it’s best to always put your best foot forward.
How soon after that did you actually get signed? What steps did you take to reach that point?
So the show ended in early April (2012), and I ended up signing in September. It was probably one of the hardest and most stressful experiences I’ve been through.
Following the conclusion of the show, I still had my consulting job waiting for me in New York, so first and foremost, I needed to determine if I was, in fact, going to pursue the career of a musician and entertainer. Having seen the industry for about 9 months, there were definitely things that I liked and didn’t like about being in it, as well as difficulties that I had to take into consideration, such as cultural, social, and political things that were hard for me to digest as an American. Also, singing and music was something that I had always done because I loved music and loved singing, but at a certain point, it was no longer FUN. I didn’t enjoy it anymore. It had become a job. So, I was really concerned about making the RIGHT choice.
I went home to the States and I ended up visiting and meeting with a ton of people who I respect – mentors, advisors, and people who are already in the entertainment / K-Pop industry. At the end of six weeks, after a lot of meetings, a lot of reflection, and prayer, I ended up deciding that I did want to pursue this opportunity. I went back to Korea in June and started meeting more companies, and also released a digital single with a project group named “Namaste” through my mentor’s label from MBC Star Audition. The single was titled “Blue Night in Jeju Island,” and the members were my dongsaengs from my mentee group from the show. We did promotions for that through late July and August and I just kept meeting with companies all throughout that time. In the end, I chose B2M and now they’re my new family!
This is NOT to say that the process was easy. It was extremely stressful in that I was meeting with CEOs and VPs on a regular basis of some of Korea’s biggest entertainment companies and record labels. My Korean wasn’t the best and I was representing myself as an artist and a human being, so talking about specifics, contracts, and details was hard. Further, simply deciding which company to go to was really hard because I think every company has its pros and cons and it’s about finding what the best FIT is – just like college or any other job.
As a signed artist, what has the process been like? How long have you been in training and what sort of things have you been trained in?
So, my label didn’t sign me as a trainee, but as a new artist, so unlike most trainees, I didn’t have to go through the typical training processes that most people hear of when they think K-Pop. But I’ve been preparing for this album and just getting myself in better place mentally and physically since I signed my contract in September until now. I have been doing some basic dance training, cause I’m really bad, and I think I need to know at least some stuff! (haha) Also been doing Japanese lessons and working out on a daily basis.
How are you feeling just a few days before your debut?
I’m really excited. I’m nervous. But more than anything, I’m thankful. I’m so grateful and blessed that I have this opportunity to pursue and live out what I had previously only considered to be a dream. So, I really just want to do my best, and hopefully be able to share some really good music and performances with my fans who have been patiently, patiently waiting since the end of the show. Also just so thankful to my family and friends who have been incredibly supportive throughout the process.
What happens once you debut? Is it performance, interview, radio show, talk show, etc. back-to-back?
So I guess the industry considers the release of your album/single as your debut. I’ve been doing interviews every day for about the past week and will probably continue to do so for the next few days. Then I’ll be on those music shows such as Music Core, Inkigayo, etc. Most likely I’ll be on radio, some talk shows, etc. It really depends on how the album does, as well as the direction that my company wants to take in terms of promoting my album.
Are you worried about appearing on the various talk shows and variety shows?
YES! Absolutely concerned. Frankly because my Korean isn’t the best. I have a hard time catching on to a lot abbreviated terms and cool slang that everybody seems to use! And while my essentials are solid, I don’t feel comfortable enough -YET!- to be perfect on air. So yeah, I am a little bit concerned. Also, I’ve found that because my Korean isn’t native, I often end up frustrated that I can’t completely, perfectly express who I am, particularly things such as humor.
You’d mentioned you spent time in Latin America? For how long? How did you learn Spanish?
I’ve spent a good amount of time in Latin America. My first exposure was Mexico, the summer after 9th grade. The subsequent summer I spent two months in Panama in a rural village doing youth and community development and living with a host family. The following summer I did a few weeks in Guatemala working in a soup kitchen for the elderly and homeless and teaching trade skills to elementary kids. I’ve gone to the Dominican Republic just to backpack, and back to Panama twice since my initial visit. My freshman year in college I spent my spring break in Bolivia working on microfinance and trying to understand the impact that groups such as USAID and institutions such as microfinance had on the local economy and culture of Bolivia. (this got really long, haha)
Is there anything else you want to say?
I think more than anything I want to inspire and I want to make a positive impact. Part of my reason for choosing this career path was that I thought I would be in a position where I have a large platform to do good and be good. I want to encourage people, no matter what career path they’re considering, to know what they’re doing and why they want to do it. Do whatever you want, just have a solid reason to back it up.
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This is a long but interesting read. I tried to highlight the best parts. Does anyone else find it hard not to be inspired by Eric?
tl;dr born ('88) and raised Atlanta; did lots of volunteer work in Latin America; knows English, Spanish, Chinese and is learning Japanese; he was never a trainee; he likes a lot of Kpop singers and Korean singers not considered "Kpop"; he plays the panio and cello; toured in Italy and got to sing for mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome with Atlanta Boys Choir; wants to be an inspiration for others; is in B2M Enterainment with Lee Hyori (one of his first Kpop crushes!) and SPICA among others