Meet Gina, a young, talented and accomplished independent singer, songwriter, composer and arranger. In this interview, Gina talks about her Cuban background, worldly experiences, and overcoming adversity in the big city, all while staying true to her values.
I had the pleasure of interviewing the multi-talented Gina D’Soto, who brings not only her traditional, Cuban roots to her music, but also her diverse experiences in Canada, New York City and other places of the people she meets. Gina’s sound cannot be placed in a single genre; her songs range from slow, poetic ballads, to upbeat and funky melodies. She’s sang on stages graced by Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and have collaborated with six-time Grammy recipient Arturo O’Farrill. Gina describes the impact of her past, and glimpse into her future; she takes us on an honest journey of her personal experiences beyond her music aspirations. She is absolutely a star on the rise.
Describe growing up in Cuba and how it’s influenced your music?
I was born in Cuba and grew up there. I started attending music school at 8 years old, and that was where I first learned to play the piano. From a young age, I’ve had the opportunity to be surrounded by amazing Cuban artists.
A few years later, I started to experiment and play jazz piano in a school band. It sparked a curiosity in me to interact with people through music; I wanted to see people’s faces while I performed so I started to sing. I would ask my friends to request songs for me to practice signing, and quickly, I began singing at different events in Cuba.
As a teenager, I moved to Canada and completed my piano studies in Montreal and obtained a degree in Classical Piano from McGill University, and also a degree in Jazz Voice From CEGEP Vanier College. I developed a deep love for jazz, and was inspired by how much jazz influenced the world. I am grateful for my experience in Canada, because it is where I learned all of my techniques. Montreal will always have a special place for me and it’s a part of who I am. After college, I focused on singing and song-writing and eventually moved to New York City.
You also lived in Montreal and now New York City, how have those cities impacted your music?
I get to meet amazing people from all over the world, but I also don’t get to see my family or childhood friends often; I may only go to Cuba once every 2 or 4 years. I finished high school and college at a very international school in Montreal; it’s awe-inspiring to be surrounded by different cultures and witness what people bring to the table. I have travelled a lot throughout the United States and each place affected my music. While Cuba doesn’t define my art, it influences it a lot. However, so does Salsa, Samba, and R&B because my art is also influenced by the people in my life and where they are from.
Photos by Andres Martinez
Your music is of wide range, how would you describe your music to someone who’s never listened to it?
People say that you need to have a niche, but I disagree. If I can do it all, why shouldn’t I – especially if I enjoy different things. I love everything from slow poetic music like Cuban boleros, to salsa and R&B; these are all of the genres that encompass who I am and because I am from everywhere, and I want my music to evoke that feeling. We live in a global world where people can identify with multiple places; I want to embrace that and bring a global perspective to my art.
How did you form your band?
My band, The Inner Circle, was formed in Montreal. The members were some of the first people who believed in me and my music; they helped me grow. We shared a lot of beautiful memories together, such as performing in festivals and creating my single, “Tú y Yo.” Since, we have all journeyed on different paths, but I would love to have the opportunity to connect again as a group.
My band in New York, is the first band in which I’ve had 2 horns, a trumpet and a trombone. My band here is also very mature. Since living in New York, I have evolved as a person and so did my music; my band reflects my growth. They understand what I want and they can mix the complicated rhythms that I am trying to put together. I feel that I can fully express myself with them. My band here feels like family which is important because the music scene in New York City is tough. Sometimes you can feel discouraged, and while that feeling is a part of the process, it’s important to have people who believe in your truth inside your circle.
What’s your music making process?
I can be inspired by anything, from books to movies, and trees. The Redwoods forest in California really inspires me. The album I plan to release next year is about my feelings as a young, adult woman trying to understand life, self-love and relationships from different perspectives. In my experience, the lyrics usually come first. I may not always be at my piano or ukulele when I think of them, so I try to catch them despite where I might be. For example, I am always writing lyrics on my phone on the subway.
Photos by Martin Cohen
What was the inspiration for your song, “Flor de Primavera” and are you referring to yourself in the song?
I composed the song with Javier Maldonado, who is a great guitarist from Argentina. We initially met in Montreal and have stayed in contact since. When he brought the melody to me, I let it speak to me. Flor (a flower) is something that many people think is delicate. In a way, that’s true since a flower will eventually die after you cut it. But, I consider myself a flower in a different way, one that can grow from a tree, the ground or anywhere. While a flower appears to be delicate, it can withstand rain and storms because it is rooted in the Earth.
What has been your experience in New York City?
I have been living in New York City for two years and I feel confident that New York is where I am supposed to be; a lot of my identity resides in this city. Here, I am surrounded by Spanish, English and a diverse music scene. While I have not yet travelled to the other side of the world, in New York, I feel the world at my fingertips. New York City is a hub that encompasses so many experiences and cultures. In terms of music, it feels like home.
Moving to New York City after being in Montreal was overwhelming, but so far New York has been great to me. I’ve met so many amazing musicians and have had the opportunity to sing at places I’d never imagined myself to sing at, such as at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem where Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and others sang. I also performed with Maria Bacardi, an incredible Cuban singer, at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan.
What are frustrations that you have as an artist of color in New York that many people don’t know about?
New York runs faster than any other place I have lived in, and oftentimes, I don’t have time for anything. Necessities here, like rent and utilities, are also very expensive. There is an investment in time that you have to make in order to afford the basics, but little by little, I have been able to create stability in my life.
Also, as a Latin artist, people only expect me to play Latin music. I am often not the first choice for broader opportunities and I am often placed in the box that I try so hard to avoid. I did not study in Canada and move to New York to only sing Spanish music, I can do that in South America. Instead, I learned English and French and left Cuba to study different types of music and bring a unique perspective. As a woman, I have to prove myself even more.
Photos by Christopher Howard
What advice do you have for up and coming musicians of color starting out in New York?
I would advise people to stay honest and true to their background and story. No one else can tell your story like you can. Be honest not only with yourself but also with your support system.
Additionally, the media is very powerful and many times young musicians can face hardship in finding their truth because there is a lot of pressure to do what other artists are doing. However, you may have something revolutionary to bring to the table. When you don’t consistently support your own art, your great ideas cannot flourish. If you have an idea, just put it out there. It doesn’t matter if only one person listens to it, what’s more important is that you like what you make. If you stay strong with your idea, that idea will bloom in the most amazing of ways.
What’s the hardest part about collaborating creatively with people virtually?
I have always wanted to collaborate virtually with my friends around the world, so the lockdown situation is actually helping me do that.
As horrible of a situation Corona is, it also offered an opportunity for me to start learning more. I have learned so much about editing and working with different software such as Final Cut, iMovie, and Garage Band – which has been helping me immensely.
What is life teaching you right now?
I am still learning that everything happens step-by-step. The music business is a long journey and you have to be invested and focused. I may need to work 200 times harder to find a team or reach my peak. I have also learned that I need to be organized and independent. In the city, there is not much free time given that I need to work, compose, arrange, write and more. While the journey is long, it’s worth it as long as you are invested.
Photo by Andres Martinez
Who are a few of your favorite artists?
Jorge Drexler from Argentina is one of my favorite artists, his music is so beautiful and has a unique edge that anyone, whether you speak Spanish or not, can grasp. I also like Luedji Luna, Kimbra and Lianne la Havas.
How can people support you?
I love when people comment or message me on Instagram to send their love. It would be great for people to support me by commenting, liking and sharing my posts. I appreciate when people give me feedback and tell me what they want; I love building community.
Many people see followers on a profile as numbers, but behind every number is a person and I love interacting with them and learning what they do or don’t like. It doesn’t matter to me if people don’t like my music, I’d rather they tell me; I’ll give my all to my fans.
What was a moment or experience you are most proud of?
I am really proud of myself for learning multiple languages, earning a music degree in a new country, and receiving a scholarship outside of my home country- especially without initial family support.
I also really enjoyed working with Arturo O’Farrill, who is a six-time grammy winning artist; I sang with him and his full band at the Newman Center for Performing Arts in Denver, Colorado. The venue was completely full and the song I sang was very difficult so that was a special moment for me.
Tell me more about your Masterclass lessons service?
I have always loved teaching kids how to sing and play piano; on Masterclasses, I offer one-on-one vocal lessons.
I don’t have any limits in the classes I teach my students; if I don’t know something, we’ll search for an answer together. My services aren’t limited to music either, I love to talk about the mind, body and spirit. Because people are experiencing financial hardship, I don’t preoccupy myself with the price. I am willing to work with each person individually to find a price point that they are comfortable with because we all need each other at this time.
Check out her post on our Instagram page.