I had an epiphany this morning while thinking about the ways in which people choose careers.
Every vocation answers some human need. Doctors answer people’s health needs. Architects address problems of community and shelter. Media people share information and facilitate communication between large networks of people. Engineers create solutions to various kinds of design problems. I could go on. But you get the point.
I think therefore, people choose fields that answer the questions that matter most to them. So for me, the questions that fascinate me most are problems of design, aesthetics, space and community. Because of this I’m in Architecture. My boyfriend recently went into Economics, because he voraciously devours information regarding politics, markets and wealth distribution. Environmental designers and researchers are consumed by the need to discover more sustainable ways for us to live. Picking a career therefore is kind of like an individual quest for answers to the questions that are most meaningful to us.
Of course this only relates to certain kinds of professions. There are other types of work that attract people who want to perform a certain kind of service or use a particular skill. Others still, do not have the luxury of choosing an occupation. In a very real way, the answer to what should I do with my life is primarily a ‘first world problem’. I’m also sure that there are many people out there who give much less of a damn than I do about what their career is.
I think this approach applies though, to the people who are virtually haunted by questions. Other people like me, who need to do yoga and aggressively manage their anxiety levels about the state of this world.
This week marks the return of our “Colourful Woman Wednesday” series, which features stories of colourful women surviving and thriving. If you’d like to share your story, or nominate a colourful woman for this feature, email us or get in touch via Tumblr, Twitter or Facebook.
I had the genuine pleasure of sitting down with singer & songwriter Paola Jean as she shared her story with us, including some of the key experiences that drive her passion in music. Born and bred in Bern, Switzerland, this Brooklyn-based multilingual singer & songwriter infuses the diversity of her world into the melody and lyrics of her music, accompanied by beats from some of LA’s and NY’s most promising producers.
VM: So from Switzerland, to LA, to Brooklyn. Can you tell us a bit about your background, and how this journey has been unfolding so far?
PJ: I grew up in Switzerland, and I also have a home base in Los Angeles. My move from Switzerland to New York though, was definitely focussed towards pursuing my artistry. I’m in Brooklyn right now and I feel like as an artist, I can be anything I want to be in New York. There are no limits to how creative or how edgy I can be, and I draw a great amount of inspiration from my environment here. The last decade has been a very diverse mesh of work, my relationship, and my music. I’ve made a conscious decision at present, to really focus on my music and devote real attention to my art and the lyrics. My whole drive behind making music is that I want to leave a legacy when I’m gone. The lyrics you write today, yes they’re here now but it’s not just about today. What you put out there into the world is going to be a huge representation of who you are and the story that you want to tell, and it will be out there for a long time.
VM: Tell us a bit about your musical style and any of your inspirations.
PJ: Because of my upbringing, I draw from a lot of different fields of inspiration when I am defining my own musical style. With a Haitian mother and a Swiss father, I grew up listening to a lot of music from the caribbean, zouk, a lot of soul music, as well as traditional swiss music, and folk music. I like the ability to be a bit of a chameleon with my music, and I think it’s always better when it comes from your own experiences. For example, a project I am working on right now is my new record Love/Infinity. It pulls from a lot of personal experiences, as well as those of people around me. As in the title, it deals with love, but also the other aspects of love. Love and anger, for one, are part of the same thing if you look at it. The first single, “Relativity”, talks about separation and divorce – which is a whole other spectrum of being in love. I’m working on the follow up to that with a song called “Top of the World” where it talks about the metamorphosis of a woman who is no longer going to settle for someone who isn’t worth the sacrifice of taking to the top of the world. Another song, “You Gotta Be Here” talks about the longing for someone that you miss, yet you’re with that person. I took inspiration for that premise from the wars plaguing us globally, where men and women are separated because one half has to fulfill some type of duty. I wanted to acknowledge the sacrifice a lot of men and women have to make. I took that message, but it’s spun in a reggae style, just to take it out of the box a bit.
VM: How do you relate your upbringing into your music now?
PJ: I grew up in a place called Munsingen, just outside of Bern – Switzerland’s capital – in a predominantly white community. But I have to be honest, if I think about when I first realized what colour I was, that reckoning hit me when I moved to the US, not when I was living in Switzerland. In the US it’s almost like these defined cliques and you have to make a choice – a statement – and decide what side you will join. Often I got the question, “Well do you feel like you are black, or do you see yourself as white?”. I see myself as All. In picking a side, you are denying one half of yourself. How can you do that? It took time to fully come into my own and work on it, but I think I have a good blend of the two cultures inside my heart. One of the biggest joys I find in music is the freedom. You don’t have to fit into a clique. There are no boundaries to where you can go with music, or what story you want to share.
VM: It seems the diversity in your family helped you nurture a very positive voice and outlook.
PJ: My parents were very, very supportive, especially of my music. My mom said I was singing before I was walking. But I think the first time it resonated for me, was when I was eleven and sang with my school choir. That’s when I knew in my core that this was something I wanted to do. I expanded into singing and dancing contests. My father in particular always supported me. He always wore a suit, so he looked like my manager, always sitting in the back providing steady support. There were times when he pushed me to enter a competition, and I would say, “I don’t want to conform to anything! I’m a rebel, I don’t want to be commercial…” But he would just reassure me and say, “Hey why not, you never know. Just check it out.” Those opportunities would lead to another, and another, and eventually allowed me to perform shows in Germany and Russia, and I really had a chance to expand. I definitely felt supported by my parents. But they also told me to get a degree. They said that you never know what life will bring you, and you want to have all possible options available to you. They said, “We don’t care what you do, just get a degree.” And well, I could never commit myself wholly to something I didn’t love, so I became a nurse.
VM: That’s some really solid advice. But what pulled you to Nursing?
PJ: Nursing draws me in because it’s about the miracle of human beings. I have a huge respect for our body, for nature, for anything we can’t really 100% explain. I have a huge fascination with the frailty of the human body, and also its strength in what it’s able to accomplish. I also really love engaging with all types of people. I can get bored in a routine quite quickly; Nursing is the perfect job because you meet a lot of different people every day, each with their unique stories. And every nurse who reads this is going to laugh, but I always say that I’m a nurse, I’m a psychiatrist, I’m a counsellor, I’m a spiritual guide, I’m a nanny, a butler, a maid, everything that you can imagine and more. In this one role, you really have to pull from so many other roles.
The broad bridge between Nursing and music has been gapped by my ability to really explore and know myself. My dad has been a huge driving force. I always had an extremely curious outlook and my parents nurtured that. They were very careful not to shut it off. My dad taught me that things are never the way they seem, that you have to really look closely and pay attention to every story and look for yourself. I think our society, globally, can be amazing. But we still have a lot of issues and hangups, like skin colour. And one thing we learn in Nursing is that the skin won’t help you when it boils down to what matters. It won’t help cure you. Internally when we are cut open, we all look the same.
VM: Maybe that can be the next song.
PJ: Yes! We are all Red.
VM: Thank you so much for taking the time out of your schedule to sit and talk with us. Where can our readers find more information on your albums and work?
PJ: The first album is available on iTunes. You can also buy the hard copy over at CDBaby. The 2nd full length album Love/Infinity will be coming out soon. The first single off of that is “Relativity” and that’s also available on iTunes. We worked with a lot of great producers including James Poyser of the Roots, Kev Brown, Fantasic Machine and Mobius Collective, among others.
VM: In the spirit of our weekly feature, how would you define yourself as a colourful woman?
PJ: I am a colourful woman, because I love colours in the true essence! You will see me every day in some crazy new colour combination. I think it represents not only the caribbean flavour and a part of my heritage, but also it represents that aspect of my personality. I try to hold onto the vibrance of my heritage and hope it shines through my personality. I take that with me every day, everywhere. And if it’s grey and black out there, I blast it with my joy.
Take a look at the video for Paola’s single Relativity here, and keep in touch with her through the links after the jump:
For as long as I can remember change has been part of my life. Every four years there was something new happening: a new school, new living arrangements, and therefore new friends. Growing up, I used to pretend my life was a movie that aliens watched very closely. I think it helped me look forward to whatever change was coming, and anticipate the new adventures by taking away the fear.
But in the last couple of weeks, the changes that have happened are even surprising me. In a year and a half, I’ve: moved to Paris, completed a semester at a French university, got a job at a hotel as a receptionist, and today I started a job back in journalism. Plus I learned French, ran a half-marathon, and on schedule to run another in Amsterdam in October. I think this is the life my mother wanted for my sister and I when we moved to New York. A life with opportunities to choose what we wanted. A sense of adventure that embraces change and enjoys the challenges that come with it.
During my training session at work today, someone said: When I started working here, it was the first time that I saw blacks, Arabs, and whites talking, laughing and interacting. Apparently, that was unheard of for a French company.
It was the very first time I heard someone mentioned diversity in France. You always hear about diversity initiatives, how they add to the experience of all. And today during lunch it really was truly evident. There we were, four journalists, from totally different backgrounds that together spoke seven different languages. Change has a way of deciding what kind of person you want to be: a) do you move forward and face a challenge, or b) stay in the safety of what you know, and pray that it stays like that forever?
But in life nothing is permanent. I am part of that wave of change.
In my own skin I’m more than enough. It’s the rest of the world that is a challenge.
When I moved to Paris last January, I was pretty sure of what my adventure would be about: learning French, writing, seeing the world and living life on my terms. Instead, Paris has turned into an adventure of self-discovery, race, culture and belonging.
Every day that I live in Europe, I realize more and more what a culture puzzle I am. To some I’m a woman of African descent, but not a ‘real African’ because I was born and raised in Spain. For many I’m not a real Spaniard, because my skin is black. And for the rest who feel the need to label me, I’m the American in Paris.
And that label – ‘American’ is what surprises me the most. During the 20 plus years that I lived in New York, I never felt American – but now I feel that more than ever. Maybe that old cliché really is true: you can take a girl out of Brooklyn, but you can never take Brooklyn out of the girl.
For now, I define myself as an Afro-European who was raised in New York, and who for the moment lives in Paris.
When I lived in New York, I was proud to say that I was born and raised in Madrid. Always reminiscing about my childhood, my family and friends. How being the only black kid from kindergarten to 7th grade didn’t faze me, because when I went home there were kids my age who looked like me. Children who called Spain home, the only country we knew. So what if nobody played with me during recess? I was happy to read and dream imaginary worlds. It was the beginning of an isolation that eventually became a part of me.
I think that isolation (or wall, as my best-friends would say) is what helped me survive moving to New York as a child. Where once again everything about me was different. Yes I spoke Spanish, but for the Latin Americans I had the accent and traditions of the “Conquistadores”, so I was never really part of their of culture, because I didn’t have the Latino experience. I had many African-American friends, but for them I was a ‘different’ kind of black, because no one in my family was born on American soil. A blend of many, but not enough of anything.
So where does that leave me now, as the Afro-European woman raised in Brooklyn traveling through Europe? Who am I? What culture do I identify with? Today, this is the answer to the puzzle that works: I am a woman who belongs nowhere, but makes a home everywhere she goes.