Everywhere I go on the Internet, I see Zack Tabudlo. First, on Facebook as he posts yet another cryptic message that quickly goes viral; then on TikTok where he’s seen covering the official soundtrack of Our Beloved Summer; then again on Spotify, where his song Pano sits on top of the national charts for the second month in a row. But not even this constant exposure could have prepared me for a Monday afternoon Zoom call with the country’s biggest singer today —my second most-played artist of all time, despite only having discovered him last December.
There’s a certain sense of confidence and self-assurance you’d expect from someone with his level of visibility. Yet all throughout our conversation, Zack exuded an aura of quiet humility not normally seen in celebrities of his stature, as if he still can’t believe this is his life. When I asked him how he’s been dealing with his newfound fame, he looked away from the camera and laughed to himself, quick to shoot down rumors that it’s changed him in any way.
“I’d like to think I’m very much the same as I was before,” he shared. “Me and my dad, we obviously track my growth through social media, especially Spotify. But I feel like staying in the same place I’ve always been in due to the pandemic, being with the same people and within the same circle just helped ground me.” This modesty takes root in Zack’s lengthy experience on the other side of the spectrum. After a brief stint on a nationwide talent search, it took years of performing to five fans at every show and getting little to no streams on his songs before a certain platform skyrocketed his career.
After releasing a song, it’s not just about you anymore: it’s about everyone else who listens to you.
“When we released Nangangamba last November 2020, it didn’t get much attention,” he recalled. “Sure, we were gaining some listeners bit by bit but it wasn’t until it went viral on TikTok that we were able to connect with such a wide audience.” Still on a high from the track’s second wind, he released Binibini shortly afterwards and the rest was history. “I remember my friends being so happy when they saw that the song was everywhere on social media. They told me there was nothing but my face whenever they would go on Facebook; it was pretty funny.”
Although virality has cemented his status as a household name, it would be a disservice to attribute his hard-earned success to the algorithm alone. The 20-year-old singer-songwriter-producer extraordinaire has perfected the art of making music for the masses, by combining his vocal prowess with a keen awareness of popular sonic and lyrical elements. “Every time aspiring producers and artists ask me how I make songs, I always tell them that they need to be in an environment full of people who know what’s ‘in,’” he said. “Really try and tap into what they want to listen to as of today by getting their likes and their interests. When you take these stereotypes and incorporate your own artistry, that makes all the difference.”
It’s this formula that allows him to appeal to Filipinos and foreigners alike — a statement that may be controversial for long-time OPM fans. Over the past few years, we’ve seen the discourse surrounding the so-called death of our local music industry: that the corporation-backed sellouts topping the charts no longer represent our collective interests and instead copy whatever’s trending among international artists. But what has always set OPM apart from everything else is its ability to pull emotions from deep within; to weave them into narratives that strike a chord, regardless of any linguistic or cultural barriers –– or hugot, as we like to call it.
View this post on Instagram
This is a language Zack is very fluent in: in fact, he’s become our go-to guy for all stages of love, as we can see in his widely successful debut album “Episode.” All 14 songs talk about a specific aspect of modern-day relationships in its own distinct approach: my personal favorites include the rock ballad about the hesitation that comes with falling again (Heart Can’t Lose), the bluesy funk anthem on euphoric first relationships (High), and the VST-inspired promise of an eternal love (Habang Buhay). It’s a story that demands to be listened to from beginning to end, and one that I honestly can’t stop revisiting.
Zack and his team continue to push the envelope through other creative efforts, such as his album’s K-pop-esque branding and packaging, and the interconnected music videos for each of the tracks – his own ZT cinematic universe. He even hinted at some big-time collaborations—the latest being Iba with fellow heartbreaker Moira Dela Torre, released last Valentine’s Eve—and international gigs, including an eight-city US tour with Filipino rock band December Avenue.
But despite his consecutive wins, he is anything but complacent. Though he’s no stranger to inevitable hate comments on the internet, Zack still considers himself his biggest critic: “I doubt myself a lot, often wonder if I should do this or do that, then think that what I come up with sucks so bad. I continue incorporating all my inner criticisms (in what I do), since I want to become a better version of myself every day.”
His perfectionism is crucial to his work, as he understands that his responsibility above anything else “is to give fans a sense of happiness and connection, (because) my listeners go through such horrible stuff and my work has the power to give them more hope. After releasing a song, it’s not just about you anymore: it’s about everyone else who listens to you, and what your music does for them.”
This much activity can burn even the brightest of stars out –– but not Zack. It’s an advantage, he claims, of being a young person in the industry: getting to do what he loves for a living is just pure, unadulterated fun that he hopes never ends. “Sure, I know it’s work at the end of the day, what with the long and tiring hours and everything,” he admitted. “But after keeping at this craft for years, I’m just incredibly blessed and happy to be where I’m at. It’s an honor to keep doing this, to keep making music for all of these people.”