Grayson Villanueva on working with Billie Eilish, Finneas & Disney Pixar

Nathalie Tomada - The Philippine Star
Grayson Villanueva on working with Billie Eilish, Finneas & Disney Pixar
The Filipino-American singer, beat-boxer, vocal arranger and SAG-AFTRA member lends his voice to Tae Young of the fictional boy band 4*Town in the Disney Pixar film Turning Red.
Photos from artist’s official website and Instagram account

MANILA, Philippines — Filipino-American singer Grayson Villanueva felt honored to have lent his voice to Disney/Pixar’s latest animated film Turning Red.

He was cast to form part of the Pixar’s first-ever boy band — or rather, the popular fictional boy band 4*Town behind the hit song Nobody Like U written by the Oscar-winning tandem of Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas.

Nobody Like U debuted at No. 50 on Billboard Hot 100, becoming the “first original song” from a Pixar movie to reach the chart. Other 4*Town original songs are 1 True Love and U Know What’s Up.

The band has been gaining a real-life fandom that when Finneas conducted last April 11 a Twitter poll asking fans — who call themselves 4*Townies — if they wanted to see 4*Town in the ongoing American music festival Coachella, 91.8 percent of the respondents gave a resounding yes. Disney also retweeted his tweet, further fueling speculation over the possibility.

In case you haven’t seen the movie, 4*Town (said to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to *NSYNC) is the boy band that the lead character in Turning Red is obsessed with. Set in early 2000s Canada, the film directed by Oscar winner Domee Shi tells the story of the 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian student Mei who will do everything in her power to attend their concert.

The imaginary boy band, which even has its own website and whose verified Spotify playlist has six million monthly listeners, is composed of Robaire (Jordan Fisher), Aaron Z. (Josh Levi), Aaron T. (Topher Ngo), Jesse (Finneas O’Connell) and Tae Young (Grayson). Inspired by K-pop idols, Tae Young is the youngest and resident “cute one” of the band.

Grayson studied Cognitive Psychology at University of California Irvine, but he is also trained in music-related fields. Apart from vocal performance, he’s skilled in voice acting, dance performance, audio engineering and arranging.

Grayson at the Turning Red red-carpet premiere in March. Film is still screening in select Philippine cinemas with schedule of showtimes at https:// movies. disney.ph.

In an exclusive e-mail interview with The STAR, Grayson shared how he landed the part and his first reaction to being part of a Disney film.

“In 2020, a vocal contractor I was working for reached out to me one day and said she’d like to submit me for something, but I didn’t have any materials on my website. She asked if I had any clips of me singing in the style of early Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber or Aaron Carter. I didn’t, but luckily, I have a home studio, so I recorded some clips of me singing in a boyband style,” the artist shared.

“She then connected me with another vocal contractor who was putting the boy band together. The only thing I knew about the project was that it was a SAG (Screen Actors Guild) animated film. I submitted my materials and heard nothing for a while. So much time had passed that I honestly thought they had cast it and moved on because the entertainment industry is usually so quick. Three months later, I got a text from the vocal contractor telling me Disney Pixar was going to call me that week and I was stunned. I had no idea it would be for Pixar but I was so excited when I got the call and when they told me what it was for. I was so happy to find out that it was for Turning Red.”

Here are more excerpts from the e-mail Q&A with Grayson:

How was the experience of lending your voice to the film alongside the rest of the 4*Town voice cast? What were the most challenging and fun parts?

“It honestly felt like a blur. There was so much prep going into it — receiving demo tracks from Billie Eilish and Finneas, getting sheet music, rehearsing before tracking, and then finally getting to the studio in L.A. to record together with Jordan Fisher, Finneas, Josh Levi, and Topher Ngo for two days. It was such a blast to sing with such talented individuals and to hear the demos come to life with our voices all in the same room. Billie was also in the control room giving us direction and that was such a great experience.”

What’s your favorite 4*Town song and why?

“We recorded three tracks for the movie soundtrack. Nobody Like U is the song that everyone knows, 1 True Love is the power ballad, and U Know What’s Up is our confidence booster song. My favorite is U Know What’s Up because it just has the perfect energy to get your day started.”

Have you ever tried or been recruited to join a boy band or pop group in the past? Who are your favorite singing groups or boy bands?

“A lot of my background is in a cappella so not boy band-specific groups, but I do sing in groups often. I sub for the Filharmonic as a singer/beatboxer on occasion, am part of Filosophy, and am currently with another touring group called The House Jacks.

“Outside of this, I’ve also done a fair share of group singing theme park work at Disneyland, Universal Studios, Knott’s Berry Farm and Legoland. A few favorite boy bands/singing groups are The Beatles, Jackson 5, N*SYNC, Boyz II Men, Take 6 and Pentatonix.”

What’s your main takeaway from the film as someone who is also Asian?

“Turning Red is an instant Pixar classic that encourages embracing your inner ‘red panda.’ Growing up isn’t always easy, but when we are able to have support from loved ones and acknowledge the good and ugly parts of growth, we learn to embrace the process. Embrace the mess.

“As an Asian-American, it feels messy growing up with two different identities. But this film has taught me to embrace both identities and take up space with my own uniqueness. My own ‘red panda.’”

Where are your Filipino roots from and have you already been to the Philippines?

“My dad is from Pagsanjan, Laguna and my mom is from Santa Cruz, Laguna. I went to the Philippines when I was very young so it might be time for me to visit again.”

How did your Filipino heritage influence your pursuit of music as a career?

“Lots of karaoke and looking up to Filipino YouTubers who came before me. Other than that, music has always been more of a personal dream of mine since no one else in my family pursued anything in the performing arts.”

What’s next for you?

“Nothing I can share for now, but you can follow me on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter - @hellocolorgray for more Turning Red content, behind the scenes and other future projects.”

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