They say that home is where the heart is, and after a year of sheltering in place, singer-songwriter Paulina Vo is starting 2021 with a fresh-faced ode to her partner of 10 years. Her new single “Sweetie,” premiering today via Audiofemme, follows her 2020 EP Call You After; it continues Vo’s journey from guitar-slinging solo musician to electronic singer-producer. Her process is simple: “Find the chords, get the vibe, then lyrics,” she says of the straightforward approach that has served her blend of pop, R&B, and indie rather well.
“I’m generally a happy person, but my music is so sad,” Vo says with a smile. But “Sweetie” runs counter to much of Vo’s back catalogue, with its emphasis on satisfaction and ease. Like a cat curling up in a sunny spot, Vo revels in pleasure of an everyday love. In a year in which our daily domestic pursuits have taken center stage, “Sweetie” is a valentine to those people in our lives who are holding it down.
Vo wrote the song on a trip away from her partner; it brings to mind the bittersweet delight of scrolling through happy photos, of missing someone that’s usually there to touch, but is currently too far to reach out to. The accompanying music video, which features Vo as a Little Mermaid-like character, continues the wholesome narrative of two people finding each other in spite of their differences and coming together happily ever after in the end.
That transitory longing is partly a hold-over from her nomadic childhood. As the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who fled their country following the Vietnam war, she was born in New Orleans but spent time in New Mexico, Los Angeles, Florida, Arizona, and New York. Vietnamese was Vo’s first language; she says she “hated it back then, but I appreciate it now.” Her family struggled financially during her childhood – their many moves were due to “a mixture of jobs and little bit of family drama,” Vo explains. “My mom is a gambling addict; I can laugh about it now, cause it’s a past thing. We Bonnie and Clyded it as a family sometimes.”
By age 10, that had decided she wanted to become a musician, and asked her father for a guitar. “He was like, ‘No, do you see us? We are broke,'” Vo remembers. Her dad promised to buy her a guitar if she still wanted it in a year’s time. “In my tiny child brain, I do not know if it was a year or a few months, maybe a few weeks. But a ‘year’ later, I was like ‘Dad! I still want a guitar, can I get one?'” Vo says. Though her dad reacted with surprise, he followed through, teaching her the first few chords. During those early lessons, she learned that her dad had been in a Beatles cover band in the 1960s – a little piece of the mystery that is her family’s past in Vietnam.
Vo’s first songs were inspired by her ’90s idols: Michelle Branch, Christina Aguilera, and The Spice Girls. She joined choir in middle school because she “kinda identified that I could belt at an early age, probably because of Christina’s album,” she says. In high school she began listening to indie rock, a genre she had complicated feelings about from the start. “Back then I was a very angsty sad Asian girl in a very white neighborhood,” Vo remembers; the music inspired her, yet didn’t feel like it spoke directly to her. She didn’t feel as though she fit the mold of indie singer-songwriter, but in 2011, she moved to New York City and began playing gigs. Her first albums feature many of the attributes that make Vo stand out from the crowd: her voice is direct and strong, with little vibrato tomfoolery, while her lyrics twist in delightful ways.
In spite of that raw potential, Vo wasn’t pleased with how all of her early albums turned out. That dissatisfaction led her to begin producing her music on all fronts, from the writing to the stage to the sound booth. “I did an album and it pissed me off because it was nothing like I wanted it to be,” Vo recalls. “At that point in time I was like, I guess I have to do this myself.” From 2016 on, Vo took the wheel on her records and she’s been driving ever since.
Lately, Paulina Vo has noticed contentment seeping into her work, which may be why her next project tackles a harder subject: she’s planning a series of concept albums investigating the complicated feelings of displacement she’s experienced around her family’s journey to the U.S. and her trip back to Vietnam in 2018, some 25 years since she’d last visited. “I had that moment: you go back, you hear your language, you just feel like you’re home kind of – not in that way, cause I’m not from there,” she says. “You’re sitting on this line. I don’t really have a home like that. There’s no old high school bedroom. That doesn’t exist anymore. So it’s that weird feeling of, I feel really at home here, but I’m just a stranger, just a tourist.”
It’s strange to imagine bedroom pop with no bedroom. For now, Paulina Vo is content to plot her future journey from the confines of her NYC apartment – and her sweetie holds it down beside her as she dives into uncharted waters.
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