YouTube star AJ Rafael here on SEA-Aussie tour
The age of YouTube has allowed independent artists like AJ Rafael to gate-crash the music industry and strut their stuff.
It’s no guarantee, of course, that every aspiring singer or musician would generate worldwide interest by posting songs on the video-sharing website. But AJ says YouTube has at least leveled the playing field and, as such, has become an indispensable tool, especially to artists with talent but no record label.
AJ, a Filipino-American from Moreno Valley, California, has been regularly uploading original songs and covers on YouTube since 2006. He didn’t experience a meteoric ascent to fame like other Internet stars like Charice did. But his songs have registered almost 80 million views, with his own channel gaining over 390,000 subscribers.
The catchy beats of AJ’s songs, like “We Could Happen” and “When We Say” have made fans out of casual viewers. His debut full-length album, “Red Roses,” peaked at No. 7 on iTunes’ Top 10 pop albums, and No. 13 on Billboard’s Heatseeker chart.
The 22-year-old came close to winning 2012 Grammy Awards nominations in two categories—best new artist and traditional pop vocal album.
Currently performing with a live band composed of Andrew Rhim (guitar), Noah Bartfield (bass) and Danny Morledge (drums), AJ will have a concert on January 18 at the Music Museum, as part of his Southeast Asian and Australian tour.
AJ arrived in Manila last week and sat down with the Inquirer and other papers to talk about his music:
When did you first start writing songs?
It was back in 2004 and I was 16. I wrote a song for the birthday of someone I met online. I posted it on MySpace and, suddenly, people knew the song. Next thing I knew, I was in San Diego, playing in a Filipino festival. It was one of my first shows. I didn’t expect that to happen, but at the same time I was happy that it did.
Have you always wanted to be a singer?
My dad was a musician. He was a choir director and a pianist. And I knew that I had to play music when he died when I was 10 years old. I wanted to continue his legacy. When I first started performing in my own shows, I was like, “Man, this is a great feeling!”
How would you describe your music, and who are your biggest influences?
It’s mostly pop-rock, but I listened to a lot of R&B while growing up, so it has that influence as well. A lot of singers-songwriters have been inspiring my music lately—Jason Mraz, John Mayer, Christina Perri … But I also listen to adult pop ballads, such as those songs by Boyz II Men and Whitney Houston.
What about Pinoy artists?
When I came here in 2004, I became such a big fan of MYMP. Then I discovered Kitchie Nadal, South Border and Aiza Seguerra. Gary V is also a big favorite.
Most of your songs are about love and relationships.
I’ve probably written only one song that’s not about a girl! It’s just that my relationships have molded me into the person that I am. Being with somebody, breaking up with her, and the way that makes you feel—they’re all experiences that add meaning to life. Everybody’s a hopeless romantic on the inside.
What’s the downside of being a YouTube artist?
Sometimes, to stay in the loop, you have to jump into the bandwagon and do songs that are hot at the moment. I admit I’ve done this about two or three times, but it’s really something I hate. As much as possible, if I’m covering songs, it should at least be something I can relate to—not just something you pick out by looking at iTunes’ Top 10 chart.
As an online artist, you’re also opening up yourself to a lot of criticism. How do you deal with anonymous bashers?
Some people call me “chink” or “gay.” They say that my music is for sissies. Those aren’t bad things, but they’re just something I’m not. I treat my songs like my babies or my friends. And if someone’s bashing them, I do feel hurt. But you can’t please everybody, so I just have to get used to it. Seeing a negative comment still sucks, but knowing that you’re getting 100 times more love is comforting.
What’s your opinion on Pinoy pride?
There’s a strong sense of unity among Filipinos. But I think there are a lot of us who support Filipinos simply because they’re Filipinos. We should like an artist because they’re good. I’m definitely proud to be Pinoy. But when people see me, I want them to see my music first. I want them to see me as an artist who has a Pinoy background that helped him grow.
What drives you to make music?
My fans, friends and family inspire me. I want my mom to not work anymore. I want music to become a legitimate career for me. That’s my biggest motivation.
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