AJ Rafael on his tough year, hiatus, and musical evolution

MANILA, Philippines – Last June, Fil-Am musician AJ Rafael shocked his fans when he wrote an open letter saying that he was taking a break from playing live music. 

This was a blow to fans who had eagerly anticipated the chance to see one of their favorite musicians on YouTube perform live. But AJ’s letter, though gentle and optimistic in tone, spoke clearly about the highs and lows of being a musician in the time of digital media

His letter explored the tension between success online and success in terms of ticket sales, and the new realities faced by musicians traversing the realm of new media. 

I’ll still be doing what I love, writing songs and making melodies … so actually, this hiatus is not as dramatic as you may think it is. I just need to reassess and focus on myself. This last year has been tough on me with a lot of personal things happening. I just need to focus on why I was called to play music in the first place. If I find that again, I’ll let you guys know,” he wrote on newmediarockstars.com.

For someone who had grown up playing music for thousands of viewers on YouTube, this likely could not have been more painful. The first video posted on his official YouTube channel shows a teenaged AJ, not yet bespectacled, not yet growing into his signature look, killing it on a Meg & Dia piano medley. At the time of the upload, he was 17.

The quality of the video was not the best – but high definition wasn’t required to show off the purity of sound and the skill it took to craft the piano cover. AJ says in the description that this was the first time he tried to play it, was done on the first take, and was played entirely by ear. 

Today, at 25, AJ has played internationally in Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines, and has over 538,000 subscribers and over 113 million views on YouTube. And he is just as well-known for his original songs like “We Could Happen” as he is for the other covers he’s posted on YouTube. Still, the hiatus is coming. 

AJ is passionate about what YouTube has done for independent artists like him, but he's conscious about growing that further along in his career.

"It still boggles my mind, man," he tells Rappler. "I never thought that I’d be able to reach this many people, you know? So I’d have to say it surprises me every day but at the same time I gotta look back and be like, 'All right, this is what I have, I gotta work hard to make a living,' you know what I mean?

I think that’s the hardest part; it’s looking at these numbers and being like, 'How am I gonna turn this into financial support for me and my family?'...that’s the struggle as well. I’m grateful, but at the same time I gotta not be comfortable with these numbers. These are great numbers, you know, but can’t be comfortable with them. 

"...I have to be selfish for a little bit, I think, and kinda take it back, take a few steps back," he tells Rappler.  

AJ was recently in Manila to play a show at Teatrino with Jose “Quest” Villanueva – one of his last shows before his hiatus begins in August. It was an emotional evening for AJ as fans and colleagues in the music industry gathered to sing with him, and wish him well. 

Quest even dedicated the performance of his hit song “Saludo” to AJ, while Yeng Constantino surprised the crowd by coming out to sing their version of ballads “Let me be the one/I’ll never get over you.” 

In this video, AJ talks to Rappler about his much-talked-about break from the live music scene, the need to reassess himself, and his next moves. 

 

Still, fans need not worry as he says, “There’s no way I can give up performing forever. I just need to take a break- it may be a year, two years, 3 years, who knows?”

Finishing his film, Red Roses, which is based on one of his albums, remains one of his priorities. And AJ will also set his sights on trying to achieve a lifelong dream – the chance to perform on Broadway. 

In the end, AJ goes back to his fans, the ones who keep him going. “Thanks for the support…all the fans who are tweeting me- I have to say, every time I’m up late at home, if I just tweet something, I know that the Filipino fans, and fans from other countries as well, Southeast Asia, Australia – they’ll tweet me back ‘cause they’re awake at that time. But they’re always keeping me excited about my music, about life, so I just wanna say thank you guys so much for that.” – Rappler.com

Ryan Macasero

Ryan covers Cebu and the Visayas for Rappler. He covers all news in the region, but is particularly interested in people stories, development issues and local policy making.

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