Chicago based musician, Carson Elliott, has grown over 4.8 million followers on TikTok from posting covers of pop songs while playing a talk box–an effects unit that allows musicians to modify the sound of an instrument. He sat down with Val Show to talk about growing up, the current state of the music industry, and dealing with anxiety.

Elliott began his career by playing music at a very early age. “I played piano in church from fifth grade ‘til my senior year every weekend. Throughout the week, I’d play gigs primarily as a keyboard player. That’s what I wanted to do – I wanted to be the keyboardist for Ariana Grande or Khalid or whoever.” 

He explains being introduced to the talk box at the start of the pandemic. “When covid hit is when I discovered this one instrument through this guy Adam on TikTok. I saw him doing a cover of ‘Workout’ by J. Cole and that was the moment where I wanted to try it. I’d seen it before, so I bought a talk box. My second video is the one that pushed my account, which was a cover of Doja Cat’s ‘Say So.’ Over the next week I think it got 40-50 million views and that’s the origin story.”

While Elliott’s career has now transitioned to being mostly online, he shares how a lot of musicians start out performing live in order to make a living. “For the longest time, really before social media started to blow up, the way to make money as a musician was to play gigs every night. You would play a four hour set at a dingy jazz club and make 20 bucks and a gumball or something like that. Now you have this power in your phone to do what you want to do and create something that gives a voice for other people.”

His love for music grew from playing video games with his siblings and friendly competition. “I grew up in the suburbs of chicago. I have two siblings who are both older than me and they were really into video games growing up. I fell in love with the music in video games and that’s what started my whole thing.” Elliott continues, “I made one friend in high school who’s the best musician I know, his name is Danny. We grew up playing music at the same time and it was almost like a competition of who was a better musician. My whole childhood was trying to be better than him. It was our escape from high school. Coming home knowing that you could shred is what brought me the most joy.”

When asked about what helped him grow his confidence, Elliott explains, “My talents in music really carried my self-confidence. Thank god the comments don’t affect me that much. You can hate the way I look, but I’m good at this one thing I really care about and that’s the only thing that matters to me.”

While the majority of people wouldn’t be able to recognize a talkbox on its own, Elliott explains that it’s used in a lot of the hits we listen to today. “You hear it in super popular songs. The song ‘Levitating’ by Dua Lipa has it. ‘Butter’ by BTS has it. It’s like a cool texture you can hear sometimes in songs. If you really listen to those songs, you’ll know what the talkbox sounds like and you can’t unhear it.”

For those who are interested in learning how to play the talkbox, Elliott offers his advice. “You probably want to know how to play piano a little bit. Literally some of the most famous talkbox people don’t know music theory–they just do it. Before I posted my first video, I was doing it for two weeks, but I’ve been playing piano my whole life.”

Elliott shares that picking up the unique instrument and building his platform on TikTok has certainly provided him financial stability as a musician. “Everything I knew about getting money is out the window. I think I’m doing pretty good. I have enough to support myself and pay for music videos. I definitely buy a lot of keyboards that I definitely don’t need but that’s the splurge I get to do from the sponsorships.”

In addition to making an income, he also had the opportunity to collaborate with other musicians like 24kGoldn. “His social media manager was like, ‘Hey, we’re coming to Chicago on tour. You want to come hang out at the airbnb?’ I get there and it’s a few other influencers there and out of nowhere, me and Goldn get into this really introspective conversation and he’s just the coolest dude I’ve ever met. I was trying to teach him his own songs on the talkbox but it’s surprisingly difficult to make it sound good. He was getting so mad he was like, ‘why can’t I get this to work?’ It’s very awkward to try at first.”

Jason Derulo also reached out to do a collaboration. “He messaged me on Instagram and said, ‘Hey bro let’s do a video.’ Period. First of all, I was like holy crap it’s Jason Derulo! He sent me a video of him singing acapella in his pool and was like alright do your thing. I was thinking this is gonna be so easy and then I started learning the keys. He sings the whole thing in like half of a half step, which is basically a key that doesn’t exist. I’m freaking out and I was thinking about telling him to use a pitch pipe, but I’m not going to tell him to sing it better. I spend the next hour or two tuning my piano to get the pitches right. I sent it back to him like, hey man piece of cake! It took me way too long to do a simple pop cover.”

After seeing his own success and getting to work with famous artists, Elliott strongly advocates for musicians to utilize TikTok to further their careers. “The music industry right now is carried by TikTok. Music that’s popular right now comes from the app and there’s nothing you can do to stop that. A lot of people I know are super traditional and say TikTok is ruining the industry, but I think it’s progressing it even further. You have all these new people that are coming up out of nowhere. It is what it is and you’re either going to adapt or stay in the past. So much of making music is writing and recording and the other half is marketing strategy.”

However, Elliott is aware that there are some popular TikTokers trying to make it as artists for the money rather than the love of music. “I appreciate the effort they seem to put in and I don’t think music is something you should bash. I think some people do it just as a cash grab, which is good like get your bag, but music to me is so much more than money. It’s such a vulnerable thing–your art is a piece of you. When it doesn’t feel like a piece of you, I get disconnected from it.”

A challenge Elliott’s faced over recent years is dealing with an anxiety disorder. “It kind of started a couple years ago. I had gotten stage fright which was really weird because I had been doing it for so long, but one gig I had I just froze up on stage and everything was spinning. I got diagnosed with anxiety disorder and I have a lot of frequent panic attacks. I was having 4 or 5 a day and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

Elliott shares how music has provided him an outlet to turn a difficult situation into something positive. “My most violent panic attack, I ended up going to the hospital. The night I came home I wrote my favorite song ever called ‘Panic’. Writing something down and making it an art piece kind of takes the power away from it. Writing has been a big escape, where I can take a hard situation and turn it into something beautiful.”

Even though he’s still working through coping with anxiety, Elliott’s incredibly optimistic about his future. “If you are really passionate about something, you will make it. You will find a way. Believe in yourself and that you can do anything.”

We’re very excited to see where Carson Elliott takes his music career in the future. Click here to watch his full interview.