If you were someone who sought refuge in TikTok during the pandemic years, you’ve probably come across Tai Verdes’ breakout hits. There’s the catchy and sweet “Stuck in the Middle” from 2020, and in 2021 Verdes had another success with the song “AOK.” Yet as laidback as those songs are, when it comes to Verdes’ career – he’s a meticulous planner. “I got too many plans,” he admits jokingly, although he’s always thought way ahead. Whether it’s having participated on an MTV show, so he could win money and use it to fund his music career or the fact that he’s approaching things from the perspective of building towards longevity; it’s clear Tai Verdes is the definition of prepared.
“I have four albums that I want to make, where I basically go back and forth between showing off who I am and writing songs that are about love,” he explains, and tells me about his plans for his third record, before realizing he’s deviated too much from today’s topic – HDTV. “I love saying that you can either write a song about a girl or a song about the world.” Whereas his first album TV was more or less about the world, his sophomore record HDTV discusses the relationship that followed “Stuck in the Middle.”
It’s an intentional choice of Verdes to discuss the source of inspiration behind his music, rather than its genre or vibe. “My artist project is based on the ethos of making art without the opinion of money or even fan opinion. I don’t make music for anyone, I make it for myself,” he explains. In fact, Verdes has approached his entire career from that perspective and has built his team around it. “I think artists who get pigeonholed just aren’t creative enough and don’t have the setup to go into the studio, or their team is perhaps making choices dependent on money. I’ve come into this process knowing that I want to make 10 albums. And in order to do that, I’m just looking for music as art in general. And in order to get to that point where you can experiment and do whatever you want, you have to think of how you’ve set up your team. Some artists don’t think about that at the inception of the project, and it’s really hard to change that. Because once people are on your team, they’re like – we gotta get paid. I’d rather have one person at the core of the music, making all the decisions and being a tastemaker. That’s what it means to be a real artist.”
He names people like Tyler The Creator and (early) Kanye West as examples of this. When I mention that they’re also known for having cultivated somewhat of a cult following and having influenced a larger shift in popular or niche culture, Verdes jumps in. “That’s just the creative direction – not just the audio standpoint. It’s the visuals, merch, and tour – what does it all look like? I’m proud of myself for making sure that the entire world makes sense [for HDTV].”
“If I talked about any big person – Lady Gaga, Katy Perry – and showed you a picture of them, you could tell me what songs were on that album. For me, if you showed a picture of me with an afro – it’d be “AOK,” and when you show me now, it’d be “She Loved Me.” It’s a huge part of being an artist that people gloss over,” he smiles. “No hate, but I’ve seen a lot of artists say new era, even when they look the same, sound the same, and they’re talking about the same shit.”
He goes back to Lady Gaga to illustrate his point about how important it is for music to transport you. “You’re now in this experience of being that person – when I listened to Lady Gaga, I’m like, oh shit, am I in a meat suit right now?” Verdes names Childish Gambino, Andre 3000, and OutKast as other sources of inspiration. “They’re doing the thing where they’re not just experimenting, but they’re trying to be the catalyst of the experience. That’s what I want.”
For him, being a musician essentially means being a creative director of your own business. It means being a storyteller. Most importantly, it means being able to play to your own strengths. “If you want to be great, you have to think of how you represent your growth. I got off the internet and managed to get real-life success – in TikTok world a lot of the top creators are kids, but they’ve never run a business before. I’ve had years of figuring out how to market myself. It just so happened that TikTok kind of utilized all my skills in a way that really popped off. But I think it’s just about making sure that you’re trying.”
Over the past year, we’ve witnessed the continued cultural influence of TikTok on music popularity and commercial success. And yet, artists yielding from TikTok are often looked at with a certain sense of derision. As if they’re one trick ponies, or spent too much time editing this little microcosm they’ve presented to the world. When asked how Verdes has experienced this himself, he’s quick to shut down the notion of criticism in and of itself.
“Criticism is literally not even tangible – you can’t touch it or feel it, it doesn’t really exist. So to have that control over your life is a hard thing, I imagine. I’m lucky that I don’t have that mentality, I suppose. I’ve been on the internet for a long time, I’ve had people criticizing me at different levels for years and years,” Verdes shrugs. “I’ve been on million-dollar sets as an extra, I’ve been in front of cameras, I’ve been a Nike model. There’s that pressure of needing to perform and do the thing – I’ve had the experience to where I can say, this isn’t a big deal. I’m the boss this time around, so I’ll do it exactly in the way that I want, you know?”
That doesn’t mean that he’s not open to constructive notes of improvement – as long as he’s the one who’s giving them out to himself. For example, he’s learned a lot from touring as a live artist. “I used to think that all shows were the same, but they’re really not. There’s festivals, college shows, headline tours, spot dates, private events, club shows, tiny bar shows, and then there’s Madison Square Garden. I’ve done all the things, which is absolutely crazy, that I got to experience the entire tour vertical. It’s really made me think about how to do that well, and I’m gonna figure out how to do it the best way possible in the future for sure,” he laughs.
It’s a common theme in how Verdes operates in the music industry, always looking to be the best. Always trusting his own intuition in guiding him towards whatever that ‘best’ may look like to him. On HDTV, this approach led him to get really involved in the production side of things as well. “Compared to the first album, I worked with people with a little more experience. It also made me better, because it allowed me to pick up on the best of what they were doing, according to my taste. It’s really awesome to just be in the rooms and have like, the most skilled producers and instrumentalists around you and be like – okay, guys, do your thing. And I’ll pick the best shit. And then I’ll just figure it out, you know?”
One of his inspirations in that domain is Rick Rubin, although he quickly clarifies that he has a really diverse pallet when it comes to that. “I listen to soundtracks, musicals, I listen to the fucking United Airlines theme song – because it’s amazing. What Rick Rubin is trying to do is do things by feeling, and I’m the same way. Does this make me feel something? As a producer, I’m not trying to force anything. If I were to produce for another artist, I wouldn’t look for the top hits. I’d be like, which songs are doing their purpose, the way that they’re supposed to?”
And while everything about Tai Verdes screams confidence – sometimes even cockiness, that would be too easy of a label. He’s analytical and unwavering, approaching his own music with almost surgical precision. Even if that means embracing the attitude of allowing songs to just be what they are. “[Writing songs] is all about how vulnerable you can be. Maybe you mumbled a lyric or didn’t say exactly what you originally had in mind. If you just talk about your own experience in a vulnerable way – without trying to make things rhyme perfectly, you’ll immediately sound different. A lot of people have dropped out of college, but you know, my way of describing that is different than everybody else’s.”
However, Verdes’ perfectionist tendencies and long-term planning also make him reflect differently on his music. “The songs themselves aren’t that hard, it’s more the putting together, putting it out as a project with the sound you’re trying to go for. It takes most artists multiple years to release their projects for that reason. I’ll never be proud of a song – because while I’ll like how it feels, I’ll want to move on to the next one. With a project, I’ll think – that’s an era of my life, that’s what came out of me at that time.”
For his HDTV era, Verdes set himself the goal of putting 20 songs on the record. Throughout the process, he kept on constantly replacing the tracks to ensure that only the best would be included. “I just kept writing, because I had the time and it was really easy in the beginning. Of course, there were problems like – ‘they don’t want to let you use this beat, use another one. We can’t find time to get in with this producer, find a different one.’ There are a lot of these problems that people might think are walls or dead ends – but really there’s tons of progress you can make by pivoting a little. With songs, I always work on them in a surgical way. I’ll change the verse, take the second verse and put it first, and sing the chorus. I’ll either use my first takes of the sections or create a new section, so there’s always that first take energy where you’re not judging yourself too hard.”
The production certainly holds up on the album, which sees Verdes hop from genre to genre throughout all twenty tracks. And while they’re all authentically him, Verdes feels like people still don’t fully grasp who he is as an artist. It’s part of the reason why he’s planned out at least his first four albums so that he’s consistently packed in who he is across a bunch of different songs.
On the other hand, Verdes acknowledges that the appreciation of art is in the eye of the beholder. He mentions a trip to Paris, where he saw the Mona Lisa. “I looked at it and was like – all right, nice, then looked at the next painting. You know, it can’t really be judged, you look at it and move on to the next thing.”
It’s the reason as to why, when asked about his material – for example single “TWO SUGARS,” Verdes is hesitant in giving a detailed explanation as to what inspired them. “You know, the first half of the album is about more physical and fleeting love. The second half is not something that’s meant to last, and sugar does the same thing. You eat it, and the first part is great, but then it disappears and gets bad. Sometimes, however, you do need sugar in your life to make things better – it’s a bit more toxic. But really, I want to let people interpret it however they want to. Because then it’s not my song anymore, it’s everybody else’s.”
And all that Verdes wants to do, really, is create an entire art gallery for people to wander in and out
of – explore who he is creatively through his music. “I just like going and making stuff – in 2023 I want to just make more stuff, not even just finishing up the third album, but in general. You have to ensure that you’re doing the shit you want to do in life because life’s too long to be doing shit that you don’t like.”
And all that Verdes wants to do, really, is create an entire art gallery for people to wander in and out of – explore who he is creatively through his music. “I just like going and making stuff – in 2023 I want to just make more stuff, not even just finishing up the third album, but in general. You have to ensure that you’re doing the shit you want to do in life because life’s too long to be doing shit that you don’t like.”
If that’s not the best advice to start off 2023 with, we don’t know what is.
Listen to HDTV here: