Tondo, Manila is a place where people struggle on a daily basis. It is well known as one of the poorest regions in the Philippines. Born and raised here, singer/songwriter Otan Vargas spent his formative years surrounded mostly by poverty and despair. It is this humble background which helps motivate him to this very day. Vargas’ music is a powerfully simplistic combination of melancholy vocals accompanied by a brooding acoustic guitar. He writes songs about man’s struggle, sorrow and pain and finding the strength to continue on. What started out simply as a means of personal therapy for himself has transformed into an inspirational beacon for adoring fans worldwide.
Vargas grew up immersed in music from an early age. His father is an accomplished international entertainer and his siblings all sing and play musical instruments. But it wasn’t until the age of 17 that Otan would start playing the acoustic guitar. Around that time, he also began to follow his father to his shows in the Philippines. It was a great experience for him to see his dad perform live and learn how he handled business matters. But ironically, the family discouraged Otan from pursuing a career in music knowing firsthand how difficult the industry could be.
In 2006, Vargas travelled to the United States for the first time and would soon settle in with family members in New York. With no serious intentions of becoming a musician at the time, he recorded some videos of himself playing guitar and singing at a friend’s house and uploaded them to YouTube for fun. By a strange twist of fate, the videos gained some popularity on YouTube and eventually ended up being viewed by Aaron Lewis – vocalist of the rock band Staind.
Otan’s big break came in 2009 when Aaron Lewis unexpectedly invited him on stage to play a song at the Borgata Hotel and Casinos in Atlantic City, NJ. His somewhat nervous, yet captivating rendition of Staind’s hit song “It’s Been Awhile” elicited a standing ovation from the crowd. The video of that performance also spread quickly on YouTube. Shortly after, Otan would release his full-length debut album “Alone” in which he sings about enduring suffering, battling the voices within and trying to find a constant peace for his soul. The album was recorded mainly in one live take with an acoustic guitar and a single vocal microphone, a rarity in this digital age of multitrack recording. Otan describes his genre of music as “Organic Rock”. The songs are focused more on the emotional content and lyrical meaning than the skill or technique involved. He says, “when I write, I always follow where the song wants to go rather than following a certain structure or formula.”
In 2010, Vargas would perform his original songs for the first time in front of a huge audience of 5,000+ at the Jones Beach Bandshell in New York. And in 2011, he shared the stage with Corey Taylor of Slipknot/Stone Sour, Aaron Lewis of Staind, Lo Pro and Tesla for the “It Takes a Community Charity Concert” at the Pines Theater in Northampton, MA.
In 2012, Otan released a new EP entitled “Selected Sorrow.” The EP contained the song “Hollow Destination” which was featured in the documentary film “Battlefield of the Mind.” Produced by renowned videographer Fran Strine, the documentary touches on the plight of neglected US veterans who suffer from PTSD and homelessness. It offered a soundtrack which included well known artists such as Mike Mushok of Staind, Pete Murray of Lo Pro and several others including Otan Vargas. The following year, Vargas would travel across country by train from his New York residence to perform at the legendary Whisky A Go Go in West Hollywood, CA for the world premiere of the documentary. Others performing on the same stage, were members of the bands Megadeth, Staind, Evanescence and Eye Empire.
In 2014, Vargas would record a second EP “Origins” with producer Johnny April of Staind. The recording exhibited Vargas’ growing range as a musical artist and included several guest musicians to create more of a rock band feel. He followed up the album with a two-week tour of the Northeast U.S., performing 13 shows in 15 nights.
In 2015, Otan would again take the stage alongside Aaron Lewis of Staind. This time in Oklahoma for the Boot Campaign Foundation, an organization that supports US troops and their families. Then in 2016, Vargas would continue his charitable concert appearances with a performance at the Grand Theatre in Foxwoods Resort and Casinos for the Reach Foundation. The concert featured members of the bands Seether, Staind, Three Days Grace and Saint Asonia.
Most recently, Vargas’ has recorded a new single called “Ground” which features some veteran New York rock musicians including drummer Sal G. of Staind. Vargas experimented with a new formula for this heavy rock project. For the first time, he recorded only the vocal parts and did not include any acoustic guitar. Look for an official release in early 2017.
It’s been a long, unexpected journey, but all these experiences have developed Otan into a well-respected musician in the rock world and beyond. His story reminds us that if you dream something, no matter who you are or where you come from, it can come true if you work hard and your intentions are pure.