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Sam Tsui ’11 is living the dream: After graduating from Yale, the YouTube sensation moved to Los Angeles and started a career in music that has already led him on a tour across Asia and spawned two full-length albums. It turns out he was perfect while he was at Yale, too, juggling roles as a campus tour guide, member of the Duke’s Men, classics major and all-around dreamboat. He picks up the phone while stuck in L.A. traffic on his way out of a session at the recording studio and talks to WKND about Yale, stardom and life on the West Coast.
Q: So you were a classics major here at Yale. If you hadn’t gone into music, what would you have done with that?
A: Classical Greek, actually — I didn’t think just classics was specific and useless enough. The plan was always to go into music. It was what I loved and why I came to Yale: so that I could pursue my weird academic interests and also take part in the great music scene. The plan was always music. If I hadn’t done it, I guess I might have gone on, gotten my Ph.D. in classics or something, taught and gone into academia. I still do love it.
Q: When did you know you wanted to go into music full-time? Was it scary?
A: I had always planned to, in a general and vague sense. From when I was very young, that was the assumption, even though initially I thought maybe I’d do musical theater or be a music writer or something like that. But there was a moment when I actually came to realize that that big, general dream was actually, in the practical world, coming true. I guess the pivotal point was graduating from Yale and deciding where I was going to move, and the fact that I chose to move to LA, where I’d officially be an independent musician out here — that was the moment of choice. I was super lucky that by that point I’d already built up this following online and had a support system of managers and people who knew what they were doing. Graduating from school and coming out here was the “Holy shit, this is real” [moment].
Q: How has your vision for yourself and your music changed since you started out?
A: One of the most exciting things about being in music, especially right now, is that the entire industry is in such a state of flux … Everyone’s vision of what form this whole world is taking has changed a lot in just the past couple years. Obviously when I first moved out here, in the back of my head I thought, “I’m gonna move out here, I’m gonna get signed to a big record label and I’m gonna tour and put out albums.” One of the coolest realizations I’ve been able to make is that right now really is an age for independent musicians. The tables are turning, and it’s in a lot of artists’ best interests to be independent. I’m very lucky that I get to go into that with this incredible fan base and awesome social media presence. I have a lot more agency personally, which is very cool.
Q: How was the experience of getting famous different because it was via YouTube, and you were still a student?
A: It definitely changed my day-to-day experience of it. It was so different. New Haven is not LA, and YouTube and the digital space already kind of allow someone to connect with people around the world, even though your day-to-day is not necessarily anything like that. You’re going to school, you’re in this bubble, and yet all of your content is being viewed by millions of people all around the world. Initially, it was very jarring to be a student and be going to classes and a cappella rehearsals and going out to Toad’s and whatever, and meanwhile there was this whole world of content online that I was putting out and at the same time concurrently building this whole brand. So at first it was very strange. It’s still weird just because a lot of what I do, and what a lot of us in this space do, is we’re with our team making our videos and doing our stuff at home, and yet to be stopped on the street or to go on tour — it’s like, oh yeah, this stuff we’re doing that feels like it’s on a very microcosmic scale actually has a life of its own.
Q: How did other Yalies react to your newfound fame?
A: As stuff started happening, as we got to be on Ellen and all these things, I think the reaction from most of the people who just knew me as Sam from the Duke’s Men or from classics was a lot of loving teasing, like, “Oh, you’re doing your videos again,” and all that stuff. But then it was funny that there was one newer class who didn’t know me before [I got famous], and they came my senior year. I was a tour guide, and on the tour they would be like, “Oh my god, I’m such a big fan,” and there was no irony in it — they just kind of appreciated what I was doing. Whereas everyone else was like, “That’s just Sam, doing his YouTube thing.” But always in a loving way, of course.
Q: What is the most surreal moment you’ve had since becoming famous?
A: This summer I did a tour in Asia, and we had a show in Hong Kong. My dad is from Hong Kong, and I still have a ton of family members over there. Obviously with college it becomes harder to visit Hong Kong, because it’s on the other side of the world, so I hadn’t been for a handful of years. There were a bunch of cousins, aunts and other people that I just hadn’t seen for a long time. So to get to come back and see them in the context of, “Oh, I’m a touring musician, here, come to my show,” and to have them show up and [see] thousands of screaming fangirls — it was super surreal to get to invite my family to that. Especially being the half-Asian kid, there’s that element of bringing honor to my family that was awesome. I got to be like, “This is what I do.” My dad and mom and brother flew out to Hong Kong for the show as well, so it was like a family reunion.
Q: What was it like getting to do the YSO Halloween show cameo last year? You’re up there with the likes of John McCain and Woody Allen.
A: Oh my gosh — yeah, that was super cool. Likewise, it was one of those surreal moments where [the Halloween show] is just something that I have so much love for; it was such a part of my college experience. So to get to be considered by my peers and colleagues as someone that would be worthy of making that kind of cameo is awesome.
Q: If you could go on tour with anyone, who would it be?
I’m a huge fan of Jessie J. She’s, like, my favorite ever, so I would say her. To get to go on tour with her would be awesome. [Editor’s note: this interview was held before this year’s Spring Fling lineup, including Jessie J as the headliner, was announced. WKND is crossing its fingers for a guest appearance.]
Q: What advice would you give to Yale-student you?
A: It’s going to sound super cliché, but seriously just taking advantage of all the talented people around you and all of the resources. One of the reasons I was able to do what I was able to do is because I had access to Yale’s recording equipment. So there were resources on a practical level. But it’s also the one time in your life where you’re just surrounded by a critical mass of insanely awesome people. And I think going into the real world, and coming to LA, as much as I love it — that is definitely something that is not quite the same. There isn’t this constant energy or creativity and being surrounded by amazing people who are making you do your best work. So just doing as much as you can. That being said, I look back at myself and all the nights where I’d just chill and watch Netflix at my apartment and think, I should have been doing more things. But I guess that’s always the case. You can always do more.
Q: What is the best New Haven pizza spot?
A: Everyone likes Sally’s and Pepe’s, but they’re so far from campus that I went to each of them, like, once. Yorkside was my go-to. I think it was just a sentimental thing. I can’t tell you how many nights after Duke’s Men rehearsals, we went to Yorkside and just got buffalo chicken tenders or whatever. I guess I’m biased. I guess if we’re talking pizza I’d take my family to, [I’d say] Bar. Yeah, let’s say Bar. Maybe I’ll sound cooler if you say Bar.
Q: Why did YOU choose Yale? [Tsui, along with Allison Williams ’10, appeared in the notorious “That’s Why I Chose Yale” admissions video.]
A: I did a summer program at Yale when I was in high school — I took ancient Greek at Yale the summer after my junior year. I was that kid. I was such a nerd. But I just fell in love with it. [And] I really do believe that Yale has the best undergraduate arts program of all the Ivy League schools. The fact that I could be part of this old, historic classics program, and also be part of this vibrant a cappella scene and do the Dramat shows — there was just such a culture of creativity that I found to be way better than anywhere else.
Q: The newest Whiff class was tapped this week. What advice would you give them?
A: Believe it or not, I didn’t do the Whiffs. I was in the Duke’s Men for three years, and then I technically graduated a semester early. Since I had done summer session, I had enough credits. I was totally torn at that moment, because doing the a cappella thing as a guy, you’re like, “Of course, the Whiffs — that’s why everyone’s doing all these a cappella groups.” But at that point I had momentum with all the other stuff I was doing, and I couldn’t afford to take an extra year off. That was definitely the hardest decision I had to make at Yale. I definitely am glad I moved to LA, but I was super bummed I couldn’t do it. So my advice is definitely do it if you can.
Q: Would you ever come play Toad’s?
A: Oh my God, I would absolutely love to. That is one thing I’ve talked to my agent about — definitely on my next U.S. tour I want to come and play Toad’s. That would be so awesome. I did a tour two summers ago and we played [a smaller venue] in New Haven that was a little ways from campus, and it was the summer so no students were around. So my mission since then has been to make a show at Toad’s happen.
Q: So like, Master’s Tea by day, Toad’s by night?
A: Yes! Yes, that would be the dream.