For years, Lubalin felt stuck. The Canadian artist had played in an “alternative hip-hop group with a folk-rock/P-funk twist.” He made beats and remixes. And he recorded R&B-inflected pop-rap music alone, but he felt boxed in by his own high standards. Then he discovered TikTok, tapped into his sense of humor, and reinvented himself.
Since late December, his melodramatic musical readings of “internet drama” — misunderstandings over rental bookings, stolen recipes, a person wanting hassle-free butter — have made him a sensation on the platform. Whether crooning like the Weeknd while telling off a friend for stealing her secrets to the perfect broccoli casserole or sounding both furious and sweet while confusing an Airbnb host over a canceled booking, Lubalin shifts from serious into zany so effortlessly that he won over Jimmy Fallon. Lubalin’s latest effort, “Turning Random Internet Drama Into Songs, Part 4,” premiered on The Tonight Show last month with Fallon and Alison Brie joining him.
The singer and comedian won’t reveal his real name but says he’s 30 and grew up in Ottawa before moving east. He credits his success to agonizing over the perfect concept. “I saw the [Airbnb] conversation somewhere and I was just like, ‘How funny would it be to take something so stupid and then spend days crafting a beautiful pop record around it?'” he tells Rolling Stone on a Zoom call from his Montreal home. “I didn’t think, like, ‘Oh, this is [the idea].’ I was more like, ‘This could be fun.'”
In addition to his TikToks, Lubalin makes his own music, some of which is more serious than funny (his Lubalin EP) and some of which straddles the line (is his latest single, “Long Txts,” ironic, romantic, or both?). “At first, I kind of thought, ‘Maybe [TikTok] is kind of gimmicky’ or ‘Maybe people won’t want to cross over [to my music],’ but the response, even before ‘Long Txts,’ was a really stark contrast,” he says. “People tell me, ‘I came for the internet drama, but this is beautiful; this song means a lot to me.'”
Lubalin signed a record deal last March, so he’s now especially happy that he doesn’t have to discern between labels courting him to jump on the TikTok bandwagon and those genuinely interested in his music. He’s spent the past few years saving enough money to pursue music full time and see where this sudden fame takes him. The way he tells it, that was always the point.
What do you make of the way your TikToks blew up so quickly?
When I made the first one, I was like, “Yeah, if I got 100,000 views, that would be really cool.” And then it hit a million and then 9 million, but then it was kind of like, “Can I do it again?” And then somehow I did it again. Since then, it’s been just this exponential curve, where I’m like, “It’s gonna slow down at some point.” But right now, it’s wild.
You won’t reveal your real name, so what does Lubalin mean?
A couple of years ago, I was using a different artist’s name. I was trying to be cool and present this specific image. I got so tired of the perfectionism because I was never releasing anything. One day I was like, “I need to change everything.” And I was flipping through a book of the work of Herb Lubalin, who’s an American typographer. His work was so cool — intense. And you could read from his experience with clients that he had this attitude like, “Here’s what I did for you. And if you don’t like it, then screw you.” I think I needed to feel that energy in the moment, so I resonated with it. And I was like, “Fuck it, my name is Lubalin.”
Did you put out much music before you rebranded yourself?
A couple of songs, but nothing crazy. I was also in a band called Bars and Tone. I had that band in Ottawa in my younger years. I haven’t listened to that music lately. It’s been so long.
Have you been making a living in music between Bars and Tone and now?
I studied television production in college. I worked at the college in the equipment shop for the students for a while. Then I eventually moved to Montreal, where I started making music for corporate videos and doing boom stuff, which I hated, and programming and web development.
What do you like about TikTok?
TikTok is the platform where things live and die on their own merit. It doesn’t matter who you are: You can have 5 million followers and still post a flop. And you can have no followers and apparently [blow up].
So I was just like, “OK, well, how can I apply my skills to the platform?” And that’s when I started studying what other musicians were doing to figure out what works. Like, “OK, you need a hook super early, and then you need to deliver really well on that hook.” Then it was just like, “What can I do where if it does blow up, it uses my music skills, and maybe I can bring people over to the you know, not-so-funny music?”
How did the first “internet drama” episode come together? How did you decide on the sound of it?
I didn’t really know where it was going. I was thinking, “Oh, this is some kind of power ballad.” I didn’t even have drums for a while, because before these I was doing videos like, “What if a choir did this song?” like with Lil Nas X’s “Holiday.” Then I came up with the trappy hi-hats. So it just happens. I knew on some level, the content is already so weird, so the production should be a more down-the-middle pop song, just to make that part easier.
How has making TikToks affected the rest of your music?
What’s fun is you’re doing only 45 seconds of a song, but you’re doing all the sections. So it’s been a pop-song boot camp. It’s boosted my production skills and my speed of production.
How did your “Long Txts” song come together?
That lyric came well before coronavirus. I was on a Greyhound at night coming from my hometown, Ottawa, back to Montreal. And listening to Blonde by Frank Ocean, which is the perfect album for that. And across the aisle, I could see someone’s phone. I couldn’t read what they’re saying, but there’s these long text messages. And I thought “Yeah, been there,” like, “That’s a vibe for sure.” So I jotted that down, and that song was built out of that.
What did it mean to you to bring your internet drama to The Tonight Show?
That was wild, ’cause when I did the first one, I had the wisp of a thought: “This is kind of a Jimmy Fallon thing,” like Ariana Grande doing some funny song as Celine Dion. So when I saw an email from The Tonight Show, I was like, “Holy shit, dude. This is crazy.”
Did they collaborate with you on the “blue cheese” idea?
My partner and I had just done a session of digging for ideas, and we really didn’t have any multiple-character ones except for the blue-cheese one that I had already started working on. Then at the same time, we were both like, “That’s friggin’ perfect,” because they’re on this tight deadline, and it takes me so long to come up with the melody and stuff. So I sent it to them, and they were super chill. They’re the coolest fucking people. They were like, “We want to make sure that this is your vision,” and we worked on the edit together.
When we saw the Alison Brie takes come in, we were screaming because we were fans of Community. And then when the Jimmy Fallon takes came in, it was unreal. It’s like a fever dream. Like, yeah, what is life?
So what’s next for you?
I have a few more singles, and there’s a bunch of demos that I want to start fleshing out. And there will definitely be more TikToks until I get tired of them or they stop working. I have some collabs brewing potentially. I don’t know the timelines, but there are some interesting ones coming. But I don’t know. To have this [blow up], every day is … something. I’m just waiting for a few days to chill, zone out, look at everything, think strategically, and figure out what the vision is.