Interview: L.A. Recording Artist Will Jay
Will Jay is
Pop's Asian-American “Leading Man"
By Sam Tanabe
It was really refreshing talking with Los Angeles-based Hapa recording artist Will Jay. At 21, Will presents himself as a young, articulate singer with a clear vision of what he wants to do. I am excited to see what he creates in the future. Will delivers positive messages through an upbeat pop sound, and aims to be at the forefront of Asian American pop artists breaking into the mainstream scene.
If you aren’t already a Will Jay fan, check out his music on Spotify after reading his interview with
Will was born and raised in Los Angeles, where he began playing piano and singing at an early age. He spent his teenage years as a member of the boy band IM5, created by Simon Fuller. At 18, Will branched off to start a solo career, beginning with turning all four judges’ chairs on season 4 of China’s The Voice. Afterwards, Will returned to the States to work on his own music, which is available on iTunes and for streaming.
What made you want to want to branch out and start a solo career? Were you nervous?
Yeah, I was definitely nervous. I was in the band IM5 from when I was 14 to when I was 18. Those were some pretty formative years, and it became a big part of my identity. So, when I wanted to branch out on my own, I was definitely hesitant at first because you get used to having other people on stage with you and being an individual as part of a collective group. I was most nervous to figure out musically what I am about and find my musical identity apart from the group. Really it was getting back to asking why I do it all. I was writing my own songs and I started to feel more strongly about those ideas, organically writing, and pursuing more of that.
Who are some of your favorite recording artists? Who inspires you?
Aw man, I love everything. I grew up listening to a lot of Elton John and Billy Joel. The Beatles were always playing around the house. I would say more recently, my main idols have been Bruno Mars, just the way he entertains... Justin Timberlake… Pharrell. One of my big all-time favorites is Prince. I love artists that make music that is fun and makes you feel happy, and that’s what I’m trying to do. A lot of the music on the radio is moody and dark, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m a pretty happy person and I want to invoke that emotion, because I think that’s very special.
How much has race played a part in your music career, or has it not? What has your experience been?
Well, yes and no. When I first left the group, it was a little bit of a rude awakening. When you’re in a group, you are one of five. It’s very insulated, and apart from a couple trolls on the internet, I had never really thought of my race as anything. I didn’t think it was an integral part of who I was, meaning I didn’t think it was a hindrance. So it was disheartening to leave the group, open my eyes to that, and walk into meetings with producers and music people where they would tell me the market wasn’t ready for an “Asian-looking” artist and that I should turn my head to Asia first; that I should come back after I had some clout over there. It definitely made me think that that was my only option. I actually went to China and I was on The Voice over in China. That was a very interesting experience. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it and I learned so much and met some amazing people. The fans over in China are amazing. But it put me in this weird spot where I felt like I didn’t belong either place. In the U.S. I was told, “You are Asian-passing and you should go to Asia.” But in Asia it was also very apparent that I was a foreigner.
Being Hapa, being mixed, it was flattering in some ways. Girls would come up to me on the street and ask who I was and where I was from. But in terms of making a career over there, I was always looked at as a novelty of sorts, being American and being half-White. It became very obvious to me that I wouldn’t be able to do the music I wanted to do, and I wouldn’t be treated as a bonafide singer-songwriter there.
I now have a much more positive outlook on it. I see the opportunity to be a role model to 10-year-old me, who’s out there right now trying to write songs and play the piano, and needs someone to look up to. I want to be that. Asian Americans need someone to champion them, and I’m gunning for that to be me.
Yeah, totally. The visibility of Asian American performers in media is so important and needs to be there. I think that we are getting more opportunity now, but are still looking for more, and I am glad you are doing that here.
I really think that at the turn of the millennium, there weren’t a lot of Latin artists out there in the American mainstream, but then all of a sudden we got Ricky Martin, and J-Lo, and Shakira. I think it’s time for us next, and I want to be at the forefront of that.
I really like your “Leading Man” music video. Did you have any specific experiences that prompted you to create it, or was it an overall feeling of everything along the lines of what you’ve been saying?
There wasn’t any particular experience that made me feel that way, but it was a culmination of a lot of things - of growing up going to the movie theaters and only seeing Jackie Chan in the leading roles, and all the Asian characters as sideline comic relief and stereotypes. I think people underestimate how much representation matters and how important it is when you are a little kid to see someone on a big screen. Say you’re a nerd and then you saw Michael Cera. That was everything, to see a shy guy killing it. To not have that and only be comic relief and supporting characters made me feel like a supporting character in my real life. So “Leading Man” was a result of me feeling like there weren’t any Asian leading men to look up to and the whitewashing controversy in all these movies where they gave parts to white actors that belonged to Asian actors.
They really went the extra mile to exclude Asians. It was refreshing to see Asian Americans getting mad and up in arms. As a culture we are taught to be polite, but it was awesome to see people getting heated over this, and I wanted to do something that was a part of that movement.
Will's "Leading Man" music video makes a clear statement about the representation of Asian-American talent in pop culture.
It’s clear that you really enjoy dancing. There is a lot of choreography in your videos, partnering, I get a movie-musical/musical theatre feel to a lot of it. Where does that all come from?
Well, my first dance class I took was a ballet when I was 11. I thought it would be a great way to meet girls. It didn’t really pan out the way I thought it would, but I always loved moving. As I said, I grew up watching Justin Timberlake and all these entertainers, and I wanted to move and perform like them. I wouldn’t consider myself a “dancer” dancer. I’m not actively in dance class, although I should be, but I love moving and performing.
You mentioned musical theatre. I did musical theatre growing up, from age 5 to 13. I would love to be in a Broadway show someday. That would be amazing. Moving forward, I plan on continuing to incorporate dancing. I feel like it’s kind of lost in a lot of pop music. I hope to bring that back.
Check out Will dancing in his "Gentleman" music video
What's in the works for you right now? Any performances coming up? Are you working on an album?
Yeah, I’ve got a couple performances at the end of the year, and I’m constantly in the studio. It’s funny, I think any musician can say they are working on an album, but there is so much work that goes into it, hoops you have to jump through, and the logistics of getting out an album and then going on tour is very stressful. I can say that I’m working on a lot of music. I think I’ve honed in on what I am about as an artist, what I want my music to sound like, and what I want to say. What you can expect is a lot of new music. I’ve got a video for my song, “Gangsta,” that is coming out. So, check that out. It’s a lot of fun.
Hopefully, there will be a tour. People always ask me to tour, but you can’t do a tour with small groups of people coming to your concerts in each city. My fanbase is pretty spread out, so tell all your friends to show up if you want me to actually be able to come. It will happen though. I’m pretty confident that my new music will be something. I’m in the studio all the time, and I think it will be good.
We have a lot of foodies here at Hapa Mag. What’s your favorite restaurant right now in L.A.?
God that is so tricky, I am such a foodie. I recently went vegetarian. There’s a place called Veggie Grill. It’s like fast food for vegans, and it’s my life. I’m probably gonna go there later today.
If you could vacation anywhere in the world, where would you go?
I’ve really wanted to go to Japan for a long time. I’ve been wanting to go to Greece, and I am going there over winter Break. So I would say Japan. I am also a big Pokémon nerd, so I want to go to the big store there.
How do you like to relax/unwind after a stressful day?
I just got a Nintendo GameCube. I had one when I was younger, but I just re-got one, so that will probably be my go-to. My mom is a librarian, so I also read a lot. Going out to eat with friends. Like I said, I am a foodie. I don’t actually get to relax that much. I will be in the studio, and then come home and work on another idea, but all those things help me relax.
END OF INTERVIEW
You can check out Will’s music and videos on Spotify, YouTube, and SoundCloud. Follow him on social media @willjaymusic or see what’s coming your way on his website www.WillJayMusic.com. Be sure to watch the newly released “Gangsta” music video, and look out for much more from this fire, Hapa singer/songwriter!
Sam Tanabe is a NYC based performer and writer for Hapa Mag. He has performed on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional theatres across the country. His passion for the arts has led him to fight for diversity and representation on stage. Follow this kawaii yonsei hapa bb on social media @Tanablems.