K-pop, Mandopop and other Asian pop
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
K-pop singer Eric Nam is back in the US and about to drop an English-only music album. Photo: Kigon Kwak

Eric Nam’s There and Back Again album reflects journey to K-pop and back to the US, and arrives as he aims to make a difference for Asian-Americans and diversity in media

  • Eric Nam became a household name in Korea as a singer and a comedic television personality after joining a South Korean talent search programme in 2012
  • The singer and entrepreneur, who is about to drop a new album, says it’s a shame the West is only recognising the breadth of Korean talent now
Tamar Hermanin United States

Eric Nam is many things: K-pop singer, television personality, media entrepreneur – and, increasingly, a voice for change. It’s this multifaceted nature that inspired the 32-year-old Korean-American star’s upcoming 2022 album.

“It’s called There and Back Again, and to me it’s about a journey,” Nam tells the Post on a video call from California. “It’s about thinking about the many journeys we each take, and this album is trying to put to music that shared human experience of dealing with relationships, and highs and lows.”

There and Back Again shares a title – Nam insists it is not intentional – with a phrase closely associated with Bilbo Baggins and his journey in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

“I was raised in the States, went to Korea, been in and out for 10 years now, and now I’m back in the States trying to make a name for myself, trying to prove out this challenge that I can make music on my own terms here,” Nam says. “It’s this constant journey that I feel like I’m on, striving after what I really love to do, what I want to do with my life.”

Nam was invited to join a South Korean talent search programme in 2012. Photo: Kigon Kwak

Nam, born in the US state of Georgia and raised in Atlanta, was planning on a career in consultancy after completing university when he was invited to join a South Korean talent search programme in 2012. After that, he became a household name in Korea as a singer and a comedic television personality.

Around 2017, he began to think about how he could make a mark on his hometown’s music market, and made a series of English releases and US-based tours. He also launched Dive Studios, a media platform that primarily features Asian-American musicians and entertainers, many of whom have looked to Asia to pursue a career – just like he did.

BTS aren’t selling out by singing in English, just as Abba weren’t

“It’s kind of wild. People are like, ‘Why did you go to Korea?’ But I didn’t have a choice. There was no other place for me to do this. I had to go somewhere where I wasn’t seen as other or foreign. I still probably was, as an American, but I didn’t physically look different.”

A lot of people, Nam says, express surprise that Asian entertainment content – especially from South Korea – is on the rise in the West. It kind of annoys him.
“We have the same amount of talent. We just have never had the opportunity to showcase it. And it’s such a shame that it’s only now people are paying attention. We’ve always had it. You just didn’t know, you didn’t give us the time of day. We’re just getting started.” He added he would “die at anyone’s pleasure” if he’s cast for the second season of Squid Game.
Nam’s “There and Back Again” world tour will kick off in the US in January 2022 and continue until April, taking him to – Covid-19 permitting – cities in Canada and several European countries.

Nam says he sees this project as a way to challenge himself to be more expressive musically, from working with new producers and songwriters to surprising listeners who may feel like they know all that he has to offer.

“Is what I’m putting out into the world enough?” he says. “That’s a constant struggle I have when I create. ‘Is it too weird? Is it too boring?’” Nam even briefly contemplated going a more “punk pop emo” route, but he “cancelled that immediately”.

“We did a lot of things that will never see the light of day for good reason. It was a musical exploration that led me to these songs, which feel really good to me at this point.”

Nam says he sees this project as a way to challenge himself to be more expressive musically. Photo: Kigon Kwak

The journey that There and Back Again took Nam on proved to the singer that he’s already found his sweet spot musically, and that he doesn’t have to entirely reinvent himself to find new ways to express his artistry.

“I’m just really good at pop,” he says. “For some people, that could be so lame. But at the same time, this is the reason it’s popular music. Because anybody can listen to it.”

One way he reassessed his sound without revamping it was to make the recordings feel less rigid. Some moments on the new album weren’t recorded in a formal studio, for example, but in his producer’s living room for a raw, more natural delivery.

Nam was born in the US state of Georgia and raised in Atlanta. Photo: Kigon Kwak
“Not to say we didn’t care about sound quality,” he adds. “It was a very liberating feeling to me because, up until this point, the only way I knew how to do it was the K-pop, systematic way. Nothing wrong with it – it just felt very different and felt more open this time around.”

So does he still want to be considered a K-pop singer? “I think I go back and forth on it,” he says. “I wonder, why can’t I be a pop artist and a K-pop artist? I think people who have found me through K-pop will always identify me as a K-pop artist, and I got my start in Korea so it’s actually correct.

“People like categories, so the moment you say ‘I’m K-pop’, that excludes you from anything else, so I find myself using ‘pop’ and ‘K-pop’ interchangeably. I will not be limited by the confines of what you want to call me.

“I think it’s aspirational to say, ‘I want to be seen as a pop artist’ because in a way that signifies acceptance from a global, Western music world. And maybe that’s what it is what I’m after: I want to be seen as a pop artist so that I’m not seen as Other.”

Nam kicked off the promos for the There and Back Again album and tour with the release of a single, I Don’t Know You Anymore, on October 15. The music video for the song was filmed in Savannah, Georgia, a place he feels most people don’t associate with Asian faces. “Why is that out of place? Why is that far-reaching?,” he hopes people will question when they watch the video.

Nam has previously used his celebrity platform to call for diversity and representation – and it is something that has increased during the pandemic amid a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in the US.

“There was a period of this year and last year when I was very scared,” he says. “I was checking on my parents every day. ‘Are you home? Please do not go outside.’ I hate the fact, and it made me angry too, that we have to live in fear of whatever might happen just because of the fact that we’re Asian.”

Nam on stage in Madrid, Spain. in 2019. Photo: Redferns
Then, there was the mass shooting in Atlanta in March, where six of the eight victims who died were Asian women.

“When I got the news of the shooting, it happened so close to where I grew up … it should never happen anywhere, but it was too close. It felt like an immediate attack,” Nam says. “And then when I heard about the kids of the victims, that’s when I really lost it. I don’t cry often; I may be emotional, but I do it in a place and time where I can write a song. I don’t like to show my emotions anywhere else, but I kind of lost it. I cried in front of my dad.”

Following the attack, Nam was asked to share his thoughts in a piece for Time magazine.

K-pop star Eric Nam takes on anti-Asian racism following Atlanta murders

With the help of two friends, he wrote an article that was published on March 19 under the headline, “If You’re Surprised by the Anti-Asian Violence in Atlanta, You Haven’t Been Listening. It’s Time to Hear Our Voices”. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with Nam hearing from many that he had succinctly addressed something they were all feeling.

“It kind of makes me wonder what more, what else can I do to lift up this community overall? We’re in a time and place where we need to push the boundaries of what we’re able, and allowed, to do.”

Like what you read? Follow SCMP Lifestyle on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can also sign up for our eNewsletter here.