Last summer, when Mac DeMarco played a show in Bangkok, Thai singer-songwriter Phum Viphurit got to meet one of his musical heroes. “I kind of knew the promoters of the concert and got to sneak backstage,” Viphurit tells Rolling Stone. “I got to give him a really decent hug and a big handshake and said, ‘Hey, man, you inspire me to be myself and not be so afraid of expressing the way I feel.’”
The interaction with DeMarco wasn’t the first time Viphurit, a 23-year-old self-proclaimed “big music geek,” has crossed paths with his favorite artists during their visits to Thailand — he’s worked catering for Blood Orange, interviewed Mike Milosh of Rhye, and acted as a tour guide for English synth-pop duo Honne, showing them the Grand Palace and taking them out for Thai food and massages. Four or so years later, he joined Honne onstage for a performance during this year’s JOOX Thailand Music Awards. “It was really surreal, that arc,” Viphurit says.
Though his sound owes a lot to homegrown American indie pop of the last decade, Viphurit is already enjoying pop-scale success at home. His video for 2018’s “Lover Boy” — featuring the lanky musician crooning and strumming his guitar by the seaside, wearing a straw hat and affecting a breezy air that’s strongly reminiscent of DeMarco — has been viewed more than 40 million times to date.
But along with Viphurit’s newfound success has come added stress, which he addresses on recent single “Hello Anxiety.”
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“The song came when I was going through last year traveling everywhere and all of a sudden having attention that I guess I was never ready for, although I’m super grateful for all of that,” Viphurit says of the sunny indie-pop tune. “I just felt like this music thing that had always been a hobby, something that I could use to escape what I was dealing with, became the one thing I couldn’t escape. When you start making something out of passion, totally with no expectations in any form, to one day having that feeling pushed upon you, it’s kind of a big change. … I was feeling really anxious though I didn’t let it show during my travels or in my music last year. I felt like I had to let it out in a song.”
A distinct lyrical change from his past work and his most inward-looking track to date — “Heaven knows you’re lost/But you’ll be fine, you’ll be fine,” Viphurit sings on the chorus — the song has nevertheless resonated with fans, racking up more than 5 million YouTube views since it was posted in late March.
“I had to make sure that it was something that I really felt I was going to be proud of when I put it out,” he says of the song. “At the end, I’m super happy that I got to put it out the way I did.”
Born in Thailand, Viphurit moved to New Zealand before his teens. He dabbled in music, uploading Frank Ocean covers to YouTube and writing songs for fun, but his hobby turned serious when he returned to Bangkok for film school at age 18. Though he experienced a lot of what he calls “reverse culture shock,” the Thai capitol eventually started to feel like home again as he began to make connections inside the city’s burgeoning music scene.
In 2014, during his first year of college, Viphurit met the head of local label Rats Records, who had come across the singer’s old covers on YouTube. After sending over the only demo of an original song that he had at the time, he quickly signed a deal and has been releasing music under the imprint ever since.
“Especially for a Thai artist to be singing in English, it’s quite risky in terms of a label,” he explains. “How would they get you gigs in a country that’s predominantly speaking Thai? I was lucky that I found these people that believed in the craft of music and just having fun and not so much about the business side of things.”
Fortunately, that language barrier hasn’t been an impediment. Viphurit has garnered a sizable following across Southeast Asia, performing at the same venues he initially attended as a fan. He even made it to the States last fall, playing well-received club dates on both coasts. He wasn’t sure he was ready to make the trip, but everything turned out smoothly — a return North American trip has been announced for September — maybe because his songs clearly reflect his love of a distinctly American sound.
“Initially I thought I was going to feel really foreign and Thai in the States,” he says. “When I went, I felt at home. People really vibed with what we were playing on that tour. I don’t know how to describe it. … It was a dream come true, I guess.”