[Exclusive] Interview with Eric Nam: The Unexpected K-Pop Artist

2013-01-27 16:56:27 2013-01-28 05:56:02

Eric 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.

Eric for Hazzy's

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.

Eric with one of his American music idols, Brian McKnight.

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 sidenoteI’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!

NEXT: Eric talks about how he ended up on MBC’s Star Audition, and how it helped alter the course of his life.