GARDEN GROVE, Calif. — It’s a late May weekday afternoon, and the sun is beginning to bake the asphalt and concrete in Garden Grove.
David Choi is hanging out with his parents in their modest music shop, simply called Grace Music. A variety of violins hang from the walls, and numerous Autoharps are also on display.
At first glance, you wouldn’t view Choi as the future of pop music. He’s a soft-spoken Korean American in brown shorts and a striped polo shirt, 23 years old. He lives at home with his folks. And he’s a little shorter than average, at 5 feet 3 inches.
But Choi is indeed the future. He has become a huge sensation on YouTube, with more than 3.8 million channel views and more than 117,800 subscribers. He’s No. 19 on the list of most subscribed YouTube musicians, ahead of Miley Cyrus, My Chemical Romance, Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson. (He’s about 44,500 subscribers ahead of that other Orange County-raised YouTube sensation, Kina Grannis, who won a “Crash the Super Bowl” contest last year with a video that was viewed by 97 million people.)
Choi has dedicated followings on MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, iTunes and his own Web page, www.davidchoimusic.com. He has already worked in the professional music world, with a two-year stint as a songwriter and producer at Warner Chappell Music.
“Regardless of YouTube, music is my passion,” Choi said recently, sitting in a practice room at his parents’ store. “That’s what I was doing before YouTube. Hours and hours of practicing, recording stuff. I spent a lot of time — more than the average person who’s interested in music. I’ve paid my dues.”
Choi, who was born in Anaheim and attended Pacifica High School in Garden Grove, grew up playing the piano and violin. But for him, that was more of a chore forced upon him by traditional Asian parents.
When he was 16, he heard someone in history class play a CD of a self-written electronica song. “I didn’t know you could do that, write a song, be able to create something like that,” he said. When Choi went home, he started tinkering with an instrumental song of his own. Soon afterward, he picked up a guitar, and his life has not been the same since.
“I figured out what I wanted to do when I was 16,” said Choi, who’s only had one formal guitar lesson in his life. “I never wanted to get a real job.”
In 2004, Choi entered and won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest for Teens. The theme was “The American Dream” and Usher was one of the judges.
A few months later, he entered a David Bowie mash-up contest. Through MP3 tracks, he combined the Bowie songs “Shake It” and “She Drives a Big Car” to come up with “Big Shakin’ Car.” The Thin White Duke himself chose the winner, selecting Choi’s mash-up.
The contest was sponsored by Audi, and the prize was a brand new Audi TT. But Choi chose to take cash — $30,000 — instead.
“I upgraded my studio and gave some to my parents,” he said. “I already had a car.”
One night in early 2007, the aspiring singer/songwriter was tinkering at home with his guitar and decided to record himself on his Mac computer’s built-in camera. He posted the no-frills, stripped-down video on YouTube.
To his surprise, the video started getting hundreds of hits. A subsequent effort was picked as a featured video on YouTube’s home page.
“I didn’t know it was going to blow up. That’s when the big boom happened. People were e-mailing me, MySpacing me. At first, I felt weird about it. But I like seeing how people react and stuff. I just wanted to see what it would be like to do it. I like experimentation.”
One of Choi’s songs, “YouTube, A Love Song,” has been seen more than 2.28 million times.
On YouTube, Choi performs original songs, but also does acoustic covers: “Womanizer” by Britney Spears; “Pokerface” by Lady GaGa; “My Life Would Suck Without You” by Clarkson and “Boom Boom Pow” by Black Eyed Peas. He tries to post at least one song a week.
Last year, he wrote and performed a duet with fellow YouTube darling Grannis. The song, “My Time With You,” has garnered more than 362,000 views and was used as an advertising vehicle by J.C. Penney. The two wore stylish J.C. Penney clothes in the cute, trip-to-the-beach video.
“We have good chemistry together,” Choi said.
It’s obvious Choi’s talent comes from his parents. His father Ray was an accomplished musician in South Korea, and his mother Jane is a violin luthier, or maker and repairer. They’ve owned and operated their Garden Grove music store since 1990.
“The talent is from my husband, but it sounds like his voice is from my family,” said Jane Choi, 48, whose Korean name is Mihi. “He gets a lot of personality and character from me. He’s pretty independent.”
David’s father, Ray, knows what it’s like to try to make a living as a musician. He’s an expert Autoharp player and also sings, but he has found it extremely difficult earning money pursuing those passions. That’s why he runs the music shop.
“A musician’s life is terrible. I know a lot of people who go very hungry sometimes,” said Ray, 49, whose Korean name is Young Soon. “It’s not a stable business or salary or income.”
Nevertheless, when he observed his son’s dedication, and saw that he was winning awards, Ray couldn’t say no.
“Day and night, he has worked very hard,” the elder Choi said. “Music is not only just talent. We need effort. He did that.”
David Choi recently recorded and released an album, “Only You.” He did all the songwriting, producing and mixing, and sells it on iTunes and from his Web site.
The album is filled with heartfelt, angsty love songs and personal reflections on the world.
“So if I ever see you on the street,” he croons in “Won’t Even Start,” “I’ll pretend that I didn’t see/ And turn my face/ No use in small talk anyways./ Because if I look into your eyes/ Then I’ll have to say goodbye/ And that’ll break my heart.”
In February, Choi performed for an audience of 6,300 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles during “Kollaboration 9,” an Asian American talent showcase.
“It was fun, but nervewracking,” he said. “It was an adrenaline rush. But the crowd was so big, it looked fake. Have you ever been skydiving? The ground looks fake.”
Choi had a gig June 5 at the Hiro Ballroom in New York with Grannis and pop-soul singer Chloe Temtchine. He and Grannis have organized a campaign on the Internet, polling fans to see where they want the two to perform next. If the singers get a sponsor, they’ll launch a minitour.
One of Choi’s songs has been recorded by the hip-hop band Flipsyde, and he’s waiting to see when it might be released.
“I just want to write songs, continue to do music,” he said. “I want to be able to support myself. I want to inspire people and educate and just share. Make them think sometimes.”