Photo of Dolly Ave

Dolly Ave Refuses to Be Pigeonholed

This LA-based singer-songwriter won't let arbitrary labels diminish her undeniable talent

Dolly Ave sings her heart out through her music, which blends alternative pop and indie.

Maria Diachenko

Words by Ryan Quan

For a long time, Dolly Ave was a photographer, working behind the scenes instead of in front of the camera. In college, she started dabbling in music, sharing her creations with close friends. But her friends quickly convinced Dolly her songs were too good to keep private. Now, she performs her music on stages for passionate audiences, sharing her story with the world.

The Vietnamese American singer-songwriter makes a comfortable mix of alternative pop and indie, blending her small-town roots in Missouri with her big city experiences in Chicago and LA. She’s musically inspired by Coldplay, Local Natives, Avril Lavigne, and Paramore, but her songs are uniquely hers with deeply personal lyrics that delve into her darker thoughts and emotions.

I met with her over Zoom to talk about her rise to fame. Chatting with Dolly felt more like going on a first date or meeting a friend of a friend rather than interviewing a talented artist who has been featured on Harper’s Bazaar and Rolling Stone. Between my questions about her career so far, she also insisted on getting to know me better. We compared our astrology charts (she’s a Taurus sun, Gemini moon, Virgo rising), discussed my own career at JoySauce, and bonded over our mutual hate of cold weather. Despite her insane amount of talent, she’s incredibly humble.

When we weren’t getting off topic, we talked about her two albums—Sleep and This Is Our Time—and the process of writing such emotional music. We also got into how the industry is changing, especially for Asian Americans, and the advice she has for young musicians trying to find their footing.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Ryan Quan: What was it like growing up in Missouri, especially as a Vietnamese American? Did you have any trouble growing up there? Did you have your own community?

Dolly Ave: I was one of two or three Asian Americans in school, and I moved a lot in different areas of Missouri. I was kinda this novelty in a sense that [I would hear], “What is she? Who are you? You’re Asian? What is that like? I don’t get it.”

Of course, it was a lot of microaggression, obviously, and racism and trying to find my identity. But I would then move to California, and it would be the opposite culture shock happening; there’s a lot of Asian Americans. So I realized growing up in Missouri, I was just confused the entire time about what it meant to be American. Growing up in this small town, there’s not much to do there, so it gave me this strange exploration to be creative and go outside and explore because you can only bowl or go to the movie theaters.

RQ: Your first album, Sleep, was about the death of your mother, right? What were your expectations for that album? What were you expecting to come out of it, and what resulted from it that you’re really proud of?

DA: I was going through a lot of different feelings about making this album. I was a photographer for a long time and dealing with stage fright, but also dealing with what it meant to fully show that I’m a musician and making that transition out of being behind the scenes. And so, in a sense, this album was also a way for me to explore that world, explore my style, explore my writing, and package it to show that this is what I’m capable of and continue on to the next chapter of being a musician. And on the other hand, I was grieving and trying to let my feelings out. Outside of grieving, I was just thinking a lot of Missouri and growing up and what I needed as a kid.

And then I had the entirely opposite feeling of, “I don’t want to be a musician. This is a really hard process to make an album. It’s so much money, so much time, so much effort.” I’m kind of a perfectionist in terms of wanting to scale bigger and bigger and having a lot of conflicting feelings. I was like, “Is this me? Is this what I want to do? Or is this song too pop? Is this song not cool enough? Or is that too mainstream?” You know, so much is happening. 

But having completed it, having finished it, I love it a lot. Mostly because it just represents that time in my life. But also, an album is wonderful because it closes a chapter. I feel like I grew up a lot internally, and it’s just what I want to be moving for as a musician. It actually gave me a lot of strength to be like, “Okay, this is my path and my purpose.”

RQ: I love that! How different do you think the album is from This Is Our Time?

DA: Well, “This Is Our Time,” the song, is very upbeat. And that entire album is very upbeat. What I loved about creating it was that there were grief-stricken themes, but it wasn’t a sad album. Now that I’m kinda past that world, I’m curious if I want to explore the darker tones of my existence. So I think I’m going for a darker sound after this.

RQ: Yeah, I support that. I love some dark music.

DA: I love sad girl stuff, but I feel like I’m in the sad-but-rock-out vibe. I don’t want [my music] to be sad where you can’t nod your head still.

RQ: I agree. I think the best songs have really sad lyrics but are still super upbeat. You can dance to them, but then you take a moment and realize how sad you are.

DA: Like dark pop! Anti-pop! You’re just like, “Wait, this is kind of fucked up.” [Laughs] That’s where I’m at. I still want to dance, but I’ll cry.

RQ: Are you working on music for another album?

DA: Yeah, that’s my plan. I’m actually going to—I’ve always wanted to do this—I have booked a three-day cabin by myself in the woods just to see what happens. That’s one thing I would say that’s different from [This Is Our Time]. There was a lot of people around me for that album, and it was a really collaborative process. But I want to see what happens when I’m just out in pure isolation.

RQ: I’ve always wanted to do that, but for my writing.

DA: You know what’s funny? I’m scared. I have paranoid thoughts sometimes, so I’m bringing a friend. I’m not totally by myself, mostly because I’ve been watching murder stuff. I’m scared. [Laughs]

RQ: I know so many people who watch murder shows or murder podcasts, and then they scare themselves. That’s the reason I don’t watch those things. I have enough paranoia as it is.

DA: It’s for the art, you know? We’ll do what gets us there.

RQ: Getting back to your art, how would you say that your Vietnamese identity affects your music?

DA: I think the community part is super important. Every opportunity I’ve had thus far in my journey has been because of the support of the Vietnamese community. But outside of that, I think the cool thing about the music I’m making is that, if you close your eyes, you couldn’t be like, “Oh, that’s very Asian.” I’m just singing to make music that’s relatable for anybody.

And that’s what’s important about the Asian community, too. As long as we have a space, we don’t have to be [labeled as] “blank, blank, blank, Asian.” We’re talented! Why do we have to have these categories? It’s important, of course, in terms of having support, uplifting our community, and raising awareness, but I also think that we’re strong as well without needing to be pigeonholed. And that’s where I feel like the industry is going, which is exciting.

RQ: It really is great to see so many Asian artists rise and not just in the bubble of being Asian. Instead of, “Check out this Asian artist,” it’s becoming, “Check out this artist because they’re very talented.” It’s really refreshing. Do you have any advice for young Asian American musicians trying to enter this new space?

DA: I would tell anybody to take your time. I think there’s a lot of pressure on the right time and doing it before you’re a certain age. Your story is going to be unique to you. You can’t really follow anybody else’s path.

I started really late. I started music two years ago. There are people who’ve sang since they got out of the womb. And I didn’t learn how to sing correctly until two years ago. So I would really just own what your process is and make mistakes because that’s going to create who you will end up being just naturally.

Published on April 3, 2024

Words by Ryan Quan

Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.