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THE MAIN INGREDIENT IN A COOKIE: AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH TIFFANY ALVORD
Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for RadioFree.com
November 27, 2018
Since joining YouTube in its nascent days of 2008, musician Tiffany Alvord has emerged as an accomplished and beloved artist on the social platform, garnering over 3,000,000 subscribers and well over half a billion views with her mix of cover songs and original works. Her perseverance and connection to her fans have afforded her the opportunity to tour around the world, perform alongside notable talent, and branch out into other creative pursuits--all on her own terms, with a level-headed appreciation and focus on positivity.
While speaking to her about her role on the AT&T Hello Lab web series Guilty Party, we had the chance to ask Tiffany about her journey from aspiring singer/songwriter to breakout internet success story. In this exclusive interview, she reminisces about her early exposure to the arts, her first years interacting with a supportive YouTube community, and some of her favorite moments in her young career. Also demonstrating the unabashed sense of humor that has endeared her to fans, she recounts the details of how smiling became her signature sign-off, then briefly short circuits herself by daydreaming about her love for sweets.
RadioFree.com: Your bio lists several creative interests of yours, including acting, music, and gymnastics. Was there a first passion? And how did it all play out as you were growing up?
TIFFANY: When I was 5 or 6, I started piano lessons, so that was kind of the first thing. And I took piano lessons for about five years, and then my piano teacher moved, but it got me interested in music and playing. And then I also started gymnastics when I was like 6, so gymnastics was one of my first passions. I thought I was going to go do college gymnastics--like, my goal was to go to the Olympics. So that's quite different than what I'm doing now. And I found theatre when I was 10. I did community theatre for about ten years. And I loved being up on stage, I loved the musical aspect. And so I just kind of always loved acting and singing, but more so acting. And then I tried to pursue acting a little bit, but the industry is super hard, and it didn't work out. I got...a little bit taken advantage of! [laughs] And so thankfully, long story short, gymnastics didn't really work out [either] because I got an injury, and so then like a year later, I found YouTube. And I'm like, "I like singing, too." And so since the acting didn't really take off and I didn't really have too many options, I'm like, "Well, I could do this. I have a camera, I have music, I love writing songs. I can share my talents through the internet--at least get feedback!" [laughs]
Did you have any apprehensions about putting your music out there on the internet, which can often be a battlefield of harsh, anonymous criticism?
You know, I feel like it was almost the opposite. When I first started, because YouTube was so new, there weren't trolls and people hatin'. Like everyone was kind of friends, there was an actual community where I'd see someone's video and then we'd actually connect and start instant messaging and become real friends. And everyone in comments was so supportive. And I feel like it [became] a different world a couple years later, But when I first started, it was a nice world! [laughs]
When you're in front of the camera performing music, do you feel like you are playing a character or being yourself?
Sometimes I'm being natural and myself--for example, for a lot of covers. [But in some] music videos, I love playing with different storylines, different characters, and so I get to stretch and move outside of "Hey, this is me, Tiffany!" [In my] music video for "I'll Never Be Your Girlfriend," I had like three different characters with different wigs, and each one has a different personality, so it was really cool to build the personalities and create a different story through my music.
At what point did you realize that you were on to something, and that sharing your music could be a full time endeavor that would lead to a career?
I had been doing YouTube covers for years, and at around year three, I had the first opportunities and interest and people wanting to record me and help me produce my original music. And I also got in contact with [musician/producer] Kurt Schneider...And I think he kind of saw the possibilities and future of what YouTube could be and where it was headed. So he actually helped me stay away from a really aggressive deal that I was going to sign for producing an album. And he's like, "No, stay independent. There's so much ahead for YouTube." And so I started doing more professional videos, my first one being with Kurt Schneider, and it kind of opened my eyes and voice to, "Wait, I can actually record and be a legitimate artist."
Did you grow up in a family of musicians?
I would not say my family overall is musical. One of my brothers plays piano, and my younger brother plays drums, but no one really pursued it or is aggressively musical, I guess. And my parents aren't musical. [laughs] Maybe it skips a generation, because I think it came for my mom's side, because her family was musical.
How do you decide on which songs to cover?
I used to do the Billboard Top 100, and listened through [to] see what resonated with me the most. I usually used to pick the most popular songs, because that would just attract eyeballs, which then would hopefully be connected to my originals. So the whole point was, like, covers are kind of to feed my audience--and it's like, "Hey, here's a song!"--while I worked on original music. Because I want to be an original artist, and I want people to hear what I have to say. But for covers, yeah, I just listened to what's popular at the moment, and pick my favorite songs out of that.
Your body of work already includes hundreds of music videos. Looking back, what are some of your favorites?
Ooo...One of my favorites was "The One That Got Away," and it was a collaboration with Chester See. And I just remember we recorded and filmed it super quick. It was so much fun, and it kind of opened my eyes to the world of collaborating more, because it didn't feel like work--it was just like, "Hey, let's go have fun and record this song." And we went to a Toys "R" Us to find little matching tattoos, the ones you put on with water. Because it's Katy Perry's song, and it [talks about getting] matching tattoos. And then you have the clip of us where we both got tattoos, and it was the butterfly on our neck. [laughs] So that was one of my favorites. And another favorite is "Secrets" by OneRepublic, and it was a collaboration with The Piano Guys. And The Piano Guys have always been so amazing. Just to be able to collaborate with [them and] make something with a full orchestra...It was beautiful--just an epic collaboration and a fun project to work on.
How would you describe your experiences of touring with your music and meeting your fans in person?
It's kind of mind-blowing because when you see comments and likes and everything online, you know that they're real people, but it doesn't really hit you until...Like, when I go on tour and I actually see people that showed up, or I have a meet and greet. It's kind of surreal, and it takes a moment to process--like, it isn't just a number, these are real humans that have been watching and listening to you for years. And so it's kind of overwhelming and a little bit emotional, because it's so easy to just sing to a camera, but [another thing] to realize all those numbers are actual viewers who watch my music and have been impacted by it.
In many of your early videos, it seemed like you made it a point to pause at the end and smile at the camera. Was that a conscious effort to create your own sign-off?
[laughs] Yes, it was definitely my sign-off. And the reason for it was because my very first video
was "Bubbly" by Colbie Caillat, and I had my brother come help me press and stop the record button. And so we had done like two takes, and I had a really (probably forced) cheesy smile at the beginning and end. And after one of the takes, he's like, "Tiffany, don't smile, you look stupid." And so if you watch the take that I actually posted, I wasn't smiling at the beginning or end, and it kind of looks like someone forced me to sing. And I just remember after that, I'm like, "No, I'm going to smile at the beginning of every video and at the end so people know I'm a happy person." And so that became a thing. I'm like, "Okay, I gotta smile!" Because there's some comments like, "You should loosen up, smile!" I'm like, "No, I love smiling, but my brother told me not to!" [laughs] So that's how that became a thing. And one of my sayings has always been "always smile," because it's a good reminder.
Based on your bio and answers to fan questions, it seems like you have a huge sweet tooth...
Oh gosh. Mmm-hmm. [laughs]
Which of the following treats would be most appropriate to name after you: a candy bar, a cookie, or an ice cream flavor?
Definitely a cookie. Cookies have a special place in my heart. The way they just melt in your mouth. You know, good, classic chocolate chip cookie...Can't beat it. [laughs]
So if I were to go to a sweets store and order the Tiffany Alvord, would that cookie be chocolate chip, or some other exotic mashup?
You know, I think it'd either be a classic chocolate chip cookie (but like the best you've ever had in your life) or...You know, another type of cookie I love is just a delicious... [suddenly pauses] Wow, I just totally had a brain freeze. [laughs] ...A delicious sugar cookie! Yes! Sugar cookie! How could I forget?
Wow, you love cookies so much that you literally lost your mind for a second...
I was just so overwhelmed. Exactly! I'm like, "What is the main ingredient in a cookie?" [laughs] Sugar!
Tiffany, thanks very much for your time this afternoon. It's been a pleasure speaking with you...