Young Canadian pianist Tony Ann strikes a chord in neo-classical scene


‘I’m very grateful to social media, because how people discover music now is so different compared to 20, 30 years ago ... Now you can just get on your phone and find something you like ...’ says Ann. Photo: The Star/Shaari Chemat

From the moment he began playing the opening notes to his first song, Canadian pianist Tony Ann knew he had the Malaysian audience in the palm of his hand.

The neo-classical sensation, who was raised in Toronto, but is now based in Los Angeles, California, played a sold-out show (presented by Soundscape Records) last month to 650 music lovers at the main hall of the PJPac venue in Selangor.

It was Ann’s first time in Malaysia, the first stop in the Asian leg of his solo world tour covering 45 cities and counting this year. His other stops in Asia included Tokyo (Japan), Seoul (South Korea), Singapore, and Kaohsiung and Taipei in Taiwan.

“I don’t really get nervous before a show – performing is a form of relaxation for me. So I don’t really feel any pressure or stress,” says Ann, 25, in an interview prior to his show.

“Before this, I’ve performed as part of a band. But when you’re solo, it’s only you and the audience, so the responsibility is different – you feel like you need to give even more, whereas the responsibility is shared when you’re performing with other people,” he adds.

Throughout the show, Ann switched between playing the piano with effortless ease to sharing funny anecdotes of his Malaysian adventures to making diligent attempts at speaking Bahasa Malaysia, such as “Maafkan saya kerana Bahasa Malaysia saya teruk (Sorry for my bad Bahasa Malaysia).

“Please don’t let this be the reason why you don’t come to my next show,” he jokingly begged the audience, who laughed good-naturedly.

Social media and music

For fans of Ann’s music, you’re likely to have come across him through social media – he’s got nearly six million followers collectively across his YouTube, Instagram and TikTok channels.

The classical music scene is more than capable of attracting a new fanbase, which Ann agrees wholeheartedly.

Ann is part of a rising number of global young musicians, with classical training, who also possess modern sensibilities that appeal to the masses and see social media as a tool to get their music noticed.

Ann in concert at PJPac last month. He has had a busy year so far, with a tour schedule that includes stops in Asia, Europe and North America. Photo: MUNNAnn in concert at PJPac last month. He has had a busy year so far, with a tour schedule that includes stops in Asia, Europe and North America. Photo: MUNN

The pianist was 14 when he started his own YouTube channel and began uploading short clips of his live performances and piano covers of popular pop songs, including famous K-pop acts such as BTS, Blackpink, and Twice.

“I’m grateful for social media, because how people discover music now is so different compared to 20, 30 years ago, when you had to turn on the radio or go to a music store or live shows. Now you can just get on your phone and find something you like through an algorithm.

“If it wasn’t for social media, I wouldn’t be performing in countries around the world like Malaysia, Japan, Brazil, or Chile. I don’t think people in these countries would have come across my music if it wasn’t for the Internet,” he admits.

It’s clear that Ann also enjoys the challenge of coming up with creative ways to catch the attention of people idly scrolling through their social media feeds, whether it’s taking every day sounds like his neighbour’s car alarm or a well-known ringtone and injecting his own flair, recording himself playing on public pianos, or even showing off his dexterity by playing on two pianos at the same time.

“That’s the thing with social media – you need to grab the attention of the audience in the first five, 10 seconds,” says Ann.

His most popular content series is “#PlayThatWord”, where he writes all 26 letters of the alphabet on his keyboard, with one letter on each key.

“Then I ask my followers to suggest a word for me to play, and I’ll compose a piece based on that word,” says Ann.

Through word-of-mouth and social media buzz, Ann managed to sell out his debut solo concert at PJPac's main hall last month. Photo: MUNNThrough word-of-mouth and social media buzz, Ann managed to sell out his debut solo concert at PJPac's main hall last month. Photo: MUNN

In fact, many of the 15 original pieces in the trilogy of EPs he released last year under Decca Records France – Emotionally Blue, Emotionally Red, and Emotionally Orange – were created in this way, such as Lost, Time, Anxiety, and Love.

“Stylistically, each of the three EPs has its own sound. In Emotionally Blue, the music is a little dark and moody. For Emotionally Orange, it’s optimistic and uplifting. Then Emotionally Red is passionate and climactic,” he shares.

A case for strong melodies

Ann, born in Beijing, China, began playing the piano at the age of 11, but it wasn’t because he was particularly taken with the instrument – it was a love of writing songs.

“I actually grew up around the piano, because my mum plays it. But I didn’t show any interest in learning the piano until elementary school, after my teacher put on a movie about Beethoven,” he reveals.

“Watching him grapple with the gradual loss of his hearing and how he communicated his struggles and suffering through his music really resonated with me and made me want to start writing music, so I asked my parents for piano lessons.”

Ann may be classically trained, but his range spans across genres, having collaborated with artistes like Don Diablo, Wrabel, and L.Dre in vastly different styles, such as EDM, lo-fi, and pop.

Interestingly, he studied at two music schools in the United States - Berklee College of Music for composition and production, and Cleveland Institute of Music, where he did classical piano. He didn't graduate from either; dropping out from music school in 2017 after The Chainsmokers discovered him on YouTube and invited him to perform with them on their North American arena tour.

He also collaborated with The Chainsmokers and had a hand in co-writing platinum the group's singles Sick Boy and Call You Mine (featuring Bebe Rexha), as well as Side Effects (featuring Emily Warren).

'When you're solo, it's only you and the audience, so you feel like you need to give even more,' says Ann, who hopes to return to Malaysia next year for another concert. Photo: MUNN'When you're solo, it's only you and the audience, so you feel like you need to give even more,' says Ann, who hopes to return to Malaysia next year for another concert. Photo: MUNN

“My sound is a combination of classical technique mixed with the simplicity of pop melodies and harmonies,” he says.

“I feel like music-making is kind of like the lottery – some days you get lucky and get hit with inspiration, and some days you don’t. When I’m inspired, I can write a piece all in one go, and when I’m not, I’ll only get maybe a good 30 seconds of something. So sometimes I’ll just leave it and come back to it later.”

Ann credits Lost, from the Emotionally Blue EP, as the first of his original compositions that he felt should be recorded and released professionally.

“I feel like 2022 was when my music matured and I really found my sound. So when I shared original pieces like Lost and saw people gravitating towards it, it was a relief, because it’s a vulnerable thing – you spend so much time on these pieces, so of course you hope that people will like them.

“That said, I never expected original piano content to get this level of attention – most instrumental videos that do very well tend to be covers, you know? So it’s great to know that people want to hear my own compositions,” he says.

Even while on tour, Ann is constantly writing and releasing new pieces. During the Malaysia concert, he announced that he was working on an album called 360º, where each star sign will have its own song (so far he’s released Aries, Taurus, Gemini, and Cancer.

He’s also open to trying out new things, such as working on scores for movies, TV shows or even ads.

“That’s the great thing about music – it’s so versatile. You can bend music in all shapes and sizes. It would be fun to sit down with a director and discuss what kind of themes or emotions they would want in the piece. I feel like a film with heartbreak or an overall sad theme would be interesting to work on,” says Ann.

He hints that the next great challenge would be writing songs with lyrics and singing them.

“Writing lyrics is still a new thing for me, but it’s something that I definitely want to explore more in the next few years, in addition to singing,” he concludes.

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