Jeff Pearlman

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Giana Nguyen

#370
Sometimes your kid's piano teacher is actually a pop standout in disguise. And sometimes that piano teacher's voice reminds you of Mariah Carey. And sometimes her life story personifies the American dream. POSTED July 26, 2018

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Giana Nguyen is making Quaz history.

She is the first Vietnamese-born singer here. But that’s not historic.

She is the first person to have performed the national anthem at a Lakers game. But that’s not historic either.

Nope—Giana’s claim to Quaz fame is this: I initially sent her questions two years ago. Then waited. And waited. And waited. And waited. What took so long? Well, a couple of things: A. Life (Giana is a mother, a performer, a music instructor. She’s busy). But also B. Timing. For the past two years, Giana has been plotting, planning and creating her new album, “GiANA,” which drops tomorrow. And she didn’t really want to dive in until she had something fresh and concrete to offer. Which, as a writer, I completely understand.

Hence, it’s with great joy and a tad shock that Giana Nguyen, the planned 270th Quaz, arrives as the 370th Quaz. And it was worth the wait. Giana’s journey is a riveting one—escaping her homeland via fishing boat as a child, finding her voice and passion, sharing that love with others. You can visit her website here, follow her on Twitter here and buy the new album here.

Giana Nguyen, you’ve arrived …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Giana, I’m gonna start with a potentially difficult/awkward one. It seems like, in pop music, there’s a vision people expect. Namely, blonde, blue eyes, scantily dressed. I’m thinking Christina Aguilera, but you can erase blonde and also fill in Ariana Grande, Halsey, Hailee Steinfeld, Selena Gomez, Britney Spears. It’s just a REALLY visual medium. You are Vietnamese. And I wonder if you think, in any way, not conforming to the general, simplistic pop visual image has at all impacted your career—good or bad?

GIANA NGUYEN: First of all, I hardly have a career to speak of so there’s not much data available to measure for impact! Ha! But seriously, you are absolutely right in all the above and that’s exactly why I’m still going to put my name in the game. Representation matters. Of race, age, size, anything and everything that says, “Hey she kinda looks like me.” I didn’t have a version of me to look up to as a kid. There weren’t too many Asian Americans in mainstream media for little girls like me to model. But hey, if everyone let an existing aesthetic determine ​whether or not they were worthy of a shot​, ​our entertainment landscape would be pretty bland. So yes, with all the above descriptors, one could say that I’m all wrong for this music business. But if you close your eyes and open your ears, you might be surprised. I’m just asking listeners to let the music speak for itself first, before they look up the origin of my last name.

J.P.: I’m fascinated by your back story—I know, at 5, you came from Vietnam to California with your father. But why? How? How much do you actually remember?

G.N.: To say that I came from Vietnam to California is the Cliffs Notes version.

Freedom wasn’t just an airline ticket away. I’ll start with the How. My father and I escaped by boat and were at sea, crammed in a small fishing boat with way too many people, for eight nights before luckily landing in Indonesia where we were sheltered in refugee camps. We were relocated to several camps within the Indonesian islands before we received the proper sponsorship papers from my uncle in California. That process took nearly a year. We then went to Singapore before flying from there to San Jose.

Within the first two years of living in America, we moved about a dozen times from friend-to-friend or family-to-family, getting help wherever we could. Moving was easy then. We easily “packed” by shoving all our worldly possessions into large trash bags and away we went. We eventually settled in Orange County and have stayed here ever since. Love this place. And the Why. Because we absolutely had to. Because, as the poet Warsan Shire wrote, “No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” My father was an officer in the South Vietnamese army. After the fall of Saigon, he had to live in hiding from the communists. My family was in danger just for sheltering him. Not only that, but the way of living under communist rule was something my parents and their extended families refused to accept. So the only solution at that time was to risk it all and flee. My family suffered great losses, including the life of my older sister who drowned at sea in a different attempt to escape, to breathe American air. To have the freedom to choose our own path. And that’s why I pursue my passion for music. It’s a luxury that I will not take for granted.

J.P.: At one point you were working on a remake/cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” That seems like a thankless beast, in that she had a voice from the Gods; one many feel has never been touched as far as quality within pop music. So why, of all songs, were you considering a Whitney tune? And why didn’t you do it? And is it OK to cover songs by otherworldly singers?

G.N.: I frickin’ love that song. Don’t you?! It gets you moving and it’s such a fun singalong. But strip away the pop production and her amazeballs voice, and you still have a really great song. And it was the song that I wanted to cover, not Whitney. The sentiment behind that song was what drew me to it. I started the process of recording this album shortly after my divorce so the idea of wanting to “dance with somebody who loves me” was very real. I was alone in my new apartment and the song came on. After I listened through it, I thought about taking it down to a slow ballade, an acoustic vocal/piano version. We did record it in the studio but I didn’t quite love it, and frankly had already exhausted my budget to attempt remakes, so it had to be cut from the album. I still want to do it … perhaps as a single down the line.​

With Watchman

With Wachman

J.P.: You teach piano as a side business to your performing career. In fact, you taught me and my daughter piano. And I wonder two things: A. Doesn’t it sort of suck working with 46-year-old hacks like myself (you can be honest); B. Do you ever see these shitty, digitally-enhanced singers blowing up on stages nationwide while you’re busting ass to make it and think, “What the fuck? How is this fair?”

​G.N.: I love teaching piano! Hacks included! You know why? When I saw your eyes light up after coordinating your 10 fingers to play a song for the first time, after you’d already deemed yourself unmusical, I was just as thrilled as you! When I saw your daughter play an accompaniment piece from “The Beatles” book, knowing she appreciates musicality from that time period, I felt a win for all of us. There’s something so authentic when humans commune over music. And if I can serve as a champion for others to enjoy this form of self expression, then I feel like I’ve contributed to making this world a better place (as completely cheesy as that sounds).

And to all those digitally-enhanced singers, I can’t hate on them. Their popularity is not really about them so much as it is a reflection of what the masses like to consume. So if millions and millions of people eat that ish up, let them! I’m looking for a handful of those who like authentic, soulful, heartfelt, oftentimes dorky, musicians who want to connect on a deeper level. Where you at? Come find me!

J.P.: I know some guys from the band Blind Melon, and back when they got a record deal in the early 1990s it took, I believe, a few days. A showcase, offers—boom. The business doesn’t work that way any longer. So, for you, is the goal a traditional record deal? Is it 500,000 YouTube likes? A huge tour? What do you seek?

G.N.: My goal is to make a living making music. I’m not seeking fame and fortune (though a fortune would be nice). I want to make a go shopping at Trader Joes and drop my kid off to school and play music and record and write songs and take vacations and donate to charity and spend time with family and friends kind of living. Ya know? I want to live in the ordinary but by doing something out of the ordinary. I’m not trying to break records. But I do hope my music will sell on iTunes, be added to a Spotify playlist, be part of a TV or movie soundtrack, and I want to play live shows here and there. And if a big name act wants me to open for them on a tour, I’ll do it! Just not every day. I’m a homebody after all.

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J.P.: One of your recent releases deals with, specifically, your divorce, and child—and how, even though your husband is now your ex-husband, you’ll always have this lifelong bond. So I’m fascinated: A. How did you decide to write this? B. How emotional was it? C. Did you tell your ex? D. As a songwriter, do you feel like everything’s on the table? All emotions, all experiences?

G.N.: The song is called “Still Forever.” And yes it was very emotional. I didn’t set out to write a song about my divorce. It just came from some feelings that I jotted down and then set to a melody. The idea of promising to love someone forever, and then breaking that promise is gut-wrenching. We didn’t enter into marriage lightly and we didn’t decide to divorce on a whim. But at the end of the day, we both knew that it was better that we parted. I find peace in knowing that our familial bond still exists even after the romantic love was lost. Our relationship didn’t end, it shifted to something else. All for the sake of our child. And parenthood is forever, so we’ll be in this ride together whether we like it or not. I shared it with him before I shared it publicly anywhere. I felt like it was important for him to know.

My songs come from my own experiences and inspired by others​, but because this was such a deep emotion, I wanted to write it for myself and for others who may be going through the same thing. ​

You can sit down with a friend and talk about a particular subject, take divorce for instance, for hours. But to be able to condense those feelings into a four-minute song … that’s where I feel the skill of songwriting is most admirable. Not tooting my own horn, but that’s exactly what I love about music. If you’re going through an emotional time and you seek out an Adele song because she sings all that you’re feeling … that’s musical magic.

​And yes, everything is on the table as a subject matter for a song! However, details are are best kept behind closed doors.​

J.P.: Greatest moment of your musical career? Lowest?

G.N.: Top of mind is singing the national anthem for the Lakers Pre-Season opener in 2017. Lowest point … I don’t know yet but perhaps that could be a future Quaz.

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J.P.: Correct me if I’m wrong, but your family wasn’t thrilled by you devoting your life to music, full-time. So how did you make the decision? How did it go over? What would you be doing otherwise?

​ G.N.: They were​ iffy about it, but I don’t think they were surprised. I’ve been singing since I was a kid and they’ve always known about my love for music. I don’t think they were surprised about me choosing music so much as that I was willing to leave a cushy, stable job with health care benefits. I mean, who’s wacky enough to do that nowadays? Luckily, at the time I was still married so I didn’t have to literally be a starving artist. I just didn’t want to be on my deathbed one day and wonder what would’ve happened if I’d given an ounce of effort to music. We regret most the things we didn’t do, right? So … I didn’t want to regret. And I knew that the higher I went up the corporate ladder, the harder it would be for me to walk away.

So in 2011, I took the plunge and didn’t look back. I might still be in the healthcare industry, or working for a non-profit organization if I hadn’t made the leap of faith. But let’s not talk about the otherwise … let’s focus on the now, which is music!

J.P.: What’s the goal? Like, THE ultimate goal?

G.N.: That someone would read this Quaz and actually take the time to listen to my music and then reach out to me to let me know that one of my songs was the exact musical equivalent of what they were feeling. My new E.P. will be released July 27th, so we’ll see what happens!

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH GIANA NGUYEN:

• Five reasons one should make Southern California his/her next vacation destination: The cultural variety of food (mainly Vietnamese), the beaches, amusement parks (take your pick), pro basketball-baseball-football-hockey all within 45 minutes of each other, mild weather (mostly) year-round.​

• Rank in order (favorite to least):  Ray Parker, Jr., Yoko Ono, Green Bay, Ryan Zimmerman, Winston Churchill, Disneyland, Kirk Cousins, library cards, Lyndon LaRouche, Atari 2600, milk: ​Disneyland, milk, library cards, and everything/everyone else.

This is my all-time favorite song. What do you think?: Um, next question please.​

• One question you would ask Eddie Vedder were he here right now?: What’s your favorite dry shampoo?

• Five greatest Asian-American singers in pop history?:​ Name one!​

• In exactly 22 words, explain why records are better than CDs?:​ They’re prettier for one, and provide a more holistic, vintage sound. You can manually play them backwards to listen for hidden messages.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I wondered if the person next to me would die from lack of oxygen while waiting for me to put my mask on first so I could help them.

• Why haven’t you been more outspoken on Twitter about Matthew Stafford’s career with the Lions?:​ I was busy washing my hair. ​

• Favorite movie involving Denzel Washington?: Glory

• Best advice you ever received?: Don’t come to me with a problem without having a possible solution.

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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