If you’ve seen a few TikToks over the past year (which, thanks to the pandemic, you probably have), it’s likely you heard a dreamy, lo-fi version of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” in the background of at least one. This track, titled “ily (i love you baby),” is courtesy of 20-year-old Sammamish-raised Powell Aguirre, known as Surf Mesa.
Aguirre always had an interest in music and when he was 12 years old, his older brother introduced him to FL Studio, a music production software. He said he really started to hammer out music as a student at Eastlake High School and would upload his tracks to SoundCloud.
“It’s what I loved to do and I’m really grateful that I put in the effort back then because it really shows how passionate I was,” Aguirre said.
Aguirre, who made sure to show up to the interview in a Seahawks jersey, originally had plans to study computer science at a school in Arizona, but those plans changed when he broke his leg after a cringe-inducing accident on a scooter. He was in bed for three months, but it led to him creating his first EP, “bedroom,” at home in Sammamish.
After a stint as a manager at the Bellevue Square PacSun while still recovering from his injury, Aguirre decided to move to Los Angeles with some friends to pursue music. He started to use TikTok as a way to share his creations.
“As a simple man, you use TikTok to kind of do what you dream and what your ambitions are,” he joked.
But Aguirre admits that he wasn’t really getting an audience at first, until he came across singer Emilee Flood’s cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” He said he was familiar with the original song because his father, Tony, a jazz musician, would play the classics around their house growing up. He liked Emilee’s take on it and reached out to her to download the audio of her cover to make a track with it. He remixed it, adding drums, vocal chops and instruments. He ended up finishing it in one sitting, which he says never happens.
According to an interview with Billboard, Aguirre sent Flood the SoundCloud link to the song, she loved it, and the pair decided to upload it to digital service providers. Emilee expressed her excitement about the song going gold on her Instagram back in July saying, “all of this just from my bedroom???? God is good.” The song has since gone platinum.
“This one just came together and I think it was for a reason,” Aguirre said. “It felt so natural.”
The song turned into much more than just another TikTok. It’s amassed 2.5 billion global streams across all streaming services and peaked at No. 2 on Top 40 radio.
But what makes this repackaging of an old hit so successful? Charlie Harding, host of the podcast Switched on Pop, which breaks down pop songs from both a musical and cultural standpoint, said the basic conclusion is that people love covers. It’s been shown that the music people find most enjoyable combines familiarity and novelty.
“The pleasure centers of the mind are turned on when we hear something that’s like, ‘I know it, I love it and also, wait: What is that?’ ” he said.
Aguirre has since explored different sounds and has collaborated with indie/pop singer-songwriter Gus Dapperton and pop/R&B singer-songwriter Madison Beer. He has also made remixes for pop singer-songwriters Shawn Mendes and Halsey.
Mendes even included his remix on the deluxe version of his album “Wonder.” The song features horns played by Aguirre’s father who he said has had a huge influence on him and helped him get his start in music.
“Without him I wouldn’t have the tools to be on a computer from a young age,” he said.
Ultimately, Aguirre said he just wants to make music that makes people feel good — he has an open mind in terms of what kind of music he puts out, as long as it feels like him and is honest.
He’s looking forward to live shows when they can come back and has already booked his first festival, Life Is Beautiful in Las Vegas.
Coming up as an artist during a pandemic has been interesting, Aguirre said, but quarantine has helped him focus on what he wants to do next.
“I definitely appreciate this time where I can sit back and develop more about what I want my sound to tell and have people better understand where I come from.”