Gabby Zonneveld is a queer, Asian-American musician based in New York. She shared with us heartbreaking and heartwarming anecdotes about her family and her trip to Malaysia, and the influences of her Asian identity on her music and upcoming album, DISORIENT.
Alefiya: What does your Asian identity mean to you? Feel free to share any important customs or memories you have.
Gabby: My Asian American identity has been interesting, it’s definitely taken on a life of its own. I think for the longest time, there existed two worlds for me. I had a lot of experiences that felt very singular to me. I’d go to Malaysia and I’d be there for weeks or months at a time every, I don’t know, 2 or 3 years. And I would experience these really emotionally intense things and I would leave and come back to Minnesota and then never be able to talk about it with my friends. It was a very extreme dichotomy of extreme foreign and familiar. It was weird to balance that. I remember being very young, and my parents would ask me, “So, do you feel more Asian or do you feel more White?” And I would be really frustrated and annoyed and I was like, “What does that mean? I feel like Gabby! I’m Gabby!” That’s how I kind of operated until high school, that’s when I started to pay attention to my identity and who I was and the implicit biases you pick up along the way and how I can celebrate a mixed heritage.
Alefiya: What was growing up in Minnesota like?
Gabby: I lived in a community where there sort of were some diverse cultures- there were a lot of Hmong people and Ethiopian communities. I appreciated that from afar, I never really felt like that was something that I was going to get to be a part of. You know, Midwestern racism is sort of sugar coated almost. It’s not like “F*** you! We hate you because of your race!” It’s more polite, like, “No, thank you! We don’t want you here.” So that was sort of the experience. And now that I’ve moved to New York, it’s not like my life has suddenly transformed and racism is erased forever, but being here has opened up a lot of doors for me and connected me with a lot of different people and cultures and communities so that has been cool.
Alefiya: Tell us about your solo trip to Malaysia. Why did you go? What did you do there?
Gabby: So, I saw a play at the Guthrie theater in Minneapolis. I honestly don’t remember- I think it was a play about immigrants from Africa coming to the Midwest specifically. It was a really beautiful play and it was a very exciting show that didn’t feel very conventional or traditional. In the playbill, there was this essay or an article- and I keep this on my wall and look at it all the time. So there was this beautiful piece of writing that basically talked about the fear of your immigrant parents and how their fear of their culture and heritage lives inside of them and not you.
I’ll read this snippet, which honestly breaks my heart: ‘This is what happens when you move away from your parents, so what, may I ask, do you expect to happen when they die? You have experienced the distance from geography, and then the distance from time, and now you prepare for the most daunting distance of all: the one brought upon by death. When your parents are your home, the fear of orphanage resembles a fear of homelessness. When your parents die, they will return to their homeland, and if you manage to outlive them, you will escort them there and then return back to yours. And just like that, your parents will complete the cycle, putting geographic distance between you, between your bodies.’
This piece of writing was so beautiful and it really articulated this fear that I didn’t know I had about only connecting to my mother’s family in Malaysia and my experiences there only existing through her. Just the fear of getting older and losing touch with that side of my family felt so big and inevitable and terrifying. So I went on this trip after I graduated college. It was the first time I was traveling to Malaysia on my own. And I went for about two months, my longest time there.
It was the last time I saw my grandmother. And it was the first time I was really like a full adult, a more realized queer woman. And it was a different side of these relationships with my family that I hadn’t seen before. Do you ever experience something that’s like constant intense emotions hitting you? Oh, I might cry! There’s so many moments that I experienced like that in Malaysia.
So I don’t speak very much Mandarin and my grandmother didn’t speak very much English, so we never really communicated very much. When I was younger, it wasn’t much of an issue, but as I got older, we talked less and less.
So, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about 5-6 years back. So there was also this intense feeling that every time I went back [to Malaysia], she knew less and less about me. The last time I was there, she kept asking where I was, like where’s Gabby? Where’s little Gabby? It was so hard to just be like, “Hey, I’m right here!”
There was this moment that was sort of like the foundation of everything I wrote about in this album. It was me, my mom, my grandma, we were sitting at this table in this apartment we were staying at and it was late at night, and we had eaten, and we were just coloring. My grandma, she really loved bright colors and didn’t have a lot of dexterity anymore. So we’re just filling out coloring books, and for some reason, I just put my phone out on the table and started recording. It was such a beautiful moment. My mom and my grandma started talking, and I started asking my grandma questions through my mom, and it was the first, and now I guess the only time, that I had talked to my grandma. She talked about her husband's passing and everything, and it was the first time I really saw her as human and not just, like, my grandmother. It was so heavy in a good way.
I’m so glad I have that recording, and my goal is to learn Mandarin so I can figure out exactly what she’s saying.
Alefiya: How is this all playing into your music? I want to hear everything about DISORIENT.
Gabby: I’ll start with the name, which I’ve had for a long time. My best friend in college, she’s half Vietnamese. And we had a lot of similarities although our lives looked very different. It was the first time I really started to connect with someone about specific things about my identity and heritage. It really inspired me to reflect deeper and learn about my history and heritage. So me and this friend were both studying music, and she makes amazing music, by the way. Sophomore year, I came up with what I thought would be a good band name for both of us: Disorient. Like, ‘disorient’ feels so, like, exactly what I feel about my identity. I had written a song called Monsoon, which I’m now calling Monsoon Moon. Then, she was working on a song called Red Envelope. And we were both working on these songs that were very much about our identities and how we interacted with our Asian sides. We recorded some demos and it sort of just stayed stagnant and was just put on the back burner a little. She started to move away from this style of music and pursue other things and I was busy with another album I was working on. So then came around this trip to Malaysia and up until then I was facing some serious writer’s block. I didn't write for six months, and then I went on this trip, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t stop writing. It was, like, pouring out of me. Then I circled back and I was, like, this relates to this idea of ‘disorient’.
I didn't want to be very academic like, “This is my identity, and this is how I feel about it, and this is how it shows up, etc”. But I wanted to create a snapshot of how it feels and Malaysia and my mother and family. And then quarantine hit, and I suddenly had all this idle time. I went through so many different iterations of this project and I started producing my own music, which was sort of out of necessity because I couldn’t see anyone. I wanted to explore more electronic, more self-generated sound. It was almost obsessive. I would fall asleep with my laptop open and then there were mornings too, where I would just wake up, roll over, and start working. I couldn’t get this project out of my brain. It was partly like I said, out of necessity, like all this crazy pandemic shit and chaos and everything, and it was also partly that my grandmother suddenly passed away in April.
It was so difficult because my family couldn’t visit her because of quarantine and she was in a different country and everything. It was such a difficult period- I think I disassociated a lot and was really just inside myself, which in a way helped because I was able to produce so many intense emotions. There were so many thoughts in my head, all of which started to come out in my music.
I was in contact with a producer in Long Island, who put in touch with a mixing engineer that he used to work with in LA, named Young Tan. She is INCREDIBLY COOL, like, I can’t even believe she ever replied to my email. She was interested in mixing my music, which was a godsend, because I really wanted to work with all-Asian identities on this project. So she’s mixing my music right now, we’re four songs in, four left to go, and it sounds incredible. I’m so excited to release it.
Alefiya: Do you see making music as a healing process?
Gabby: Oh, god, YES! This might not make sense, but music is one of the few things that I don’t have to think about doing. Of course, I put a lot of thought and effort into what I do, but it’s just something that has to happen for me to function. There’s no better feeling for me than to get lost for, like, 7 hours, not eating, not sleeping, just making music. It’s incredibly meditative. Before quarantine, I feel like music, and art in general, was seen as this luxury sort of thing. And then during the pandemic, we’ve relied on books and art and music and media more than ever.
Alefiya: What advice would you give to a young Asian person who is struggling with their identity or struggling to fit into creative spaces?
Gabby: I feel so imposter-syndromey when I’m giving out advice, because am I really even taking my own advice? So this is just something I wish someone would've told me when I was younger: Ask questions! Ask the embarrassing questions, find out about your culture’s social dynamics, all those little things. Also, the most comforting thing I have done for my identity is reading books by Asian writers. Consume content and stories from people who look like you.