Eric Nam was born and raised in Atlanta. But he’s a superstar today in Korea (and beyond).
That wasn’t the original plan. Nam graduated in 2011 from Boston College as an international studies major and accepted a job as a business analyst for Deloitte Consulting. During a sabbatical, he found himself in Korea, where a viral YouTube cover earned him a spot on “Star Audition: Birth of a Great Star 2,” a show similar to “American Idol.”
Nam quickly built a following as a singer, TV host and reality star. He’s a forerunner to today’s influx of K-pop acts (minus the herd of other guys and choreography). His first English-language album, “Before We Begin,” was released in November and showcases a thoughtful pop songwriter. He performs Saturday at House of Blues.
He talked about his evolving career, U.S. success and what keeps him occupied on the road.
What’s it like being back home in the U.S. again?
At the end of the day, I’m this boy from Atlanta, Georgia who happened to make his way over to Korea to start a singing career and then came back to do it here in the States. It’s really a dream come true. In many ways, I never thought that it’d be possible because growing up, there was never an Asian or an Asian-American person on TV or singing. The closest we got was Jackie Chan in “Rush Hour,” which is a great movie and it’s hilarious, but you have to see people who look like you in certain places to believe that you can get there. For me, it was never a realistic thing. But it just happens that it worked out. Whenever I’m onstage, it’s kind of surreal to look out and see people who are so diverse, so many different colors and races and genders and backgrounds, singing songs back at me. It’s a beautiful thing. By coming to a show, not only are you hopefully enjoying the music but I like to think that we’re all contributing to a bigger cause that moves the culture forward in that way.
Was it daunting just up and moving to Korea one day?
I was doing an “American Idol” type of show. My parents were very discouraging of it. I would call and say, “Mom, dad, I think I have a really good shot.” My mom’s response was, “Thank God you’re getting this out of your system because you’ll finally know how not talented and how average you are.” I was just excited at the opportunity and prospect of being able to become a singer. But the first four, five years were incredibly difficult because I didn’t speak Korean very well. It was very, very, very bad. So having to survive and work and live and pay bills and get my way around the city, and all the while be on TV every day and radio every day while I don’t know what’s going on, was an incredibly stressful experience. I remember I would have a lot of anxiety issues. Every day was a challenge. But I’m glad I stuck to it because, if anything, that intense pressure forced me to learn a language, forced me to assimilate into a new culture.
Was making top five on the TV show the moment you realized music was a real possibility?
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: House of Blues, 1204 Caroline
Tickets: $40; hob.com/houston
I think it came after the show ended. I had a bunch of meetings with labels and a couple that wanted to sign me. But it was me having to take a leap of faith and quitting my job. I had my job the entire time I was on the show. That was the scariest decision. But I wanted to give myself that shot and that opportunity. The thing that brings it full circle is a tour. The (social media) numbers on my phone can feel so distant. But when you’re in a concert hall, and it’s packed out and everybody’s screaming and singing the songs back, that’s the coolest, most surreal, incredible moment.
K-pop is obviously huge here at the moment, but you don’t fall neatly into that generalized genre. Does that make it tougher?
I keep going back and forth on it. It’s not a misnomer if you say that I’m K-pop. I started in K-pop, a lot of my catalog is K-pop. But this last album is obviously all English, and I’m trying to push into that complete pop realm, American pop realm. I like to say that they’re not mutually exclusive in any way. Whichever song or whichever performance first introduces them to who I am is probably how they’re going to define me as an artist. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s about music.
Why was this the right time to release your first English-language album?
Asian, Asian-American entertainment in the past two, three years has developed really quite rapidly with “Crazy Rich Asians,” BTS and Blackpink taking over the world, even with “Parasite” being nominated for best picture, it’s just become a huge cultural moment. I feel like finally, finally people are becoming more open and not as prejudiced or biased. It’s not weird to see Asian people doing normal things. This was a big reason why I wanted to become an entertainer as well. Even in high school, I wrote my thesis about representation of Asian people in media. In college, I was involved in organizations that provided platforms for Asian-Americans to share their talents. Becoming an entertainer was, “OK, I’ve spoken about this forever, I believe in this, let’s take an active role in it.” Also, it’s easier for me to do anything in English than it is in Korean.
How do you keep yourself entertained on the bus rides between shows?
It’s the middle days when we’re in an interesting city where we kind of just look at rural America or try to find a good coffee shop or a cool little store. That can be fun. When we do have time on the bus, we just watch a movie or just kind of hang out. I have a bunch of stuff downloaded on my Netflix. This Netflix show called “You,” I’ve been watching that.
Eric Nam: 8 p.m. Saturday at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline; $40; hob.com/houston
Joey Guerra is the music critic for the Houston Chronicle. Follow him on Twitter. Get experts’ picks for concerts, kids’ stuff, fine arts, movies and more by subscribing to the Preview entertainment newsletter.
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