AJ Rafael has been involved with music ever since he was born. A man of Filipino descent, he is an internet celebrity and his first full length album, Red Roses, has sold extremely well. So, you can say he’s got a lot of things going his way. We talk about how his interest in music got started, his thoughts on Asian musicians possibly making it big here in America and his experience auditioning for American Idol. Read below for the full interview…
How did your interest music get started?
AJ: It started when I was really young. My dad and mom were in choir church and my dad was the choir leader. I learned how to play piano when I was very small. I remember being about five when I felt like I was practicing too much but I’m glad I stuck through it and that my parents forced me to do it. When I was ten, my dad passed away. It was really important to carry a musical legacy just because he wanted us to be stable and do music on the side. Nowadays, with the internet and social media, music is my main thing. It’s certainly been a part of my life since I was born.
I saw that you auditioned for American Idol. How has that experience helped you in your life and career?
AJ: Oh wow! That was the first time I tried anything like that. I was 15 years old. The thing about those kinds of auditions is that the really good singers of their hometowns come to these auditions with expectations and me being young, I also had expectations at the time. When I didn’t make it past the first round, it kind of was a reality check like, “Hey man, you still got to work on your vocals.” It actually motivated me to continue to do my own thing. I’m really glad for that experience. I wasn’t a huge blow for me. If anything, it helped me to continue to do things on my own.
Through any one’s life, there are setbacks and disappointments to people achieving their goals. What are some of the other setbacks that you have experienced that have made you a better person?
AJ: Wow, there are a lot of those. I attended Berklee College of Music in 2008. I had auditioned for two big shows out there. One is called Singer’s Night and one is called Singer’s Showcase. Both semesters, I got called back but never made it. I always felt some weird grudge against Berklee because of making it so far and trying out four times. All in all, it made me realize that there are other great musicians out there. You’ll get rejected from something and it changes your perspective each and every time. It was only my first year so I had to realize that there are a lot of really good musicians who deserve that chance to get on that stage. My only regret was that I only stayed at Berklee for one year. I think about that a lot. I tried out for the Glee Project for season one and I made it to the top 40. That experience has opened my eyes to a whole new world of that type of audition and also I’ve made so many friends from that so I can’t even be mad about not making the top 12. Recently, I tried out for The Voice last year. That almost sealed the deal for me. All of this stuff helps me keep going on my own path.
You are a very talented musician playing on a wide variety of instruments like the ukulele and the piano. Is there an instrument that you would love to try that you haven’t yet?
AJ: I would love to try the saxophone. I was in band growing up so I always loved hearing the Saxophone. Actually, all of the brass instruments like Trumpet and Trombone. I did play the clarinet when I was little but I don’t remember it much. I would say Saxophone is on the top of my list.
Is there a genre of music that people would be surprised to know you actually enjoy?
AJ: Musical theatre. Just nowadays I think people are getting to know how much I love musical theatre since I’ve been putting out some videos lately but that wasn’t something I was putting out there. I’ve been into musical theatre since I was in high school and I could listen to Broadway shows like nonstop.
Korean artist PSY has opened the door for Asian artists to make it big here. Do you believe in our lifetime there could be a famous Asian musician here in America and keep it going consistently?
AJ: I think we are definitely making progress. As in “we” I’m mostly talking about Asian Americans. PSY was awesome. I do think that Gangnam Style still keeps the image in other people’s heads that Asians still sing in another language. I think it’s awesome for K-Pop. I just don’t think it helps the Asian American theme really because there’s a whole array of Asian American artists on YouTube and we’ve been doing it for a while now so I’m just hoping that one of us can break through mainstream. I still believe that can happen and I think it’s going to happen soon. I definitely think the times coming.
How did you get involved in the Music Speaks charity?
AJ: Actually I came up with that charity. It wasn’t a charity at the time. It was a benefit concert. In 2009, I wanted to put it on a benefit concert with a bigger scale with the help of my fans. I sent copies of Music Speaks to support an organization called Autism Speaks and Autism Speaks was chosen as the benefit because my nephew has Autism and I wanted to learn more about it. I didn’t really know what Autism was. This past year, we’re on our way to become a non-profit organization. We’re taking steps to making it more legit and more official. It’s exciting.
You have a lot of musical influences on your music. Is there one influence that you can say you consistently go back to the most when you are having trouble writing a song?
AJ: Oh wow. When I’m listening to musicals and musical theatre; for me, when I’m writing songs, I kind of think, “Is this good enough for a story for a musical?” You know? It doesn’t necessarily have to be in that style of music obviously. Yeah, I just love listening to musicals because they tell a story throughout the whole thing. There are just so many ideas you can get from listening to that. There’s one composer more specifically that I listen to for inspiration and his name is Jason Robert Brown. He’s more or less a contemporary musical theatre composer and the way he tells a story. You can picture in your head. Similar to when you are hearing Taylor Swift sing a song that she wrote about a very specific story. Country music has that same effect on me because they are still into story telling which we are seeing less and less of.
What are some of your favorite Asian films and/or anime?
AJ: I grew up watching Dragonball Z so definitely obsessed with that a little bit. I just recently bought a Dragonball Z shirt. This doesn’t really count as an Asian movie but Jackie Chan is one of my favorite actors so the whole Rush Hour series is hilarious. Also, there’s a film called Princess Mononoke that I really love and Spirited Away. Really good!
Is there any advice you would love to give to people who want to follow their dreams?
AJ: When I was starting on YouTube, I was getting a lot of hater comments, a lot of discouraging stuff. With things like YouTube, it helps you to just brush that off and I wish everyone had the opportunity to go through that because at the end of the day you can only do the best that you can do and some people don’t like that. You just got to move on and you can’t really please everybody. I had to learn that over the years of going with your instincts and going with your heart when it comes to following your own dreams. For everybody who wants to make music their stable thing, just know that it is a possible thing. I think me being financially stable is just one example of it being able to happen. Also don’t just wait for things to happen. You got to make it happen for yourself. For example, I know some people who are waiting for someone to sign them before they release a certain song. Nowadays you can release your own song and there are websites where you can distribute your own songs like iTunes and things like that so I think you have to make your own moves nowadays. Stay up to date with the fans you make and the connections you have and most importantly stay real as a human being. I think that’s one thing that turns me off when I meet certain people is that you can kind of tell that they are being fake in any sense. So yeah, staying real and staying relatable to your audience is important as well.
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