Jeff Pearlman

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Genny Sokoli

#219
You're 16, you're living in New York and your goal is country music stardom. What to do? How about leaving school, leaving your parents, moving to Nashville and chasing the dream? Meet America's gutsiest teen ... POSTED August 11, 2015

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So this is sorta weird, but when I initially sent Genny Sokoli these questions, I figured she was, oh, 25, 26. Maybe even 30.

She’s eh, 16.

Which again, might sound weird. Like, why is a 43-year-old writer Quazing a 16-year-old kid. But this only means you need to hear her voice, and some of the songs she’s written. Because, age be damned, Genny Sokoli—the latest Quaz musical discovery—can straight up bring it. Hell, take a listen here. And here. And here. Big voice, fantastic poise, potentially huge future. Lord knows when she’s opening for Taylor Swift two years from now she won’t have time to do a Q&A with an old sportswriter. So … why not now?

Plus, there’s the story: Imagine being a parent, having a 16-year-old kid, and letting her move to Nashville to follow her dream—without you. How would you feel? Could you even fathom such a scenario?

Anyhow, you can follow our 219th Quaz on Twitter here and Instagram here. You can visit her website here.

Genny Sokoli, congrats on being the youngest Quaz. Remember us when you blow up …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Genny, if you happened to read any of the other Quazes, you’ll know I lean toward the unconventional. So here I go: In your bio, you (or someone) write: “A little girl with a big dream is what they said…today, it is a young woman with a big responsibility. A responsibility? Yeah. Dreams are great and all, but it is our duty to run them to the ends of the universe to be the best we can be.” So … I’m not entirely sure what this means. Millions of kids dream of playing shortstop for the Yankees; of singing a duet with Taylor Swift; of becoming an astronaut—and 99 percent fall short. So does this mean they have failed their duty? What are you trying to say?

GENNY SOKOLI: When I was a little girl all I ever wanted to do was become an artist; I didn’t imagine myself doing anything else. I don’t think that people who fall short in making their dreams a reality are failing; I think that people who do not try are. I am a firm believer that we are obliged to not just give our dreams a shot, but rather truly try to make them a reality. You look at young kids and so many of them have this vision perfectly planned in their heads of what they want to do with their lives. Somewhere along the road, many young people lose that imagination and youthful eagerness.

I never let myself believe that I couldn’t be everything I wanted to be and more. I want to set an example for people, especially my generation, that it is not merely a dream … it is a responsibility to live your talents and passions to your fullest ability. If that kid wants to be a shortstop on the Yankees he better be on that field every single day fighting to be that shortstop. If a young girl or boy wants to be an astronaut, they better study hard to be one. Don’t let society or life get in the way of your heart. I was given an amazing opportunity to pursue my dream at a young age; it would have been very irresponsible had I not taken it. That’s why I listed it as my responsibility.

J.P.: So I’m no singer, which might make this question sound naïve. But I just watched a video of you singing Florida Georgia Line’s “Never Let Her Go,” (beautifully, I must say), and your facial expressions and body/hand gestures suggest you’re truly feeling something as you sing; feeling the emotions of the song. But are you? Is it sort of feeling, sort of acting? Neither? Both? And how—especially if you didn’t write a song—can one feel emotion from another’s lyrics?

G.S.: Thank you very much! That song is absolutely one of my favorites. Being only 16, many people have been curious about how I can relate to a lot of the songs that I write and sing. I always tell them that I feel them. The art is not in the sound or the words; it is in the communication. I am a very, very empathetic person. I write and sing about that. I never had my husband of 20 years leave me out of the blue. I never had someone close to me die. I never had to choose between two men who I loved. I’m 16; I can’t say I went through any of that. What I can say, though, is that I have seen people go through it. I have felt their pain; I stayed up nights crying for them … with them. So yes, it is my emotions that you were seeing, but I had to “become” that person in order to find them.

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J.P.: So you recently moved to Nashville to pursue your dreams. Which is what many singers do. So, Genny, how do you go about this from here? Like, you’re one of thousands blessed with a great voice and pretty looks to try and make it in the music world. But how does one do it? What’s your plan?

G.S.: Coming to Nashville was the best decision my family ever let me make. This town is filled with phenomenally talented artists, musicians and writers. I have seen a lot of people get discouraged by knowing that. I am not. I welcome the challenge to better my craft. I can sing, I can write, I can dance, etc. … but none of that means anything unless I constantly better myself for the people who believe in me. That is what I am working on, the art. My main goal right now is to get to my fans, and I don’t mean just physically. I mean really get to them. If my song or my message can help one person cry through a breakup listening to a song on her phone, or get over a dilemma by coming out to a show, than I am the happiest I can be.  Right now, I am taking it person by person, song by song and feeling by feeling. The goal is to be able to reach the masses, but you have to start one by one.

J.P.: OK, so I know you were born in New York and raised in Michigan; I know you moved 13 times. But what’s been your life path? Like, when did you first know you wanted to sing? What was your first performance? Your first WOW! moment?

G.S.: My life path has certainly been interesting in these short 16 years. My mother and father always chased opportunities to better our lives, and I truly was blessed even though things got tough sometimes. Moving so many times, within such a short amount of time, was really stressful, but it was a blessing in disguise. Every time I would go to a new town and a new school I had to build a new life. New friends, new culture, new experiences. Doing this has helped me so much in connecting with people. I know how to relate to a whole lot of them! My mom and dad are still out in New York City; my brother is going to college in three weeks, and me and my 21-year-old sister, Ilirjana, are taking on Nashville!

My mom and dad are both artists, so art has been a huge part in our lives. My father was a professional musician so we would always be around music, and the “behind the scenes” stuff that would go on, and my mother always instilled in us this passionate love for music. Music is all I ever wanted to do. My mom jokes around all the time, that I came into this world singing. I have a million home videos being in a “band” with my siblings and cousins, starting when I was as young as two. It’s great! My first performance was when I was eight in front of about 1,200 people whp were at a party my father threw for New Year’s Eve. It was the craziest! My absolute most memorable moment so far was when I sang to two of my favorite artists, Stephen Barker Liles and Eric Gunderson (Love and Theft). My sister took me out to their show in New York City and I got the opportunity to sing in front of DJ Du, his family and his team. Then I got up and performed to their fans after the show as they were waiting for a meet and greet. I can’t explain the feeling, but it was crazy hearing everyone quiet down to listen to me, and that wasn’t even the highlight of the night! We ended up meeting the guys, and I sang to them as well. Their reactions were priceless to me. Since moving here, I’ve gotten a chance to talk to them, and they truly are some of the greatest people. My sister tells me that night was the night she decided to move us down to Nashville. It was that special.

J.P.: How, at 16, was the decision made that you’d move with your sister away from home? How do your folks feel? What about high school? Friends? Etc?

G.S.: Moving away at 16 was probably the hardest decision my parents ever had to make, but in a way the decision was pretty simple. I had an amazing opportunity to work with some awesome people in this town. Once we got the ball rolling it was apparent that the only way to really do it was move here. Unfortunately my dad couldn’t leave his job, and my brother was finishing his senior year of high school so no one else could come down with us. My folks are extremely supportive, but I can only imagine the hurt. My sister is probably the most responsible person ever so they really trust her. And my mom is actually visiting for a little bit now.

The biggest challenge moving here was high school. I have such a busy and unconventional schedule that I have to be home schooled. Ilirjana is home schooling me for now! She rocks as a teacher, but, I’m not going to lie, she is a lot tougher than a lot of my other teachers. She doesn’t miss the opportunity to teach me everything and anything. It’s all critical thinking, too. For example, when we were on the lesson of the Constitution, she wouldn’t move on from the lesson until she could give me any modern law and I had to trace it back to the Constitution; explaining its significance in an essay. At school, you had some multiple choice questions and it was done. I love learning, so it truly has been great. Not being able to have a regular high school experience isn’t always easy. I’m not going to lie, sometimes I miss it, but nothing worth having comes easily.

I have a ton of friends here. Most of them are significantly older, but I feel like I learn so much from all of them. Moving here has been a huge sacrifice for everyone in my family, but it’s been such an amazing ride so far and it isn’t even the beginning. I am very blessed.

J.P.: I actually started my career in Nashville, as a Tennessean music writer. The year was 1994, and the goal for all artists was to land a record deal. There was no YouTube, no Twitter, no instant fame via the Internet. It was record deal or bust. You, however, are in the midst of a business now sorta guided by social media. So how can you use all the different web mediums to carve out a career? To make it big? Or are you, like those singers in 1994, itching for the record deal route, too?

G.S.: Ah I love this question so much! I am not at all rushing to get a record deal, or any deal for that matter. Right now I am chasing opportunities to connect to people. Social media is a big part of that. I know that in some ways it has made society less social, but at the same time we are more connected than ever. I love going on Instagram and making someone’s day by saying they are beautiful, or acknowledging them … even if they are 1,000 miles away. I love having a platform that I can share my love, music, and message out to so many people instantaneously. I love being able to connect with peers and you, Jeff! Social media is a great way to get to fans, listen to them and learn from them. They are the reason any artist is who they are; it is a blessing to be able to connect to them more personally at any time.

When Genny was a tyke ... waaaaaay back in 2005

When Genny was a tyke … waaaaaay back in 2005

J.P.: My wife and I have a pretty good debate going. Her all-time favorite singer is Elton John, who wrote very few of the lyrics to his own songs. My all-time favorite singer is Daryl Hall, who wrote most of the lyrics his own songs. Genny, do you think it takes anything away from an artist if he/she never writes the words to a song? Does it add something if he/she writes all her own material?

G.S.: That debate is certainly an eternal one. I have to agree with both you and your wife, Jeff. I don’t think it takes away from an artist if they do not write their own material; writing and performing are different arts. As an artist you have this message you want to give out to your fans, you know what it is and your heart can feel it. How you get that across shouldn’t be judged as wrong or right. If you want to write it, sing it, play it, draw it, sculpt, or paint it. Whether or not an artist is connecting to his/her fans is where the debate should lie. To me, writing my material adds a more personal note to my music. Personally, I want to connect with people using both platforms—writing and performing.

J.P.: Lowest moment of your career thus far? Highest?:

G.S.: Oh boy. Well the lowest point in my career was working with someone who didn’t capture my ideas, and losing quite a bit of money in the process. The height of my career so far has been people and other artists around town taking me seriously. I’m not some 16-year-old kid trying to get an easy break to the top. With the support of our family, my sister and I have worked very hard for every opportunity we have gotten. It’s so nice having your peers respect that.

J.P.: You write that you’re working with Malcolm Springer, who produced bands like Collective Soul, Matchbox 20, Fear Factory, Full Devil Jacket, and Greenwheel. So … how did this happen? How’d you hook up? What’s he like to work with? Is it intimidating? Hard? Cool? And what are you, specifically, working on?

G.S.: Oh Malcolm Springer—he is a musical genius, and a good friend of mine. About two years ago, my sister bought me my first little USB Microphone from the Guitar Center in Paramus, N.J. The guy who sold it to her was an engineer who worked with Mal in the past. He loved my voice, and really believed in me. We got connected through him. Knowing Mal worked with some huge rock bands was kind of intimidating at first, but that feeling went away real quick and got replaced with awe. The first place I ever recorded was at the House of Blues Studios in Nashville, the same studio Elvis, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles sang in. I still get butterflies in my stomach thinking about it. My experience working with Malcolm has been a very educational one. Right now we aren’t working on any project together.

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J.P.: Your sister is your manager. I say this with all due respect, but is that the best idea? It seems like the roads are littered with family management interests gone bad. What does your sis know about the business? Why her? Is it hard keeping business divided from personal?

G.S.: I really like this question, too. My sister has always been the brains behind me since day one. I have heard many disaster stories about familial conflicts as well, but our relationship is a bit different. When it comes to business, she is all logic. When it comes to me, she is my big sister and best friend. We are a package deal. We even write songs together. The music industry is like the Wild West—there are no rules. We are building them together, creating our own normal. She teaches me every day about art, love, business, communicating and even modeling for pictures. The way I was raised made the relationships with my siblings so concrete; it’s us against the world. No career, no money, no conflict ever gets between that. Ilirjana was the one who made my dream my responsibility. She was going to school full time, and working full time at an awesome job in finance in Manhattan. She dropped it all for this. It’s our career, not my career. There is no Genny Sokoli without her.

J.P.: When I was your age, and I saw other writers having huge success, I was certainly jealous. I’m not saying I wished them bad, but, well, I probably sorta did. What about you? Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, etc … etc. Do you ever hear singers with a gazillion downloads and think, “Crap, I’m better than her” or “Why is it so easy for her, and harder for me?”

G.S.: I absolutely understand where you are coming from. I don’t think its jealousy. Envy, jealousy and hatred are all very negative words to let into my head about other artists. I do hear other artists sometimes and go, “How in the world did they get there”—but not in a jealous way. I am in awe of it. I use that as fuel; a healthy dose of competitiveness is needed to be successful in anything.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH GENNY SOKOLI:

• The world needs to know—what’s so great about the Tin Roof?: The world absolutely needs to know that the Tin Roof on Demonbreun Street is one of the best places in Nashville. I have met so many friends there; they have the best chicken tenders, the best sweet tea and the most awesome staff ever.

• You haven’t written a blog post since Dec. 30, 2014. Why?: I was slacking on blog posts! I have a few I am working on now.

• Rank in order (favorite to least):  REO Speedwagon, Nicki Minaj, Slim Jim, Alan Jackson, Brett Favre, dental floss, Avatar, deer hunting, Frosty the Snowman, Sam Brownback: Alan Jackson, REO Speedwagon, Slim Jim, Frosty the Snowman, Avatar, Nicki Minaj, dental floss, deer hunting, Sam Brownback, Brett Favre

• Who are the five greatest country artists of your lifetime?: Johnny Cash, George Jones, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire , Alan Jackson.

• In exactly 16 words, why does/does not Barry Bonds belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame?: He doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame until he clears that he didn’t use steroids.

• One question you would ask Aaron Carter were he here right now?: Aaron, are you really all about me?

• Would you let your kids play tackle football? Why or why not?: If that is what they love, then I absolutely will! I wouldn’t stop my kids from following their passions, or learning some lessons. I would be a stickler for safety precautions, though.

• Why are you named Genny with a G?: My parents thought they would get creative. Just kidding. They thought Jenny was spelled with a G.

• How do you feel country music will respond to openly gay performers?: It honestly could go either way. People could be absolutely fascinated by idea of it, or they will absolutely not agree at all. It would be a game changer either way.

• Three memories from your first date: I actually haven’t been on an official first date! I do remember my first kiss being in the back of my sister’s car after a show. The guy was actually taken, and I didn’t know. Needless to say, he’s the topic of a few songs. Haha.

  • John K

    Elton John is a female? I never knew. Alert the National Enquirer.

  • Arnold Woods

    Elton John wrote very few of his own songs? Actually, he co-wrote almost all of his songs. Perhaps what you mean to say is that he didn’t write his own lyrics. He did write the music.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life