David Choi | “Work hard. Be good. Don’t burn too many bridges and just have fun”
“A melody is like a woman in a bar that you are instantly attracted to – the part that hooks you. The lyrics are what make you fall in love with that person.” As eloquently as Judy Stakee describes music, David Choi puts it into practice. The grandfather of YouTube and the unofficial spokesperson for Chick-Fil-A, Mr. Choi has the one-of-a-kind combination of exceptional musical talent, tenacity, modesty, effortless humor, and the ability to sing about a girl picking her nose and make us fall in love with her. It certainly helps that he’s not afraid to show off his endearing idiosyncrasies, and no matter how much he doesn’t smile, he leaves us grinning from ear to ear. From not having heard his first pop song until the 6th grade (Smashmouth’s “All Star” remember?!) to becoming one of the most beloved musicians on YouTube with television, film, and international acclaim, David still remains unassuming, humble, and treats each and every single person—Hollywood celebrity to high school fan—with the same respect and kindness. And if Clara C took home the Most Epic Interview trophy, guess who hands-down wins Most Epic Photoshoot? Prepare to be dazzled by 3 items underwater: a guitar, Melly Lee’s Canon 5D Mark II, and the David Choi.
- What takes up most of your time right now: Probably sleeping, because I try to sleep eight or nine hours a day. I’d say that’s most of my morning.
- Guilty pleasure: I like clipping my nails every day. I don’t have pretty nails. I like cutting the cuticles – anything that pops out. It’s sort of like an OCD thing. I like vitamins. Is that a guilty pleasure?
- Relationship status: That’s a mystery. No, actually, my real answer is that my relationship is with the fans. [Awww]
- Weakness: My weakness would have to be dogs. I love all dogs.
- From @davidchoiID (David Choi Indonesia): Your motto in life: It always changes. I got a lot of mottos that I need to remind myself of everyday. Today, I like the motto of being good. People ask me, “What is good?” I think that everybody knows the answer to what being good is, if you don’t think too much. You just be a good person.
- Your pet peeves: I don’t like lies – well, actually no, sometimes it’s okay to lie. I don’t like people who are mean – actually, I do like people who are mean. Because mean people are good too sometimes, you just have to break through their walls. They’re just mean because they have walls. I don’t like murderers – but at the same time… I’m kidding! It’s really hard to annoy me. So, just murderers. They’re the most annoying things ever.
- Favorite song to sing in the shower: I don’t know the song name. “I’m so in love with you, whatever you want to do is all right with me… let’s stay together…” [Al Green, Let’s Stay Together]
- From @believeineline (Eveline Sujatmiko): Your ideal girl: I’m not even sure, actually. I don’t know… it always changes, I guess. I like when they smile. I like girls who are good and kind and not murderers. I like it when they’re bad, too. (Like bad in the good sense.)
- Fun fact: I can be boring. No, actually, fun fact about me: I really think the Chinese sign for me is pretty accurate: the Tiger. I just feel like I’m a tiger sometimes. If I were an animal, I’d be a tiger. A small one. But vicious at times.
- Funner fact: I’ve only done one photo shoot inside of a pool. It was very fun, and it was very wet, and it made my clothes heavy and it made them stretch.
OA: Alright, onto the serious questions now: why Chick-Fil-A?
DC: Because it’s really good. It’s healthier than most fast food restaurants. I like their business practices. I like that they’re always nice at every Chick-Fil-A you go to (and I’ve probably been to ten of them in my life, and they were all very kind and generous). The one here in La Habra, they actually give you deals sometimes where you can buy a meal, and if you save the receipt and come next month, you’ll get the meal for free. If you have a birthday, they’ll give you a free pie and free cake and stuff. They’re just good to people. Not only to me, but to everybody.
OA: Had you not been surrounded by music growing up, or had your parents not forced you to play instruments, do you think you would have still pursued music today?
DC: Interesting question. Probably not, honestly. If there was no music in my life, the stars would have had to align a certain way for me to even think about doing music. I’d have a completely different life. I’d be a completely different person. I have no idea what I would be doing if I wasn’t doing music. My mom’s artistic, and my dad’s side is musical. Who knows? I still might have been musical. Also, “talent” can be created, but I do believe that certain types of talent are in the blood, passed down from generation to generation. My theory is that it’s always passed down somewhere, and it seems to be pretty accurate. I ask all of my musician friends, “Are your parents musically inclined?” And when they say no, I ask about their relatives, like their grandparents. And on two occasions, they asked their parents (because I kept grilling them about it) and both times, they both said that their grandpa played in a big band back in the 1920s. So I think it’s in the blood, but I do think you can create great, talented musicians by practicing.
OA: You are working on your third album, to the delight of the world. Can you reveal any themes or concepts you’re developing, and how, after nine years, have you grown as a musician and a person?
DC: I’ve gotten a little more comfortable with myself. I’m still not completely comfortable with the type of songs I would release… and even the way I sing. I sing my best when I’m in my car by myself. I think that’s the same for everybody. When I do my shows, I’m honestly not singing my best. I’m too shy to release that much. I feel nervous. This next album talks about more than relationship type of things. There’s a song about being single. There are love songs, too, but there are other songs that don’t have to do with that. As you keep doing music, you find out what works and what doesn’t for you. Since I’m also playing the role of producer, I have to sit outside of myself and point out what I’m good at and what I’m not good at. There are a lot of people better than you in life, so you just work at it and try your best, and that’s that. It’s helped me to be more comfortable in my own skin and in who I am. People appreciate you as a person.
OA: Where, then, did this shy guy find the confidence to be vulnerable in front of millions on YouTube and in live performances?
DC: You just kind of do it, and it gets easier and easier. It’s always the first little step. Trying anything for the first time already expands you as a person. If you don’t take that first step, you ain’t going anywhere. It’s like a t-shirt. You stretch it once, you know how big it can get. You just keep stretching it until it rips – and then you just buy a new t-shirt.
OA: You’ve achieved what some work a lifetime to obtain: the ability to do what you love and get paid for it. What’s next? Where are you running to for a renewed source of inspiration and a new challenge?
DC: There’s always inspiration everywhere, every day. I just choose to write about it or not. There’s no lack of inspiration (or what you can write about, if that’s what inspiration is). I aspire to continue what I’m doing. As far as the future goes, I’m not really sure. All artists have shelf life – my career as an artist could end next year. I always think about that. I’m not going to retire from music, whether it be professionally or amateurly or on Third Street Promenade, you know? Even though doing that would be a lot of pressure for me. I’m not a person who naturally enjoys performing and entertaining people. That’s not my forte. I don’t really find pleasure from it, honestly. If people enjoy my shows, that’s awesome. I’m just trying to be myself. I don’t even like calling myself an artist. It sounds weird.
OA: Your success, despite Lady Luck, is primarily a result of ridiculous hard work, practicing, creating, and learning for hours every single day. How much of your creative and business knowledge is self-taught, and how much was a result of mentorship? Do you recommend aspiring musicians to intern in studios the way you did?
DC: I didn’t really have a mentor growing up. I wish I did. No one ever took me under their wing and said, “I’m going to teach you this because I see something in you.” No one ever did that for me, so I did a lot of self-learning through observation, asking questions, reading about it, educating myself. I remember in high school I took college courses in music because I wanted to know everything about what I was getting myself into. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but it makes sense now. My experience in studios was one of a kind, but I do recommend that aspiring musicians intern in a studio. I used to research about how people became successful in the music industry. A common thread was that they all interned, or they became an assistant – they got their foot in the door. You have to do that kind of work. I definitely paid my dues. I think interning is a great way to get your foot in the door and learn about a lot of things.
OA: What invaluable knowledge did you gain from interning that you couldn’t have learned elsewhere?
DC: Just people skills. I’d see how they’d behave in front of other people – studio manners. Like how you should be in business situations: where you should stand when people are recording, what you should say and what you shouldn’t say, whether you should butt in or not (most of the time you shouldn’t butt in if it’s not your project), studio maintenance, seeing how the industry works (the personable side of industry).
OA: Have you ever doubted the path you’re on and considered an office job? How were you able to persevere?
DC: I never doubted. I told myself in the beginning, “David, you’re going to do this.” I made the decision to do it, and I told myself, I’m going to make what I say have a deep meaning. I’m not going to lie to myself – what I say is what I’m going to do. Otherwise, I’m not going to say it. I don’t lie to myself. It’s hard to not do that, because you come off as too blunt. But anyway, I made a decision to do it, and I told myself I’m going to work my ass off and do this. You have to be smart – whatever you’re pursuing has to be something you have a strength in. I already knew I had a strength in music; not in drawing, not in dancing. I wasn’t good in school even if I tried – I just wasn’t book smart. I knew I was good at music – that was the best thing I did – so I told myself, I’m going to do this and try my best. Give it everything. I remember reading this advice in different books about people who’ve already experienced success. They have a lot of wisdom, and they’re giving it to you for free in a book; you don’t even have to buy the book, you just go to Barnes & Noble (that’s what I did). If it took them forty years to learn it, why don’t you just read it in one sitting in forty minutes and get that wisdom that you can learn in an instant? I was really into that kind of thing, becoming a better person not just business-wise or success-wise, but just becoming a better person. Usually that comes last for most people.
OA: You are a sensation in Korea, having performed there multiple times, and your music has been featured in dramas and commercials. What does it mean to be Korean American to you? How much do you identify with your background?
DC: I know I’m Korean – I eat a lot of Korean food. I honestly just see Asians as Asians. Of course there may be stereotypes and some of them may be true about different Asian groups and things like that. I don’t really dwell on the fact that I’m Korean, because that would make me too proud. I don’t think anyone should be too proud of their race; otherwise, you’re looking at yourself and saying you’re better than everybody. That’s not the way to make the world a better place. That doesn’t do you any good other than maybe power, which will make you hate people. So anyways! I’m Korean. If someone asks me, I’m not going to deny the fact that I’m Korean, but I’m not going to shout to the world that I AM A KOREAN or even American for that matter. It doesn’t really matter. I’m just a person who eats Korean food.
OA: You just wrapped a Southeast Asia and Australia tour. Where in the world haven’t you been that you’d love to perform in?
DC: It doesn’t really matter where I perform. Performing’s fun. It’s a challenge more than anything. It’s gotten easier, I’d say, but, some people really enjoy the performance side of music. There’s nothing wrong with entertaining others and seeing them smile and things like that. There’s a tiny little fraction of that feeling for me. I enjoy the audience being happy because of the music I’m making, but a lot of it is me having fun with myself. I try to make things funny so I can laugh about it myself. It’s a way for me to be more comfortable. I try to find the good things about performing. Sometimes people are touched. Hopefully they’ll learn something; go away a better person. I try to make meanings out of everything I do. Wait, I never answered the question. Japan. I want to go to Japan. I’ve never been to Japan. I want to go there. I want to go to Europe – never performed there either. Everywhere in Europe; probably Germany. There’s a lot of people in Germany that listen to my music, so I’d feel safer going there knowing I wouldn’t lose a ton of money.
DC: YouTube is good to me. I like YouTube.
[David has been asked too many YouTube questions too many times, so OA will spare him]
OA: And the other token question, but with a twist: record labels vs. the independent path. You’ve been signed as a writer/producer and have had experience in the “wishy washy” politics of labels. Given your knowledge in producing, have you ever thought of creating your own label minus all the nonsense? What about composing/writing music for film? (Congratulations on having I Choose Happiness in Lucky)!
DC: Labels are still powerful. They still have a lot of things they can offer that artists can’t necessarily do on their own, like wider, global promotions. So they’re still valuable in some sense, but being an independent, I enjoy (and am basically) running my own label. Who’s the artwork department? Me. Who’s the production? Me. The publishing? Me. The accounting? Me. Legal? Me. I count my t-shirts – it sounds like a stupid thing, but it actually is a huge hassle to count t-shirts. It actually takes like five hours, because you have to fold them, package them, put a sticker on it, peel the sticker off, print the stickers, buy the actual sticker thing, have a printer, have ink for your printer… I do get help sometimes. I have thought about repping someone else – maybe in the future – but I honestly would say that I am not at a place where I can create a stable career for someone. I don’t know if I’d be ready to sign someone if I can’t create something big for the person. It’s a lot of responsibility. And thank you for the congratulations! (The movie’s out – it’s pretty good, and it’s kind of funny). And music for film – you have to do that. That’s a part of my business model. You have to have your music everywhere. That’s still a place where you can make some money (film and television). It’s not a lot, but it’s still one area that’s pretty important. For any artist, getting their music in any TV show, any movie – any artist would be down for that. No one would say no. I’m down with the movies.
OA: Scenario: your son just turned sixteen and wants to pursue music for the rest of his life. Here’s where you drop some David Choi knowledge. Go!
DC: I would make sure he does classical music first. If you start with rock, you’ll probably die at the age of 27. If you’re a drummer, you’re going to die even earlier – from a drug overdose. I’d like my son to have a good foundation and… I don’t know. The father-son thing doesn’t work usually. Do you see the sons of famous actors actually becoming as big or as successful as their parent? That’s rare. I’m thinking too much into this scenario. What kind of kid is he? What does he like to do? If he likes to do drugs, I’d tell him not to do music and send him to boot camp. If he’s an obedient, shy kid who wants to do music? I’d let him do it. It’s really hard to create that environment that my parents did for me, because it did involve a little rebellion on my part.
OA: Okay, scenario fail. What we were trying to get at is words of wisdom for aspiring musicians.
DC: Make sure it’s the right thing for you. Prepare to be judged – and it’s better if you are, so that you know if you’re good at something or if you’re not. That’s step one. Step two is work on your craft; hone it. Number three is work smart: learn from people who’ve already done it before you (which most likely they have), because there are people who are much better than you who have done it, so read up on how they made it and then follow their footsteps. They laid the groundwork for you so you don’t have to do it, so you know exactly what to do. Work hard. Be good. Don’t burn too many bridges and just have fun.
**David’s 3rd album will release this October. Be on the look out for it!**
Interview by Julie Zhan
Photography by Melly Lee
Transcribed by Yvonne Law
Special Thanks to Mikey Dang
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