AJ Rafael | Singer & Songwriter

In celebration of Halloween and my interview with musician AJ Rafael, I have forgone my usual persona of “adult male” and donned a “adult male who wrote ‘Ulysses’” costume. Here goes: giant green leather chair so big swallow me up clam style leaning forward back sore so much bad fucking setup ok I’ll lean forward bro hes gonna lean forward bro do I look a bro shit I hope not I don’t know hes not leaning forward bro phone on table build Tiny Tower higher check texts no interview batman AJ genuinely nice oh fuck this is total profile shot all-gold cuckoo clock next question so quiet brain synapses loud earrings so round musician is really talented thoughtful answers real talk MUSIC SPEAKS tour RED ROSES album AJ Rafael on NMR is gonna be the sweetest shit ever

Trick or treat. Now scroll down and learn what AJ Rafael’s got to say about YouTube cover artists, the cancellation of his Play.Live.Breathe tour, his public beefs and break-ups, Music Speaks for autism awareness, and his surprising revelation about who he’s just signed with. Like ol’ zombie J.J. just said, sweetest shit ever.

What are you doing for Halloween?

AJ Rafael: Well, I think my festivities are about done. We partied on the weekend just in Vegas the other day. Friday, we dressed up in costumes as we played our show. Maybe Wednesday, take my little sister — she is 13 — trick-or-treating. 

You do that every year?

Yeah, well for the last couple of years. This is a new neighborhood especially, so I think we are going to that.

That sounds like fun. I know you are a Lakers fan — is that right?

Yes! I am.

This year is unfair, isn’t it? With Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, we might as well just not play a game.

It was tough, because I was so mad at the Miami Heat. I was like, “They are ruining the integrity of the game and stuff.” But Kobe is my favorite player — current favorite player — and my second favorite player is Dwight Howard, so when he came out — I’ve always been a Magic fan as well, since like Shaq days and stuff — so I was really excited. And I guess it is a bit unfair, but we’ve lost the whole preseason, so we’ll see how the offense goes and things like that. I think we’re probably going to be in the finals over OKC for sure. 

I definitely would predict that they win everything. It seems unfair every year, like when they got Gasol. It is not good to be a non-Laker fan; it makes me angry.

[laughs] No, I feel you. My best friend is a Laker-hater, so it is a good balance.

This morning when we came in, you were wearing Batman pajamas. You have a Batman and Robin tattoo …

Yes, I do, and my wifi is “The Bat Cave.”

Right. Everything is bat-themed, so you love Batman. This recent Batman movie, “Dark Knight Rises” — was it a masterpiece? Or less?

I thought it was a masterpiece. Everyone I was with — it must have been because we were at the midnight screening — everyone was like, “Dang, that was way too long.” As a whole movie, I thought it was the best one of the trilogy for me, as a whole, but definitely “Dark Knight” was the best action. I like that better in terms of character and stuff, but as an ending, I think Christopher Nolan did a really good job. Especially me as a Robin fan, he was telling a Robin story without us knowing it was a Robin story, you know what I mean? I hope I didn’t give it away to anybody who hasn’t watched this. [laughs]

Well, if you haven’t watched it by now it’s your fault.

No, I think it’s brilliant. There is so many stories in this thing that you don’t even find out is happening until the end, you know what I mean? And I wasn’t a big fan of Bane before, but now I am. It’s cool; these movies have brought me to different things. It’s really “The Dark Knight” that made me know that I love Batman, not just Robin, because Robin is my number one guy. Like in the comics and him becoming Nightwing and things like that, Robin is my first favorite character, but these movies did it for me for Batman especially. 

Moving into YouTube, you rose to fame through your original music — writing original songs, performing original songs — but it seems like a lot of YouTube musicians these days that are pretty famous, they cover songs. What do you think about that?

There are a lot of things I think about cover artists on YouTube and stuff. I mean, I owe a lot to covers too, you know what I mean? But the thing is I was on Myspace when YouTube came out, and I used YouTube to put my songs on Myspace, videos and stuff. A lot of them were originals, and on my Myspace was nothing but originals, so right now I feel like YouTube is getting to be more like the radio where you just hear the same song over and over. Like for sure if you hear a new Bruno Mars song, you know that the top YouTuber musicians are going to do them, and they all fairly sound the same. It’s tough because a lot of them are my friends, but on my shows I’m always trying to push original material, originality, creativity, because that is the only thing that is going to make you you at the end of the day, you know what I mean? I mean, some people can do a lot with covers. There is this acoustic cover of “Hey Ya” from Outkast that is really huge on YouTube, and I think that’s really cool. Like mainstream artists, when they do covers, they don’t do them as often, so you listen to them as more of a special thing, and it means more to you. I think YouTube is way oversaturated with covers, and it’s discouraging a little bit because they literally own all the views right now. I’m just sticking with my thing, man. I’m just trying to have my originals transcend, you know? The top music video of mine is “When We Say (Juicebox),” and Wong Fu produced that for me and directed it, and I think with a good story you can tell a lot. And I think when I’m 40 years old I am going to look back on those videos, and be like, “Yeah I’m still proud of those videos,” as opposed to  something that I just maybe did — and I get caught up doing this sometimes too — I just maybe did because I thought it was going to go viral because it’s number one on Itunes, you know what I mean? So I think in the end of it all, I’m just doing my thing, and even if I don’t get millions and millions more views than the other guys who are just doing covers, at least I know in my soul that I satisfied what I needed to do, and I think that means more than just trying to conform to this new YouTube movement of just covers. I can speak forever on this, but there are people — and they are my friends as well — and I don’t mean any offense when I say this, but when you’re selling out venues everywhere else, and you don’t have original material, and you are just singing all covers, you are nothing more than a wedding cover band. I really wish and sincerely hope that they can get original material written for them; as an artist you want that for your artistry. If you can’t write, then have somebody write for you. I’m just being real with myself and this community, because it started out where there was a lot more originals. The first person I saw on YouTube was David Choi, and it was an original song, and I was like, “This is amazing.” It was “That Girl,” and it was probably a big game changer for me. I was like, “Dang, he can do this and get some views,” so David Choi is a big inspiration for that.

That’s interesting because I looked at your really old videos from four years ago, and you actually covered one of his songs.

Yeah, I covered that song. I was in my room upstairs, and I had like emo hair and stuff.

So do you think these YouTube musicians who exclusively do cover songs can really be considered true artists?

They are definitely artists. I think there is a difference between like James Taylor, because that is who I really long to be like a storyteller, you know, and there is just pop artists like … I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I don’t want to be a hater, you know what I mean? But like the candy pop like Katy Perry and stuff, but I know she is super talented and is a songwriter as well, or like Kesha or something, you know what I mean? It’s just very like shallow pop; it’s like nothing deep or anything, with even their stuff as original material. I mean, definitely YouTube artists, but I want to be something more than just that — you know what I mean — something more than a YouTube artist. I want to be a singer-songwriter first and foremost before someone calls me a YouTuber, but that’s okay to have that label as well, “YouTuber.” No, all my friends we’re all striving to be artists. You know, I’m not fully there yet either. I know that I have found my sound, and I feel comfortable within my own artistry, and these other people who are maybe still stuck doing covers, they are gonna eventually, and I hope they get there as well where you are familiar with your own sound and comfortable enough to be like, “This is me, I present this to you guys whether you like it or not.” Because I think maybe some of these artists are a bit scared of what they are going to think of their original stuff, because there are originally so many positive reviews and all these good views on their covers that maybe they’re scared that their original material is not going to hit as much, and truly it won’t really. But the original music will touch who it has to touch. And I think that’s the most important thing, but to answer your question again, they are all definitely artists, and we are all striving to be a different kind of artist, and we’re all doing art which is music, so yeah, I believe that we are all artists, yeah. 

So that’s fair enough. I want to talk about your Play.Live.Breathe. tour. You cancelled the tour recently, and you wrote about it on your website giving an example of two venues that apparently had 1000 seats available, but only 300 were filled up. Why do you think it didn’t sell well?

The first thing that was pretty evident was that we literally only had a week when we had the ticket links up. We had two weeks, and one week had confirmed the tour, but I was taking it back to three or four years ago when YouTube, Myspace scene was still very new and fresh — I could have promoted a show three days in advance and had more than what I had at Play.Live.Breathe. I think the scene is mildly saturated because of all — and also because maybe we still have the same audience right now. We haven’t been cross-expanding as well as we should be, I think. I think there is a big gap between the Asian American YouTube community audience and the others, you know what I mean? Asian American to today’s society, we’re not considered mainstream, our look and everything. The ones who do look mainstream have a different audience in the YouTube community, so I think we have to cross-promote that a little bit so we can keep gaining traction and stuff. Especially with these live shows because that’s what is going to keep us alive, well for the people who want to take that route. The live shows are going to keep us alive, and the Play.Live.Breathe. tour was a financial disaster to be very truthful and real and transparent. I try to be as real as possible on that blog, and I think there are so many shows going on right now that we got to bring something different to the table, opposed to just a showcase or just you and your friends who you think are going to sell it out. It was really discouraging. In D.C., we had a 1500 seater venue, so it wasn’t even only 1000. It was 1500 — that’s an extra 500 seats going up like this, and we had like the first three rows and scattered. It was tough because we believed in this. We worked with this agency who got us excited, you know what I mean? We also ourselves got excited, but we were expecting to sell at least 50 percent of the venue. And then ticket sales were not doing good, but we still have charter buses, and we had like really nice hotels like 5 star hotels. And we’re all excited when we get there — we are getting per diem. We’re like, “Yo, this tour is legit. This tour is awesome.” By the second show, I sat down with my whole team and all the artists saying, “Yo, this is how much money we are losing right now.” The next, the third city when we go to Boston, we get to this hotel, and we get this charter bus, and we’re like, “Wow, we don’t even want this anymore.” We are like, “This is wack! Lets stay in a motel, lets stay on the floor of our homies’,” because we knew what was going on. And I think this year and last year a lot of us are still doing — I mean, we are still writing new music and stuff — but we are still essentially doing the same thing at these live shows where there is just acoustic. I bring my band to bring new flavor, to bring a quality show, and I think that’s a bit different than what we have been doing the last four years, but I think we all need to strive to do something that they’ve never seen before and make it more of an experience than a show. I have seen a little decline at a couple of these shows that we have in our community, that we can’t sell them like we have before, but I think if we keep promoting them well and doing all that stuff, it will work, but just bring something different to the table.