On Sunday, you could get Tay Zonday on the phone. But that was before.
Before he was on Jimmy Kimmel. Before his YouTube video, "Chocolate Rain," logged another half-million or so views, and neared the 4.4 million mark. Before the John Mayer cover went viral in a big way.
Before Zonday's voice-mail box got too full to take any more messages.
As the earnest Zonday said so earnestly himself on Sunday, "Gosh."
And, no, you haven't lived until you've heard a man with a voice borrowed from God by way of James Earl Jones say, "Gosh." Just as you haven't lived in this Internet age until you've seen Zonday's claim to sudden fame.
Posted on YouTube in April, "Chocolate Rain" is four minutes and 52 seconds of one insane and/or insanely catchy riff, played over and over and over. Again and again and again.
It is either the song of summer, as Kimmel has declared, something to be filed under "Confusing Internet Phenomenon I Simply Don't Understand," per one Spin editor who gave it a listen upon request, or a cross between "a rough diamond [and] a polished turd," in the words of admiring "Chocolate Rain" parodist Russ Houghton
One thing's for sure, according to Tay Zonday, it's no joke.
"I am Tay Zonday," Zonday said, when asked if he was the all-new lonelygirl15, an actor affecting an innocent Netizen pose. "And that is my video."
And this is his song: Twelve verses, one chorus and 48 recitations of the mantra, "chocolate rain," which despite one definition at urbandictionary.com seems to be a social comment, rather than a bedroom proclivity.
Zonday provides the vocals, which makes for an arresting image in the video in that he sounds like the aforementioned God and Jones, but looks like the post-Urkel Jaleel White.
"I get a lot of messages asking is my voice real," Zonday told you, when he had time to tell you. "Just watching the video, [people ask] is that voice coming out of that body?"
The answer is yes—assuming there are any doubters after Wednesday's live performance on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live.
The Kimmel appearance also proved another of Zonday's assertions: That his "Chocolate Rain" move of stepping away from the mic to gather a breath is neither a Zonday trademark nor a Zonday tradition. And, indeed, on Kimmel, Zonday barely blinked, much less turned away from the mic. The walk-away technique, he said, was "just a breathing method I chose for that video."
And what a breathing method it was.
Green Day's Tre Cool used it in the "Chocolate Rain" goof he posted on YouTube last week. Other admirers: A hand puppet billed as McGruff the Crime Dog, and a masked mountain of something or other billed as Turdzilla.
In all, YouTube has been deluged with "Chocolate Rain" parodies, remixes and remakes. The videos riff on Zonday's breathing, his off-camera gaze, his popping up and down into frame, his admittedly "cryptic" lyrics, his look, and his hook. Mayer, backed by comic Sherrod Small, anted up his two cents on the subject for VH1, with the performance clip becoming one of YouTube's most-watched music videos of this week.
There are so many "Chocolate Rain" parodies/tributes/whatevers that Zonday said he simply doesn't have time to watch them all. (Not even the Mayer one.) Said Zonday: "It's almost a full-time job to keep up with the YouTube messages...[But], gosh, I appreciate anyone who wants to cover the song. I'm flattered."
The life wasn't always so hectic. By his own account, Zonday is a 25-year-old, self-taught, "hobbyist musician" who hails from Minneapolis, and attends the University of Minnesota, where's he's a Ph.D. candidate in American studies. Until last Friday, when he played a private party in Chicago, he'd never had a paying gig, much less a public one.
Although a novice, Zonday apparently knew enough about stage names to know that he wanted one. And so Adam Bahner, the grad student, became Tay Zonday, the musician with the YouTube channel.
Zonday said there's no "particular significance" to the name Tay Zonday, "other than that it is memorable and produced no Google results when I chose it." (Today, it produces more than 650,000.)
Launched in January, Zonday's YouTube channel is filled with photos of the man and his keyboard, and videos of the man and his work, from a cover of the Muppets tune, "Rainbow Connection," to his latest budding YouTube hit, "Internet Dream."
According to Zonday, he shot and produced "Chocolate Rain" in the privacy and anonymity of his living room last spring. Even though he posted it, he didn't consider it finished.
"I wasn't expecting it to be the final version," Zonday said. "I was hoping to share on YouTube, maybe get some feedback."
By mid-July, when the UK-based Houghton stumbled onto the link, "Chocolate Rain" had a modest-sized audience in the tens of thousands.
A 30-year-old cameraman for Britain's Sky Sports, Houghton was so taken by the song—"There's the work of evil genius there," he laughed earlier this week—that he wrote and recorded his own parody lyrics ("Chocolate rain/The logical way to eat soup is with a spoon/Chocolate rain/Johnny Depp was the real star of the film Platoon"), and married them to the original Zonday video.
Oh, and in classic YouTube tradition, he added flatulence noises. ("I am English," Houghton offered in his defense.)
The clip, posted on July 13, and now billed as "Chocolate Rain (Original Spoof)," wasn't the first YouTube riff on Zonday's song, but it was the one that seemed to spur traffic to Zonday's video, and encourage others to get their parody on. On its own, Houghton's video has recorded just under 300,000 views. (But none by Zonday, who said he hadn't seen that one, either.)
"Tay Zonday's getting really quite famous," Houghton said, "and I like to think I'd had a small part in that."
By the end of July, Zonday's Google Trend line, a line that didn't exist prior to the beginning of July, was zooming up. "Chocolate Rain" was on its way to all the John Mayer, Tre Cool and Jimmy Kimmel validation that would follow.
Zonday himself is baffled by the surge of attention, and the indie record deals he said have come his way. ("I think it started to become popular on some Internet message boards," he said.) He figures some click on his song because they like it, and he knows some click on it because they like to laugh at it.
"Gosh," Zonday said (again), "I appreciate that people enjoy it. Not all the attention has been positive, but I appreciate it...I'm blessed that anyone would choose to become a member of my audience."
When pressed, Zonday said he thinks "Chocolate Rain" has a "pretty good chorus, a pretty good riff."
And a catchy title, which means...? Which means...? Which means...?
"I like to compare it to that 1980s movie, The NeverEnding Story," Zonday said. "There's a character called the nothing...Chocolate rain is like [that] cryptic antagonist. Somehow you know it's there."
Because right now, it's everywhere. And so is Zonday.
Late Thursday, he returns your email from earlier in the day. He has just returned home from Los Angeles and the Kimmel set. He notes that he now has some major label interest, but no new gigs on tap. ("Though some have happened on very short notice," he writes.)
Zonday confesses he still hasn't seen the John Mayer cover, and jokes that he'd first need to know who John Mayer was.
Writes Zonday: "I am so out of the pop-culture loop."