Tiana Ohara Interview
1. What is your name and your profession(s)?
My name’s Tiana Ohara. I’m a touring guitarist and music producer.
2. What is your ethnic background and what is your citizenship?
I’m half Japanese and half Filipino. I’m a US native and I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California.
3. Are either/both of your parents musicians or somehow involved in the music industry?
No. My mother would sing karaoke at the Japanese community gatherings before I was born. When I was a baby and still to this day, my mother and I sing together for fun; she’s always had a lovely singing voice. She was forced to take piano lessons as a kid and I’m pretty sure that’s why the interest with musical instruments didn’t last haha.
4. Please tell us a little bit about your experience, either growing up as an AAPI in America, or as a person of Asian descent who immigrated to America, whichever applies.
My family spoke to me in both English and Japanese when I was younger. You might know me as Tiana, but my entire family calls me by my Japanese name. I immersed myself in my Japanese culture by practicing Nihon Buyo (Japanese folk dance) and going to Japanese school, but I stopped both after a few years. I have a large extended family and pre-pandemic we would always gather for the holidays with massive potluck style Japanese feasts; my favorite dish will always be my mom’s mochi pie. My grandparents owned a hardware shop on Sawtelle (a predominantly Japanese American area in LA) for 40 years and I would spend a lot of time at the shop. The block was filled with Japanese residents and business owners and it was wonderful to be a part of a community where everyone knew each other and would look out for one another. My last name, Ohara, is a Japanese last name; however, in school, teachers would always ask if I was Irish and it would slightly get on my nerves because there’s no apostrophe! I speak up now whenever it’s pronounced or written incorrectly because gotta put respect on the family name.
I’m very proud of my culture, but I remember there were times in elementary school where I was embarrassed to take rice or other Japanese meals to school. The lack of Asian representation in the media while I was growing up didn’t help my fear of being judged. On the other hand, I’ve pretty much blocked out any racial microaggressions I was told by peers during my primary and secondary school years. Today, it’s so wonderful to see more Asian representation in the music industry and in the media.
5. How connected do you feel to your heritage/culture(s)?
I feel very connected to my heritage and culture. I spent the majority of my time growing up in my grandparents’ home and they emigrated in their teens from a rural province in Japan called Kagoshima. They’ve instilled many of their cultural values in me and it’s a part of the reason why I am who I am. I grew up with comfort foods like mochi with soy sauce & sugar, tonkatsu, and chawanmushi. One thing that would help me feel more connected would be becoming proficient in the language again. I can for the most part understand what people are saying when they speak in Japanese, but because I don’t speak in the language as often anymore I can’t speak as well as I used to. I’ve still yet to visit Japan, so I’m excited for whenever that happens.
6. 6a.) How did you get into music? Did you major in music in college? Where did you attend college/university (and grad school(s), if applicable) and in what subjects did you get your degree(s)?
I’ve always had an interest in music. As a baby, I would sit in front of the TV and watch Baby Mozart or Baby Beethoven. I was always singing for fun around the house. My grandparents have always had a Kawai upright piano in their home and I’d tap on the keys with no expectations. This eventually led to me taking piano lessons at preschool and then moving onto guitar during my primary school years. The guitar ended up becoming like an extension of myself. I took lessons on and off throughout middle school and high school, was a part of bands outside of school, and attended a performing arts high school in LA.
I went to The New School in New York City for a year to study jazz guitar. I ended up leaving after my freshman year for various reasons, but overall enjoyed my time there. Leaving school was the right choice for me at that time and I’m grateful for how things have played out for me since then.
6b.) When and how did you decide you were going to pursue music professionally? What were your parents’ reactions to you deciding to pursue music? Do they support your music career now?
I always dreamt of performing on big stages, but I ultimately decided I had to pursue music professionally when I attended a summer program called the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA) before my junior year of high school. It was a month-long immersive program where I was surrounded by many other passionate musicians and creatives. I just really felt I thrived in that environment. Constantly playing music every day, I couldn’t think of any other pursuits that would make sense for me. My mom has always been so encouraging in my musical pursuits since day one, and she’s my biggest supporter in life.
7. What are a few of your (music) projects of which you are the proudest? What were your roles on those projects? Beyond those projects, please feel free to name some of your other credits as well as any brands/companies you officially endorse.
One thing I’ve been really proud of is playing guitar and bass with Niki for her headline set at Head in the Clouds in 2021. Playing with Niki is always such a joy and that feeling was amplified because we were playing for a huge crowd of predominantly Asian people. It was the largest show I’d played since the pandemic hit so it was just incredibly euphoric. I felt such a strong sense of acceptance and belonging the entire weekend. I remember Niki talking about her vision for her HITC set before all the prep started and it was so beautiful to see all of the elements come together to form a fantastic show. We also just played Coachella which is a core memory for me now. I had attended on a whim for the first time in 2019 and manifested playing the festival someday. Beyond that, I am proud to endorse some wonderful brands including Ernie Ball, Ultimate Ears, Keeley Electronics, Mono, Meris, Ronin Guitars, Goodhertz, XLN Audio, Franklin Strap, and Beetronics.
8. What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) being an AAPI in the music world? What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) as an AAPI in general (non-music)? Conversely, has being an AAPI ever helped you in the music industry or in general?
I can’t think of obstacles in the industry at the top of my head at the moment. Being AAPI has helped me in the industry when people have wanted POC accompaniment.
9. 9a.) Who are some AAPI musicians/composers/producers who have previously inspired and currently inspire you (if any)? Why?
There are SO many. I’m inspired by Niki’s authenticity with her own voice and vision. I’m inspired by Umi’s intertwining of music and healing. My friend Karina DePiano, who I’ve worked with a lot because we play live together with Niki, inspires me with her drive and determination in every aspect of music whether it’s sound design, playing, or music directing. Aaron Paris is a producer whose sound has been inspiring me lately. Audrey Nuna is one of my favorite artists, I feel like she’s pushing boundaries and I find her sound and versatility very inspiring. I could go on and on about so many amazing Asians in music!
9b.) What are your hopes for the AAPI music community and your hopes for AAPIs in general?
I just hope our AAPI music community keeps growing and we all keep uplifting each other. It’s always so wonderful getting to connect and hang with AAPI musicians. I love learning about others’ cultural backgrounds and experiences.
10. Name one or two non-music-related things/subjects about which you are also passionate.
I love playing tennis. A good rally always gets my energy pumped. I’ve always been into visuals, so I love photography and videography. Oh, and I looove productivity YouTube videos. I’m a sucker for organization and key shortcuts.
11. Any final thoughts? Alternatively, do you have any questions for me and/or the greater AAPI music community?
How are there still people in 2022 who wear shoes in the house??? I will never understand, haha.
Summer: I feel you on that, Tiana, haha.
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Images courtesy of Tiana Ohara