Eric Nam and SG Lewis on Feeling Lonely and Getting Healthy
Eric Nam and SG Lewis are embarking on health kicks. The two musicians, both with ten years of touring under their belts, are asking the big questions: How do I maintain my health? How do I keep anxiety at bay? Nam—The Atlanta-born, Seoul-based singer—entered the K-Pop world in 2013 as a contestant of Star Audition (think X Factor, but in Seoul) and quickly entered a splashy new world of screaming crowds and tour bus naps. After his struggles with anxiety culminated in a massive panic attack on a flight, he opted to be more transparent about mental wellness, starting with his new album, House on a Hill. Just before the record dropped, he and Lewis got together on Zoom to talk about songwriting, the temptations of hedonism, and running a marathon.
SG LEWIS: Eric, my friend. How are you doing?
ERIC NAM: I’m good. How are you? Long time no see.
LEWIS: Long time no see, man. I’m good. I’m on the verge of illness.
NAM: Oh, no.
LEWIS: I feel like this is such a bah humbug thing to say, but I’m ready for festival season to be over. I’m clinging on for dear life at this point.
NAM: Honestly, I don’t know how you do such big festivals. It seems like you’re in a new city literally every day.
LEWIS: Yeah, it’s a lot of flying and those are environments where it’s pretty easy to get ill, just in and out of air-conditioned airplanes. I’m back in London at the moment, so I’m chilling. Where are you in the world right now?
NAM: I’m in L.A. I’ve been bouncing around the past three months, so I’m like you, trying not to get sick. Actually, I’m late because I had to go to the doctors. I love what we do, but this is not perhaps the healthiest way to live.
LEWIS: Well, let’s segue very seamlessly into a conversation about your new album, House on the Hill. I’ve been spending some time with the project and I would say it’s my favorite work from you. Of your albums, for me, it’s the one that’s resonated the most. How are you feeling about releasing the album, which is inherently more vulnerable, personal and perhaps honest than projects you’ve put out before.
NAM: It’s nerve wracking, but I’m also just ready to be done with it. I just want it to be released. Maybe because I’ve sat on it for so long, I’ve come to terms with the lyrical content that we’re putting out there, so I don’t think I’m necessarily anxious or nervous about that. I think I’m excited to be able to talk about things that are relatable to anybody when it comes to finding purpose or happiness, or an existential crisis, in musical form. But you still want it to hit the right chord.
LEWIS: It didn’t feel contrived or on the nose. Like you say, it felt like you were speaking from experience of 10 years of making and releasing music and touring. Starting with the title track “House on the Hill.” For me, the song reflects on this idea of perceived success. What are the things that you require for your own happiness, sanity, and success?
NAM: Well, I wrote that song because I literally was looking to buy a house and it happened to be on this crazy hill in L.A. I was like, “This is the most perfect house and I must have it.” I did a lot of soul-searching and thought, “Am I really about to put it all on this house?” I didn’t get it for multiple reasons, but I walked away from that thinking, even if I were to get this house, there’s always going to be a better, bigger, brighter, sexier house that I’m going to want. That’s just the way that we’re wired. But I’m realizing it’s not so much about having a certain thing, it’s about enjoying and appreciating the progress and the process of getting to that point. That’s what I’m trying to focus my energy on.
LEWIS: I know, for myself anyway, the part of it that’s the most fulfilling is that creation moment, where you make something and you’re like, “Oh my god, this is great.” And that excitement around it is the part that makes the rest of the work worth it.
NAM: Absolutely. I think that speaks to why you’re so prolific. I look at your discography and I’m like, “How does he do so much?” Not only so much, it’s so diverse. I’m always astounded. I’m like, “This guy, he’s a genius.”
LEWIS: Oh, man. Thank you, my guy. I think it’s just the ADHD kicking in. I wanted to talk about your collaborations on this album. In particular, you’ve had some British influence on this album in the form of our good friends, Honne and Oh Wonder. This is a real personal favorite on the album. How did you find that writing process with Andy [Clutterbuck] and James [Hatcher], and what kind of roles did three of you assume in that process?
NAM: Yeah, it was fun. We’ve been trying to do something together for years and the schedules never aligned. I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to book a flight. I’m coming to you guys.” And the first day, Andy said “I have this thing.” It was a very somber piano song. The next day, this melody just popped into my head. I was on the train out to their studio and it was the hook of “Only for a Moment.” That day, we just went for it. I don’t even remember if there was a certain process, they just worked their magic, starting on a piano and building it up. We shot this music video essentially in a Korean subway. And there’s just 12 different characters doing the most insane things. It’s about how, in any second, serendipity can step in.
LEWIS: That’s definitely how I felt listening to it. You touch on these large existentialist themes about love, purpose and happiness. At what point in the process did you realize that this was going to be a more, for lack of a better term, “serious” album, or that the themes were going to be quite heavy?
NAM: It happened after we wrote “House on a Hill.” I’d started writing while I was in the middle of my last tour, and I feel like in order to write, as creatives, we need to go out and make mistakes and find love and fall apart and do all these things. But when I’m on tour, I’m pretty much only on tour. I’m working constantly. So it was the pandemic, then I was on tour for nine months straight and I was like, “I have nothing to really write about, I haven’t had many other experiences.” And for so many artists, the pinnacle of your career is to be able to say, “I’m doing a headline show, this is massive.” But then you take a step and you say, “Am I happy? Do I have everything I want?” And if I don’t, what else do I need? And it was those types of things that I kept coming back to.
LEWIS: Yeah, you just made a good point, which is that [when] you’re on tour you’re in this survival mode. But it’s great that you managed to draw something out of that, because touring is such a select and privileged experience. We are lucky to get to tour, and if you were to write a song that’s like, “the tour bus is hard to sleep on,” most people would be like, “What’s he talking about? I’d give a left nut to be on the tour bus.” but it was really great that you managed to draw these more universal, life-affirming themes and stuff. How do you deal with anxiety? Is it something that comes about more when you are touring? Do you have any practices that help you to steady yourself?
NAM: It manifests in different times. Four or five years ago, I had this crazy schedule where I was bouncing back and forth between the States and Korea at least twice a month and I had this massive panic attack on the flight. I thought I was dying. It was terrifying, and I never experienced anything like that before. Since then, I wear my heart on my sleeve when it comes to mental health. When you’re on stage and you’re having the best time ever, you have this adrenaline rush, and then you get off and it’s silent and there’s just this sudden drop of, “How do I deal with this?” You’re in the green room by yourself and it’s really quiet. It’s just this never-ending cycle of anxiety, self-consciousness. We just don’t talk about it or normalize it enough. So now I just take time to myself to refocus and rebalance. How do you deal with it?
LEWIS: I’ve personally found that the larger the show, the more lonely and anxious I felt. Everyone treats you in a slightly different way, where they give you a wide berth, and they’re like, “Oh, I don’t want to bother Eric or something.” I found it became more and more isolating, where you don’t necessarily know everyone as well, like who’s working the venue. There’d be times when the crew and the band went off to dinner and I was sitting by myself, like a lonely kid in the cafeteria. I was like, “This sucks.”
NAM: Dude, I don’t mean to laugh, but that’s exactly how I feel. I was like, “Wait, the dancers are going out? The band’s going out? Everybody’s going out! I guess I’ll just sleep on the bus.” I was like, “Do they hate me?”
LEWIS: I now lean heavily on exercise. I have to be running. Then it’s just trying to look after yourself in any way that you can. Especially in the DJ world, I came up through a path where partying and late nights go hand in hand. Playing in clubs, and in electronic music, you are serving hedonism. People are in Ibiza for one week of the year where they want to go until 8:00 AM. I’m 29 now, and those late nights definitely leave more of a mark than they used to. So it’s more green juice and yoga now. After the summer, I’m going to take a bit of a break and do about three or four months just completely sober. I love to drink. I’m British, we all love to drink. We got drunk in Seoul that time.
NAM: That was a fun night. We had a lot of soju.
LEWIS: That was a messy night.
NAM: That was a fun night. But I’m at that point as well where I think I need to just roll off the alcohol and really focus on maintaining my health. I look at DJs, and on one hand, I’m so jealous because I feel like it’s a different type of show. But I can’t even imagine the toll is on your body or your mental health.
LEWIS: I said to a friend, “I feel like I’ve seen most things and done most parties, but the thing that I haven’t done is be sober for a bit. I just signed up for a marathon, actually, in April.
LEWIS: Yeah, I mean—
NAM: Sam, that goes beyond just being sober. A marathon, to me, is ridiculous. That is a type of pain that I will never be able to do, I promise you.
LEWIS: I mean, it sounds slightly sadistic. For me, it’s just putting a flag in the ground. Like, “Okay, here’s a goal in April for me to focus and get my health in order.” But I’m sure I’ll regret it. I’ve never run anything even close to a marathon. So yeah, it’s slightly nerve-wracking.
NAM: That’ll be great.
LEWIS: What’s next? Are you touring?
NAM: Yeah, I’m on tour starting mid-September. We have close to 80 shows for the next tour, so we’re hitting everything and everywhere. I don’t know where you’ll be, but I’m playing the Shrine in L.A.
LEWIS: Let’s go! That’s incredible, man.
NAM: If you’re around, come through.
LEWIS: Yeah, absolutely.
NAM: What about you? You’re taking the next few months off to recover?
LEWIS: I finish in mid-November. I’m pretty much flat out till then. And then I’m going to lock myself in the studio and just make a lot of music. If you find yourself with some time, let’s make it happen.
NAM: Let’s do it. We’ll do some matcha, some breathing, some hiking.