While there is perhaps no clear way to officially confirm this, pop singer Eric Nam claims he and his small touring ensemble made history in Toronto recently at the Danforth Music Hall.
It had to do with noise levels, which Nam and crew determined was at near-deafening levels. Measurements aside, there was definitely a palpable enthusiasm emanating from the giddy Canadian crowd.
“In North America, in Latin America, they are incredibly expressive at shows,” says Nam, in an interview from a tour stop in Indianapolis. “They sing along, they scream. In Toronto, we broke the record at the venue for the loudest crowd ever. But that’s kind of been the norm for the variety of shows. They are incredibly loud. They are incredibly passionate.”
Nam says it has been a refreshing change from the reaction he tends to get from his devoted but relatively reserved fans in Asia, where he is a superstar. Distinctions between fan bases around the world is an interesting curiosity, but seem particularly relevant for Nam at this point in his career. His most recent EP, Before We Begin, was released late last year and finds the artist at a crossroads. He is a certified star in that ever-expanding parallel universe of K-pop, an umbrella genre that includes various strains of popular music in South Korea. But the album and world tour behind it is a deliberate grab at a more borderless audience. As Rolling Stone India reported, it’s aimed at pushing forward his “transition from K-pop star to global pop singer-songwriter.” For one, it is the first record Nam has recorded entirely in English, his native language. It’s also the language where all of his songs have begun since he started making waves in Asia seven years ago.
“If there was one thing that was great about it, I did not have to go back and rewrite my original demos into Korean, which is how I tend to do it,” says Nam, who will perform at the University of Calgary’s MacEwan Hall on March 3. “So it saved me a lot of time and effort on that end.”
Musically, the album doesn’t stray far from the pop sounds Nam grew up listening to in Atlanta, Ga., which is where he was born. The soundtrack of his early years included a mix of vintage and modern R&B such as Ray Charles, Usher and Boyz II Men; to the boy-band pop of Backstreet Boys or ‘N Sync; and the smooth pop-folk strains of John Mayer. In fact, while K-pop has become an increasingly ubiquitous force in North American pop culture the past few years, it wasn’t particularly accessible to Nam when growing up. While it’s certainly been good to him, landing him millions of fans throughout Asia, his entry into that world was purely pragmatic.
“A lot of people ask ‘Why did you go to Korea to pursue that?’ he says. “Well, in the States, who can you think of who is a mainstream pop artist who looks like me? What Asian pop artist is there? There isn’t any. Now, with K-pop booming and some Asian-American acts rising to the surface, it’s finally bubbling to the top. But 10 years ago, there was nobody. That was the only choice that I had to make.”
Still, Nam’s road to pop stardom while in South Korea has a familiar ring to it. Like many, he got his start with a YouTube video that went viral, which attracted the attention of producers of Star Audition: Birth of a Great Star 2, South Korea’s elimination talent show patterned after X-Factor. He landed in the Top 5 and signed a record deal a year later, which led to a series of EPs and television appearances that would further heighten his celebrity. GQ named him Korea’s Man Of The Year, he landed on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in Asia and was an Honorary Ambassador for the 2018 Winter Olympics. As he continues to make waves in America — he did an extensive interview with Time Magazine in November — Nam has become an enthusiastic spokesperson and proponent for better representation of Asians in pop music, an area where there is plenty of room for improvement.
“Name me your favourite Asian-American singer-songwriter or pop star? Nobody has one,” he says. “I want a Chinese Ed Sheeran. I want a Korean Justin Timberlake. I want a Japanese Justin Bieber. I want all of those people to exist and I want them to do it well and have people look at it and say: ‘It’s a great song and it doesn’t matter about colour or the way people look.’ I think we have a very long way to go.”
Eric Nam plays MacEwan Hall on March 3 at 7 p.m.