Episode 15: Trace Gaynor | The Accidental Musician


One day in April 2013, I met up with these random guys that I had never met before at a place in Hollywood. We sang some songs and sent an audition tape in. Fast forward five years later, I'm still in that group with those random guys.


Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 15, lightly edited for clarity.


This week we feature Trace Gaynor from The Filharmonic! You may have heard of the group from the TV show, The Sing Off. They also made a cameo in Pitch Perfect 2.


Lucia: I love today’s guest because I’ve been a long time fan of a cappella groups like the Pentatonics & Pitch Perfect. Fun fact, I met my husband at an informal a cappella group in NY.  


Lynne: Did he woo you with his angelic voice?


Lucia: Of course he did :)


Lynne: Another fun fact about Trace: he majored in Broadcast & Digital Journalism at the University of Southern California. We were just at the Annenberg school a month ago sitting with the AAJA college group there. Shout-out to the group for hosting us, especially the organizers Eric and Mindy!


Lucia: Trace was actually very intent on pursuing a career in journalism. When he was 14, he and his friend created a short documentary called Genie in a Bottle: Unleashed, which won first place for child-produced films at the 2006 Chicago International Children's Film Festival. We’ll talk about the premise of that video later in this episode.


Lynne: Trace is a tenor in The Filharmonic, an all Filipino a capella group. He’s also the media director of the group, which means he helps manage the group's social media and also produces their music videos. He’s putting his media degree to good use.


Lucia: The group has gone on two national tours, made a cameo appearance in Universal’s Pitch Perfect 2, and has a recurring role on The Late Late Show with James Corden. The Filharmonic has shared the stage with acts such as Shawn Mendes, Liam Payne, Future, Fifth Harmony, Pentatonix, Black Eyed Peas, Linkin Park, Usher, & Jamie Foxx.


In this episode, we speak with Trace about:

  • Growing up in a primarily white neighborhood
,

  • Observing his identity as half white and half Filipino,


  • His love for storytelling
,

  • Rediscovering his Filipino Roots after joining The Filharmonic
, and

  • His next steps towards going back into journalism through MyxTV
.


I. Trace’s Origin Story


Trace: My name is Trace Gaynor. I am a member of the Filipino American vocal group The Filharmonic. I work a lot with MyxTV. I do a lot of broadcast journalism stuff and have been a creator in Los Angeles, California for the past eight years.


I am from the western suburbs of Chicago, a town called Elmhurst, which is about 15 miles west of the city. I am half Filipino, half white. I grew up pretty much entirely in a white neighborhood. And so I didn't really know anything about Filipino culture or my ethnic background until I left Elmhurst.


Lucia: This may seem surprising since Trace is now part of an all Filipino acapella group. But for most of Trace's life he was pretty removed from the Filipino side of his heritage.


Trace: My dad is white and my mom is Filipino. I'm technically third or fourth generation Filipino. So I'm very far removed the Filipino culture but looking back, a lot of the things that were Filipino like the Filipino culture has weaved its way in but I grew up not knowing any of it.


My grandparents mentioned that they made an active decision to make sure that my parents only spoke English. My mom went to the same high school I did. We were the only Filipino family there when I was there, so I couldn't even imagine what it was like when my grandparents moved there in the 60s. There was a very active decision for my mom to be very assimilated to the white western suburbs of Chicago, Illinois.


I 100% identified as white I because I didn't know anything different. It's funny, my sister looks very white but I look a little more Filipino.


Lucia: It wasn't until junior high that Trace noticed that he was missing the Filipino side of his culture.


Trace: My two best friends in high school were the two Indian girls in my school. They are first generation (i.e. parents emigrated from India). So when I was going to their house in 7th and 8th grade, I saw the culture that they had. Then they started asking me about my Filipino heritage when they came to my house. They were like, "You're Filipino but where is it? It's not here." I think that's when I started realizing that I am missing part of my culture that other people are expecting me to have. I just didn't know what it was.


Lucia: Something interesting about Trace is that instead of rejecting his Asian side, he embraced it. Leaned into it. Played along with it. He recalls an incident from high school.


Trace: For orchestra, I played violin in high school and there was a moment where we we were all auditioning against each other for the higher chair. I remember I was like number four or something and I had beaten everyone else in my grade. I remember there was one girl that was a few chairs further back from me that saw the list with me and scoffed at it and said, "Oh, of course the Asian boy won."


I very distinctly remember thinking, Oh, that's the way that people are going to see this. They're going to see that because I'm the Asian boy, I'm going to be the one that plays violin who's going to be higher up, and taken more seriously as a classical violinist or whatever just because that's what the stereotypes are. And I remember thinking if that's what people are going to think, I'm going to lean into it.


I'm not going to feel guilty about playing the Asian card when everyone else is going to play it for me.


I feel a little lucky about the fact that I was never ridiculed for being Asian. It's kind of privileged to say but the Asian stereotypes that I was associated with aren't necessarily negative. Everyone's like oh, of course, that kid is smart. Oh, of course that kid is the best violin player. I never felt that it was something that I needed to shun.


I am lucky that those stereotypes ultimately kind of helped me, but I do get that if you are automatically pigeon-holed into what people are going to think of you from when you walk into the room, that can be damaging. But in high school it didn't affect me too much.


Lucia: Even though the Asian stereotypes didn't affect Trace too much, being mixed did cause some confusion among his friends.


Trace: I was practicing in a practice room after school and my dad had come into the school to look for me because I had no cell phone service in the practice room. This girl that I knew came in and frantically knocked on the door.


She came in and said, "Trace, there's this man looking for you."


And I said, "Oh it's my dad probably, I'm late and he hasn't called me yet."


She's like, "No, he's a white guy." And I was like, yeah, probably my dad.


She gave me the most confused look! She thought she was protecting me from this random white guy that was trying to find me, but it was actually my dad.


II. The Making of a Journalist



Lucia: Earlier in the episode, we mentioned that in 7th grade, Trace and his friend Stephen Sotor worked on a 16-minute short documentary project called Genie in a Bottle: Unleashed. The project was inspired when Stephen’s mother introduced them to the artist Martyl who created the Doomsday clock.


The Doomsday Clock is a symbol which represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe. Coincidentally, in history class, they were studying World War II and they became intrigued with The Manhattan Project which ultimately led to the invention of the atomic bomb.


Trace and Stephen got together to produce a short documentary which featured interviews with the widow of the main Manhattan Project scientist, as well as with others who were on the team that developed the atomic bomb. Stephen edited and directed the documentary, while Trace scored the video with his original music. Trace also mentions that Stephen's cousin was involved.


Trace: So, we made a documentary called Genie in a Bottle Unleashed because one of the metaphors was that once they had created the atomic bomb, they let the genie out of the bottle. And you can't put the genie back in the bottle. What they had done was finished and they couldn't reverse it. S


We thought that quote was funny, so we personified the genie and dressed up his cousin. The other guy was working and his cousin was the genie and we interviewed him about how he felt being let out of the bottle and how he felt about being used as this weapon.


That documentary was really what got me started in journalism and documentary-making and all that stuff.


Lucia: The documentary made it to international film festivals and it received a lot of attention from the media and press. Here’s a clip from CNN when they got interviewed.


Trace: We won the Chicago Children's International Film Festival with that documentary. We spoke at the United Nations. We toured around for two years promoting it because a lot of people were fascinated by that these 8th graders had taken such like a heavy topic. Obviously the documentary was aimed for kids our age to understand why the nuclear weapon might have not been the best thing and what we do going forward. That was what set me off it towards documentary and informative video.


III. Joining The Filharmonic



Lucia: After the international success of Genie in a Bottle, Trace and Stephen partnered up again to create a sequel called The Final Frontier. It was a short documentary exploring the question of whether countries should develop weapons to use in outer space. It was another heavy topic but they broke it down for their audience which was 7th and 8th graders.

From there, Trace knew he wanted to be a professional storyteller, so he enrolled in the University of Southern California’s broadcast journalism program where he fell into reporting and producing for television.


So how did he end up in music? Well, music is literally in Trace’s DNA.


Trace: My dad's a musician and he writes music for TV shows and films. So I grew up playing piano and violin and singing was just kind of something I did for fun.


So since I was five years old, we were forced to pick up an instrument. We were forced to play piano and then it was just kind of known that between my sister and I, when we turned 8, that we would pick another secondary instrument. That was kind of the way it was going to be. It wasn't even a choice.


Lucia: One experience would push Trace further into the world of music. In high school, he tried out for choir and a capella but he didn’t get in. So in college, Trace was determined to be a part of a singing group.


Trace: It's funny - I didn't follow the vocal program in high school, I was like a bad singer in high school.

I was just straight-up not good, so I think that really pushed me to do more in college. When I graduated high school, I went to the University of Southern California. While I was there, I picked up singing as more of a full-time hobby. I was in an a capella group at USC called Troy Tones where I was the music director and quickly that became all I did. It was my hobby that took up way too much of my time.


Lucia: When Trace was in college, his Dad pushed him to keep pursuing music. Major in music, he'd say.


Trace: I didn't want to make it my full-time job and I really liked making documentaries. So that's why I majored in it, but my dad always would laugh and say you're going to end back up in music. There's no way you're going to continue doing this documentary stuff. It's great that you think you like this, but you're going to end back up in music.


Lucia: But as fate would have it, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. And Trace actually did end up back in music.


Trace: I was approached by a former USC alum who was a producer on a show called The Sing Off on NBC. He said that they were looking for Filipino Americans to join this group. They were wondering if I'd be interested to meet with these guys to see if it would be a good fit.


I had no idea where it was going to go. I mean, I got that email from the guy whose name I recognized, Ben Bram. I was just floored the fact that he had messaged me at all, but I did not know where I was going to go.


Obviously no one goes into a capella thinking that this is a career, like, "Oh, yeah. This is going to be my life, like this is all I'm going to do." So that's not what I had pictured when I went into this, I thought it would be a fun side project for a few months.


I had to email my professors going into my senior year to say that I would be gone for a few weeks at the beginning of the year. But I quote like my email:


I'm not trying to be in a professional Filipino boy band for the rest of my life. I hope to be back by week 3 of school.

And I was hoping that I would get kicked off this thing and I'd be able to go back to being a college student.


Lucia: The Sing-Off aired on NBC on December 14, 2009 and subsequently aired for four more seasons. The Filharmonic was formed right before the start of Season 4. Trace figured the Filharmonic would be a one-time thing; it was an exciting experience but it wouldn’t become a career. Again he was wrong.


Trace: There was a small asterisk in our contract for the show that said they could bring us on tour.

This was the fourth season of The Sing Off. They had never done a tour so I was like, this isn't going to happen. But then we got a call that we were going on tour.


I finished my second semester senior year from the tour bus. After the performances, I'd go back and do my homework in my bunk.


There are two moments that come to mind when I realized that this is a thing that we could do, like this could be a job. One was after our first song on The Sing-Off.


It was Treasure by Bruno Mars, which was also a song we had gotten right after audition. We had been learning the song for a while and went through so many different iterations of us trying to find our "sound", so we probably had at least 10 different arrangements of Treasure that we could have done.


After we finished performing, the studio audience cheered louder for us than any other group. We were the last group to sing that night and they cheered the loudest for us out of any group that had gone before us. If you watched The Sing-Off, there's a moment when the camera cuts to me. I'm just like in awe of the people that are like cheering and like yelling for us.


It was that in that moment, I was like, "We're going to do well on this show".


That was our first time performing. It was our first time on stage as a group and for the audience to react like that was unbelievable. That was when I was like, this is going to go farther than I thought.


The second moment when I realized damn, we're in this for the long haul is maybe like a week after The Sing-Off tour had finished. We had booked a show in Michigan and I was still in school. So I couldn't be gone for that long and VJ, one of the other guys in the group was teaching at a music school in Hollywood at the time.


So we both had to get back to LA. We flew separately from the other guys and coincidentally both of us had gotten very ill on that trip. We got to our hotel room and we both had terrible flu or cold and we were just not doing well. We were feeling terrible.


As we landed in LA from that flight, VJ got a string of texts from Jules who was still back in Michigan saying that we had gotten contacted to be in the movie Pitch Perfect 2. VJ turns to me and he says, "Don't say anything, I don't know if this is real but we just got a call and we are cc'd on an email with Elizabeth Banks right now about being in Pitch Perfect".


I didn't have a voice and I couldn't yell. Also we were on a plane so I couldn't yell but VJ and I were so excited in that moment. And that was probably when I realized, I'm going to be in it for the long haul with these guys.


IV. Asian Representation & Filipino Roots



Lucia: Trace credits Jules Cruz, who is the captain and the vocal base of The Filharmonic, for putting the group together. As The Filharmonic grew in popularity, they gained more exposure and have since become the mantle for Filipino American culture. Trace recounts a story of the time they were invited to the White House.


Trace: In October 2015, we were invited to sing at The White House for Filipino American History Month.


We were on a panel and we were with Jo Koy, apl.de.ap of the Black Eyed Peas, so many amazing Asian Americans were there. And we were talking to a woman bout how The Filharmonic was in this book that is in this archive in the White House about Filipino American heritage. We have a little blurb about us in this book about Filipino American history and hearing that was like, Wow.


This is starting to be a lot bigger than just five guys singing in a garage without instruments.

I often do feel guilty that I have played the Filipino card. As a half Filipino dude that is raised entirely in a white culture, I am now very much playing the Filipino card. I'm with these Filipino guys and I do feel guilty about it sometimes. But at the same time, I have to remind myself that just because my experience isn't the same as the other four guys in the Filharmonic, I am Filipino too and whatever upbringing I had doesn't negate the fact that I also am Filipino and will have that same common heritage.


When I walk into a room, I am seen as Filipino so I have to lean into that. I can't lean into the fact that I'm white. You've got to own it because when you walk into a room, that's what people are going to think and there's no point trying to fight it. There's no point trying to look past it.


The only way that you're going to beat the stereotypes that people place on top of you is if you are leaning into it.


Lucia: And Trace is definitely leaning in. He wants to help spread Filipino American culture across the globe.


Trace: Filharmonic's thing is that we want to travel. We've traveled all over the States, we've seen like 48 of the 50 states but our thing now is we want to go international and we want to try seeing other countries.


I was in India for two weeks and we're going to do a Canadian thing in June. I'm going to stop in Alaska for a bit and then we just booked something in Japan. I'll be spending three weeks in Africa this summer.

That's what we want to be doing. It's not like we're following any rules of what you should be doing to be in the entertainment industry. We just want to tour internationally, you know, and that's what we want to do next.


Lucia: They’ve also performed in the Philippines. He says they have the most loyal fans there.


Trace: We've gone three times. The last time was in 2017. We opened for Fifth Harmony and that was crazy. There is a big difference between Filipino culture & Filipino American culture and going back to Manila was our first look into Filipino culture. They are very dedicated to anyone that is at least three percent Filipino.

They are dedicated in general. They're very organized and have fandoms - it's a very different experience but definitely felt like a homecoming. It was definitely the largest and craziest crowd we've ever seen. The most dedicated fans are in the Philippines.


V. Journey Back to Journalism


Lucia: Trace is trying to get back into broadcast journalism. He is working on a show with MyxTV called “And We’re Live”. Worth noting that MyxTV is the only English-language Asian American entertainment network in the United States.  


Trace: And We're Live is meant to be a live talk show where we combine the most addicting things about social media like those challenges, games, interviews and vlogging and it all happens live. It's entirely unscripted and unedited and we get to interview people we play games with. You get to see a side of Internet celebrities that you might not necessarily see, so we get to put musicians into those vlogger challenges.

Lucia: Trace has some advice to our listeners who are interested in pursuing a career in entertainment, music, and media


Trace: Your work-life balance is next to impossible when you are constantly trying to build something, when you're not trying to work for a company. When you're trying to build your own brand, it's hard to not always feel like you should be working.


I think in the entertainment industry you never feel satisfied. The only people that really make it are the ones that never find that satisfaction.


You have to remind yourself that nothing is consistent. It's something I struggle with all the time, remembering that nothing is promised in this industry.


To me, I think it's important to remember that success in the industry is paying your rent every month with it. If you can successfully sustain yourself with just doing your craft, your art, your music that's success in itself because anything else is not quantifiable. There is no success that you can quantify in this industry.

Thank you Trace for sharing your unique perspective on the entertainment industry and also your Filipino roots. Listen to Trace's full episode on Anchor, iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts!


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Rock The Boat is a podcast elevating the stories of Asian leaders, founders, and pioneers in their fields. Through candid and thoughtful conversation, the host Lucia Liu uncover stories of their upbringing, Asian identity, and the movements they've built. 

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