AJ Rafael | “Good music will transcend no matter what.”
Authentic. That’s the one word that comes to mind when you think of AJ Rafael. AJ, a musician who is known for his autobiographical songs as well as his candid nature, came onto the online music scene first with MySpace then YouTube. Since his start, he has released a full-length album and worked with non-profits such as Autism Speaks. AJ was kind enough to invite us to his home for a quick chat and a game of Ultimate Frisbee; read on to learn more about his love for music and the journey he’s taken so far.
- What takes up most of your time right now? Music and the internet.
- Guilty pleasure: Twilight, because there’s something forbidden about a man comfortably liking Twilight and saying it out loud.
- What talent do you wish you had? Playing basketball and playing string instruments, because I suck at playing basketball.
- Favorite Disney song: “Santa Fe” from the Newsies and anything from Beauty and the Beast. Also, “I See the Light” from Tangled.
- Relationship status: Recently went through a break up in a public relationship.
- What tattoos do you have? On my right arm, which is my most recent, are Batman and Robin in caricature form. I’m a big fan of Batman and Robin. Then on my left arm is a scroll in honor of my dad’s favorite bible song, “The Lord is My Shepherd.” The one on the right I found on tumblr and my friend cast it. This one on the left is entirely customized.
- What do you look for in a girl? Since we’re a little older now, I think about if the girl, if I can see myself marrying the girl and if she gets along with my mom. That’s it.
- Pet Peeve: The little triangle that doesn’t get white as you clean the windshield wipers. And when people say “never mind” mid-sentence.
- Fun fact: I make ugly faces.
- Funner fact: Apparently according to my best friend, I scratch myself when I sleep. Sometimes.
OA: When did you discover that you had this incredible gift for music?
AJR: I guess you don’t discover that you’re good at something until you really start liking it because, when I was five, my mom had me play piano and I didn’t really like playing it at first but I guess I was good at theory and stuff. But, when I was ten and my dad died, I had to take over piano at church. I was forced to play a lot more. I knew that music was going to be a big part of my life. When I was fifteen, I got my first guitar and wrote my first song. That’s kind of when I knew, when I wrote my first song and showed my friends, I knew that I was gifted in something that not many people embrace so it was cool.
OA: You’re a huge supporter of charities and non-profits. You took a mission trip to the Philippines earlier this year and you established Music Speaks for Autism Speaks. How do you ultimately consider combining music with non-profits or using your music to do good for the world?
AJR: Music to me and I’m sure 90 percent of the world, the power of music, how music is so universal, I feel like it’s a great tool for me and my friends who are talented in music to bring people together is my main goal. When I write songs and people tell me it gets them through rough times in their life, that is what I do it before and to help the charities, especially through music and the power of music, bringing people together is really important to me. I’m planning to do a Christmas Speaks and the big one will be in April right before the LA County Walk. Our last two years, the focus has been on the Orange County Walk.
OA: Congrats for releasing your first full-length album. This was an unimaginable feat, especially as an independent artist. What has been the takeaway lesson?
AJR: I learned that recording a song takes a lot of work, especially if you want to make every song the highest quality. Each song took so many hours; it took at least 24 hours. Maybe even 48 including mixing and what not. Jesse Barrera produced the album, thinking about what’s missing. There were some tracks we were thinking the last week before the deadline to turn it in, changing it and changing little things here and there. Jesse and I were even listening to the songs in the car, right before we had to send the master and we had gone to San Diego to record the song. He had to chat with his girlfriend Gracie back home and get the screen share and just mix from there; he couldn’t even hear anything but doing it all by feel. Up until the very last moment, that’s kind of what I learned. Even if it’s just worth 99 cents, it’s worth a lot more.
OA: How useful was Kick Starter?
AJR: Kick Starter was a bit surprising. I set my goal a bit low because I was scared and I had put it out for a week before announcing it on YouTube. Once I put it out on YouTube, the very first day we reached our goal. I was just thinking that maybe they were waiting for an album. To some people, I’ve been around since six years, starting on MySpace. Some people have been with me since then and I first started my YouTube channel. I think there was some anticipation going around and it helped a lot. I’m really glad we raised $11,000 and I used it all on production costs. In the end, it was all worth it, thanks to all the fans. There were some people, who were interested in investing in it, but I wanted this to be the way that I came up, really organic and community oriented. They feel like they made the album and it was really important to me.
OA: Are there thoughts of a second album already?
AJR: There are thoughts for promos and touring and we were really excited to get in with Target. We were like, so next year, let’s do it again. It might be too soon to come out next year, but I do want to do a DVD of all the music videos. I’m always writing, so it’ll come earlier than I think.
OA: So walk us through your song writing process; you love to write about love and relationships because it’s relevant to you at this stage. Is everything autobiographical and is there a process of writing lyrics first then melody or vice versa?
AJR: There are some songs that I remember being excited to write about because they all came in an hour. That’s really rare, burst of inspiration. A lot of the other ones are worked on very precisely, like “Jukebox.” The only one that’s not autobiographical is “She is Mine.” Jesse and I wrote it the first day we met. We had been talking online and he asked me if I wanted to go over to his house. We wrote it the first time we met, performed it and people loved it. It’s based on something that’s not real. It’s cool to write about things that can tell a story, that you created in your mind. But every song on that album is true and the album, coincidentally, goes in stages of relationship order, which is really odd. We were just thinking in order of vibes and then Tori Kelly, who’s on the album, mentioned it to me and more people mentioned it to me. It fell into place perfectly. Also, the happier songs are about happier things and we put the happier things first. It kind of makes sense thinking about it now.
The song writing process can be difficult at times. Like I’ll have a one-liner and I base everything on the melody of that one line, as opposed to making music first then putting words to it. I feel like a lot of things are like that, I’ll have a melody and then everything sort of builds around it. But it is random spurts of inspiration like “Red Roses” that became the title track and main theme of my album. I met this girl at UCLA and it right before Valentine’s Day. I didn’t get to talk to her much, but I wanted to. I was just thinking of the story on my drive home, I was recording the voice notes, and I had a song by the time I got home. It was amazing and I didn’t even mean to call it “Red Roses,” it was going to be called “Valentine’s Day.” It’s funny how everything sort of falls into place. It’s just random for me. I express things through my songs, everything’s real and that’s how it goes.
OA: You’ve talked about your singles and you have so many popular songs that everyone sings. What does it feel like when you’re performing in a concert, you look out and everyone’s singing your songs?
AJR: It’s amazing because when I started on MySpace, I wrote “How’s San Diego Pauli” and I had chosen my backyard as where I’m going to sing my song and my friends sang along. I felt like I was on top of the world. It’s been happening that, every time, it’s still that feeling. At a recent show in Great America, I was playing “Emma Watson” and people were singing along. That’s a huge deal for me because I just wrote that song because I didn’t think it was going to be on the album but we did a great production with it. It’s crazy how people know that song and people knew the words to “Emma Watson.” I want to encourage people to have their own songs; whether it’s written for them or they write it, I feel like our generation is so focused on making money off music that we’re resorting to covers. It’s faster and you’ll make money off of them, but is it satisfying at the end? I get it; a lot of people might not feel confident or be at gifted at writing songs. But we all have friends who write songs and you can have your own original material. It’s really cool when people are singing something you created out of your own heart and your own mind. Every time I talk to someone new from YouTube and they’re not confidence, I say, “Just do it.” Whether it touches one person or a million, it’s more satisfying that way and you’ll feel happier.
OA: You have repeatedly praised your band, Noah, Danny, Andrew and Shiori, a previous drummer. What does each of them bring to the table?
AJR: As far as friendship goes, we butt heads, which is weird. The chemistry on stage we don’t realize until people come up to us and say, “Your band is tight. “That happens to us and we don’t get a lot of time to practice because Andrew still goes to school out of state. They’re all professional and being professional at their own craft and own instruments. I think that’s what they bring to the table and their personalities; I think they’re the most interesting people I’ve ever met in my life. Andrew’s like the goofy, not so serious but still serious kind of guy. He catches you off guard. Noah is like the nicest guy, kind-hearted soul. Danny’s like the class clown, always messing around. They all bring something really unique personality-wise to the band. I feel like sometimes I’m like the leader-type, but sometimes I become short-tempered because of it, really controlling. That might be how I am though, like directing my choir. I’m assertive and used to saying, “That’s wrong.” I’m straight to the point and it puts us in that weird dynamic, but it works. Not that I should feel in control all the time but everyone has their own say. It’s good to have that leadership in the band. If no one’s saying anything, you don’t get work done.
OA: You wrote your first song when you were 15 and you’ve been pursuing music full on the past six years. How has your style evolved from the beginning?
AJR: I’m happy to say this; it’s stayed true to its roots. I first wrote a song and the band Mae inspired it, and it wasn’t typical of an Asian to be singing that type of music. I saw My American Heart and there were two Filipinos in the band and they used to play the Warped Tour all the time. I didn’t know them personally but they influenced my music. All of these Asian guys can do rock, these Filipino guys can do rock. I’m glad it’s stayed there, but that era was really important. I could have easily gone to do R&B, Asian Americans are known for doing that. With the band, I’ve been turning down a lot of shows that just want to book me solo because I want to create that image of, “This is me and this is my music.” It’s not just acoustic anymore, but I still do love acoustic, I want to put out an acoustic album. I still love that stuff but I want to show them that, “Hey, this is powerful music.” I’ve gotten better at singing. I’m not the type to just put up a video of me singing; I’m more comfortable having an instrument behind me. I feel like I’ve gotten better at singing because I went to Berkelee and being around singers made me better. I don’t know about the evolution of my music, but the evolution of my skills.
OA: You’ve played a show every weekend since 2009?
AJR: That was true until this year. That started even when I was in school. That was crazy, whether it was a wedding I was doing. I was doing music every weekend and saving a little bit of money to help my mom and stuff. I was like, “Yeah, full-time musician, that’s pretty cool.”
OA: With all these shows, is there one that comes to memory?
AJR: There was one, where I was about to sing “Without You” but, during “Emma Watson,” I had seen Danny’s dad in the crowd. Danny doesn’t get to see his dad too often because he lives up north and he’s much older. He’s like an older than average dad. He was in the audience with his wife and, for some reason during “Emma Watson,” I felt like crying. Before the show, I said, “Hey, I want to dedicate this song to Danny’s parents who are in the crowd.” I remember Danny saying he wanted to be with his father for Father’s Day or some holiday and spend as much time with him before I can’t. I was crying, talking about this, dedicating the song to him. I was talking about my story with my dad, I looked out into the audience and people were crying. I looked back and Danny was crying also. I was like, “Oh God, let’s just start the song”–so that was really powerful.
That and my CD release party. My mom made a speech and everyone was crying. I feel like my music has gone through a huge emotional journey and everyone goes along with me. Everything kind of becomes better that way.
OA: Given your interest in Broadway, musical theater, can you talk about auditioning for The Glee Project and making it to top 43? From that experience, do you have thoughts of going into acting?
AJR: I met everyone who made the show (The Glee Project). It was really interesting to be selected for the top 83. Then making the top 43 was just amazing. There were so many great singers. I was thinking maybe they were trying to pick people were different–I had green hair at the time.
After that, I felt like I had done all the auditions that I’ve ever wanted to do. I was doing a lot of things and always losing. Getting so close. After Glee, I was like, “It seems for now that I’m just going to be a musician.“ I got a tattoo to officially brand myself and it’s going to be hard for me to have that if I want to have an acting job later.
OA: You wear your heart on your sleeve and you’re very open about things to your fans and the public. How have you been able to avoid a lot of the gossip, politics, drama that sometimes ends people’s careers?
AJR: I haven’t doing anything extreme, just real problems. I had personal problems and a falling out with Gabe Bondoc recently like the last two years. But we recently saw each other at a show and we agreed that we’re older now; it’s not high school. I’m not going to say whose fault it was, but I know that a lot of people knew we weren’t friends. That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve had to deal with publicly. A lot of people saw us back in the day, really cool, then something happened where we weren’t brothers anymore and everyone knew. For me, I’m really outspoken and I put everything out there. There was lot of hate and division out there. It was like Team AJ and Team Gabe. A lot of people were taking it seriously. It was a big deal for me and I’m glad that it’s gone now; I’m at peace now, I admit that there was a lot of hatred in my heart for two years. But I’m glad I let it go and he let it go because then that is like the end of really what you’re doing. Music is supposed to bring people together; it brought us together because we met at a show. I have to think before I act and it’s a hard balance. People who know me as the most outspoken; if I feel strongly about it, I’ll put it on Twitter and people will respond to it. We’re a different kind of celebrity–we should be the real ones if anything. We’re making the videos in our living rooms and our bathrooms. Celebrities who were five years ago are now trying to go to the trend of the YouTube stuff. They’re trying to go viral as many of us artists have gone viral one way or another in our community. I’m trying to find that balance.
OA: Have you ever doubted your music?
AJR: I doubt my singing abilities. It’s been a big thing to me and my friend TJ Brown encourages me to sing. I guess recently I’ve doubted singing songs that I wanted to do like certain covers. I look at David Choi, who’s classified as acoustic, but he’s still doing R&B songs his own way. That’s why I always look at Kina Grannis and David Choi who do covers in their own way. I’m worried that if I can’t hit a note like Cee-Lo Green, then why even do that song? But it’s all about making it your own. I’m still trying to find ways to make it my own if it’s not a song I’m necessarily comfortable with. This might sound cocky, but I’ve never had doubt about my originals because I know my music the best. If I know something is catchy, then I’ll feel confident in it.
OA: Your family is ridiculously talented; your mom is the choir director, your dad was a choir director and played the piano, and your sister dances. Your family is artistic and how have they influenced your creativity? Do they support your career?
AJR: The fact that my mom kept music in my and my sister’s life is the main thing. The fact that she supports me doing it. I only went to Berklee College for one year because it was expensive and I wanted to be at home. I already know a lot about theory, but I felt that they were putting words to what I already know. It works for other people. My mom supported me in my work and she let me come back to California. I’m really thankful and now she supports my sister Jasmine who’s in LA. My mom’s supporting two kids now who want to do the arts. She didn’t necessarily want to do that, but she’s doing it. Justine is crazy; she dances from three to nine and then does homework and then hangs out with us. She’s getting into rapping now and she’s so talented. When Justine was born, my dad granted her the most talented.
OA: What does Filipino American mean to you? How closely do you identify to one or the other?
AJR: If I’m going to call myself Filipino American, I better know my culture and wanting to keep that alive. American culture is a mixture of everything, but there still could be people’s individual cultures. I think Filipino American is being proud of where you come from and being proud of it. Why not, your parents are from there. If your parents are from America, know about America. But my parents are straight up from the Philippines so I feel like I should know where they came from. My kids should know where my parents came from, but also where I came from. It’s this whole generation of all the Asians and all the races kind of getting together. It’s a big time to be an Asian American, I feel like there’s more people speaking out about it. Why not get to know your culture a lot more. At the same time, you shouldn’t just support someone for being Filipino. For me, being Filipino, they better think I’m good and I better be good. I take pride in both things. When I’m in Australia, I always talk about what we do in the US.
OA: Where are you going for the fall tour?
AJR: We’re actually starting our tour in Southeast Asia. Monsoon Productions and NOJON Entertainment are bringing the band out to Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Australia. More info is on my Facebook!
OA: Any words of wisdom for aspiring musicians.
AJR: I feel like using the resources available to you, especially YouTube, which is free for you and for the users or whatever maybe the next big thing. I don’t feel like it’s giving in or conforming. It’s taking advantage for whatever your goal is. There are just so many people online and the Internet. To each his own. I feel like if you want to pursue this career, you have to put yourself out there. Don’t edit yourself. When you’re talking, be as real as possible. I feel like good music will transcend no matter what. In the beginning, there was such a huge jump in the first two years; I was putting out what I was like instead of searching what to do for the top ten. In the end, you want to be remembered for your music. You want to be remembered for what you did, even if it’s a spin on a song. Move somebody with that. I try to encourage every one’s creativity, to use that side of their brain.
OA: How to stalk AJ
Photography by Melly Lee
Tags // AJ Rafael, asian american, autism speaks, berklee, emma watson, filipino american, jesse barerra, juicebox, music speaks, musician, red roses, she was mine, singer, Song writer, we could happen, youtube
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