What Barack Obama, Beyoncé, a Murderer, George Bush, and I Have in Common

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This week, I shared this photo with you from my last performance of 2017. Hi Mom! Hi Scarlett, Pads, & Pa Chia! I also told you that as soon as I get off the stage, I ask my family this one question:

“Did I do ok?”

We all know Oprah Winfrey, the bold woman revered as the “Queen of All Media.” A few years ago, I watched a video of Oprah revealing the one question every guest - over 4,589 shows and over 37,000 people who she interviewed - has asked:

“Was that ok? How was that?”

She explained that at the end of the day, this one question is the "common denominator" for all her guests no matter who they are (including Barack Obama, Beyoncé, a murderer, and George Bush).

In other words, they wanted to know:

Did you hear me?
Did what I say mean anything to you?
Did I matter?

And I believe that is 100%, the absolute truth.

You see, not every performance in my career as a music artist has been amazing.

I’ve performed at events where afterwards, I know that what I shared wasn’t received by the attendees. People are on their phones. There’s a lot of chatter. There’s limited eye contact. Yet, I keep going and do my best knowing there are those who are open to receiving what I have to offer.

And when there are events where I have delivered what I came to share and people respond with light in their eyes, full engagement, and lots of questions afterwards, my heart is on fire. That means:

I did ok.
They heard me.
I said something meaningful to them.
What I did, mattered.

Just in time for the holidays - *Limited Edition* 11x17 prints available now!

Just in time for the holidays - *Limited Edition* 11x17 prints available now!

And then I go home as the happiest camper on earth. I’m super proud. I thank the Universe. I get in the car and relive the experience by talking highlights with my siblings.

These are the opportunities I seek for every time I perform or give a keynote concert.

Everyone wants to be heard and wants to know that what they have to offer - whether it’s a video, advice, a speech, a gift, or a song - was received well. Everyone wants a valuable connection with others.

And I believe that's what Barack Obama, Beyoncé, the murderer, and George Bush meant after each of their interview with Oprah.

And I believe you want that too.

In the new year, I not only hope for myself, but for you as well, opportunities where everyone you meet wants to meet you, everything you share is accepted with a warm heart, and every possible connection is made with appreciation. Happy Holidays!

YOUR TURN! Do you find yourself asking “Did I do ok? Was that ok?” too? What do you do after sharing or giving something of yourself to others? As always, I enjoy hearing from you in the comments below!

Until next time…

Dream BIG,
Pagnia

I Came Prepared With a Speech, and Left Speechless.

“[...] When we sometimes say, ‘This person empowered me,’ I always say, ‘No, nobody empowered anyone. People create platforms of empowerment so that we step into those platforms to empower ourselves.’ And I think that’s what my mother did to me, and many women and men who looked straight into my eyes and saw something that I wasn’t seeing and created that platform - yes, it’s a platform. A very big platform.”

- Dr. Tererai Trent, an internationally acclaimed voice for women’s empowerment and education & Oprah Winfrey’s “all-time favorite guest”

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On October 27th, 2017 in our hometown of Eau Claire, WI, my sister Nancy and I got dressed and on our way out, we bid farewell to our family. My mom was the last person we spoke to as she loaded fresh produce into the van to be sold at the farmer’s market the next morning.

Neb yuav mus dabtsi os? Where are you two going?”

Wb yuav mus koom lawv ib lub rooj sab laj nyob tim UW-Eau Claire. We’re attending a conference at UW-Eau Claire.”

Los? Mus cev rov qab los tsev. Tsis txhob nyob lig lig os. Is that right? Well, go and come back home. Don’t stay out too late.”

We nodded and quickly left.

That night, I was awarded the Authentic Emergent Leadership Award.

The award goes to “a Hmong woman who is emerging and has exhibited qualities of authentic leadership through her actions to inspire others to seek challenges and personal growth, and has qualities of showing up as a leader.”

Yes, I know. Really. Deep. Stuff.

When I received the phone call in early August, I thought long and hard: Who was awarding this to me?

The award selection process belonged to the founders and planning committee of the Hmong Women Summit: The Authenticity Project (HWSTAP).

The summit’s intentions are to “educate and empower women from various backgrounds on the topic of Authentic Leadership. Through workshops and collaboration, the summit seeks to create a space for participants to come together, dialogue, and learn from one another about being an authentic Hmong leader.”

As a 2x summit participant (I blogged about my first time here), HWSTAP undoubtedly fulfills that intention.

On this night, I had prepared a short acceptance speech. But minutes before accepting the award, I soon realized I was completely unprepared for what was happening right before my eyes.

With Mai Zong Vue before the award banquet, October 27, 2017.

With Mai Zong Vue before the award banquet, October 27, 2017.

Caitlin Lee, one of the co-founders of HWSTAP, came onstage to start the award ceremony. She then began to speak directly to me and Mai Zong Vue, a phenomenal Hmong woman pioneer, who would accept the Authentic Leadership Impact Award that same night.

The words Caitlin said that stirred my heart and remained with me were:

“Please keep doing what you’re doing. Keep doing what you’re doing.

And then Mai Zong Vue took the stage to accept her award. I’ve known Mai Zong for years. We’ve sat hotel poolside, chatting until my eyes could no longer stay open. Mai Zong continues to inspire me, and this award night was no exception. I felt a deep honor to have received an award alongside an exemplary mentor and Hmong leader.

Next, to introduce me, Mai Vang, a co-founder of HWSTAP, shared a story only my siblings knew (which of course is how she found out. Thanks, Nancy.).

Long story short: I always, always played the role of niam whenever my siblings and I played house as little kids. I took that role very seriously.

And then this video came on.

You see, I filmed, edited, and watched this video 10x before it was submitted to HWSTAP. I knew what to expect. No surprises.

But when it came on, I lost it.

How do you sit in a room full of leaders, mentors, role models, idols, allies, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends -- many whom you’ve looked up to since you were a kid -- who are now all watching you as you accept an award you never, ever expected to receive?

I could feel the energy of each one of them.

A Hmong sister from Hnub Tshiab who I had just met, who melted my heart with her moving story of her late mother.

My oldest sister who was sitting right beside me, who paved the way for me to attend college away from home.

The HWSTAP co-founder who inspired me years ago when I saw her front page feature in the newspaper as "the very first female president of the board of directors for the Eau Claire Hmong Mutual Assistance Association Inc. — notably the first woman to do so out of the 14 statewide HMAA boards in Wisconsin."

How do you sit in the same room and not wonder how you got here?

How do you sit in the same room and act as if that’s not you in the video?

How do you sit in the same room and believe that it is you in the video?

I watched myself on the screen and for the first time, I felt the emotions of an outsider looking in on a Hmong American female music artist named Pagnia Xiong and her work.

I unexpectedly felt the effect of my being, the effect of my work.

So when I got onstage to accept the award, I pulled out two tissues. I was speechless. Tears beat my tongue. This was definitely not a part of my acceptance speech.

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To all the leaders, mentors, role models, idols, allies, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and HWSTAP -- many of whom I’ve looked up to since I was a child: 

THANK YOU.

I received this special award, because you created a platform of empowerment so that I could step in it. You saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. And I am so honored and still at a loss for words.

Thank you, for the platform you've provided I can empower myself and live and lead authentically.

Oh, and Niam, I also received an award that night. I’ll show you next time now that the farmers market season is over and you have more time. I love you.

Until next time…

Dream BIG,
Pagnia Xiong

Pagnia Xiong Named Authentic Emergent Leadership Award Recipient

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Selected as the recipient by the Hmong Women Summit – The Authenticity Project (HWSTAP), Pagnia Xiong accepted the Authentic Emergent Leadership Award on October 27, 2017 at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. 

The Authentic Emergent Leadership Award goes to a Hmong woman who is emerging and has exhibited qualities of authentic leadership through her actions to inspire others to seek challenges and personal growth, and has qualities of showing up as a leader.

HWSTAP aims to educate and empower women from various backgrounds on the topic of Authentic Leadership. Through workshops and collaboration, the summit seeks to create a space for participants to come together, dialogue, and learn from one another about being an authentic Hmong leader.

For more information on HWSTAP, visit their website.

#MeToo: My Story

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11 days ago, I came across this post by someone dear to me on my newsfeed. It was the first time I had seen anything about #MeToo.

I’m sure you’ve seen it. But in case you haven’t and are wondering:

What is #MeToo all about?

The me too Movement™ started in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, whose own personal story ignited a movement to help young women of color who had survived sexual abuse, assault, and exploitation.

And recently, with what’s been happening in Hollywood, women and men across the nation have been sharing personal stories of sexual harassment and assault across social media with the hashtag #MeToo.

That’s why your newsfeed has been flooded by #MeToo...from family, friends, and friends of friends.

And now...from me.


“I NEED HELP. PLEASE SEND SOMEONE!!!”


It was a wet, cold day at a Hmong New Year. I was dressed in Hmong clothes and had been up early setting up our booth with The Kong & Shu Project. Two of my sisters were also with us to assist during the event.

We were excited to meet our fans and promote our new music.

Unfortunately, it had been raining all morning, so there weren’t many people walking around the New Year, especially in our area as our booth was secluded from other booths.

In a 15-minute time span, no more than a few people would pass by, but we stayed put knowing our fans were expecting us at this New Year.

It was a slow day and my sisters needed some rest. So they headed to the car while TKSP and I stayed at the booth.

Shortly after, a young event coordinator came by to take TKSP to the main stage for their performance. We had expected this as she had also came earlier in the day to remind TKSP.

With how calm the event had been so far, I knew I’d be ok managing the booth, so I wished them good luck and watched them walk away.

Standing alone in full Hmong clothes and looking at nature on a cold, rainy day under a booth, one can only look for so long.

So I tried to keep busy.

Straighten the CDs for the tenth time.
Pick up garbage for the fifth time.
Triple check nothing was wet.

It had only been a few minutes since TKSP had left.

Then suddenly, a tall, elderly Hmong man wearing a neon green safety vest and a badge appeared before me.

I had seen him before. Throughout our time at the New Year, he would walk in front of our booth with the same vest on, assisting other vendors. So I knew he was a part of the Hmong New Year committee.

I greeted him with a simple, “Nyob zoo os” and waited to see what he needed.

I thought maybe he was going to ask how we're doing at our booth or share something important that all vendors needed to know.

Instead, he smiled and walked right into my booth, behind our table, next to me.

He started saying things - things I can’t and don’t care to remember.

Something was not right. He wasn’t here to tell me anything that I needed to know.

Then in a split second, he wrapped his arms around my waist and pulled himself onto my body.

I pushed away immediately and stepped out of my booth. 

I can't believe this is happening.
What I am gonna do?
I can’t leave the booth.
All our CDs are here.
No one’s here.
I can’t make a scene.

All these thoughts came across my mind.

Not a single word could come out as he stood there in my booth, as if he belonged there.

As if I belonged to him.

I quickly grabbed my phone and called my sisters.

Pick up! Pick up!

Voicemail.

Then I realized TKSP had just left and might still be waiting to perform, so I text one of the brothers:

“I NEED HELP. PLEASE SEND SOMEONE!!!”

No response.

I paced off to the side…
...keeping my distance,
...watching my booth,
...hoping he’d leave,
...and waited.

He stood there. No talking. No eye contact. Just a lurking presence.

All I could do was stand in shock.

I was at a loss for words.

I had too much respect for Hmong elders. I couldn’t say anything and didn’t know what to say, because disrespecting Hmong elders seemed more of a violation than what he, a Hmong elder, had just done to me.

Then for what felt like an eternity, a young woman came to my booth, completely oblivious to what had just happened, and with a chirp in her voice, she said, “Hi Pagnia! The Kong & Shu Project told me that you needed help? I’m here. What do you need?”

And then he was gone.


Do not be ashamed. You are not alone.


Sharing my story with you today still shakes me up a bit despite it happening years ago. Yet for some reason, I knew one day I would need to share my story. It wasn’t meant to stay with me.

Thank you to the me too Movement™. It’s moved me to use my voice and share my story.

To my dear reader, please know that sexual harassment and assault can happen anywhere and to anyone -- even at an iconic cultural event like the Hmong New Year and by someone you’re supposed to respect.

And when it does happen, more times than not, it will not be reported. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Finally, to my Hmong sisters and brothers who know my story all too well, please do not be ashamed and know that you are not alone.

As activist and founder of the me too Movement™ Tarana Burke stated:

I see you. I hear you.
I understand you and I'm here for you. I get it.

 

#MeToo

Until next time…

Dream BIG,
Pagnia



What I Know For Sure

In a recent survey, one of my readers asked a question that caught my attention right away.

What do you know for sure about life?

 

Okay, first -- I love Oprah. (Stick with me, I do have a point.)

When a new issue of the Oprah magazine arrives in my mailbox, all I want to do is flip to the very last page. The very last page is a special feature in every issue written by Oprah herself titled, What I Know For Sure.

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And it’s my guilty pleasure every month. Here’s how this page came to be, in Oprah's own words:

It could be considered among my most embarrassing moments. The first time I ever heard the question "What do you know for sure?" I was doing a live television interview in Chicago with renowned film critic Gene Siskel. We had been doing the usual promotional chitchat for the movie Beloved and he concluded the interview by saying, "Tell me, what do you know for sure?"
"Uhhhhhh, about the movie?" I asked, knowing he meant something more but trying to give myself time to think. "No," he responded coolly. "You know what I mean—about you, your life, anything, everything..."
"Uhhhhhh, I know for sure...uhhh...I know for sure I need to think about that question some more, Gene." I was clearly thrown and went home and thought about what he'd asked for two days.
I've since done a lot of thinking about what's certain, what's real, what's true. [...] And every month I must find yet another answer.

Since I discovered this page, I’ve been thinking about my own answers to that question and have always wanted to share them. So here we are. To my dear reader, thank you for asking.

Me (left) with my super cute first-generation older sisters. 1990s.

Me (left) with my super cute first-generation older sisters. 1990s.

I was born and raised as a first-generation Hmong American girl by rather strict parents and traditional elders who were quite protective and believed they knew what was best for me. These are just a few beliefs I came to know from my upbringing:

 

  • Staying after school is irresponsible, even if you lead a student club.

  • Because she can’t go, your mom will be sleeping on the couch, waiting for you to come home after prom.

  • It’s 6 AM. Grandma’s having a hu plig ceremony. You laying there, no one will ever want you as their nyab.

  • Find a job. Singing isn’t a job.

  • Don’t bring him over unless you want to get married.

  • Thaum twg koj mam pib koj lub neej? Your life is incomplete. Get married.

 

For the first 20+ years of my life, I leaned on those who raised me and trusted them to show me the right path. I questioned that path many times. I cried on that path many times.

It was only after taking the “right path” that was approved by others did I realize how unhappy I was. Wasn’t this the “right path?” They’re happy for me. Why am I not?

Because the one thing I didn’t know how to do was to lean on and trust myself.

I can proudly say that life’s different now. The day came (a random, definitely unplanned day) when I (silently) thanked my parents and elders for raising me, and then showed them it was time for me to raise myself.

The day came to lean on and trust myself.

So, what I know for sure is:

You are responsible for your life.

Yes, YOU. Just you. No one else -- even if others have told/showed you otherwise since the day you were born.

There you have it! I hope you took something away from today's blog post. Honestly, I still have many more answers to share, from short & simple to deep & complex.

TELL ME: Would you like to me to share more answers in the future? I hope to make "What I Know For Sure" a recurring series on the blog. As always, let me know in the comments below!


Until next time…

Dream BIG,
Pagnia

I've Always Wanted to Tell This Story About The Sounders

Recently, I got to hear from my readers who are subscribed to my mailing list & get exclusive emails from me every month. (Don't worry! You can too right here.)

One reader asked me to talk about past collaborations I’ve had with other Hmong artists. The first one that came to my mind was the most intimidating collaboration I had ever had.

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It was the 2009-2010 Hmong New Year season.

One day online, I had a conversation with Kong Lor from The Kong & Shu Project, and he mentioned that The Sounders had asked TKSP to open for their Fresno concert in December. I was very happy because I was going to Fresno for the Hmong New Year and seeing TKSP and The Sounders in concert was going to be an added bonus.

Then for some reason...I had this idea:

“I’m going to ask The Sounders if I could open for them too!”

HOLD UP!

Let me get this off my chest first.

I’m shaking my head right now. I don’t know why I thought that was a good idea then. I’d only been in the Hmong music community for a few years and was still getting my feet wet. For all they knew, I could’ve been a huge fan/stranger/wannabe-singer/stalker who simply wanted to check something off her amateur bucket list.

And I don't blame them.

We had never encountered each other or communicated before. So I imagine (& hope) they did some research before making a decision. (No offense taken if you did, guys.)

They said, “Yes.”

Fast forward to the day of the concert. Mid-Afternoon. December 26th, 2009. Fresno, CA.

I walked into the event building and found the stage all set up. No one was there. So I decided to walk around inside the building, hoping to find someone.

As I stepped into the hallway, the entire band in these bright yellow M-150 jackets turned in unison as my heels click-clacked towards them. (This is what happens you’re a singer who loves traveling and their culture. I came directly from the New Year and didn't want to miss a second, so I was still in full Hmong clothes.)

Yes, I went to soundcheck like this.

Yes, I went to soundcheck like this.

As I walked towards them, there was a brief pause which felt exceptionally long at the time. Remember, we had never met before. The Sounders had never seen me in person. So as happy as I was about being there, I was a nervous wreck.

“Hi, I’m Pagnia.”

I awkwardly stuck out my hand.

I shook each member's hand, and then was told soundcheck would happen shortly. So I gladly turned around and went back to sit down in the empty seats. Thank goodness TKSP showed up shortly after.

It was time for soundcheck and TKSP went first. Once they were done, they headed out immediately (they hadn’t slept since they left North Carolina, so I imagine they took a good ‘ol nap before the show).

TKSP and me - total new kids on the block!

TKSP and me - total new kids on the block!

Then it was my turn.

I got onstage, truly not knowing what the heck I was doing other than to sing in the mic. Plaub Sab Phab Ntsa came on.

“Yog plaub sab phab ntsa no...paub hais...lus…”

Suddenly, The Sounders, in their bright jackets, meddled their way down the aisles, coming straight toward me. And then they stopped. Right in front of me and the stage.

“Nws yuav qhia...tau ntau yam hauv siab...
Y
uav qhia txog leeg twg quaj hu nrhiav koj…”

I couldn’t focus.

These bright bodies were standing in front of me with no reaction, no movement, nothing, nada. One of the band members came up to make sure the stage set up and I were ok.

I tried to stay calm and act like a pro. Yeah, right. But my mind was whirling around with thoughts of failure, unacceptance, incompetence...the list went on and on.

Sound check was done. Ua tsaug, lub ntuj. I got off the stage and left the building.

I was mortified.

When I got back to the hotel, I told my sisters how I felt.

This is a mistake.
I’m not supposed to be on that stage.
I should have never asked them.
They don’t even know who I am.
I sung and they just stared at me.
I am so embarrassed.
This is a big mistake.

I just teared up -- like right now, as I sit here, typing. I can still feel how I felt in that exact moment eight years ago.

How little I felt.
How incompetent I felt.
How “not good enough” I felt.

Thank goodness for my sisters or I wouldn’t have returned to the building that night. I got dressed, did my vocal warm-ups, got into the car, and pulled up my big girl pants.

When I arrived, I was told to go backstage where all the artists were. Can you imagine me in that moment? Trying to hide all my worries from earlier and go interact with these amazing artists who I believed wanted nothing from me?

So I did what I do best when I'm afraid: stay small. Nyob twj ywm, tsis txhob nti.

I stood by the door. (I actually gave myself the job of opening the door for people.) I don’t even remember if I greeted everyone. One hand gripping the other arm across my body. Shoulders slightly hunched forward. My eyes deflecting any eye contact. 

Small, Pagnia, small.

Then Bee Thao, the bass player of The Sounders, came up to me. We talked for what seemed like hours.

Then Thai Thao, the lead vocalist of The Sounders, came up to me. We talked for what seemed like hours too.  

No longer staying small. Backstage with The Sounders & TKSP.

No longer staying small. Backstage with The Sounders & TKSP.

It remains one of the most memorable nights of my music career.

Within the following year, I would open for The Sounders twice more (and I didn’t ask this time!) and be referred by them to perform in France (one of the most amazing experience in my entire life).

So my dear reader, the most intimidating collaboration I ever had garnered some of the best experiences in my life, but more importantly, it taught me this:

Don’t believe everything you think.

My thoughts had nothing to do with the band, and everything to do with what I believed about myself. And what I believe about myself is not always true.

Don’t believe everything you think. Give yourself more credit.

YOUR TURN! Have you experienced something similar? I’d love to hear from you down in the comments below!

Until next time…

Dream BIG,
Pagnia  

1994: What Was Pagnia Listening To?

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Little Pagnia. I love her.

I had just turned nine and it was 1994. As you may know, I started singing at age 10, but music was a big part of my life before then.

Today, I’m taking you back 23 years ago to some sweet and not-so-sweet memories with a few 1994 hit songs.

Honestly, I was very happy listening to these songs again and to go down memory lane for you. Enjoy!

All-4-One - “I Swear”

“I see the questions in your eyes…” If you rewind and repeat that line over and over again, I’d be perfectly happy listening to it all day. I was only 9, but that line feels like a warm blanket over my heart every single time.

What I remember most about this song is when I would hear it. We owned the cassette tape, but my favorite way of listening to I Swear was on the radio. Every Sunday night was themed “Sunday Night Love Songs” on our favorite local radio station, 94.1 FM. You’d hear listeners calling in dedications and the top love songs all night long. It was the best.

My sister, Pa Kou had a small radio that was the perfect size to stay on her bed with her every night. As we shared a bedroom, every Sunday night, her radio would stay on long after the lights had gone off. I Swear was one of the songs that put me to sleep in the most loving way. 23 years later, it still gets me and always will. Now off to searching for All-4-One tour dates!

TLC - "Waterfalls"

When I hear this song, I think of one of my elementary school classmates. Stephanie was quiet and one of the few white kids who hung out with us Hmong kids. On this particular day, we were in music class.

At the end of the hour, the music teacher asked if anyone had a song or talent they wanted to share. Stephanie raised her hand and went up to the front. Never in a million years would I have guessed that (1) she would raise her hand and (2) she was going to do what she did next.

Stephanie rapped Left Eye’s entire part (03:50 - 04:35) with no stopping, no wincing, no second-guessing.

We were nine years old, living in a predominantly white community where most kids in our school probably weren't listening to TLC. When she was done, I remember feeling dumbfounded and I know the rest of the room felt it too.

Looking back, Stephanie showed me what confidence and courage looked like in front of kids who probably didn’t know her name and a teacher who knew little about her gift. 23 years later, I’m grateful to have sat in that classroom, to have known Stephanie, and to have watched her shine through Waterfalls.  


“Never dull your shine for somebody else.” - Tyra Banks


Boyz II Men - “I’ll Make Love to You”

This song is smooooooth and so sexy. The thing is, my memory of it isn't.

I'll Make Love To You became popular at the same time dance parties were booming for the first generation of Hmong American youngsters - my sister Nancy included. I have to say she and her generation had the toughest time growing up. They were the first ones born in America, which meant they were the oldest and had to be the “perfect” role model for us younger ones. So, whether directly or indirectly, my parents and our elders constantly put that responsibility upon Nancy.

One of her responsibilities was to not attend dance parties. And if she asked to go and if my mom gave in, she would need a little sibling and my mom herself to tag along.

The day came. The dance party was happening. And there I was with my mom and Nancy in the high school gym on Valentine’s Day. How romantic.

As I sat next to my mom and Nancy, I remember starting to like boys and secretly hoping someone would ask me to dance. (Oh, how I cringe! I can’t believe a nine-year-old thinks this way.)

I never got asked to dance, but Nancy did. And it was to I’ll Make Love to You.

While they danced, all I could think was, “Thank goodness my mom doesn’t understand English well.” ;)

I HOPE YOU ENJOYED THAT! If so, please let me know down in the comments below. I’d love to do more of these throwback blogs for you in the future! 

Until next time…

Dream BIG,
Pagnia

Part III - Making a Dream Come True

In 2015, I shared a two-part blog series on Sophie M. Lee, a strong, bold woman whose dream was to pursue singing. Since then, I've been fortunate to see Sophie make her beautiful dream come true through the toughest circumstances. Read Part III of this blog series & don't miss her giveaway below!

Hello Sophie! So glad to have you BACK! IT'S BEEN TWO YEARS AND your music journey has flourished. What can you share with us TODAY?

Just this past July, I released my debut album, Beautiful Soul at the Freedom Festival 2017. The album has 10 tracks with 2 bonus instrumental tracks. Beautiful Soul is the main feature on the album. Each song in the album has a story behind it. Perhaps, on another day I’ll have the opportunity to share those stories.

Last November, I released my first music video of my song, Txhob Tag Kev Cia Siab. The video is centered around bullying, childhood depression, and suicide. All are issues close to my heart and only those who know me well, know the impact they’ve had on my life. I think that most of us have encountered some form of bullying growing up: being directly attacked physically or verbally, being the center of someone’s baseless gossip, or constantly getting picked on just for being different. I know how hard it is and how alone you can feel going through it. My goal with the video was to offer some words of encouragement to anyone who is experiencing hardship, to let them know that they’re not alone and, even if it may not feel like it at the moment, there’s more to life than what they’re going through. I had hoped that the video would not only bring awareness but also provide an opportunity for people to share their experiences in order to start the healing process.

It’s been quite the journey these last 2 years. I’ve met some amazing people, worked with 3 extremely-talented producers, and conquered every fear and challenge I had along the way. It was with both a joyful and sad heart that I greeted my release date last month. I’m still processing the fact that my journey of making an album is over.

 

You've accomplished so much. How specifically has your journey evolved in “finding your own unique voice” as you mentioned in Part II?

I think that part of my journey has been most interesting for me. As I stated in Part II, I’ve spent most of my life emulating my favorite artists. It’s why I love doing covers songs; I could imitate the original artist and just add something new to make the song my own.

As soon as I started working on original songs, I could no longer resort to that familiar process. I remember when my producer shared the completed instrumental of my first song, Hlub Mus Ib Txhis with me and the next step was for me to practice to record it in the studio. I can’t begin to tell you the panic and excitement I felt. I had this brand new song, where no one had sang it before and I was the first one to determine how it should be sung. I debated for days on technical things like where I needed to start singing a line, where I should take a breath, and how long I should sustain a note. No one could make those decisions for me and I made them absent of any direction. There was no way to measure if I was doing anything right, so I ended up singing the song the way that felt most natural to me.


I had no clue what I was doing and was merely testing things out, but more importantly, it was okay to feel confused and lost.


I had a vision with Hlub Mus Ib Txhis and wanted to showcase only the soft sweet side of my voice. I received quite a bit of constructive feedback on the song, with people saying that they expected more from me and that the voice I chose to sing the song in wasn’t my authentic voice. What I heard was “you failed,” and “whatever you tried, it didn’t work.”

I didn’t focus on that negative conscience for long. I got right back into it and decided to try something different with my second song. Instead of using my soft, sweet voice, I tested the power and vocal control I had with my song Kev Hlub Thawj Zaug. It was closer to what people were expecting from me so the song was better received. At that time, I couldn’t comprehend what was going on.

Later, when I started working with producer Shu Lor, he said something to me that helped me frame the experience. He said, “Sophie, the first album is always a trial run. You’re still learning what works and what doesn’t. Your albums after will be a better indicator of who you really are as an artist.” He confirmed what I was feeling but couldn’t put into words: I had no clue what I was doing and was merely testing things out, but more importantly, that it was okay to feel confused and lost. I will say that I think some artists are better at navigating the song creation process than I am. It’s just, nothing comes easy for me and it’s only with practice and hard work that I can do anything well.

I got more confident as I completed each song on the album. The songs vary so widely that each one showcases a different facet of my voice. Not any particular song captured all my skills and vocal capabilities within it. You have to listen to the album in its entirety to get an accurate portrayal of my “unique voice.”

 

Well Said. you have a unique perspective that I KNOW many are interested in. You went for your singing dream at a non-traditional time in life and within two years, you took action and made it a reality. What advice would you give to those who are still debating about pursuing their dreams?

Don’t wait.

Don’t wait for the right opportunity to arrive on your doorstep because it might not come. Instead, seek them out. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Sometimes, opportunities present themselves in unexpected ways.

I think it’s important that you used the word, “action.” Nothing’s going to happen if you don’t take action. I’ve always found that with any task, the hardest part is starting. Once you start, it makes it easier to follow through. If your end goal seems daunting and overwhelming, break it down into smaller tasks that can be completed over a period of time. Be prepared to adjust your plan to accommodate for unexpected or unforeseen circumstances.  

When I decided that I was going to make an album, I sat down and mapped out how I was going to do it. Knowing exactly what my end goal was and when I’d like the project completed by helped to identify what I needed to accomplish in between. I initially planned on releasing my album at the Freedom Festival 2016. After I started creating my first few songs, I learned how much time it actually took to complete a song and realized I wasn’t going to meet that deadline. I didn’t want to feel pressured by time, so I moved my release date out to July 2017. I used a calendar to map out which song needed to be completed by which month and then worked hard to follow through. The most important step was that I started.

So don’t wait, start today. Even if it’s a small step, it’s at least a step in the right direction and it may just be the biggest and hardest one you’ll take.


Don't wait. Start today.


I love that! There's so much power in planning and taking that first step. what are a few things you learned along the way that surprised you?

Be prepared to perfect your time management skills. I thought that I had decent time management skills but these last two years really challenged me. I had unique circumstances, in that I was working on music on top of a full-time job and raising a family. I not only worked really hard but also smart. I didn’t waste a single minute, as each minute served a purpose. If I wasn’t at my day job, I was at home doing housework and taking care of my children. At home, if I wasn’t in my role as Mommy, I was working on music. Sometimes, I would be both Mommy and music artist at the same time. On several occasions, when I couldn’t get my baby to play by himself and was really pressured to practice for an upcoming recording session, I ended up using a carrier and practiced with him on my back. On a side note, that’s actually a great way to learn about breath support because you’re forced to sing with less air than usual. Anyways, the only time I could work on music uninterrupted was after my family went to bed. It was typical of me to practice or work on music for 2-3 hours a day until 1:00-2:00 in the morning. Time management was crucial under my circumstances. My life was busy enough before I started working on music. If I didn’t alter my routine in any way, my lifestyle wouldn’t have allowed for me to work on music at all.

Another thing I learned is to expect the unexpected. As much as you can try to prepare, there’s bound to be challenges you won’t be able to anticipate. All of them will test how badly you want your dream. Just to give you an idea, these were some of the challenges I encountered and some of them were a direct threat to completing my album: potentially losing my day job, not having enough funds to complete the project, a close family member had a severe life-threatening illness, my car broke down while I was out of town working on music, and mixed up hotel reservations which left me stranded with no place to stay for the night. Each of these situations required a different response or coping mechanism from me. Sometimes, I had to be a little creative. I will say the most important thing that helped carry me through it all was to have a positive attitude.

I know now that it takes more than just passion and talent to complete an album. It also requires hard work, perseverance, discipline, vision, creativity, and a positive attitude.

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SO powerful. What one important advice would you give to an aspiring singer who wants to release a debut album in the near future?

Develop a strong support group. Trust me, you will need it. There are going to be times when things get so difficult that you want to give up. Your support group will encourage you to keep going and remind you of why you started in the first place.

Looking back, I realized how fortunate I am because I had an entire team behind me. My biggest source of support was my husband, siblings, parents, closest friends and relatives, and the incredible mentors I met along the way. I relied on these individuals to give me honest feedback on my music, strategize ways to overcome obstacles in my way, and for moral support. They believed in me, even more so than I did, and was willing to do anything to help me succeed. Honestly, my album wouldn’t have been completed without their help.

It’s also important to have a group of people who are dedicated to just helping you develop your “artist brand.” When I started out, I had no idea what an artist brand was. I quickly learned that how I present myself in public matters. People will judge you based on how you look before you even get the chance to sing. If you want others to take you seriously as an artist, you have to present yourself seriously as an artist.

Being the late bloomer that I always am, I knew nothing about fashion or makeup when I started. I used the opportunity to explore different looks and try makeup products that enhanced my natural beauty. I actually learned quite a bit about myself in the process. Contrary to being the shy and plain girl I typically viewed myself as, I found that there was a goddess inside of me just dying to come out. She was confident, wise, and, above all, fearless.

I needed a music team who not only knew me well but also could capture the essence of that goddess inside me. In creating the appropriate team, I learned that however you are and what kind of energy you give off, you’re going to attract the right kind of people to you. I worked with some of the best and most talented individuals to produce my music, design my album graphics, and ultimately, shaped my artist brand.

 

What can we look forward to from you in the near future?

My most immediate goal is to put out a few more cover songs. Recently, I released my newest cover of the classic song, Hallelujah. Please check it out, I really hope you can hear my growth in the song.

Several people recently approached me since my album release date and asked the big question, “When is album 2 coming out?” I actually don’t have plans to work on another album anytime soon. The reality is that I’m quite burnt out. Some people may disagree with my decision but I’m taking a break from working on original music. I can’t emphasize enough how important self-care is. No one knows better than I do what I’ve gone through these last few years. If I don’t take care of myself, no one will. As passionate and driven as we can be, we all have our limits before we start running on empty. I know myself and I’ve hit my limit. I want to offer only the best of me so I’m going to take some time to rejuvenate, replenish my resources, and knock out a few competing priorities on my to do list before I start working on music again.


I can’t emphasize enough how important self-care is. No one knows better than I do what I’ve gone through these last few years. If I don’t take care of myself, no one will.


When I do work on music next, I hope to explore some new things. As music artists, we are dynamic beings. We’re constantly learning and growing, our music should reflect that process. I am definitely not the same artist today that I was when I started out. My taste in music has also changed. In fact, while working on the last few songs on my debut album, I already felt that I was outgrowing the lyrics and that particular music style. The genre that I created my album in was fun but it really restricted my vocal expression. If you’ve already purchased my album and had a chance to listen to the love songs on it, you’ll notice that I kept them really light and happy. I’ve only shared the surface of love with you so far. As we all know, true love is not all “bubbles and butterflies.” It challenges, breaks, and changes us. I haven’t had a chance to create material that reflects the dark lessons I’ve learned from love. I really hope to explore that next. Please look forward to my first original song in English called My Broken Pieces.

Also, I have a few collaborations planned with other artists. I’m really excited! Nothing brings me more joy than working with another artist who is just as passionate about music as I am. Nothing’s set in stone for me yet, so I am open to suggestions if there’s an artist you’d like to see me collaborate with or a song you’d like me to cover.

And lastly, I have a special giveaway of my brand new album, Beautiful Soul! Find out how you can win in my video below.

Until next time. Be you, be fearless.

Be sure to visit Sophie's official music page and catch more of her videos on YouTube!

 

NOW, IT'S YOUR TURN! What moved you the most from Sophie's story? Leave your comment below. Sophie and I will be reading & responding! And make sure to share this with a friend who'd appreciate it. Thank you!