YouTube personality, Tay Zonday, known for his signature baritone voice and his original song, “Chocolate Rain,” that catapulted him to fame in 2007, has had another successful year. With 519,890 subscribers on his YouTube channel and “Chocolate Rain” acquiring more than 75 million views, Zonday has managed to keep a large following singing along to his catchy tunes. We spent some time with the YouTube star to talk about his process for song writing, experience in voice acting, background in music and achieving success in new media.
- What takes up most of your time right now? Figuring out what to do with my time takes up most of my time.
- Guilty pleasure: I would not like to admit guilt to any of my pleasures. I would like to think that all of my pleasures are innocent, good and wholesome.
- What is your relationship status? My relationship status is at peace. I am at peace.
- What would you consider your weakness? I’m Superman. I don’t have a weakness, do I? Entertainment — the idea that you write fiction about yourself is wonderful. I don’t have to have a weakness, do I? Seriously, if someone pitched a TV show to me and said, “Tay, this is a TV show where you’re going to have a weakness,” I’d be like, “No, you have to send that back to the writer.”
- What are your pet peeves? I definitely don’t like bugs. Critters and I don’t get along, but I’ve gotten better. I don’t like driving a lot in LA, but I’m trying to get better at that — you have to have a lot of patience. Pet peeves are just a matter of having patience, and so I’ve tried to become a more patient person. And, as I have become a more patient person, I have fewer pet peeves because I can take a deep breath and go, “Whoo!” It’s not so much a pet peeve and that’s what the universe brings to me. I’ll let the universe play out.
- Your ideal girl: It depends on what I’m casting her for. I’d need to see the story, the script and what the role called for, then I would know.
- Favorite song to sing in the shower: Probably “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” or “Amazing Grace.” I have a revival in the shower. It’s fun to sing spiritual songs.
- The longest you have gone without sleep: I have to confess, I get my sleep. Maybe that means I need to work harder because I really can’t think of a record period of time where I hadn’t gotten sleep. I can’t remember the last 24 hours where I didn’t sleep. I get to the point where I just collapse. I don’t drink caffeine or any energy drinks, so maybe that’s one thing.
- Fun fact: This is a good question because it’s a question about what’s considered fun. It’s sort of like making videos on YouTube; the audience wants to have fun, more or less. People don’t respond nearly as much to serious videos. If you’re asking, what fun facts do I experience, that people don’t know, I don’t know because it’s pretty much all out there. I’m a skinny, mixed person with a deep voice and awkward mannerisms. I can have fun with that, some people have fun with that. This shouldn’t be a difficult question, it shouldn’t stump me. I like peanut butter and banana with honey on top. I actually love it with a cold glass of milk.
- Funner fact: I need to learn how to have fun, I really do. That’s probably the most fun fact about myself. I am in a battle everyday to learn how to have pleasure and how to talk about fun pleasure. That’s what people want to see in entertainment. If you’re doing it every day like many of the YouTubers, you have to be able to communicate that you’re having fun. If you want to have authentic fun in real life, you can’t fake it, so I’m learning how to have fun. I’m still learning how to open myself to that vulnerability and to trust the universe to just have fun.
Born Adam Bahner, you’re known around the world by your stage name, ‘Tay Zonday.’ How did that name come about?
Tay Zonday: I wanted a name that was catchy. It had to roll off the tip of people’s tongues. It had to be easy to spell if someone overheard it in conversation. If someone said they liked Tay Zonday on the bus or in line at Starbucks, they could spell ‘tayzonday.com’ very easily. I wanted it to not be used by anyone else. So I entered it in Google using quotes in January 2007 and ‘Tay Zonday’ got zero results. I knew I had found my name.
One of your first videos on YouTube was a classical piece, “Canon In Z.” What made you decide to start uploading videos onto YouTube?
I was tired of going to open mics in Minneapolis. When you’re a keyboard player going to open mics, it is much less convenient then being a guitarist. A stage piano is a lot heavier than a guitar and you can’t just sit on the sidewalk and sing to people. At some point, I decided to set up a camera in my living room and YouTube became my open mic. YouTube became a place where I could play and sing to people, without dragging an amplifier and a bag of wires to a random café.
You’ve said that your parents did not let you listen to pop music growing up. How did they react when your “Chocolate Rain” video went viral? Have they been supportive in your career ventures since then?
My parents have been very supportive. They are my biggest stalkers. I will find out about things that happen on the Internet from them before I’m aware of it, because they are always looking at my YouTube page, Twitter account and everything else. When “Chocolate Rain” blew up, no one knew how it would go, and so it’s hard to know what your feelings are when suddenly you’re a national news story, and we’ve all seen national news stories die down.
“Chocolate Rain” became this Energizer bunny; it just kept going and going and going. A year later, I was still receiving YouTube awards. Two and a half years later, I was on a Super Bowl commercial. So, my parents and family have been very supportive of that. I still struggle with being in tune with pop culture and enjoying music the way people do.
I started making music on YouTube, ultimately, for me. It’s something I find enjoyable, and hopefully something people find enjoyable as well. I don’t set out as an artist to please other people. Learning to enjoy art and finding what pleases me is a process I’m still undergoing and something I didn’t have a chance to do when I was young.
If you’re not usually listening to popular music, where do you draw inspiration from for your songs?
I have no idea. I wish I knew, because I would put it in a bottle and sell it. If I could speak about the inspiration of my songs, I wouldn’t have any reason to sing them. Music and rhythm is something you can’t vocalize or write it down, you have to sing it. Maybe I could answer that question with a song.
Your videos showcase your skills on the electronic keyboard. Walk us through your background in music and how you first became involved.
I played the piano when I was younger. I started when I was around 3 years old. I never had much discipline. I tried to take lessons, but wasn’t disciplined enough to pursue it seriously. It’s always been a hobby of mine I guess — playing the keyboard.
You were a Ph.D. candidate for American Studies when your video “Chocolate Rain” skyrocketed on YouTube. What was the experience like, going from doctoral student to instant viral fame?
It was extremely, extremely awkward. I had no experience being a media personality. I had no experience doing interviews, marketing myself or marketing my products. To top it all off, no one had really done it before I did it. No one had gone from being in an Internet video to the front page of Sunday’s LA Times and performing on Jimmy Kimmel. There were no bread crumbs to follow.
In mid-July 2007, I think I did about thirty interviews the first week and then thirty interviews the second week. It was this non-stop calling, “Who is this person? Who is this person?” I didn’t know what to do with it. I know that when I listen to my early interviews now, they sound very bad to me. I sound like exactly who I was at the time — a nerd who made music as a hobby in his living room and was suddenly given a national spotlight. It was a spotlight I didn’t know what to do with at the time. I don’t think I understood or appreciated what it was when it was happening, because it happened so fast. I couldn’t even plan. If I had known 6 months before that that would be happening, then maybe I would have had a few more ducks lined up, but I was literally doing it as a hobby for my own entertainment. To have it blow up as it did so quickly was kind of surreal.
Keep in mind, the Internet was different then — MySpace was the biggest thing in music in 2007. All the big artists were on MySpace and there was MySpace lingo. YouTube was still a startup; it was new, it was not established, and it was still unclear how it would make money and how it would go in a productive direction. So “Chocolate Rain” came out of this difficult moment, in terms of figuring out what direction YouTube was going to take. About a month later, Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” video blew up and he did a much better job making money off his video than I did. But he was also, God bless Soulja Boy, a shameless and talented marketer — whereas, I’ve always been very tepid, diplomatic and politic in what I do.
I definitely chose not to be polemic with “Chocolate Rain,” to not emphasize the politics in the spoken interviews I gave. I chose not to go on the radio and say, “This is a political tirade about race and class and injustice” because I always believed the song did a better job of that than any spoken interview could do. I was very careful not to upstage the song when I gave the interviews. I think I’m still very cognizant of that. People ask, “What is the meaning of ‘Chocolate Rain’?” I always say, “The question is more important than the answer — that music has the ability to raise questions.” We have too many conclusions in our national, global conversations and not enough questions. If something like “Chocolate Rain” is able to provoke people to ask questions that they would not have otherwise asked, then I think that’s very successful. I think that’s a rising tide that lifts all intellectual boats. Hopefully, all of my music, on some level, will get people asking questions. That’s the best it can do.
Concerning your fame on YouTube, how do you feel that new media has impacted singers and songwriters? Do you feel like there is a “special formula” for success in new media?
There’s definitely a lot of money made by people who claim to have new media formulas. “How to be successful on Youtube” is a topic of great interest and commercial captivation. I think the best advice, and I haven’t necessarily always followed this advice myself and am still learning to follow this advice, is to be authentic.
Find whatever it is you love and you enjoy, work hard at it, do it on a schedule and persist. I think that authenticity is key. If you can find a way to be authentic, then that’s very good — audiences respond to authenticity. They can see through dishonesty and marketing through your messages that aren’t genuine very quickly. They can discern that very well. I think above all, there has to be something authentic and earnest, even when you’re doing comedy.
Whatever you’re doing, there has to be something in your gut. Something in your gut that people will, therefore, feel in their gut, because you feel it in your gut. Is that the formula going viral? I don’t know. I think that what most viral videos have in common is moments of tremendous authenticity, of people being very honest.
Many people know you from your YouTube recordings, but earlier this year we saw you perform a snippet of “Chocolate Rain” on “America’s Got Talent.” Compared to recording videos for YouTube, how do you like performing in front of a live audience? Is performing live something we can expect to see more of in the future?
I would love to grow into being a live performer. I have always struggled with being authentic and being real, especially in live performance. You could call it stage fright, or not necessarily being comfortable or vulnerable with people, but I definitely have trouble finding the same level of safety of ease and trust in front of a crowd of people than I find alone in a room with a camera and tripod. I think a lot of YouTubers are that way. You see them on YouTube and they are much more at ease. It’s one thing to feel safe in front of a camera and a different thing to feel equally safe in front of 5,000 people or whatever the audience is. Certainly, it’s flattering to do a show like “America’s Got Talent.” I think I have a lot to learn about doing it the right way. I think it’s finding the right way, the healthy way, the spiritual way to go into a level of comfort in performing.
You’ve written other original songs, such as your recent song “This is You.” We know in another interview 3 years ago, you said that you didn’t really have a set process in your song writing, does this still hold true today?
I don’t know — as soon as I say what a process is, then it’ll be something else. I enjoy singing more than I enjoy song writing. I think when I write songs, the song sort of emerges from the beat. You have to lay the beat down and have some concept of the intonation. I used to think you had to do it all on keyboard and that if you couldn’t have a pop song acoustically and have it sound good, that it would never sound good. But my opinion has grown and evolved. I’ve had songs that didn’t work well on keyboard, but were developed in a different creative sequence. They turned out fine. Sometimes when I’m writing a song, I’ll write the notes and articulation even before I have the words written. I guess the answer is no, there isn’t a clear process. I don’t know. It doesn’t happen in any particular rhyme, order or sequence — it happens at every stage at the same time. That’s how it’s been with me, I feel like I’m a very end-to-end person; writing, recording, mixing the song all at once, and constantly going back at forth at any stage of that process.
You really have to put in hundred-hour weeks just focusing on yourself, your projects and have everything pushed to the side as much as possible. You can’t do it piece-meal, like spend three hours on Tuesday and then two hours on Friday and then fit it in on Sunday. I’ve definitely found that when I am making music and when I am most successful at executing and achieving it with some regularity and some consistency on some schedule, it has to be something that takes over my life. Like I say in the song Internet Dream, “shut all the blinds. Let the dishes turn green, sitting alone with your Internet dream.” You have to kind of let the rest of the world atrophy and allow some inner life and inner world to rise up and dominate your entire self and your entire reality. I think I’m just kind of learning still after 3 years in LA, more than 4 years post-“Chocolate Rain” blowing up, trying to devote myself entirely to these projects because I can’t really multitask it. It has to take over my life, be the number one thing. I would like to have more original music out, arrange more music, and have more output generally speaking.
I’ve been blessed to do well enough to have time to think about this and what it is that has caused a difference between what’s happened and actual goals set forth. It’s just about finding the time and becoming absolutely, obsessively devoted to a project.
In three words, how would you describe your music?
Serendipitous, exegetical, zeitgeist.
You’ve been able to take on voice roles in productions such as “Robot Chicken.” How would you describe the experience of voice acting?
Absolutely terrifying and blessed at the same time that anyone would want to use me. I’ve never considered myself as someone who has talent with different voices. Sometimes I’ll be playing around and I’ll find a voice in me that I didn’t know was there. I love announcing. Announcing is a little different from voice acting. I’m continually discovering myself as a voice actor. “Robot Chicken,” written by my friend Erik Weiner, was definitely a very fun project. I was flattered that he wrote that. I would love to do more announcing. Honestly, if you told me I could be really successful doing voice acting, I love it so much — I would still do it, but announcing is fun and voice acting is dealing with a character. You need the same skills for voice acting as you would need for any other type of character. It all depends on what the role is. I would love to do someone evil; I haven’t really had the chance to do it.
In a recent interview, you were asked what you see yourself doing in the next 5 years. You mentioned that you would like to continue making independent music. Is signing to a major record label something that you would want in your future? Has it ever crossed your mind?
Hypotheticals don’t cross my mind. I would love to get to a point where I am more successful in creating what I love to create, on a regular basis, and if that leads to potential relationship with parties that include record labels, maybe it would or maybe it wouldn’t. It begins with the art — you have to do the art right then all these other questions answer themselves.
You’ve worked with clients such as Dr. Pepper, Intel and Comedy Central. Can you give us some insight into some upcoming projects?
No. You never know what’s going to happen until it comes out. I’ve learned not to speculate. You never know.
You obviously have a long list of accomplishments as a singer, songwriter and voice actor. What would be your advice to those who aspire to succeed in a career as you have?
It’s very similar to the question I gave before about being authentically ‘you.’ Being authentically ‘me’ is something I still struggle with everyday. My voice, my art and if you can rise to that occasion where you have this unlimited self-love for yourself, for your creation and for what you do, then I think that’s good. I think that will take you to many good places. At the very least, it may guarantee fulfillment. At least you will be happy with what you’re doing. That’s the point I’m trying to get to — sometimes I’m there, sometimes I’m not. Finding a self-love and being ‘you’ are both things that you should never do for an audience or money. Other people are able to identify with you being true to yourself.