Iam Tongi Says Year Since Winning ‘Idol’ Was ‘Not What I Expected’ (Exclusive)

Ryan Seacrest, Iam Tongi

Heavy/ABC Iam Tongi waved to the crowd alongside Ryan Seacrest after returning to "American Idol" to perform on Season 22 in March 2024

One year after winning “American Idol” in 2023, 19-year-old Iam Tongi says he’s forever grateful for the opportunities that have come his way because of the show. But on May 24, 2024 — as he released two new singles — Tongi also told Heavy that the past year has been a big learning curve for him.

“I think it’s just way more than I thought it would be,” Tongi admitted. “(I’m) just really glad for the opportunity and I’m happy that I get to do what I love now. It’s a lot though, it’s not what I expected.”

Tongi, a native of Hawaii, told Heavy that some of the toughest adjustments have included learning the business side of being a working musician, balancing touring with home life, and finding the patience to take good care of his voice. But he’s excited for another busy year, with new music on the way.

Iam Tongi’s Learning to Balance Budgets While Figuring Out a Good Work/Life Balance

Video of Tongi’s “American Idol” audition went viral in early 2023, racking up more than 100 million social media views within two weeks of airing, according to the Kent Reporter, a local newspaper in Washington state. Tongi’s family moved there after being “priced out of paradise,” he famously told the judges during his audition, and it continues to be his family’s home base.

Tongi told Heavy he still hopes to one day purchase a place in Hawaii, where he met up with and performed for the top 2024 “Idol” contestants during an appearance on season 22. But it may be a while before he can afford to move back, Tongi said, since part of his steep learning curve this last year has been realizing how much it can cost to be a touring artist.

“It was a surprise to me,” Tongi said. “I didn’t know that. Maybe you pay to do what you love. That’s one thing that I’m learning a lot more now, about the (music) business. I’m getting better at that. A tiny bit.”

With Tongi’s uncle serving as his tour manager, the teen has crisscrossed the U.S. but also thrilled audiences in other countries, including Australia, New Zealand, and Samoa. After managing to squeeze in his 2023 high school graduation in between his many concert dates, Tongi said he’s adjusted to life on the road, but told Heavy that he’s working on finding a balance of going back home frequently enough to see the family and friends who keep him grounded.

“(Touring) is a lot of fun and I’m good for like, maybe like a month, and then then I’ll start wanting to come home,” Tongi said. He then added with a laugh, “I’ll be home for two days and I’m like, ‘Man, I want to go back out!’ It’s just so fun. Obviously, you’re gonna start missing home after a little while, but it’s my dream. It’s what I always wanted.”

One challenge that’s come with so much touring has been the toll it’s taken on Tongi’s voice, an issue he never had to think about before winning “Idol.” Tongi told Heavy he’s supposed to drink plenty of water and routinely use a steamer to hydrate his vocal chords. But the toughest task for Tongi is resting his voice — a tough task for someone with ADHD, which he was diagnosed with in elementary school.

“I still haven’t learned to be quiet when I’m not performing to save my voice,” he told Heavy. “You know, I just love to talk. That’s been hard for me but I’m working on it.”

2 New Singles Hold Special Meaning for Iam Tongi

Tongi’s Samoan and Tongan heritage made him the first Pacific Islander to win “Idol” and an instant icon in those communities, as well as in Hawaii. On May 13, he performed at the White House for an event celebrating Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, per Hawaii News Now.

Proud of his heritage and the music he grew up with, Tongi is especially excited about his two new singles, covers of Kolohe Kai’s “Cool Down” and Spawnbreezie’s “Don’t Let Go,” which are songs he also performed on “Idol.” 

“I just grew up listening to this music,” Tongi told Heavy. “In Hawaii, everyone knows those songs, I’m telling you right now. Everyone knows ‘Cool Down.’ Everyone knows ‘Don’t Let Go.’ So I’m just paying tribute to the music that those legends (from) my childhood.”

Tongi said he had fun adding his own flavor to the classic tunes, which were recorded with his band in just two takes. Only background vocals and horns were added later, he said.

“I’m going with the flow and I have my steel (guitar) in the background, which is different,” Tongi told Heavy. “And I’ve got the organ sounding different, more like gospel music. It just sounds very different.”

Looking to the year ahead, Tongi said he’s excited to keep performing and songwriting, with a new EP release planned for June. He would also love to collaborate with some of his favorite artists this year, he told Heavy. Though he said there are too many favorites to name, he mentioned country superstar Chris Stapleton and contemporary island reggae star George “FIJI” Veikoso as two of his own “idols” he’d love to sing with.

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