The finance world lost out when Eric Nam decided to pursue a career as a singer in Korea instead of pursuing the job offer he received from Deloitte Consulting. Atlanta born-and-bred, the 29-year-old landed himself on Forbes Asia’s 2017 30 Under 30 list for being a multi-faceted entertainer who pretty much never stops pushing forward with what’s next. This week, amid a media promotion cycle that’s necessitated just about an hour of sleep each night as he runs between television and radio show recording, he landed his new EP Honestly within the Top 10 of Billboard’s World Albums chart. As for summer vacation plans? He’ll be traveling North America coast to coast as he performs every other day for about a month in over a dozen cities in the U.S, Mexico and Canada during his Honestly tour.
“I don’t know why I feel the need to try and do everything,” said Nam over the phone from Seoul as he was on his way to a late-night radio show. “But I kind of have this mentality that you live once, and I have a lot of things that I want to do and there’s a lot of things that I want to try. So I have to at least give it a shot before I don’t try at all or like, give up on things. In a way, I’m overly ambitious, selfish in a way. I think because I am so active, I think that’s what keeps my brain going and I can bounce things off of each other.” The K-pop star then explained how he would work promoting his music and interviews into broadcasts to create a “hyperstorm” of press around his activities, which he approached as “products” to be managed efficiently. “I sound like a business person right now,” he said with a laugh.
Even though he’s a bit commercially minded, there’s no lack of artistic sensibility from Nam, who talked about Honestly the way parents talk about their offspring. “It was kind of like giving birth to a child that I had been wanting to get out there.” He described the electro, tropical house and soft-pop flavors of his newest album as the most “Eric Nam” sound he has put forth to date. “I read a lot of the comments and I feel like there are three names that kept coming up: Shawn Mendes, Ed Sheeran and Charlie Puth. Which I’m cool with because I love their music and that’s honestly kind of the route I wanted to take anyways when we began writing this album.”
Along with reading comments from fans, Nam regularly communicates with fans through Twitter. “I’m active on social media because that’s such a big reason why K-pop and Korean music performs the way it does. I felt like on Twitter it’s much easier to get thoughts across and have simple conversations with fans that isn’t just me pressing likes and hearts on Instagram. I dunno, I think it was an effective way of connecting with my fans and to stay as open as possible.”
Though the majority of acts in the K-pop industry have their career dictated by committee in the form of entertainment company staff, Nam has found a middle-ground where he is signed to a major label, CJ E&M Music, but has established creative control of his music six years since signing with his first label. Even so, Honestly is the first time that he’s been involved with every aspect of an album’s production, ranging from the album design to the music video to the marketing plans. “I think for the past few years all my other releases, my label had been trying to push me in a direction where I would be following and chasing a Korean path. Something that they felt I would need to do in order to chart in Korea,” he reflected. “But I never really connected to that music. I felt that I was chasing something that wasn’t authentic to me. And so as I was writing all these songs in LA, I was like, ‘Let’s try to think new, let’s write as much of a genuine pop and Eric Nam way as we can.’ Once we started doing that, we had these sounds that were fresh for me, and fresh for my audience. Typically, up until now, it would be like, ‘Your songs are too American, we can’t release these.’ But then I had to really fight. ‘If we’re not releasing these sounds, there’s no point in me really pursuing more music here because it’s not me.’”
Honestly serves as a reflection of Nam, splitting its dual identity between English and Korean songs. More intimate than his past releases, he’s been working on it for two years. The album, a new sort of sonic progeny from the singer, heavily focuses on the sort of mellow electro-pop sound that he’s pursued on his American collaborations with Gallant and others, and draws on Latin pop elements in a reflection of Nam’s love of Latin America. Fittingly, the music videos for lead singles “Potion” and “Honestly” were filmed in Mexico, a first for K-pop as far as Nam knows.
“In Korea, [Camila Cabello’s] ‘Havana’ is in the top 10, and all these Latin-inspired songs are starting to come up,” said Nam, referring to a trend that recently resulted in boy band Super Junior becoming the first Korean act to land on Billboard’s Latin Digital Song Sales chart through a collaboration with Dominican-American singer Leslie Grace. “But nobody had properly shown Latin American culture or Mexico in a way that is aesthetically pleasing and really cool. I feel like people have stereotypes and notions about Latin America that aren’t necessarily accurate or aren’t particularly positive. For me, Latin America is a place that I personally really love and enjoy visiting and going to, and I wanted to be able to show it in a light that was very different to an Asian, Korean viewer.”
Perhaps the most distinctly American of the Korean-American artists in South Korea’s music industry today, Nam is one of a handful of K-pop stars that completed his entire education in the States before heading overseas to pursue a career. Like much of the industry, he hopes to break into the U.S. market, and he’s doing a pretty good job so far. Last year saw him sell out venues in New York City and Atlanta, and his upcoming Honestly tour already has sold-out five stops. His popularity among the largely non-Korean-speaking K-pop audience in the U.S. plays a big role, as does affordable pricing. “I feel like the price of the tickets, I think they’re very, very reasonable and I would borderline even say cheap compared to other tickets. But we were very intentional about that because we want as many fans to come out as possible. Because we know a lot of K-pop shows price a lot of people coming to the shows, but we wanted to show as much love to the fans as possible.”
He’s not only showing that passion to North American fans, but Nam recently hinted on Twitter that he’ll be announcing other tour dates soon. And he’s excited to share his most earnest music yet with them. “I think they’re new to some of my fans, these sounds. But for me, they’re incredibly authentic and natural.” Not typically descriptors used in collaboration with the highly-stylized K-pop sound, Nam’s definitely a new sort of star in the industry. And Honestly, the world is ready for it.