Eric Nam has made a name for himself — in the South Korean music scene and beyond. Since the Atlanta-born artist first debuted in 2013 under K-Pop label B2M Entertainment, he's gained the support of millions of fans, making music that speaks to audiences from all over the world. Over the past decade, he's switched record labels, worked on several music projects, starred in variety shows, and done much more. But now, he's ready to hit the restart button.
"I went to Korea to pursue music, and I spent 10 years there building a career," he tells PAPER. "I absolutely love Korea. I love the people, my friends, the opportunities that it gave me and everything. But now we're coming back home. I'm trying to think of this as like ground zero again — like we're rebuilding."
The idea for his own reinvention came about during the pandemic. This period for Nam, as it was for others, became an opportunity for refocusing and reflection. For the first time in a while, he didn't have to hop on a plane to somewhere, no busy schedule, no places to be or people to see. The world was at a standstill, and this gave him plenty of time to look within and write an entire album that's very personal to him and the way he lives his life. It's called There and Back Again.
"One thing that is kind of led to this album is just this journey of identity and like finding where we are and who I am as an Asian American man," he explains. "And I think [the Asian community] had a tough past 18 months exacerbated by the pandemic. Having to deal with that kind of forced me to think about who I am, what I do, and why I do the things that I do."
Video-calling in from Los Angeles, with a beach in Cancun as his backdrop, Nam chats with PAPER about what he's been up to, his newly-released single and music video for "I Don't Know You Anymore" and this exciting era in his music career.
"I don't have a K-Pop label behind me anymore, which is something I think I wanted for a long time."
It's been a rough past couple of years for everyone. How did you deal with everything going on?
If there's a silver lining to the mess that we're living in, it would be the company, Dive Studios, that my brothers and I found and we've been building together. And so a lot of time and effort went into getting that to a good place. I would work at Dive and doing the company things mostly during the day, and then at night, or like once a week, twice a week, sometimes I would go get to write. And that was kind of like my therapy time.
And you finished an entire album! So why are you calling There and Back Again your "new era"?
I don't have a K-Pop label behind me anymore, which is something I think I wanted for a long time. But it's very nerve-wracking to say, "Okay, I'm doing this on my own now." So I think in that sense, it's a new era. I think musically, I like to challenge myself and my producers and the writers that I work with to kind of one-up every album, or every release. And I think the 2018 to 2020 era was like, very, very middle of the lane, like feel good, easy pop. And I think there are definitely bits and pieces of it in this album, but we got a lot more creative with the sounds and we got pretty experimental in terms of the sources and the melodies.
Lyrically, it's not more serious, I just say it's elevated. This is the longest time I spent writing an album. Typically when I would be writing albums in the past, I would fly in from whatever part of the world I was in, spend five days in LA, a day or two in Nashville. And whenever we got out of that writing camp was the album. So it was very rushed. But this time, it was really like from March until now just doing as many sessions as possible and like refining and refining, and refining, and learning and collaborating. And so it was a very different process in that way.
You're starting things off with the release of "I Don't Know You Anymore." What's it about?
"I Don't Know you Anymore" came from a big, dark hole of where I was, emotionally. I had like a big, big massive fight. It was like a conflation, or a big collision of me not being really anxious. I think I was really scared. But also like having the people that I really, really trusted... I just felt very, very misunderstood. And I feel like you can have fights, or you can have disagreements, or you can go through a breakup and you're like, "I wish I didn't know you," "I don't know you anymore," or "you've changed in so many ways." "You're unrecognizable to me." It doesn't even have to be romantic. It could just be friends. And it could be anything. And so it was one of those situations. So I walked to the music writing session, I was so mad like, this was the only thing I could think about, so I thought, "Let's write about this."
What's your relationship like with these people now?
I'm not in a bad place with them anymore or anything. It's just I think the songwriting process for me was my way of relieving the stress and also making a point in time where this is what I went through in this time period, but it was very therapeutic. But it was also hard because how do you write "I really don't like you very much right now" without sounding cheesy or without sounding like an angsty teen. So it took some finessing,
How did you go about conceptualizing the music video?
This time around, like there, we tried to keep it as simple as possible. I'd say, if we were in the world of K-Pop, there has to be some crazy CG with an elaborate story and my own universe. We don't have that. We have a universe in terms of a setting and an aesthetic and a vibe and a feel. We just pretty much went to Savannah, and we shot a bunch of music videos there.
I really wanted to show Savannah because I'm from Georgia, and it was kind of like this natural connection of what we can show to the world that hasn't been seen in a while, or can be very fresh for an Asian audience to see. But then also from an American or a Western lens, the audience can see, "I guess like Asian people are here, too, dressed in this way." I feel like the south and pockets of it, you don't imagine that Asian people are there, or singing a song or being sexy, or acting or living life, but I just really wanted to kind of show that without being preachy without being like, "Look at me!" So there's no elaborate story. It's just beautiful scenery. There are little easter eggs and nuggets and little meanings that we sprinkled in through every movie, but nothing really crazy in that sense.
What can you tell us about the rest of the album?
There are seven brand new spanking brand new songs on it. I think, sonically, it's a journey. Everything kind of sits in pop, but leans a little left. It was really fun to put together songs with new sounds. There are like whistles in it. I was in this room in this exact place that I am today. Well, I'm in Cancun right now, clearly, but like we were just whistling and I was like, "Hey, I really like that melody." We started there and just got really, really creative. We did a lot of things on our iPhones. We did a lot of things just like in the living room of our producer. It was just a very cathartic, therapeutic, fun experience and I think that's going to really shine its way through in the album.
What do you hope fans take away from your new music?
I think a big part of it is just being very open, honest, and relatable. In many ways. I think I'm a pretty open book when it comes to what I love, what I don't love, what I'm feeling. And for me, the most rewarding and one of the most incredible things is when I see people or fans, and they're like, "Your music or your piece of content, it really helped me through a really, really hard time. And it's gotten me to like a better place." That, I think as an artist and as a creator, is the most rewarding and the biggest compliment that I can be given. And so my hope is that this music and the visuals, and the music videos and all the performances and everything continues to manifest itself in that way.
I hope that people feel things that they may have been ignoring, or they may have been like struggling to verbalize or to feel for a long time through the music. So more than a particular message, I think it's a certain feeling.
What's next after the album drops?
The tour! I can't wait to bring that into a physical manifestation with a live band and dancers and all that stuff happening. So I look at the music scene, and I feel like there aren't many male solo acts that are dancing, and also have a live band with all the production. So it's something that I personally am excited to do. I think it's going to be a great blend of pop and K-Pop.
We're going on a 45-city tour, starting in January. Right now we have North America and Europe locked in. And depending on how the world goes, hopefully, we can add Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Latin Am and finish what we started because we got cut off last year, right in the middle of it. So that's really exciting. And I'm just really excited for the album and a bunch of other stuff in the works. But I'm sure that all come to light when it does.
See exclusive outtakes from the "I Don't Know You Anymore" music video shoot in the gallery below.
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