And so how do you go about choosing which songs you want to cover and which you don’t?
Obviously I love pop music, I love to listen to the radio, and so that’s always a good place to start. Certainly when I was beginning with Kurt, doing popular covers was a great way to get seen in the first place, because at the beginning no one knew who I was or who Kurt was, so you know, if we picked a really popular Beyonce song or Lady Gaga song, we knew that’s how people would start to learn who we are because they would be searching for that song, and they would find us, and they would become fans of our music. Nowadays it’s really a combination of what I’m hearing on the radio, but also just when I’m listening to the radio, what songs I like and what songs I hear a cool version of that we could do or would be conducive of a cover for us, so it definitely varies but we always pick music that we like. That’s the most important thing. If we don’t like the song, it’s not going to be a good cover, so I have to make sure it’s something that speaks to me.
So you have to be passionate about it.
I noticed with your YouTube channel that it’s only about a year old, but you’ve really been at this for more than a year, so why did it take so long for you to start your own YouTube channel?
So I’ve been working with Kurt for a couple years now, and when we started, that channel was pretty much solely the two of us working together. And then when we both got out here, we are both thinking of ways to expand what we do and work with more people, and so when I moved out here a year ago I thought that in addition to continuing to work with Kurt on Kurt’s channel, I thought it would be cool to start my own, so that not only could I be making more content but I could start working with other people as well and really grow in that way. So yeah, while I’ve been working on YouTube for a while now, my personal channel of Sam Tsui is only about a year old, but there is already a lot of stuff on it, and I’ve been amazed at how quickly it’s grown.
So you’ve been at it for at least a couple of years, and you really broke out the gate when you did the Michael Jackson medley. I know that a couple years ago you were on “Oprah” for it, and so I really want to know the dirty laundry on her — is she a tyrant backstage?
You know what, she was incredibly kind to us. I don’t know, she has probably one of the toughest jobs in the world. She’s running around all over the place, so she’s definitely a busy woman, but she was totally great to us. I actually got — this is a funny story — I got a lot of free shirts out of that experience. So the Michael Jackson medley, which we performed on “The Oprah Show,” that is one of the videos where there is multiple clones of me all doing this acapella backup, so they obviously wanted to reproduce that effect on the show. So we recorded a bunch of different versions of me singing, and they had told me to bring a bunch of wardrobe, because obviously I needed several outfits, and I brought them, and the stylist there was like, “Oh no, we don’t like these.” But they were like, “We want to get your wardrobe,” so they were like, “What size are you?” I was like, “Small,” or whatever, and they went out to American Apparel and bought literally every single color of T-shirt and every single color of cardigan so that they could go and just decide. So literally there was like 30 shirts sitting there, and they were like, “We want that one, that one, that one and that one,” and then when we were done, and we had filmed them all, they were like, “Oh, do you just want to keep these shirts,” and I’m like, “Yes, I do!” So that clothed me for at least a year. I call them my “Oprah shirts.” Whenever I wear them, my friends are like, “You’re wearing an ‘Oprah shirt,’ aren’t you?” and I’m like, “Yes, it’s an ‘Oprah shirt.’” So yes, she gave me free shirts — I love Oprah.
Of course she can afford that. If you had Oprah money, what’s the first thing you would do?
If I had Oprah money, what’s the first thing I would do? Well, American Apparel clothes aren’t cheap — maybe I would buy one of everything so I had all the options from the store. I don’t know.
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When I watch your videos, to me it seems like you just really eat up being on the camera. Do you think performance is that something that came naturally to you?
I’ve always wanted to be a performer since I was young and was like the little boy in the community theatre production of whatever. I love performing, and I love bringing joy to people through music and just through entertainment and performance. So yeah, it definitely feels second nature to me, and obviously doing YouTube videos is the most recent medium that I’ve been doing that through. But yeah, since I’ve been little I’ve always wanted to make people happy.
And so most of your fanbase is of course online — you live in that world. Do you ever Google yourself?
Oh, I think you can’t help but do that, yeah, but occasionally explore what’s out there. It’s funny because obviously putting content on the Internet it just sort of takes a life of it’s own, and you have very little control over it, so whatever you sort of assess what’s on the Web about you, you sort of have to just let go and accept what’s out there. But no, it’s cool. It’s crazy to see that I have a Wikipedia page, and it’s still very surreal.
Right, so I Googled you and the most popular search queries about you showed up next to your name. I wanted to go through a couple of those with you. The third most searched is your bio, so if someone had no idea who you were and they asked, “Who is Sam Tsui?” what would you say?
I would say that I’m a kid who loves to make music who stumbled upon this incredible medium called YouTube that allowed me to connect with people who also love music, and I spent the last couple years figuring out how to do that and making it up as I go and creating this incredible family of fans all around the world that I get to perform for, and I’m a pretty lucky guy to be able to do that. I guess that’s my version of my bio.
Another popular search term linked with your name is “nationality.” Of course, it’s clear that you’re American, but I’m assuming they want to know your racial background.
No, of course. I am half-Chinese; my dad is from Hong Kong. He was actually born in Hong Kong, so he is first generation moved over here. And half white — my mom is from Iowa; she grew up on a farm. Cornfed white girl, so yeah, I’m half Chinese.
How much of that biracial makeup do you think affected who you are today?
I think it’s huge part of who I am. Obviously everyone has a cultural heritage, but with my dad being first generation and being from halfway across the world, it’s much more tangible. I love being part of Chinese culture and yet having two completely different heritages to draw from and an identity, and I think being biracial in a way forces you to really assess at a much earlier age who you are and grapple with those questions — Who am I? Where do I fit in? What group am I a part of? — and I think it’s made me self-aware in a good way. I’m really proud.