Vo: This Brooklyn Musician is Pulling the Shades Down
Originally Published: January 30, 2020 | By Ray Ceo Jr. | Edited by Lisa Schulman
The year was 2003 and this girl with a guitar was doing everything she could to perfect an article for her high school newspaper class. It was her freshman year.
“Go play some music,” he said. He had never heard her play before but she did carry her guitar around with her. And mostly he wanted everyone else to shut the fuck up so he could focus.
She was complaining loudly about her struggle with this article, doing her best to make it resemble something that could be dropped into Microsoft Publisher and thrown on to the pages of the inaugural school newspaper.
That’s when her editor stepped in. He was the loud, borderline offensive and “too gay to function” type, who liked music over the chatter of his classmates. Because, let’s face it, he was smarter than all of them, or so he firmly believed.
On this particular early-Spring afternoon everyone in that newspaper class was talking non-stop, and it was getting on the editor’s nerves. He needed to focus and so, being the overbearing nuisance, he was, he told this girl with the guitar to step aside. He would work in the article, even finish it himself.
She moved a few feet away and settled her guitar across her knee. The girl with the guitar, smiled, and went to the front of the classroom, carrying her hard case guitar with her. She popped the case open and pulled out an acoustic guitar and was ready. With the pick in her hand, she asked everyone what they wanted to hear.
The editor, knowing only one semi-guitar like playing musician, shouted, “Michelle Branch.” His gay lisp cut through the sounds of the sounds of the mis-managed newspaper staff. She nodded and then, the unruly photographer who knew her better, insisted she at something of her own making.
Being overruled, as was often the case in this newspaper staff, the editor conceded, and she started playing a song she dubbed “Round Two.” The editor was expecting a pathetic attempt, to be honest. But, instead of hearing some puny little poorly written songs about “the boy made me cry,” – the editor heard something else. He realized right then and there this girl has soul. What he heard was this stunning lyrics and carefully crafted music belt out of this girl. He has been in love since.
That newspaper, the Cub Reporter only had one year, before being recreated to be more sophisticated and fitting for the growth of that high school in the most suburban outskirts within the Phoenix metro area possible. That girl, still with a guitar nearly everywhere she goes, only worked on that newspaper and went to that high school for one year. And that editor, still “too gay to function,” didn’t know then what he knows now. That he would be a fan of this soulful singer, this talented musician, this girl with a guitar, for life.He also didn’t know that it would be her music that would seal their friendship. Both artists in their own right, intertwined on some weirdly cosmetic level (or so the editor believes) both occasionally broken or finding themselves overwhelmed with “the feels,” but still, their friendship endures. It’s endured breakups, albums, job losses, moves across country, and even a song they wrote together. It’s endured blog posts and even a magical day in Williamsburg where they ran from the rain and found a pair of pants that fit the editor perfectly, and got lost in a “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” kind of moment, that can only be described as the best day that editor ever had in New York City.
Vo: This Brooklyn Musician is Pulling the Shades Down
An interview with Paulina Vo.
An iREADray exclusive by Ray Ceo Jr. Photos by Lissyelle Laricchia. Edited by Lisa Schulman.
Ray: So, it’s been a hot minute since you’ve appeared on iREADray.com, last time in 2013, and I want to thank you for agreeing to come back. It’s also very great to have you back as the first interviewee, for the second rising of my blog. So welcome back!
Vo: Thank you for having me. So happy to be here with you again.
Ray: You’ve come a long way since you were here last. And you’ve put out some albums, some singles, an EP or two, and even had your music in a movie. I am a little starstruck, so while I fend off my fanboy moment, why don’t you tell me about that experience?
Vo: It was an indie movie. And I scored music for a short documentary as well. Both have been awesome, [and] a major learning experience for me. Learning to show emotion with only instruments, versus voice and words, was a challenge. But it’s so cool to see the end result with the visuals. It makes me happy every single time. I love doing it and am currently working on more projects like it.
Ray: That’s truly awesome. I like that you have challenged yourself to try new things and aren’t stuck in the mud like many musicians. You’ve kind of become a big fucking deal in the past few years, and it’s been amazing watching your career thrive. I mean, I bought a Paulina Vo song on Apple Music for crying out loud! Actually, I really must confess, I bought several. Beyond having your music appear in movies, and finding a new way to express yourself without words, what else has been going well with for you?
Vo: Things have been on the up and up for sure. It’s kind of unbelievable but I know it’s all part of it. Between writing more, playing larger shows, and focusing on being a better vocalist, I’m really thrilled to have found the most wonderful community of musicians in New York. We’re all indie, we’re all grinding, and we all support each other. I couldn’t ask for more.
Ray: Tell me about your latest projects?
Vo: Outside of finishing the record, I recently finished a sound pack with Splice, which is set to come out in the next few months. I’ve also been writing beats here and there, and I was featured in a compilation of women producers across the world (WOW Vol. 2). I have also been producing for other indie artists in the city. And I have an important personal project that I’m still brewing, set to release after the new album.
Ray: Tell me about that!
Vo: It relates to being Vietnamese American and has three parts. I can’t wait for it!
Ray:What are some struggles you’ve had to get where you are today?
Vo: This is truly a loaded question! (Laughing).
I’m a huge proponent of mental health awareness and I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about coping with depression. I was diagnosed in college, and I’ve built habits to help me since. Of course, there’s a lot more context here but, it’s not exactly a helpful aspect of your life when you’re trying to push yourself every day to be a better artist. Fortunately, it’s a conversation a lot of us are having these days and there’s a ton of support from other artists. I’m thankful though, I wouldn’t be the same person or musician without working toward being healthier.
Ray:I think we both have found strength in our own struggles with mental illness and depression. I know the rebirth of this blog has stemmed from that. Hell, even its inception came from one of my darker periods. I like that we both find strength in our art. So, we’ve known each other for what, twenty years now?
Vo: It’s crazy. I’m so glad we’ve known each other this long. I had no idea our [high school] freshman journalism class would’ve led to this!
Ray: (Laughing), So, I have always wondered, what makes you tick?
Vo: Honestly, I’ve always had an indescribable drive in me to do the thing I want to do. While I’ve built a whole other career in parallel, it’s always been to support my musical endeavors. I tried to step away a few years back, and it clearly didn’t work out. (Laughing).
But I love writing and creating, there’s no way around it. The feeling of putting thought into a melody and sharing that with others, it truly impacts me in an emotionally positive way. I joke that I have two parts of me, the emo sad girl who wants to write and play video games, and the powerful righteous woman who wants to take over the world and win a Grammy. These two parts work together and get music out, no idea how or why!
Ray:I feel like I have two parts, too. I call it my inner Britney and my inner Pink. (laughing). So, it should be no surprise I draw much of my inspiration from music, and often that includes listening to you. So, in a way, you are my muse.
Vo: Aw Ray. That lights me up. Thank you for your continued support!
Ray:Of course. I’m curious, where do you find your inspiration? Who is your muse?
Vo: A muse is a weird concept for me, I don’t really have a specific person. It’s really a moving target and it’s whatever emotion I’m feeling in the moment, which can be attached to anyone. I stir up whatever emotion I’m trying to convey and people slip in and out of my mind as I’m writing. I do have songs that are very specific though, and each of those songs have their secret muses. (Laughing)
Ray:Your voice has changed, grown, become more complex, poignant at times. It’s definitely more powerful. So, you’ve definitely honed your skills. And I want to know, what have you done to find that voice, technically speaking? “I’m asking for a friend.”
Vo: Hahaha, totally.
Outside of choir, I didn’t have voice lessons until I could afford to pay for them on my own. This started around 18, and while I only had a few lessons, I learned so much from the relationship I built with my voice teacher at that time. Shout out to Lindsey Bair! I can’t stop recommending her, ever. Lindsey helped me figure out my sweet spot and I continued to write for my voice from there. Over the years, I continued to ask for feedback on songs and after live shows, I’d take note of what people liked most. I think this is a natural process for most creatives and it works.
Most recently, I was referred to a phenomenal voice teacher in the city [named] Marlon Saunders. He’s brilliant, and [I] expressed what I wanted to work on. He took that and gave me even more tools to continue to tap into parts of my voice I didn’t know I had power in.
It’s ongoing, as you could imagine, and I love finding confidence in the natural strengths of my range. It’s a lot of trial and error, willingness to take risks, willingness to fuck up, and it’s about putting yourself out there. I seriously encourage any singer to continue exploring to really discover what you’re capable of.
Ray:Dually noted. Even if I am no musician. So, I’ve listened to Shades Down. On repeat. It’s intricate and stunning. It basically hit me in my gut and heart at the same time. I will have a more in-depth review of it coming out alongside this interview when the song is released everywhere. Why don’t you tell me about what was going through your head while you were making this?
Vo: Thank you for saying those kind words.
I had to walk away from some relationships that were hurting me, and I found myself counting on one hand the toxic people I let into my life. A specific message set me off one day, and “Shades Down” was the result of reflecting on who I wanted to be. I hadn’t written about the subject as much at that point, and found myself going in on how I felt.
The result was the phrase “shades down”, which was meant to be temporary. I played the song for a few friends and they instantly were into it, so I knew I could keep it.
The outro though, came as recently as past October. I was working through the production and picked out the guitar part you hear there. The words came immediately, and I wanted to add the conflict that comes with wanting to forgive while understanding that you can’t just yet.
Ray:Amen! Breaking up and then finding myself again, has always been my way to the best art I know how to do. Do you find yourself writing about love, love lost and break ups, still, even though you’ve been with your man for some time now.
Vo: Absolutely. Being in love is a ride and being in a long-term relationship is both the best experience, while also requiring work. Because I’m writing what I feel in the moment for most projects, I naturally have moments of intense happiness and definitely take advantage of this while writing. Same with love lost and break ups. It might be a song, picture, or even friends bringing up past beaus. Sometimes it’s a few whiskeys in when I’m by myself at the bar after a show. I write what I feel in that moment and make notes on my phone, and will revisit it whenever.
Ray: I am a huge user of the iPhone notes app. So, if you could do one thing over in your music career, what would it be?
Vo: I would’ve studied music in college for sure. It wasn’t really an option because Arizona State didn’t offer a songwriting or pop music focus. That being said, I should’ve considered jazz; it’s a foundation that would’ve definitely been helpful. I did get some training and already loved soul and blues, so I didn’t think much about the training itself. Either way, I’m still thankful for what I even know now.
Ray:You do have a jazz appeal, especially since you’ve moved to Brooklyn. You’ve obviously made it in many ways as a professional musician. At what moment did you feel like you were on the right path?
Vo: (Laughing) I’m still trying to figure out my path. But no, I’d honestly say it didn’t occur to me until probably two years ago. It especially hit after I was nominated for an Indie Series Award – I was finally like, oh wow, this is a thing?
Ray:Besides Shades Down, what do you have in your 2020 sights?
Vo: I have a line-up of singles coming out every month or so. It’ll lead to a full album and hopefully a small tour! I’m trying to hone in and make these things happen, I’m excited.
Ray:I heard you have a Britney Spears cover in the works. You know I’d be doing my loyal readers a disservice if I didn’t inquire as to what it was? What prompted you to do a cover by the legendary Ms. Britney Spears?
Vo: I definitely want it to be a surprise! I don’t think it’s a song a ton of people know, unless they’re a Britney fan, of course.
It’s probably considered a deep cut. But I’ll give you a hint: it’s after “I’m A Slave 4 U.”
Ray:What’s one question you’ve always wanted to ask me?
Vo: Oohh! What’s your writing goal in life?
Ray: You know no one has ever asked me that before. I think when it comes to writing, most people have their own vision of a writer being this coffee-drinking novelist writing giant, best-selling novels. I think people imagine book reviews and being on NPR.
But, honestly, I do not have the patience to write a giant book. I lose interest too quickly and prefer shorter pieces, because there’s beauty in leaving some things out. There’s something to be said in the empty space. Truthfully, I rather enjoy writing short stories and novellas and personal essays. I think my ultimate dream would be to be a recurring writer in a syndicated, or at least well-read, publication, whether it be a magazine or a newspaper or even a larger blog.
Like all artists, I’d like to make a comfortable living off of my art. And, ofcourse, I have much bigger, long-term goals for this blog and brand, but right now I’m not focused on the long-term. In the immediate future, my goal is to publish something this year. And I’ve been dabbling in visual art as well, there’s this very vulnerable place I’d like to explore through my visual and raw written works. I have this one piece and it’s probably the most honest and stripped-down piece I’ve written, but I’m not ready to release it yet. It was hard to work on, but so very necessary, and I’m not ready to show off that side of me. Yet. Getting comfortable with publishing is hard and writing itself is a long process.
Vo: What is your process?
Ray:You know, no one has ever asked me that before either. (Laughing) Well… usually I pace a lot when I’m brainstorming. I frantically type into the phone or use talk to text to take notes. And I pace my kitchen or any hallway, really. I take lots of breaks when brainstorming, and usually eat. Then, when writing, with my narrowed focus, I am kind of a baby. I can only write and feel like I’m doing it right, when it’s night. No one can be around. And everything must be still. Writing for me is very solitary. Usually, I need it silent when I am typing. I am not afraid to shut my eyes to envision my subject matter or scene, and I don’t mind trying to determine what a character’s voice feels like against my tongue. If they roll their R’s or have a lisp, then I might need to try some of the dialogue with a rolled R or lisp. When it comes to writing though, the most important thing, I feel, is the editing process. I edit best by reading a print-out of my work aloud with a pen in my hand and make handwritten marks. Even if I edit just one word, I reread the entire paragraph aloud. That’s the same when writing. If I write something and then change it, I delete the whole sentence and start anew, usually. I also like to reward myself by dangling that carrot in front of me, usually in the form of chocolate.And when it’s finished, I take a victory lap with some music to rock out to. Usually by you. (Laughing)
Vo: That’s so cool, I love your process.
Ray:Well, that about sums it up. Thank you, Paulina, I mean, “no Paulina,” I’ll call you “Ms. Vo” laughing). You have been a great sport, and congratulations on being the first guest of this rebirth of a blog and on all of your success. I’m thrilled to be listening to new music by you. And I cannot express how much I enjoy your music and value our friendship. I’m looking forward to what 2020 brings us both.
Vo: A humongous thank you for having me! Your support has meant so much, and I’m glad we got to chat.