LOS ANGELES (AP) — In an entertainment industry bent on categorization, Eric Nam finds an audience in fluidity. A decade into his career, he's still a challenge to describe: Do you label him a pop star? Or a K-pop idol? Is there a difference? Is he an actor? A singer-songwriter? An interviewer? A television personality? A mental health activist? Korean American, or Korean and American?
Nam was born and raised in Georgia, studied at Boston College, and got a job in New York City before heading to Seoul, South Korea, where he started his music career in his early 20s. He eventually found fame in the Korean major label system, was named GQ Korea's “Man of the Year” and was featured on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Asia list.
But making it in the U.S. was always part of his goal. It's not an uncommon journey for Korean Americans who see few opportunities to break into the entertainment business stateside — but after finding success in South Korea, he returned home years later to establish his name in the country where he was raised.
“I had a very confused upbringing when it comes to my identity,” Nam, now 34, says. “And so, so much of my life has been trying to figure (it) out.” But life is a journey for everyone, he theorizes, and that's why he's been welcomed by his loyal fans. Now he sees his multicultural identity as “a superpower,” and “not a hindrance.”
His latest full-length release, “House on a Hill,” what can be viewed as Nam's third-English language album (that, too, is a challenge to define — “LPs, EPs, mini-albums, whatever we call them, do they have much of a significance the way they used to?” he ponders aloud), centers on what he has labeled “an existential crisis.”
Following a relentless tour schedule and COVID-19 lockdowns, Nam headed into the studio last year to realize he didn't have anything to write about. But he did become enamored with a particular house on a hill and obsessed with the idea of homeownership. His friends were buying homes, after all. In a songwriting session, he began to unpack his motives.
“Why do we want a house?” he asks. “Is it a sense of identity, or self or status or wealth?” Those materialistic questions evolved into, “What makes us happy?” Did he really want the house on the hill, or was he pursuing empty emblem to feel accomplished, or whole?
The title track unlocked the album for Nam.
“Almost every line in that song, if you just read it out loud as a statement, it makes you think about things that sometimes we don't want to think about because we're scared what the answer might be,” he explains. That's evidenced in the refrain, where he sings, “When is more and more / And more and more enough?”
“We’re scared that we may never find happiness," he continues. "We’re scared that we may never be satiated with what we have. What if we’re never satisfied? How terrifying is that?”
Beyond the terror of everyday life, or, perhaps, the only thing that makes it tenable, is gratitude. Nam wants the song to illuminate that fact — to allow listeners to find what drives them and hold onto it.
“I hope that (the song) makes people kind of reframe, reset what happiness means to them," he says. "That’s at least my intention for it.”
Those big questions — what motivates us to get out of bed every day, or what truly makes us happy — became profound and sometimes deeply distressing source material for an expansive pop album: an emotional range from The Weeknd -channeling love anthem “Sink or Swim,” to the somber synth ballad “I Wish I Wasn't Me."
Of the latter, he says, “As great as things are, sometimes I wish I wasn't me. I wish I was somebody else. I wish I was living a different life.”
Admitting that was cathartic — and one of the ways Nam views the record as a celebration of his career and life to date — particularly because his first EP, “Cloud 9,” came out 10 years ago.
“The number 10 is a significant number,” he says. “It's hard to stay relevant, or make it, or get to a place where you are consistently releasing music.”
It's also his second independently released album, following 2022's “There and Back Again,” and the first in which he wrote on every single song on the record.
“I'll be honest, as an independent artist, every day is unstable,” he says.
It's a negotiation between being able to do whatever you want — as long as you can finance it — and considering the major label system, which possesses its own rigid guidelines of what you can and cannot do: “I love what I do. I love my fans. I love everybody that shows up in streams. But it’s, it’s scary. And that’s the reality, sometimes, of being an independent artist.”
The other reality, of course, is the ability to make fulfilling music that feels true to who he is, now.
“It's fulfilling, and gratifying, in that I feel that there is growth,” he says of this album. “This is the culmination of 10 years of experience.”
“House on a Hill” releases Friday via The Eric Nam Company.