Which could be a good or bad thing, because truth be told, even in this measly pond, I still don’t have a clue what he looks like.
Call it laziness. Call it inexperience. Call it New J lollygagging, but when the twenty-four-year-old Filipino American singer/songwriter finally calls and explains he’s stuck in traffic, I’m thrilled. Because the sooner he gets here, the sooner I have to admit that 1) I’m a total Youtube music scene neophyte and 2) I haven’t properly done my research.
A few minutes and precisely two missed phone calls later, I find him standing in line at Earl’s, hair slightly askew, dressed in a grey pea coat and black hipster glasses. Weirdly enough, he’s not surprised or even insulted that I have virtually no idea who he is.
“I hate to break it to you,” is all he says, laughing as we sit down to eat, “but I’m pretty much at the bottom of the Youtube food chain.”
“Bottom,” of course, meaning the guitar-playing, Bruno Mars-covering, walking-talking Filipino-American stereotype (who goes only by Kris Mark on the internet) has over 19,587 Youtube subscribers, 64 videos and 2,004,030 unique video views. Since starting his first music channel in March of 2006, Cardenas has now become something of a YouTube veteran, speaking wistfully about the early days, while of course expressing the requisite gratitude to the site for allowing him to become the artist he is today.
“Back then, everybody on Youtube just played music for the hell of it,” he says. Before Justin Bieber and “that one girl who sang ‘Look at Me Now,” … “No one knew you could get famous off of it yet.”
But does that mean the online music community has changed for the worse? Not necessarily.
“I think it’s a give and take. Now it’s so easy to share stuff. I personally think it’s awesome now that more people think they can try. A lot of people used to not even try.”
Born and raised in suburban LA, Cardenas says he grew up “weird” and “nerdy” and wanting to play football before his musically-inclined parents talked him out of it because they were afraid he might hurt himself. Instead, his mother handed him a guitar, which he played until his fingers bled that one fateful night in junior high, and which he has been playing ever since.
“I really should be better by now for playing for so long,” he says, almost apologetically.
Self-deprecating, soft-spoken, yet undeniably gregarious, Cardenas seems to revel in the clichés and the absurdities of his life. He used to crop his face out of his cover videos because he didn’t believe anyone would want to watch him, and he’s convinced he started the trend of bringing a guitar to school (at least for this generation).
He reminisces about a time in college when he took a friend out on what he believed to be one of the most romantic dates possible: A Boys II Men Concert, right before Valentine’s Day. Between crooning love songs, he gave the girl not one, but two of the many roses the group tossed out into the crowd, only to have the night end with this beautifully lame reply:
“Oh, sorry, I don’t want a Valentine this year.”
He also remembers getting rejected from his dream school, UCI, due to a transcript filing mishap, having to attend Fullerton College for a week and resigning himself from then on to a future filled with disappointment and defeat.
“I was so melodramatic back then. I was convinced my life was over.”
Since graduating from UCI with a degree in Literary Journalism in 2010, however, it’s safe to say Cardenas has grown up a bit. After spending some time away from YouTube to focus on school and work, he says he’s finally ready to jump back into the music-making game, working on a new full-length album, as well as an EP inspired by the characters of the Avengers. I ask if he plans on including a song about Loki, the disturbed adopted brother of Thor and antagonist in the summer’s blockbuster film, an idea which he promises to thank me for on the album’s credits.
He hopes one day to write for Wired magazine, combining his love of music and technology with his love of words. He also dreams of writing songs for top artists, preferring the behind the scenes of the music industry, helping and inspiring others to harness their craft.
For now though, my recorder’s all but run out of battery, we’ve finished eating and it’s about time we headed home – but not before Cardenas, ever the gentleman, lets one distressed family borrow his cell phone and offers to drive me to my car. I graciously decline and he thanks me again for meeting with him, before smiling and walking off in the opposite direction.