The internet has been good to Seth G. Not “Leave Britney Alone” good, but plenty good enough. This summer, Gilliard submitted a video of himself covering Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You” to Worldstarhiphop.com, a YouTube for hip-hop where it got more than 130,000 views. There were also another 67,000 or so from YouTube. What makes this even more remarkable is the fact that Seth G. isn’t a rapper. He’s a violinist.
Twenty-two-year-old Seth Gilliard has been playing the violin since he was five. “My mom used to play viola in high school, and so she had an old viola lying around our house when I was young, and I’d always tinker with it,” he says. He attended Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary School before moving on to Porter-Gaud School in the sixth grade, all the while taking private lessons and playing with the Youth Orchestra of the Lowcountry. After high school, Gilliard moved to Greenville to attend Furman University’s music school, where he was concertmaster for three years.
On the surface, Gilliard’s career seems pretty typical for a classical musician, but at the same time, he was at work on something much more contemporary. For the high school talent show his senior year, Gilliard and friend Daniel D (another well-known Charleston hip-hop violinist) performed a five-minute mash-up of songs like Kanye West’s “Stronger” and Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop.” “Everybody went crazy,” he says. “I started recording myself, and I came out with eight songs on a CD, all covers, and I just spread them around my high school and people were really feeling it.”
During his sophomore year at Furman, he took the time to start learning jazz, but he never abandoned hip hop. Early on, Gilliard wanted to start putting videos up on YouTube. “It was me in my room just free-stylin’ pretty much, and my dad didn’t like that, I remember,” Gilliard explains. “He was like, ‘You can’t put that out,’ and I was like, ‘It’s YouTube, nobody cares. This is the idea.'”
Today, Gilliard has 17 videos online with thousands of views and a 14-track mixtape of covers that he released in August. His choices are a combination of songs he likes and songs that he knows are popular. That means staying up-to-date with the Billboard charts. “That’s what people know, and they’re much more likely to click on a link that has their favorite song in it, or at least a song they’ve heard of,” he says. “I think that’s part of the draw of it. They’re like, ‘Oh man, he’s playing that song? No way.'” Still, he’s only going to do songs he likes, which means you can forget about hearing a Seth G. cover of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”
After he picks a song, he listens to it again and again as he learns the hook. His approach to playing is different every time; after all, pop songs with easy melodies are often easier to learn than a discordant hip-hop track. This summer, Gilliard was pushing himself to transform a new song every week, but he doesn’t like to rush the process. It usually takes a few days to get a song where he wants it to be. “A lot of the time I’ll cover the lead lines, the hooks, and maybe like the bridge or something, but I always try to throw in improvisation,” he says. “I write my own parts a lot of the times too or do stuff like mash-ups which I’ve been doing for a while, seeing if I can throw in another song that I know or even a classical piece.”
Gilliard has more than a few violins to choose from for the tracks. “The one I record with is my baby,” he says. “I got that my freshman year at college. It’s a French instrument. I want to say it’s like 150, 200 years old. It was very pricey. But yeah, that’s my pride and joy.”
Since he’s still in his early post-college days (Gilliard graduated from Furman with a degree in violin performance in May), he’s content to spend them in Charleston, testing the waters in the local scene. “My parents are definitely very supportive of what I’m trying to do now, but they’re also kind of like, ‘We want you to go back to school, grad school, blah blah blah,'” he says.
Still, you’ll find Mama and Papa Gilliard at O-Ku on Thursdays, watching Gilliard perform his weekly gig there. The tunes trickle out of the sushi joint’s door to the passersby on the street, the women in cocktail dresses lined up for bike taxis, or the young punks smoking cigarettes outside A.C.’s. “Obviously, I’ve been telling my friends and inviting people out, and there’s definitely a group of people now who come pretty much every week,” Gilliard says.
Although O-Ku is Seth G. first full-time gig, hehas begun doing private events recently — weddings, parties, that kind of stuff. He also tutors, but he’d like to branch out and get more into the local nightlife scene. Gilliard has also been working on original songs, and they’re in the same vein as the tunes that have made him an internet celebrity.
Not surprisingly, he has turned to the one place perhaps where he has had the most success so far. He says, “I’m online all the time just trying to find opportunities for myself.” Here’s hoping he finds them.
Seth G. performs weekly at O-Ku (463 King St.) on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. Visit sethgmusic.tumblr.com to learn more.