From College to Arenas: Meet Tony Ann, The Guy Whose YouTube Covers Landed Him on The Chainsmokers' Tour

YODER
Tony Ann performs with The Chainsmokers.

Like most millennial musicians, 23-year-old Tony Ann sought Internet fame by posting covers on YouTube. As a contemporary writing and production student at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, he would often book practice rooms to arrange piano covers of his favorite pop songs. Little did he know that one YouTube cover would change his life.

In March 2016, he recorded and posted a mash-up cover of two of The Chainsmokers’ biggest hits: “Roses” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” He avidly shared the video on social media -- going so far as to tag The Chainsmokers’ accounts, as well as Drew Taggart and Alex Pall’s personal accounts -- and though the response from his friends was overwhelmingly positive, the video only garnered a few thousand views.

His world was turned upside down, however, when Taggart commented, “This so fire!!!” on Ann’s Instagram video. From there, his wildest dreams became reality.


“They had this idea of [me] touring [with them] and mentioned it to me [in November]," Ann recalls to Billboard. "I was stoked about it, obviously. Nothing was confirmed yet though, so in my head, I was like, ‘These things usually fall through.’ I didn't want to get too pumped up about it in case it didn't happen, but near the end of the year, they confirmed with me.”

Ann was officially invited to join Taggart and Pall's live band, alongside another keyboardist and a drummer. “It was all just from a YouTube video, really," Ann marvels. "It’s pretty nuts. I got very lucky.” 

As the Memories… Do Not Open Tour comes to a close with two final hometown shows in New York City (June 9 and 10 at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens), Billboard had a chance to get to know Ann better and see how touring has treated him. In his words: “I’m loving every single moment of it. It’s really the best time ever, and I’m sad it’s ending, to be honest.”

Tell us about your training.

I've been playing piano for 11 years now. I started playing piano at 12 years old, near the end of grade 6. I got super inspired after watching a Beethoven film entitled Beethoven Lives Upstairs, and it was composition that stirred up my passion for music. Piano was a good tool for composition, so that's why I started piano lessons. I took piano lessons from two different classical teachers, and my goal was to get in a conservatory after high school.

[For my training, I put in] a lot of hours, sometimes eight to 10 hours a day, especially during high school, because I used to go home and practice, so I didn't have a lot of time to hang out with my friends. I don't regret any of it, because I knew the training was mandatory and much needed in order to get to where I wanted.

I went to Cleveland Institute of Music after high school. My training was pretty intense -- a lot of technique and classical repertoire. To be honest, I never really enjoyed classical training, because I never connected with playing classical music. For pop music, I feel like myself when I play because I feel much more emotionally attached to the material. I also feel much more connected to pieces that I’ve had input on, such as my arrangements, songs that I’ve written.

How much performing did you do before you joined The Chainsmokers?

Miami [the first stop on the tour] was my first performance outside of Berklee. I have zero gigging experience. This is my first proper gig. Even at Berklee, I didn’t do much performing; I didn’t take part in the recitals or anything. I have zero experience in playing keyboards [on a pop gig]. Before this tour, the only performing [I did was] on acoustic grand pianos. I’ve never performed with a Nord [keyboard] or synth at all. I am really grateful that the guys took a leap of faith on someone who really has zero experience, and they just really believed in me. It’s pretty surreal.

Since you never really played on synths or keyboards before this tour, tell us about shopping for your first keyboard, learning how to play key bass and adapting your technique to a less technical gig.

The one I play on for my covers belongs to my roommate. Playing key bass is sick. Mick Schmid, who is the other keyboardist and the music director on tour, taught me how it all works. Most importantly, I just need to be on [the] click [track] at all times, because it’s easy to tell when the bass is out of sync -- especially with the kick drum. It's a lot of fun playing on the Moog Sub37; it makes the whole place rumble.

It's been a lot of fun playing bass on a Moog and triggering samples, but for sure it's different than playing my covers. It's technically less demanding, but it's not easy at all. Playing with a click is pretty hard, to be honest, especially the slow songs. I definitely feel more like myself when I play things like my covers or more technically demanding things, but I think it's important to play different parts like the bass. It works on a different skill, such as playing with a click and trying to be as tight with the band as possible.

One thing I’m super grateful for on this tour is that Drew and Alex gave me two solos in the show, where I’m just by myself with a spotlight onstage and doing what I do in my YouTube videos. The first solo is an intro to “Closer,” so I play two minutes of solo piano, then Drew and Alex start playing “Closer.” The second solo is a snippet from the “Paris” cover. I will never forget the first show in Miami when I did the “Closer” solo: It is probably one of the best -- if not the best feelings -- I’ve ever had. Just a sea of people screaming and supporting you, nothing will ever compare and I can never describe that feeling. It just makes me super grateful and thankful to do what I love and [to be] able to share my passion with people around me.

 

YOOO !!! So I don't even know how to begin writing a caption for this video ... TOOO many emotions while watching this haha -- Before the tour started I never really performed that much, biggest audience I ever played for was at my high school which was less than 300 people. I was a bit anxious before the first show because I didn't know how I would react and perform in front of thousands of people, not really something you can prepare yourself for. But right after we finished the first song #breakupeverynight , I realized that there's really nothing to be nervous about because everyone is just having a good. But it wasn't until the closer solo (this clip) when everything sort of hit. Right when Drew was introducing me I remember how much adrenaline I had and was SOOO NERVOUS !!! Honestly I felt like vomiting -- haha don't worry I didn't !!!! But when I started playing all of that suddenly went away and it was then just an interaction between me and the audience. The reason why I can't stop smiling in the video is because I've never in my life felt this kind of energy and support before. From the first note to the last, it was seriously the best two minutes of my life. I can't even begin to describe or compare it to anything else. Want to thank @drewtaggart and @alexpall for giving me moments like this where I can fully express myself through my instrument, truly grateful for that. Also special thanks to everyone on their team and crew for being so supportive. Was a good two days off in Cleveland but can't wait to get back on the road and perform again. Anyways hope you guys like the video and I apologize for the super long ass caption haha. I hate writing but I can seriously write a good 10 pages about that night -- Thank you to @thatoneblondkid for capturing this !!!

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What advice do you have for other musicians trying to put music up on YouTube?

I filmed all of my videos in the 1108 [Boylston St.] and 130 [Massachusetts Ave.] practice rooms [at Berklee]. The first video that they saw -- “Roses/Don’t Let Me Down” -- was shot on an iPhone. In my opinion, content is the most important. As long as you have the best content and your video is in high [enough] definition, people will be fine with it. A lot of my videos, actually, were filmed on my iPhone.

What's your all-time goal?

My all-time goal is to create music that reaches out to people all around the world and for my music to have a positive effect in the world. I love writing songs; it’s my biggest passion. I would love to compose for film scores and just write music in general. My second biggest passion is performing, so I would love to continue touring. I am also in a band called The Swoons, so I would love to perform with my group; it would be a totally different feeling performing my own music.

Hopefully after this tour, I can start writing with Drew; that’s the next step. But I would really love to continue playing with [The Chainsmokers]. They’re two of the nicest dudes and are super fun to be onstage with. Performing with them, writing with them, that’s the next step after this. I just want to be a part of their crew. [Laughs] I would love to work with artists like Adele, Bruno Mars, Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran, but especially Adele because I know she incorporates a lot of piano in her songs.

My ultimate goal would be to create music that positively influences people around the world and just make the world a more unified and happier place. I believe music can change the world, because like Bono said, “Music can change the world because it can change people.”