Anyone can post a no-budget video online, but when your music talent alone earns you 200,000 YouTube subscribers, you don’t have to leave your room to be on stage.
Such is the case with the honey-voiced pop singer AJ Rafael. Armed with a guitar and a Webcam, AJ got so popular that he now tours, records, and organizes an annual benefit concert for autism called Music Speaks — all without the help of a record label.
We talked to him about life, love, and why, especially for Asian Americans, the DIY revolution is on YouTube.
What was some of the first music you were inspired by? What made you want to make music?
I grew up listening to Boyz II Men, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston … True story. And of course every Disney song reminds me of growing up. I had a pop punk rock phase in middle school throughout high school as well. It was mostly my family that made me want to make music, it was so important to every single member of my family from sisters to cousins to uncles and aunts and of course my parents. My dad, who died in ’99, was the greatest musician I’ve ever known. He met my mom through choir and what not. He brought music in our lives, and I want to show him that I can make a career out of it and support my family because he didn’t feel like he was.
How did you first learn to play?
I learned to play piano at 5 years old from my Dad. He was always busy with choir and what not, so I got a classical teacher for two years.
You write so many romantic songs. Is there a personal inspiration for “When We Say (Juicebox)”? Are you lucky or unlucky in love?
“Juicebox” is about all the times I felt unlucky in love, but in the end I felt lucky that it didn’t work out for me because of the love I found after.
Was it difficult to get your Juicebox EP on iTunes without a label? How did you manage that?
The Internet is the best way to distribute your music nowadays, and TuneCore and other sites like that have made it easy to put your music up on iTunes without a label. It’s really amazing for DIY artists.
You described your mission trip to the Philippines as life changing. How has it changed your life or your outlook?
To visit the motherland was a great experience for me, I can’t wait to go back. I haven’t quite reflected on the trip as much as I should since I have been busy, but expect a blog soon.
Tell us about your relationship with PNOY apparel — do they sponsor you?
PNOY Apparel was the first company to come up to me and say, “hey kid, we want you to wear our stuff- you’re a good singer” and after that it’s been an amazing relationship with these guys, they are my brothers.
You play tons of live shows, do a lot of community service projects, and play music for your church. Do you have a full-time job too? Are you in school? How do you juggle all this?
This is the trickiest part about being an artist for me. It’s so easy to just be all about self-gain and focus on your own craft, but honestly I wouldn’t feel complete if I wasn’t giving back to the community and to my church. I guess this will be the first time I say this publicly, but I didn’t finish school at Berklee College of Music in Boston. I had so many shows going on, I needed to be back with my mom to help her out, and I didn’t feel productive enough being all the way in Boston. School will always be there for me when I need it, but right now juggling all of these things is quite enough for me. Oh, and I used to work at Cold Stone but couldn’t eat the ice cream because of my allergy to dairy. (haha)
Can you tell us about your annual autism benefit concert, Music Speaks? Why is this cause important to you?
Music Speaks started because I was looking for a charity to donate to for my next big concert with the choir that I formed in 2006, MVCC. My nephew Nathan has autism so Autism Speaks was the way to go. They raise Autism Awareness and help fund research and help families with autism. After the concert each year, we all walk at the Walk for Autism at the Anaheim Angels Stadium to show our support. It feels amazing knowing so many people support the cause too.
Who are some of the musicians who inspire you the most right now? Who are some of your favorite musicians to perform with?
OneRepublic’s performance has really inspired me lately. I’m trying to reinvent my performance right now and Ryan Tedder really knows how it’s done. My favorite musicians to perform with as of right now are my band. They are the most musical people I know. To have musicality on stage within everyone is an amazing feeling.
How did you come up with the idea for your most recent video, “We Could Happen”? It’s pretty funny! Where did the giant iPod come from?
The iPod came from a friend who recently worked at an Apple store — it was a gift. Red is my favorite color! And Noah and I were thinking what we could do to make our video more interesting so we thought, “Is there a girl we can call?” I quickly responded with, “I have an iPod nano!”
You’ve built a huge fan following through YouTube and Myspace. With the kind of resources available on the Internet, do you feel like you need the support of a label to pursue your music? Have you had any interest from record labels? Do you want to get signed?
The answer to this question is pretty complex. To put it short — I had a few record labels interested in me earlier this year right after the music video that I and WongFu did came out. My band and I played a couple of showcases and ultimately they said we weren’t “ready” or our “image” wasn’t up to par. To put it bluntly, we have the fans we need to make an impact. I believe in them and they believe in me.
So many singer/songwriters are finding fans all over the world with just home-recorded YouTube videos. Do you feel like that’s a kind of a movement?
I do see YouTube as a movement. Especially in the Asian-American community. It’s kind of saying “F*CK YOU” to the labels/companies that never give them a platform. It’s an Internet REVOLUTION. Really, though.
You play all over the world. What is your favorite country to perform in? What are you best and worst tour experiences?
One of the best experiences I’ve had overseas was Australia. 1,000 people each night, and my family was there. My mom’s whole side of the family lives in Melbourne, so it was awesome that they all got to see me do my thing. Worst tour experience has yet to come. Some bad things include plane delays and missing flights, though.
What’s your next big project? Is there an album in the works?
Album release is set for first quarter next year. I am doing a Kickstarter thing for fans to be part of the project. To have an actual legitimate product to sell at shows is a great help to your artistry. I think it’s really important that artists do this. We have the resources for cheap now to record an album, I mean not dirt cheap, but you don’t have to pay $5,000 an hour anymore. The Internet and technology has helped with that.
Christopher Nolan just revealed the title of the third Batman reboot film — The Dark Knight Rises. Any luck last year with your campaign to get your song about Batman, “MidKnight,” on the soundtrack?
Thank you for reminding me about this– maybe I’ll write another one and just promote the hell out of them. Thanks for your support with “MidKnight” by the way, I saw the article ya’ll wrote on it. I love Batman. I love Robin, mostly, though. I relate to both in a way that they do what they do first and foremost because of their parents’ death, and then they fall in love with what they do and do it to do it. Anyway, that’s me getting a little deep and nerdy.