“The only constant in my entire life was music.”
Feature photo courtesy of @vobot
Half an hour into our first meeting, Paulina Vo and I were already deep into conversation about the Parasite Oscars sweep, our anger at guests not removing their shoes when entering our homes, and working side hustles as creatives before we even begin the interview. “The only constant in my entire life was music,” she declares as she casually leans back against the corner wall of the bubble tea shop where we’ve met. Born in New Orleans, Paulina has called many other places her home--New Mexico, Los Angeles (Anaheim/Westminster), Florida, Arizona, and for a decade now, New York City. Living in a predominantly white neighborhood in New Orleans for most of her childhood, Paulina was bullied a lot as a Vietnamese American, an experience that wouldn’t stop even after moving to multiple cities. Music became her outlet, and Paulina wrote her first song when she was only 8 years old.
Paulina Vo classifies her own music as a “genre blend,” having experimented with everything from R&B to acoustic to pop. It’s hard to pinpoint Paulina to just one style, as each of her albums reflect the multidimensionality she has cultivated within herself. Some songs center guitar riffs; others, heavier bass and beats. These idiosyncrasies aren’t random, but are instead a direct consequence of Paulina’s cultural upbringing. Listening to Vietnamese music, her older sisters’ 90s R&B, hip hop, and EDM, Paulina drew from many wells of influence. A quick look at her Spotify overview validates such a claim: from mostly acoustic albums like Just Like Clockwork to the synth-based Please, Paulina’s music is untethered, undefinable, and extraordinarily full of personality.
“Just Like Clockwork is one of my favorite albums as a whole front to back, as it’s one of the most sonically cohesive ones that I’ve done,” she says. Paulina also quickly clarifies that her music is emotional but with edge, as she sings about darker subjects despite brash judgments that her songs can be cheekily dismissed as simply “cute.” If we were to force a simple answer from her, Paulina would compromise to the label “indie, but with R&B, pop, and hip hop influences,” but even this, with its exceptions, is far from comprehensive. “I used to call it moody pop,” she chuckles, “I kind of wished that would catch on and other people would start using that so I could use it.” Alas, that hasn’t quite happened, but it seems an apt name for Paulina’s music.
“I always felt like I was trying to lift something up that was too heavy to lift.”
As we circle back to discussing her upbringing, Paulina notes the lack of familial support in her pursuit of music. “I always felt like I was trying to lift something up that was too heavy to lift,” she acknowledges, “I had to build my own skin, my own muscle to create music.” Neither her parents nor her two sisters encouraged her musical pursuits, but Paulina had always loved singing. She was 8 when she wrote her first song, and eventually wanted to learn the guitar and piano as well. Her dad didn’t take this seriously until she asked a second time, and he finally bought her a guitar. “It was a Best Buy guitar--I still have it! It’s covered in stickers,” she recalls fondly. Her dad taught her two chords, but the rest - everything from online guitar tabs to vocal lessons - Paulina did on her own. Music and song writing became a creative outlet for Paulina that stayed with her far longer than her dad had initially assumed was an adolescent pastime.
Growing up in predominantly white neighborhoods, Paulina remembers that she was bullied a lot. From being called names to watching classmates make slant-eyed gestures, Paulina suffered relentless racism from elementary to high school. “When you’re younger you can’t defend yourself because you’re not aware of it, but as I grew older I kept having to fight my friends as the token person of color,” Paulina remembers, “I had a lot of high school angst, family drama, and I needed an expression for all of that. So I created a lot.” It was in high school that Paulina started to burn her own CDs, writing track lists on them and handing them out in school. Paulina didn’t finish college, but while she was there she worked full time to pay for her own vocal lessons. “I’m a bad Asian,” she jokes.
“I had three months to save up, and I sold everything I had and came. I can’t believe I did that.”
“My friend was moving to New York and she had an extra room,” Paulina recounts. Her move to New York was somewhat of a whirlwind, and one that she seems to be surprised by even today. “I had three months to save up, and I sold everything I had and came. I can’t believe I did that.” She needed to leave her home (Arizona at the time), and there was nothing keeping her there. Moving to New York gave her the community and support that she seeked for all those years at her various homes, and she found herself being introduced to music she had never heard before. “It really helped me understand what it means to be a musician, and I found a support system.” Her family supports her musical endeavors now, but Paulina jokes that it’s because she has a full time job too. “I know that as an immigrant family they had other things to worry about, and they were worried about surviving, not about what I was trying to do. They were just trying to get through [the] day to day.” We joke about being the youngest child and trying to be the mediator between our families, one of the many digressions that we’ve had throughout the night.
“I’ve been trying to forgive these people but it’s hard and I can’t.”
“Shades Down,” Paulina’s latest release, marks the beginning of a new era. After realizing on her Weekends album that she wanted to fully produce an album by herself, Paulina took the huge jump and learned the ropes of music production. “It’s about the toxic people in your life and telling them to fuck off,” she emphasizes, “I’ve been trying to forgive these people but it’s hard and I can’t. It’s not easy letting people out of your life, no one wants to say goodbye. But if people are being shitheads you gotta let them.” The first of a series of singles to be released in the upcoming months, “Shades Down” is part of a full album Paulina is preparing to release in the summer. Her next project, a series of EPs about being Vietnamese American, excites me just as much. Divided into three parts--going back to Vietnam, her family’s history, coming to America and what it means to be bicoastal, Paulina’ seeks to explore her cultural identity through her music. “We need more representation out there, and I don’t see as many in music right now,” Paulina concludes.