For many Asian Americans, being a musician seems to be only a hobby that our parents forced us to do as a child. For 29-year-old Tim Wu, known by his stage name Elephante, it was always his dream career. We got the chance to chat with the rising star about his upbringing, how he left a corporate job to produce music, and getting his Asian parents on board with his passion.
To explain the meaning behind the name Elephante, Wu took us back to his childhood days.
“I grew up playing music but as an Asian American, you grow up and you’re supposed to be a doctor or whatever. Deep down I always wanted to be a musician, but that’s not something that’s even in the realm of possibility, like it’s not even an option.”
His stage name Elephante refers to the idiom, “elephant in the room,” which means a problem or topic that is obvious, but no one wants to address it.
He thought of this while working at one of the top consulting firms in the United States, freshly graduated from Harvard with a degree in Economics. While at his corporate job, Wu was constantly thinking about producing music and had a portfolio of popular remixes of songs by DJ Calvin Harris, Lorde, and Galantis. For Wu, becoming Elephante was his way to embrace the “elephant in the room,” and to defy the expectations that others had for him.
Jason: You graduated from Harvard with a degree in Economics. How did you figure out that one day you wanted to venture into music?
Tim: I was doing a lot of stuff on the side and there was no structured program for my music. It was all things that I discovered on my own. I worked at my university’s recording studio where I was creating my own music. I really just spent all my free time on music, and it was the only thing I wanted to do. It felt like I was doing the bare minimum for everything else in my life and the rest of my time was focused on music.
Jason: Was there anything in your childhood that led to your interest in producing music?
Tim: My mom made me take piano lessons when I was a kid. At first I hated it, but by the end of the year I realized that I actually liked it and continued with it. That was the one thing that really moved and inspired me.
Jason: People sometimes say there’s a “musician gene.” Do you think something like that is natural or is it developed over time?
Tim: Honestly no. I think for music, or any art, practice as much as possible. Talent is actually overrated, like no one comes out of the womb being good at music. Every artist you know started terribly somewhere. I like to think that I didn’t have any talent, and it’s more so that I was willing to work hard on my music. I don’t care if my music is bad, I love it, I’m going to figure it out, and I’m going to keep working until it’s good. Every single artist who has made it has spent years and years working on their crafts, and it does take years, not overnight.
Jason: Tell me a little more about your new EP, Glass Mansion?
Tim: The concept came to me when I was in L.A., and I was walking up the hills at night, glancing at all the giant houses and beautiful shining lights. And I was thought, “Man, I kind of want one of those.”
It came to represent the idea of the thing you’re always searching for, the thing that makes your life complete. But what if you got it, and all your dreams come true… and it doesn’t feel the way that you imagined? Like Avicii, he had everything that I thought someone wanted, but still suffered so much. That got me thinking about true happiness.
Glass Mansion is a metaphor for the goal you’re chasing, and sort of coming to terms that it’s about the journey of building that and not actually having it. Each of the songs on the EP tells a different story and kind of represents the different room in the glass mansion.
Jason: A lot of kids, especially those from an Asian background, are pushed more towards professions like doctors or lawyers. How far is being a DJ from what you aspired to be when you were a kid?
Tim: I grew up knowing that I wanted to be a musician. It took a long time to realize that it was even possible.
My parents immigrated to the U.S. and they’re from a different generation that believes you have to work hard in a reputable profession to have a successful, fulfilling life. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but for me, it’s more so the process of figuring out what’s going to make me happy, what am I going to put my entire heart into, and that was music.
It took me a long time to realize it, and I look back and say, “Wow, I wonder what would’ve happened if I had gone for it earlier.” But then I’m very lucky and grateful for that. It’s all part of the journey.
Jason: What was the direction that you were going for with your music?
Tim: It’s always about the story, it’s always the song. The song always comes first. I grew up as a singer/songwriter. It’s like, how do I write a song that works on its own? Then all the electronic elements add to it and develop that story. It has to work as a song, and other sounds contribute to it.
Jason: What do your parents think about what you’re doing right now? Do they understand?
Tim: They do now, I brought them to a few shows and they’re really into it. I don’t know if they fully understand it, but they appreciate it. EDM isn’t something that they would be into, but they understand that their child is fulfilled and having fun doing it. They came around to it.
Jason: For kids that are afraid to venture out to a unique career, like being a musician or an entrepreneur, what would you say to them?
Tim: I think if you’re going to find success in your life, it has to be something you’re passionate about. You have to know that there’s a world out there beyond what your parents told you to do.
With that said, it’s really hard and you are going to suffer a lot of setbacks, a lot of disappointments, and honestly, if you stick with what your parents told you to do, it’ll probably be the easiest option.
But if that’s not your calling and that’s not what you truly want in your heart, you have to work harder on your dreams than anything else. If I didn’t love making music, then I wouldn’t have made it through my first year. At first, I was putting 60-70 hours a week on music, putting out songs that no one cared about. But I loved this, so I just kept doing it regardless of what the world said to me because there was nothing else that I rather do.
If you have something like that, know that you can make it work. But it’s a really long road and you’ve got to know that it is truly what you want.