Will Jay is a Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter, who gained notoriety through YouTube. He has released hits like “Leading Man,” “Gentleman” and most recently, “Gangsta.” Jay performed at Asian Kaleidoscope Month’s closing ceremony, celebrating the future of Asian Americans with students at UF.
What was your first experience with music, and did you always want to pursue music as a career?
I’d say so, I was maybe five years old – I think that was my first memory, and I was just playing the piano in my garage. My uncle gave me one. He was a piano teacher, so that’s some of my earliest memories. I think I always knew that I wanted to do it. Obviously, it’s evolved since then, and I’ve tried a lot of different things within the realm of music, but I’d say I’ve always known, for sure.
So many of your songs are about the marginalization of Asian Americans, so what was the inspiration behind “Gangsta” and “Leading Man”?
“Gangsta” is a little more subliminally [about the marginalization of Asian Americans]. That song is about how I don’t fit into the mold of the traditional alpha male and how I’m rejecting that kind of outdated archetype. I guess to that point, Asian men are probably the most emasculated out of everybody. I think we are looked at very feminine and very not traditionally male, so it works on that angle too. And in my life, I’ve felt not particularly feminine and that’s a byproduct of that.
I was just really tired of hearing, what felt like every week, about another movie that was coming out with another part that should’ve gone to an Asian American and didn’t.
I suppose subconsciously, since being Asian American is such a big part of my experience and part of who I am, it kind of ties into the songs I write. “Leading Man” is one that is definitely about that. I was just really tired of hearing, what felt like every week, about another movie that was coming out with another part that should’ve gone to an Asian American and didn’t. On the surface, the song can act as a love song – you know, I’m better than your boyfriend or whatever. But I wrote that song with the perspective of me to Hollywood, like I can be your leading man so stop – stop being problematic.
What was the response like for “Leading Man”?
It was honestly one of the most rewarding things that’s ever happened to me. I’ve been doing my own music and putting out songs I liked and putting out songs that were fun and catchy and people loved them. But that was a different kind of appreciation reading comments, and a lot of young Asian American actors and singers and really anyone in the entertainment industry or just regular people wrote that this really inspired them to speak out or to continue fighting.
I got one comment from a girl who was like, “This song meant so much to me because I’m a plus-sized model, and I’m told all the time that I can’t do anything and watching this reminded me that I can do anything that I set my mind to.” And that was so powerful to me, that I could do something bigger than myself and make something that makes a real statement and hopefully resonates with people. It wasn’t meant for just Asian Americans. Yes, it’s about whitewashing, but it’s a statement on just breaking the mold and doing something outside of what society says or deems as right or what works. It was so rewarding, and it reminded me that I should make art that means something.
And that was so powerful to me, that I could do something bigger than myself and make something that makes a real statement and hopefully resonates with people. It wasn’t meant for just Asian Americans.
Have you ever considered going into acting?
Definitely, I did acting when I was younger. And then I joined a band, and we started touring, so I kind of put it to the side, and I’m getting back to it. It’s definitely something I enjoy. I would say music is the primary focus and will always be the priority, but if I got a Glee-like role, that’d be amazing. I think that’d be really cool.
Yeah, I can see that. That’d be great.
Yeah, hopefully. You know, seeing Harry Shum Jr. on Glee was like a huge thing for me. Just seeing someone – well he didn’t sing that much – but just seeing someone on a show that was music oriented and also acting was really nice. I would love to do something like that. I think that’d be really cool.
You know, seeing Harry Shum Jr. on Glee was like a huge thing for me.
What kind of obstacles have you experienced while trying to pursue your music career – just in general and then how are you trying to overcome them?
Honestly, and I wish it wasn’t this way, but [being Asian American] is definitely the main one. I’ve experienced a lot of people telling me – I’ll walk into a meeting, and someone will be like “oh so tell me about your strategy for Asia.” What’s interesting is that I was born and raised American. Yes, I’m Asian American, but I didn’t really think too much about that, and I do consider myself American first, so being told I have to go somewhere else first is weird.
I’d say that is the main obstacle, and I definitely look at it now as – it used to bother me a lot – but I look it now as something that will make it that much more special when I do make it, when it does happen because there really isn’t a lot of Asian Americans really succeeding in music. There’s a lot of us, don’t get me wrong, on YouTube and doing our thing as musicians, but in popular culture, on the charts, you don’t see a lot of it. It really just fuels the fire.
I look it as an opportunity to be the first of something, as opposed to being sad that there isn’t someone. Yeah, I’d say what I’m doing to overcome it is continuing, I suppose. I think it’s very easy to give up. I have a lot of friends who are very discouraged and who don’t think there’s going to be an Asian American breakthrough anytime soon. I’m going to carry on with the attitude that if everyone thought that way, it would never happen.
Yes, I’m Asian American, but I didn’t really think too much about that, and I do consider myself American first, so being told I have to go somewhere else first is weird.
What are your main influences for your music?
I’ve got a lot. I love all kinds of music. I grew up listening to Elton John and the Piano Guys, and I play the piano, so that’s the main one. But I think I pull, especially with the new music, I pull from such a wide influence. I spent three years in middle school only listening to hip hop, so I drew from how playful some of those rappers were. I wasn’t listening to gangster hardcore rap. It was more of the jazzy leaning stuff like the 90s, A Trap called Quest and De La Soul, just a little more fun, so I pulled from that. Then, I got into jazz within the last three years, so I like listening to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. It kind of is a melting pot of all that, but I love everything.
I think, going off your last question, now, with a lot of the new music, I’m actually pulling from what’s going on in the world. I didn’t think, for a long time, that I could write about something like I wrote about in “Leading Man.” I didn’t think it was a song that could be a song. I thought it was something I could have a conversation about and I could think about, but it wouldn’t translate into a piece of art, so it’s been kind of cool to realize I can really write about anything I want.
Is there a favorite song you recommend people to listen to?
Probably “Gangsta,” only because it’s my new release. I feel that way about everything I release, honestly. I put it out, and I’m like that’s my new favorite. I think “Gangsta,” in terms of the tone of it and obviously the music. It’s definitely my most musically fun thing. The tone of it, where I’m going perspective wise and the kind of things I want to talk about in music, I think that’s a good template for what’s to come, so I say check it out.
Having said that, what other plans do you have for the future?
Plans – I wish I had a concrete answer for that. I wish I could say I was hopping on a tour; I wish I could say I was working on an album. I mean, you can expect new music for sure and a lot of it. That’s not going to change.
I’m definitely planning on just recording a lot and releasing that music. Yeah, I guess we’ll start from there, and hopefully everything else around it works out. I think you can expect a fully realized Will Jay. I think I’ve really figured out musically what I want to do. I’ve really figured out that I can insert my actual life and how my mind works into my music, and I didn’t really do that before. I’m really looking forward to people seeing that and getting to know me.
I would love to be that person for the 10-year-old, 11-year-old, my age, anyone that needs somebody to champion.
Do you have anything you want to say to your audience, specifically Asian Americans?
To the Asian Americans in my audience, thank you for championing me the way you do, and thank you for reminding me what I do this for. I think when I was ten years old, I didn’t really have anyone to look up to, and this isn’t me saying that I’m anyone by any means, but putting out “Leading Man” was a good reminder that there’s a 10-year-old me out there who wants to pursue music, wants to be a singer and doesn’t have anyone to look up. I would love to be that person for the 10-year-old, 11-year-old, my age, anyone that needs somebody to champion.
I would say thank you and to never think that you can’t do anything that you want to do. And everyone else, thank you so much for supporting me. The same rule applies – anything that you want to do, who’s to say you can’t do it? And stay tuned for new music.
Featured photo by Bisma Masudi. Interview by Alyssa Ramos. Transcript by Joanna Zhuang. Video by Jessica Lim Liwag.