“There’s Where I Find Solace” Eric Nam Interviewed

Exploring faith, creativity, and his new album...

Contrary to most K-pop interviews, there are no PR executives watchfully monitoring this Zoom. There is only Eric Nam, frantically trying to find a bench in the streets of New Zealand. Nam has just landed in the country after a whirlwind outing in Europe as part of his House on a Hill tour, which included shaking the rafters at a packed Eventim Apollo in London. “This is the last stop on the tour, so I’m gonna have a few days off and then I’m going to be in Korea doing a bunch of shoots, and then I have to record a deluxe version of the [House on a Hill] album which I was supposed to record on tour but it got very difficult,” he rattles off, his Zoom POV zipping around chaotically during his bench search. “I’m trying to get all that out for May, and then we have an encore show and then I have a bunch of festivals and appearances – the train keeps moving, you know.” 

He sits down and takes a breath. “I cannot lie, I am very, very tired.”

Packed schedules are nothing new for the multi-hyphenate Nam, who debuted in 2013 after pivoting from a career as a business analyst at Deloitte. Since then, he has become beloved in South Korea and abroad for his music as well as his variety show appearances, hilariously real DIVE Studios podcasts which he co-hosts with other K-pop idols, the Mindset mental wellbeing app he released as part of his ongoing efforts to talk about mental health struggles, and of course, the iconic ‘Your dog speaks Chinese!?’ meme. 

More recently, Nam has been announced to voice adult Aang in the animated movie Aang: The Last Airbender. Last week, he released the aforementioned deluxe version of his ‘House On A Hill’ album, a deeply personal and comprehensive look into his life and mental health as a pop star in the notoriously difficult K-pop industry. “I’ve gone in circles, spiraled down to the edge/Where sanity and madness happen to blend/Sometimes I wonder when this fever will end/Cause I’m lost, yeah I’m lost in it all/This house is haunted/I’m scared to be alone/In my mind” croons his new track ‘In My Mind’, which he co-wrote with British singer-songwriter Zak Abel. 

In this interview, the immensely personable Eric Nam, chats to Clash about his hopes and dreams, setting boundaries, and keeping his faith. 

Your schedule is tiring me out just listening to it. When was the last time you did nothing for a bit? 

Eric Nam: Wow, I actually don’t remember. Maybe last June? I was supposed to take time off then, but I ended up going to a bunch of events and making appearances everywhere. Every time I go on vacation, the issue is that Zoom conferences are always available. So even if I’m like “Nobody talk to me!” I’m always tied to a computer in a hotel room somewhere. 

I really try to do nothing sometimes, but I’m also most creative when I take time off, so I start thinking about TV shows I want to put together or songs I want to write, which I honestly enjoy. 

Speaking of things to enjoy, you brought the house down at the Eventim Apollo. How has your tour been, and what do you remember about that show? 

Every show, there are always things that I wish I had done differently. Most people are like, “Oh my God, that was amazing!” but I’m my biggest, harshest critic so I just think, “Ah, I missed a word here, missed a beat there.”

I was pretty stressed leading up to [the Apollo] show because we had done three shows in a row, which is really hard because you don’t get time off and my voice was getting exhausted. 

We were also live-streaming and live recording it, which was stressful, but given everything, I think it went beautifully. Now we just have to make sure it all comes out beautifully [in the edit]. That’s going to be done during my “time off” as well, so we’ll see how long that takes me. 

London is a city that I love, and I always say I want to live there at some point in my life, however long or short that might be. 

Do you have any pre-show rituals?

I’m actually very stoic. I don’t do much, even before important days. Some of my team members have to scream and play crazy music or take a jog. I pray and I breathe and I go through a mental checklist of ‘OK, these are the things that I’m going to do, let’s go.’

One of the new songs in the deluxe version of House on a Hill is ‘In My Mind’ with Zak Abel. How did that collaboration come about?

It’s always hard writing songs about “mental health” because you don’t want it to be too on the nose. You don’t want it to be cheesy, you want it to be poignant. Zak took that on and said, ‘Let’s give it a shot’. It’s a fun song, but the lyrics are honest, open, and vulnerable.

Zak has an incredible voice and is an artist I’ve been a fan of for a long time. He’s deaf in one ear and also has partial tinnitus, which I have very badly as well. That was one of our bonding moments, like, ‘Oh, you have this horrible thing in your ear? Me too!’ 

In your answer just now, you put “mental health” in quotes. Why is that?

It can feel like mental health is a hot topic to write about, and because of that people have different perceptions about what mental health is, and what it means to be talking about it. That’s why I say ‘quote unquote mental health’ because for me, it comes from a very authentic and real place, but for some people it may be like, oh, he’s just doing it because it’s the trend or whatever. 

Your public personality is very cheerful and chaotic. Does this make it more or less difficult to talk openly about your struggles? 

I had to deal with that for the first half of my career, maybe. I had a really hard time because I was supposed to be happy and cheery, but I felt really bad. You have to be a professional on camera, but at a certain point, I was like, you don’t have to be that up all the time, Eric. It’s not healthy to not express how you’re feeling. 

Once I came to terms with that, I was pretty open and honest – at least with the people that mattered. I think because of how I am perceived, like you were saying, as a very happy, extroverted person, when I do say something, it is because it is of significance. So perhaps it is taken with more gravity then.  

A lot of songs on ‘House On A Hill’ have to do with purpose and fulfillment. Do you think you’re closer to finding your purpose now?

For many of us, we’re told that it’s what comes after you put out the album, or after you go on the tour and after you work your ass off on the startup and you make money that you’ll be able to do or have what you want, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case. We’re conditioned to think that way, but I think it’s about what we’re going through right now. 

For me, the process of putting together albums, going on tour, doing startups – it’s overwhelming, but the ability to say that I’m able to pursue what I love to pursue is rare and such a blessing.

That’s where I find solace, purpose and enjoyment, and it took a lot of work and thinking for me to get to that point. 

I was reading Matthew Perry’s autobiography the other day, and one of the quotes said, “You have to be famous in order to realise that fame is not the answer, and nobody who’s not famous is going to believe me when I say that.” Have you found that to be the case?

I actually really, really agree with that because I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who want to be famous or want to be a singer but I’m like, why? At your core, what is your reasoning? Perhaps money? Maybe perceived influence. Perhaps the perceived perks of having X number of followers. I don’t think you want to be famous. If you’re able to isolate that you want to be famous to make money, my opinion is there are so many better ways to make money. There are a lot of people who are famous who do not make money. So let’s get real about that.

For me, validating and having grace for yourself is the biggest thing. When you’re talking about finding happiness or contentment in that process, it’s doing it for yourself. 

Maybe it’s better if you can find that within yourself or even with God and religion. What else matters?

Have you found that your faith has helped in your journey as Eric Nam?

Faith has been something that’s always been a part of my life. I grew up in the church and I still go every once in a while. I don’t go regularly, but I do consider myself a faith like person, like a Christian. I guess that’s the best way to say it. When I think about my career and how I got to where I am, there are so many things that go into “success” – hard work, timing, luck – but the only thing that I can actually take a step back and say ‘How did this happen?’ is faith. It’s not me.

There are many people who are better singers, perhaps better songwriters, performers or actors, but God has helped me get through. There are so many things that I can’t and won’t share because I don’t feel ready, but I’ve been through some really, really, really insane, dark things in this industry. 

Even when I think about getting through those things, to me, it’s God. We live in a very secular world and people are like, wow, that’s so weird, but that’s what I believe.

You have the podcasts, the Mindset app, the music, variety show appearances, and many more. Do you find yourself getting pulled too far in different directions? 

All the time. It’s a constant battle, not only internally but between teams who are all fighting for my time. I’ve just toured and did music for the last year, so I want to do acting now. I want to focus on film and TV, so for the rest of the year, that will be my priority. 

You’re among the older K-pop artists in the industry now –

I’m actually 19, so I have no idea what you’re talking about [laughs].

Of course. Being 35 and among the older generation in an industry that is constantly debuting teenagers, do you feel a more mature perspective is an advantage?

For a certain period, there was this notion that you can’t be a pop star after the age of 30-something, but that is so false. Look at Beyoncé, Taylor [Swift], Bruno [Mars]. All these incredible artists who I would argue are in their prime, and there’s so much left for them to do. I think it’s only in K-pop where there is such a constant stream of young new faces who are popping up, where we feel like this. The typical contract is seven years, so people feel like once you’re done with that, you’re done for good. It’s a systemic thing and not intentional, but it makes people feel like they’ve aged out. 

There’s something beautiful about age and being able to sing about experiences that you only experience as you get into your 30s or 40s or 50s, that comes with wisdom or perspective. That is something that’s timely for me and for people who relate to me, and honestly, that’s all I really care about. If you’re listening to my music and that’s relatable, that’s great.

That’s all I want to do.

‘House On A Hill’ is out now.

Words: Hannah Rachel Abraham

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