Mike Tompkins, the a cappella YouTuber who has been on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and toured with the Jonas Brothers, is in danger of being out-famed by his 11-month-old son, Dash.
“When we go out, Dash gets recognised, but I don’t,” the 28-year-old Canadian tells Young Post over Skype. “It’s crazy.”
The reason for Dash’s sudden popularity is a video of a surprise Tompkins set up for his wife on Mother’s Day. The unsuspecting Kayla thought she was going to see a movie, but instead she was shown a video of a tribal-beats-infused song Tompkins produced using Dash’s voice and the sound of him stamping on the floor and whacking tins and jars with a stick.
The video was shared on Facebook and racked up 8 million views within a week, becoming one of Tompkins’ fastest growing videos. So he’s not complaining, although maybe his decision to go blonde was a subconscious attempt to draw attention back from his son. Funnily enough, it was a well known brand, car makers Chevrolet, that prompted him to make this video, as part of its #DayItForward campaign.
Working with brands has become a necessary evil for YouTubers; too much product placement and endorsements annoys fans and kills credibility, but getting sponsorship also mean more money to make better videos. “I try to pick brands that believe in good content,” says Tompkins. “I’ve done four projects with Chevy and over time we’ve trusted each other more. It’s great how they push me to do things I don’t necessarily think of.”
Other videos that spawned from their partnership include First Summer, a song Tompkins wrote by picking lyrics suggested by fans through Twitter; as well as an upbeat anthem he did with residents of a retirement community, mixing sounds of them singing, clapping, lip-smacking and banging their walking aids onto the floor. Working with retired people was surprisingly fun for Tompkins, but he’s ruled out early retirement for himself: “I’m gearing to go hard again. I had a year of being a dad, I was trying to figure that out, but now I can start going at it again. I dunno. I’ve seen when people retire, it’s not always a good thing.”
His knack for blending random sounds to produce neat tunes didn’t come overnight. He began producing at the tender age of 13, and went on to study music production at the Ontario Institute of Audio Recording Technology. A cappella only came along when he was 22. “It was an accident, more or less. It’s great, and I’m really thankful, but I’m a true producer,” he says. “YouTube wasn’t exactly my plan, but it fell on my lap and I just ran with it.”
It was “as a joke” that Tompkins uploaded an a cappella mashup of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream and Bruno Mars’ Just The Way You Are in 2010. The video went viral, so of course Ellen DeGeneres flew him to Los Angeles to perform on her show. As a treat, she introduced him to Timbaland, Tompkins’ idol. A one-night collaboration in Miami became a two-month songwriting stint under the celebrity producer, and one of their cuts ended up being Jennifer Hudson’s Walk It Out. “I was always a fan, and I studied him. We make music in a similar way, with mouth beats, and we just got on really well,” he recalls. “So it was huge for me to work with him. It’s the best thing I could have gotten.”
But even Timbaland couldn’t get him as starstruck as Miss Piggy during his collaboration with The Muppets last year. “When I saw her I was shocked. She’s Miss Piggy! In real life! I couldn’t focus and forgot all my lines. It’s kinda crazy, she even has a stylist and everything!” he laughs.
He'll be in Hong Kong this month, originally for the now-cancelled WTFest. He describes his performance as a lot of live looping and crazy visuals – basically, “a cappella on steroids”. Tompkins hasn’t finalised a set list yet, but one confirmed song is his cover of The Chainsmokers’ Don’t Let Me Down. If fans are lucky, they may also get to hear some of his “a cappella hybrid” songs like his remix of Oh Wonder’s Technicolour Beat, where he infuses bass-heavy instruments and background synths underneath his vocals.
“It’s still 70 per cent a cappella,” he explains, when asked if using instruments takes away from the impact of knowing a song is fully made by human vocals. “What I’ve always tried to do was make good music. I’m re-thinking what I do all the time.” The feedback to the hybrid songs has been positive, so fans can probably expect more of those – although Tompkins won’t be dancing in the snow again any time soon, as he did in the video for Technicolour Beat. “That was the most miserable I’ve ever been, it was just so cold,” he recalls of the two-day shoot. “We came up with the concept just a day before filming that I would wake up, with barely any clothes on, in a snowy forest, and I would find this technicolour jacket. It wasn’t shot on set so we were actually in a blizzard. It was snowing so much and the camera kept getting wet!” Believe it or not, he bought the jacket at a thrift store. “You could have it if you want,” he offers. “I don’t think I’ll ever wear it again.”
Tompkins also shares his daily life with fans on a separate YouTube channel called Tompkins Life, which features his wife, son and their dog Jackson. Having married his high school sweetheart at the age of 21, he shares his take on finding true love just before we hang up: “I’m not a believer of ‘this person completes me’. You will never find a perfect wife or husband, nobody has that. But if you can find somebody that encourages you and your passions, and inspires you to be better, you’re on the right path.”