'A Very Potter Musical' star Darren Criss talks about his new EP and the future for Team StarKid
If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching the raucously funny spoof show A Very Potter Musical you may not have heard of Darren Criss, but take our word for it, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter has had a pretty wild year. Part of a theater company from the University of Michigan that call themselves Team StarKid, he became a web celeb last year when a recording of A Very Potter Musical (in which he plays Harry Potter) went viral. Since then, Criss has appeared on ABC’s Eastwick and written the music for another hugely successful StarKid show (Me And My Dick), and just last week he made his return as the boy who lived in A Very Potter Sequel, which has already garnered millions of views on YouTube. Now Criss, who composed all the music and lyrics for Sequel, has a new independently produced five-song EP out called Human, which debuted at No. 30 on Billboard‘s Heatseekers chart last week. (Also impressive is Team Starkid’s A Very StarKid Album, which debuted at No. 19 on the Top Compilations chart.) I met up with the multi-talented singer this week in New York City to talk about his new EP, his plans for StarKid, YouTube musicians, and (of course) Disney covers.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How would you describe the sound of your music?
DARREN CRISS: Oh man, that’s tough. I have no idea–in fact, that’s been a problem for me, because I am kind of all over the place. If you know my musicals or anything, I’m a lover of genre…
And a lover of love songs.
And a lover of long songs, and a lover of many things. So because of that, I really don’t know. I’m still working on defining that, and that’s been a problem for me when I’m getting any kind of attention from labels. They’re like, “What’s your deal?” I’m like, “I don’t know. I like anything.” I like to say that we are of the iPod generation. We are the first generation that has so much accessibility and exposure to so many different things, and it isn’t so weird anymore to have on a playlist Beethoven, Tupac, Miley Cyrus, and Barbra Streisand. That’s not weird. Well, maybe a little weird.
Yeah, maybe a little weird.
But it’s not unheard of. You can do that, and it’s possible.
If I had to throw out a couple words about your EP, I would say “beachy” and “bluesy.” Those are terms that came to mind for me.
I like the word “soul-folk.” I like to think that it’s music you can be friends with. Something I strive for in my music is that I hope you can understand what I’m saying. I like to be as articulate as possible in my songs.
Where did you record all this? Not in a studio?
Just in my room. We did it in like a week. My friend is an audio engineer, and we wanted to get something out because it was time–it was coming out at the same time as the show, but these are all old songs.
But for someone coming off of YouTube, that’s kind of a sound that YouTube fans like–stripped down. So many videos are just a guy playing guitar in his room.
I think what’s cool about that is that there’s an immediacy [to the performance]. I put a lot of Disney covers online a long time ago. I just did them in one take; I didn’t think people would see them. There are some mistakes here and there. That’s always why I prefer performing live and why I’ve been so delayed on making an EP–I’m such a little perfectionist. I always tell people, “Just come see me live. I’d rather you come see me live.” When you start recording, you get in your head, “Ah, no, I want to fix that,” and you can’t fix that, so that’s why it took so long for me.
Well, I think the Disney covers are great.
Those covers, I have my personal opinion about them, but I’m not going to invalidate the way people feel about them. [Laughs]
In your song “Human” there’s the line, “that makes me a dumb human.” Is that perhaps a tongue-in-cheek reference to muggles, after playing Harry Potter?
Not at all! “Human” is really special to me. It’s the first song I ever wrote. I wrote it was when I was 15, and to my estimation, it’s still one of the best songs I’ve ever written, only because I was so uninhibited by so many things. “Human” was just an earnest thing that I felt. But the “dumb human” thing? No, it wasn’t a Harry Potter reference. [Laughs] That’s interesting, though. I’ve never thought about it that way.
Let’s get to “Sami” and “Not Alone.” Obviously we’d heard these tunes before, but which came first, those songs or A Very Potter Musical?
The songs came first. Here’s the thing with the first show–I’ve sung, so I’ve always had songs, so my friends who hang out with me know my songs. So, when they wrote this play, they were like, “Can we use your songs in it?” I was like, “Um, why?” They really liked the song “Not Alone,” and they’d used it as a model for the theme of the whole show. I was like, “Cool, where do you want to use it? I’ll make it work.” But I wrote that when I was abroad in Italy–and I don’t want to devalue the song–for a songwriting contest. I was trying to write the perfect pop song. “Sami” was written for a show called Little White Lie that we shot two years before A Very Potter Musical. But [for the first show,] my hat goes off to A.J. Holmes for writing a lot of the new songs. The only songs I wrote for that show were, “Granger Danger,” “Get Back to Hogwarts,” “Hey Dragon,” and I guess “Cho Chang.”
How about “Jealousy?” That’s in the middle of the disc, and definitely a departure from the rest of the songs. It’s sandwiched in between romantic tunes, and then there’s this one that’s very angry.
Well, it’s not angry–
But it gets there–
It gets there, but it’s a coping song. I like to think I’m a pretty level-headed guy, and everyone would like to think that they’re pretty composed, so when we have these little moments of fault, you’re just like g–damnit. All this sure-headedness that I thought I had is being totally messed up, and I hate it. So, I wasn’t in a jealous rage by any means, but I was experiencing some sort of envy, and it was just pissing me off because it was so needless. I was literally like, “I hate where I’m at right now,” because I’m acting crazy and I’m doing all these things… The only way you can cope with this is knowing “it’s got nothing to do with me” or this person–it’s just this chemical reaction that is based out of primal, biological things, and once you come to that realization, it sort of asserts this power over those feelings. So that’s where “Jealousy” came from. It was me trying to conquer this very embarrassing fear that I just didn’t want around, so I think by the end of the song, the battle has been fought.
Let’s get to A Very Potter Sequel. Did the songs in this one work the same as the original show? Were most of them pre-written?
No. A Very Potter Sequel was a huge wall for me to climb, but I’m so glad that I did because it’s given me a new confidence in what my abilities are. I wrote every song for that musical, and all except two were not previously written. “Guys Like Potter” was originally a song that was about this guy Peter that was this joke about our friend, Peter. So, I changed the words a little bit for that, and I changed it to be a little slower, and actually, to this day, after seeing it, I love the way it ended up. The other one was the very last song, “Days of Summer.” It was just a hook. I was originally playing it for Little White Lie–we never used it, so it was this joke in our company for years, like, “I know! We’ll just use ‘Days of Summer!’” We never did, so this time we actually did! Other than that, every song in that show was a new song, and I got them all out in like a month.
Do you have a favorite?
They always change. I had favorite songs that I thought were really cool, but then actors would do things with them that I’m just like, “Awesome! I did not see that coming!” So, I switch every day–the show is still new to me. I love “Coolest Girl.” I’m really proud of that song. I really love the way “Guys Like Potter” ended up sounding.
That’s funny because those are two that wouldn’t have come to mind for me. “To Have A Home” has really grown on me. It’s very “Go the Distance” from Hercules.
Yeah, well I wanted to write a big ballad. I wish–and this is not to be self-deprecating–that song, I wish I didn’t sing, simply because–I can sing, I like to sing, but I don’t have a vibrato or a very classically stage voice. I would love to hear that song sung by a real tenor, especially the end-note. I’m not very good at holding long notes out, so I wish it had turned out a little better, but I am very proud of that song, too.
How many chances did you have to film it?
We filmed it on five cameras on two nights, so that’s 40 hours of footage that they had to edit.
Looking ahead, do you want to put out an LP?
I would love to have a studio album, but like I said, it’s tough–I’m embarrassed to say this–because I’m so all over the place. I’m doing stuff with StarKid. I’m just coming off this show, and we’re already talking about what we’re doing next. We did three shows in a year! Like, we did Very Potter in April . Then, the following October  we did Me And My Dick. The following April/May, we did the Sequel. So, I think based on that rate, hopefully we’ll have another show by the wintertime. But to go back to the point, I haven’t been able to really focus and hone in on what I’m doing musically. I’d like to make a full-length album. I’d like to be writing songs for other people–I just like writing songs.
So, there’s still a future for StarKid? I guess there must be a sense of obligation to keep feeding the fans that have supported you.
It’s not even an obligation, though. It has become a really exciting reality for us. We’re getting to the point–without revealing too much information–we want to solidify ourselves as a real theater company, like the Goodman or something like that. You know, have our space, and really workshop things and be a little bit more theater-based, but then still put up things on YouTube. The future for us is that we want to continue to make properties–two years ago I could’ve given you a novel of everything that we could and will work on, so hopefully, we’ll work on that for as long as we can. Now that we have this completely unanticipated following and base, it gives us this confidence like, “You know, us doing this show isn’t so crazy!” So, it’s a very exciting time for everything. For StarKid, for myself personally, everything.
Finally, let’s talk quickly about YouTube, since that’s how you really got your exposure. Who are your favorite YouTube musicians?
My biggest fanboy [favorite]–that if they were in here I would choke up and cry because I would be so nervous–are the Auto Tune The News people. The Gregory Brothers–phenomenal musicians. Sarah Gregory–I have the biggest crush on. I think she is so beautiful, and she has such a good voice, and they’re all so cool and funny and talented. I just wish I could be half as good as those guys. They’re so good I wanna die–I just wanna die. [Laughs]
Watch a clip from the first Potter musical below, then let us know what you think.
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