Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sam Tsui & Kurt Schneider: Making Magic in Music

Photo Credit: Launch Entertainment
If you’re a music lover like I am, you probably would have heard of American YouTube musicians Kurt Hugo Schneider and Sam Tsui. Sam and Kurt are both best known for making covers, mashups and medleys of many popular songs that, some may say, sound much better than the originals.

(I first chanced upon their cover of “Fireflies” by Owl City three years ago, and I must say, my hair stood on end after the song.)

The duo met in their high school choir group, where they participated in musicals and school performances together. Their love for music eventually spurred them to begin collaborating on songs, on YouTube, which led them to fame.


Success Driven By Passion and Hard Work

For readers who don’t know much about them, both Sam and Kurt were making YouTube videos for an entire year before one of their videos, a Michael Jackson medley, finally got noticed in 2009. After that, they worked even harder on their subsequent videos, and have since garnered over 3 million YouTube subscribers and almost 670 million total views!

An interesting fact about them is that Sam and Kurt had graduated from Yale University with a Magna Cum Laude ( with high academic grades) in Classical Greek and Mathematics respectively. Interestingly, they also used some of that expertise in their current field of music.  Kurt used his Math knowledge in the more technical aspects of music production, and Sam used his linguistic skills in his singing and songwriting.

Despite these unusual backgrounds, their hard work has paid off and they have been noticed by others. Sam was mentioned by Academy Award-winning actor, Tom Hanks, when he addressed the Yale College graduation class of 2011. The duo has also made appearances on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and the Oprah Winfrey Show. They also produced an independent film called “College Musical: The Movie” and released two albums, including “Make It Up”, in May 2013.

Rosalyn Lee from 987FM hosting the press conference with Sam and Kurt
The guys were in Singapore on 12 September to put up their first-ever concert in Asia, after their summer tour in the United States and Canada. Thanks to the wonderful people at Launch Group, I had the amazing opportunity to interview them!

Sam, you have one of the highest male vocals in my opinion. When did you find out you were so good at singing?

Sam: Well, I’ve been singing all my life. My mom was a high school music teacher, and I grew up with a piano in the house. So, I grew up just loving music. My dad doesn’t sing, though his mom sang Peking (Beijing) opera. So, even on my Chinese side, my family was very artistic. I’ve been singing since I was really little. I was in the choir, and I knew that I always wanted to sing. So, I put a lot of work into my voice. The voice is a muscle and it’s something that I have to work at. But, it has always been fun for me.

I’ve never even thought of my voice as high. It’s just the way I express myself, and I’m very lucky that people seem to respond to it (well).

So, who was the first person to tell you that you had a great voice?

Sam: I guess they are biased, but it was my parents who were always so positive and supportive. They were my number one fans. And it sounds cheesy, but they made me believe I could do anything. Ultimately, when you believe in yourself, you’ll enjoy success.

Kurt, this one’s for you. In your YouTube videos, you can play many different kinds of instruments. You are also an amazing producer and songwriter. Was it something you knew since you were little, too?

Kurt: I taught myself to play the piano and guitar, and I started producing stuff because I wanted to make things sound better when they were recorded. I started with GarageBand, recorded in my living room, with a USB microphone.

Sam: I was there, I’m a witness.

Kurt: (Chuckles) Yeah, Sam was there. Hopefully those recordings don’t exist anywhere online!

Sam: It was embarrassing for me, as they were for him.

Kurt: But yeah, you just have to keep on doing it. Initially, I produced music that sounded mediocre, and then we started making music that sounded good, to music that sounded great. And there’s always more to learn. So, I’m learning new things every day. And, as a producer, the really important part is having great artists to collaborate with, and that’s this guy over here (points to Sam).

Out of so many covers and originals you guys have done, which song was the most fun to record?

Sam: In general, as much as I love doing covers as it’s always fun to put our creative spin on things, I enjoy working most on originals because it’s our own voice. And one of my favorites off our latest album is the title track called “Make It Up”. We did the music video for it, and that was one of the craziest shoots we’ve ever done, as it involved hundreds of people and it was a big one-shot take. That was the most fun and most stressful thing I’ve ever done in quite some time, and it was really special to me.

Kurt: Yeah, that was definitely one of the best ones, filming-wise. There were over a hundred actors who were involved (in the music video), and we did it all in one take. There’s a song called “Shadow”, that Sam wrote, that is one of my favourites and it’s a beautiful song. I have a version (of the song) on my computer from three years ago when we were living back in the East Coast and since we moved to the West Coast of USA. The song has gone through so many evolutions, it’s amazing just hearing this song now. So I think, recording-wise, this song would be one of my favourites.

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By Ho Khin Wai, Year 3, Diploma in Banking & Financial Services

Khin Wai is an NYP Year 3 Banking and Financial Services student from School of Business Management (SBM). He started writing for NYP Portal in 2011 out of interest and was soon "addicted" to it. He has also written book reviews for Straits Times YA Classified. Besides writing, he loves singing and has performed for various events in NYP under NYP Soundcard.

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