Music has always been a source of comfort and expression for Brooklyn-based indie, R&B, pop-soul artist and producer Paulina Vo. The daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, she was born in New Orleans and moved around a lot, spending time in Orlando, Phoenix and now Brooklyn. Growing up in a predominately white neighborhood in New Orleans for much of her childhood, she was bullied and suffered relentless racism from elementary to high school. She turned to music as a means of comfort and release and knew she wanted a career in music at the age of 10, writing her first song at the age of 8. With a love for singing at a young age and the desire to learn the guitar and piano, she did not have much familial support with her musical aspirations growing up, but eventually convinced her father to buy her a guitar and teach her a few chords. Everything else she did on her own, with music and songwriting becoming a serious creative outlet that eventually led her father to realize it was more than just a fad. She started burning her own CDs in high school, writing track listings on them, and passing them out in school. She didn’t finish college, but when a friend of hers moved to New York and had an extra room, Paulina spent three months saving her money and selling everything she owned and made to move to New York. It was here that she eventually found the community and support she had been seeking and learned what it meant to be a musician. With a sound that has been classified as a “genre blend”, her cultural upbringing exposed her to everything from 90s R&B, hip hop and EDM, leading her to experiment with sounds ranging from R&B to acoustic to pop in her own music. Aside from writing and releasing her own music, she also has written music for film and television and is the director for client services at Songtrust. She also recently participated in the nu.wav lab sample pack joining 19 other womxn musicians and producers as a way to empower other womxn, non-binary and trans music creators out there, with the proceeds benefiting the organization Beatz By Girls. Having released albums, EPs and singles over the past several years, Paulina recently released her latest single “Sweetie”, a ballad dedicated to her true love, as well an an accompanying animated video. For her next project, Paulina plans to release a series of EPs about about being Vietnamese American that will explore her first visit back to Vietnam recently after 25 years, her family’s history and coming to America and what it means to be bicoastal. Although the racism and bullying she experienced growing up led her to push her native language out of her mind, she has learned to embrace and reconnect with her roots and will explore these connections in these upcoming EPs. With plans to release more singles in the coming months, she is definitely an artist to follow! You can connect with Paulina Vo via the following links:
As the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, you were born in New Orleans but grew up moving around a lot. How do you feel that these experiences shaped you as a person and as a musician?
I think I always felt very different from kids around me growing up. Whether it was because I was the new kid, or because I was the Asian kid, I didn’t feel like I quite fit in. To deal with it though, I turned to singing and writing as an outlet. Music was my own little constant dreamscape that I could go to that had no physical location, and I loved getting lost in it. As a result of moving though, I also got to meet and experience different places and people. I think my sound changed and grew as a result of all of this, and I’m happy about that these days! Not so much growing up, haha.
You have said that you grew up in a predominately white neighborhood in New Orleans for a lot of your childhood and were bullied. You wrote your first song at 8 and decided you wanted to have a career in music at the age of 10, with music being the only constant in your life. What can you tell me about discovering your love for music and how it became an outlet for you and a source of comfort and release?
It’s hard for me to describe my initial discovery, because I was so young! But, I think that’s the thing about it – how I feel when I write or sing, it’s never really changed. It’s always felt light, relieving, and fulfilling at the same time. So, when I was bullied or when I felt confused about who I was, I could literally turn on my favorite song and forget all about it for at least 3 minutes. Those moments of getting lost in my imagination were definitely building blocks for not only what I love about music, but how I write and now visually represent my music. It’s honestly kind of nuts to me!
Without much familial support for your desire to pursue music growing up, what was it like for you to do everything mostly on your own with regards to your music? What kept you driven and motivated to stick with it? What can you tell me about finding out your dad had been in a Beatles cover band in Vietnam in the 1960s?
Honestly, I was mostly doing the best I could with what I had. I didn’t really think the lack of support was that much of a hinderance until I was older, and realized that success in the arts can often rely on family support. I just tried, a lot! I wrote songs, recorded them, released albums, did shows, and repeated it over and over. And really, what kept me motivated was the idea that I had a chance to make a living out of it one day. While I don’t know if that’ll be the end result, I’ve spent the last few years learning that the process is the most important part. That alone keeps me fired up! The story about my dad playing bass is amazing. It was such a casual story, but at a point in time I literally draw my musical lineage to, haha. I don’t know much more about my family and our musical roots, but I hope I find out more one day!
Aside from writing and performing your own music, you also compose music for film and television. How did that opportunity arise for you and what do you enjoy about composing music for film and tv?
The first time I wrote anything specifically for film and TV was for “Here We Wait” (an indie web series). I feel like I literally had to be forced to sit down and write music for them, haha. I was nervous, I didn’t think I could do it, but the creators were incredibly encouraging and really worked with me. I luckily met them through a series of friends, and ultimately enjoyed the experience a lot! Since directors and producers are typically using reference tracks to build the music for their work, I was able to use these references as a guide. Something about that challenge of working within boundaries worked really well for me, and I’ve enjoyed it since!
You made the move to NY in 2011, having spent 3 months saving and selling everything you owned. What can you tell me about that experience and finding the community and support you needed, as well as finding your sound as an artist? In what ways did being in NY help you to understand what it means to be a musician?
My move felt so freeing – I made the move a goal of mine when I visited the city for the first time when I was 17. It felt incredible, and still does! I think it took a few years though to find a community and the support I needed to start figuring things out. I spent time going to community events that were focused on the music industry, and ended up meeting ambitious creative people like myself. From there, it was really about embedding myself in the local music scene, going to shows, and meeting more and more musicians. Immediately though, I met creatives who were doing their thing full time, typically with a caveat of some sort of side hustle. This definitely opened my eyes to the grind of it all!
You have talked about how you didn’t like how your early albums turned out and that they didn’t sound how you wanted them to. What has your journey been like in learning to produce your music on all fronts and doing it all yourself?
It’s a forever-student experience, I’m super humbled by it all the time. I still hesitate to call myself a producer as a result, but am encouraged by many friends to push through. And it’s tough, for sure. You can get stuck in a feedback loop with yourself, so relying on friends and other musicians becomes really important. Trusting your gut and intuition are also a big piece of it, and really going with what you think sounds good at the end of the day. I work on so many drafts of songs that I’m producing, because I’m always worried it’s not good enough. At some point though, you have to release music and move on to the next thing. Then you repeat this process all over again!
You recently decided to tackle your next project, which will be a series of concept albums about the complicated feelings of displacement you’ve experienced around your family’s journey to the US and your trip back to Vietnam in 2018, your first visit in 25 years. What was your return visit like for you? What can you tell me about your decision to do this series of albums and what it’s been like to explore your cultural identity through your music?
Vietnamese was my first language, and I didn’t speak English fluently until I was 6 or so. Unfortunately, as a result of the bullying I went through growing up, I pushed a lot of my language out of my mind, since it was so tied to me being different. And to my surprise, the first night I landed in Saigon for this trip, I fell asleep to memories of relatives speaking to me in Vietnamese – relatives I hadn’t spoken to in years. It was definitely an experience with repressed memory, and it was overwhelming! In a good way though, I felt like I was kind of coming out of a deep, cultural sleep. A few days into the trip, I wrote a song while sitting on a beach in Hoi An. It came out very naturally, and I wrote about feeling okay for the first time in a while. I was pretty stressed back in New York at the time, working and caught up in my day-to-day. While in Vietnam though, outside of the usual vacation calm, I was meeting people who tried but didn’t escape Vietnam when my family did, which really hit me hard. I was also learning more about a history I never knew, and I was coming face-to-face with how history was portrayed differently in the country. These paradoxes and emotional moments led me to write another song when I got home from the trip – from that moment on, I organized the concept and have been keeping it locked away until I’m ready. Or at least until I can head back to Vietnam for a few weeks!
What can you tell me about your new role as director of client services for Songtrust and making the transition to music tech?
My day job has always been in tech, and I’ve always worked toward balancing both tech and music. In 2020 though, I was able to finally make the transition and it’s been an incredible experience. Not only am I learning more and more about music publishing on a daily basis, I’m also reading industry news for my actual job! It’s been great to be able to utilize both my time in startup world and my knowledge in the music industry. It’s crazy to think that I’ve built these two career paths and they somehow came together!
You were recently a part of the nu.wav lab sample pack, joining 19 other womxn producers and musicians as a way to empower other womxn, non-binary, and trans music creators out there. What can you tell me about the organization Beatz By Girls that the proceeds benefit? What are some other ways you strive to empower womxn in the music?
Beatz By Girlz is an incredible non-profit organization. Their entire mission is to empower young underrepresented creators (womxn, non-binary, trans) through guidance, cirriculums, support, and more. They’re doing some awesome work and I was more than happy to support them through nu.wav lab’s sample pack! I think when it comes to empowering more womxn in music, it’s about providing space and a chance for creators to explore and have conversations. Whether that be through a structured environment like a panel, workshop, or event, or through personal connections that come from networking; presenting opportunities for exposure to creators that look like you is important. I’ve been fortunate to co-organize spaces like this in the past, primarily through a former meetup in NYC for womxn and non-binary producers. We would come together and learn, play work-in-progress tracks, give feedback to one another, and share ideas about what we could do next. It’s moments like that that can propel anyone into their own pursuits, and building more instances like that are springboards for up-and-coming talent. Currently, communities like The Digilogue (where I’m the General Manager), The Creator Suite, and Color of Music Collective, are places where a focus on inclusive spaces plays a major role in the future of music and the industry. It’s amazing and I’m so excited about it all!
What can you tell me about your activism as an artist and the role you feel musicians, or those with a platform, play in using their platform to advocate for social justice and other causes? What are some causes and organizations that are important to you?
If you have something to say as anyone with a platform, I think it’s important to do so responsibly. For me personally, I mostly want to make sure my stances are clear and even if I only help a little, I believe it’s worth talking about. In particular, social injustices are too critical to ignore. Inequality amongst people, especially for the BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities, are causes that require the power of community to progress forward. As a member of both, I don’t think I’ll ever shut up about it! Organizations that I care about and/or donate to often include NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, The Okra Project, Color Of Change, Rise, CARE, Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Vietnamese Heritage Center (local to NYC). These organizations cover a few topics that are important to me. If you agree, I highly recommend supporting some, if not all, of these non-profits in their missions.
You recently released your new single “Sweetie”, a ballad dedicated to your true love. You have said it took longer to produce than it did to write and that you went back and forth on many different versions. What can you tell me about the song and working with co-producer Dragi Ivanov? How did you meet and come to collaborate with him?
“Sweetie” went on such a long production journey; from a hotel room in Montana, to recording studios in New York, to Dragi’s home studio in North Macedonia, and back to my studio in Brooklyn. She’s traveled more than I have in the last year, haha. I brought I think my 5th or so version of the song to Dragi, who I met through a Facebook group for producers and songwriters. Through another connection, I reached out to him after listening to a few songs he produced. I met a ton of producers prior to that, but his sound in particular caught my ear – it was super aligned with what I was trying to do. We ended up working on two songs, both as co-producers – ultimately it came down to our tastes in music, what already inspired us, and our ability to communicate though we were remote. I super look forward to working with him again in the future and can’t recommend him enough!
You also released a video for the song! What can you tell me about the making of the video and the storyline, as well as what inspired the idea behind an animated fairytale?
Yes! I was listening the a mix of “Sweetie” late one night and literally had a sleepy vision of a queer Little Mermaid, haha. I imagined a mermaid character who sees her dream boo on the pier, and her swimming back to her underwater world to find the sea witch who advertises wish granting. I wanted to play on the fairytale theme that ended in a “will they, won’t they” rather than happily ever after, because everyone has a choice! I asked my friends on Instagram if they knew any animators and a friend of mine (sup Jess!) recommended her friend Amanda Kim. I connected with Amanda and turns out we had friends in common, which was already a win. From there, I told her my vision and she went to work. A few weeks later she came back with sketches and I was already blown away! She really helped with the colors and characters, and I loved her style – I’m visually inspired by Studio Ghibli and Sailor Moon, so I was hoping for anything close to it. Amanda really delivered and I’m so thankful for that! From there, I got feedback from a few friends (more shout outs to Maisa and Chris), and ended up editing more with the help of a designer/animator I worked with previously, Andy Regos. I added a fairytale like storyline, and she tied it all together. The end result is this lovely story of Sweetie and Chanh you see today!
What’s next for you?
A new single coming in April! And more singles after that! I’m so excited for the rest of the year, and am so happy to have chatted with y’all! Thank you Stitched Sound!