Q&A: Karina Pasian Is Feeling the "Love"

It's not often that a Dominican girl from Washington Heights gets dubbed "the next Alicia Keys," but for 17-year-old Karina Pasian, that sort of hype is common. "It's an honor because I do admire her--and we're both light-skinned and play the piano, so of course the comparisons are going to be there," she says. "But I am my own person."

Pasian's debut album, First Love, is out now, and the young singer knows what's at stake. At 7 years old, she was wowing family members with her self-taught version of a Celine Dion power ballad. At 11, she was singing for Quincy Jones, and a couple of years later, her family was entertaining major label offers. Thanks to Jay-Z's pleas, Def Jam was the lucky suitor, and all eyes are now on this high-school senior who sings in seven languages and has a voice that's soulful beyond her years. No pressure, right?

Some, as Pasian admitted over lunch at Cafeteria in NYC. But luckily, there's plenty of family support. On this sunny day, she is accompanied by her 11-year-old sister, Oksana, and her brother Rafael, 23, who co-manages Pasian with their father and is there to chime in whenever his sister shoots him a glance. As fingers fly on all three siblings' matching PDAs, Pasian picks at her french fries and muses about her first album, her family back in DR and why the singer she idolizes most isn't the one you'd expect.

When did you start taking music seriously?

I always sang, even when I was two or three...but when I was seven, Titanic was my favorite movie. I loved the song "My Heart Will Go On" so I just put it together on the piano by ear, and I sang it in a talent show for my dad's school. That's when I just realized that I wanted to do this my whole life.

[Adds Rafael: "I remember when she first played the song. I was like, "Did you learn that at school?," and she was like "No, I heard the song and I figured it out." I called my father and was like, "Karina's playing and singing at the same time, and it doesn't sound bad!"]

Quincy Jones is your godfather. How did he come into your life?

We had made this DVD with different performances of mine. He saw it and invited me to his house. I was like, 11, singing for all the maids and everybody, and it was crazy. Ever since then we've kept a close relationship. He tells me to say grounded, keep developing my craft and work hard.

As people in the industry paid more attention to you, how did you feel?

I guess it was a little bit overwhelming. My dad was like, "This person wants to sign you. This person's calling me because of this." I was just like, "Well, I just want to sing; I dont' know about all that!" I was so young, but it was exciting to be in that situation.

And why did you decide to sign with Def Jam?

I felt like it was my home because it's based out here in New York. For Interscope or Warner, I'd probably have to be in L.A. all the time, and I just wanted to stay close to my family. And they made a great offer. Jay-Z wouldn't let me out the building until I signed. It was 1 o' clock in the morning, and he was like, "You are not leaving! Close the door." It was so serious.

Who introduced you to music?

My dad. He's been playing me a lot of different styles since I was very little. Jazz, R&B, pop, reggae, opera--anything you can think of--just to make my ear more diverse and nurture it with different styles. I love jazz and R&B.

Can you describe the feeling that you get from performing?

I feel like it is me! Like I'm just at home doing it naturally. It's a part of me, something that I can't get rid of. Growing up, that's all I've been doing. Not something I just got into or a hobby.

Did you write the songs on your album?

No, but I had a lot of input. We always say that all my songs have to have a positive message. They can't just be about nothing. They have to have a storyline. So the songs on my album are what I believe in, and they really reflect who I am.

Why did you choose the song "16 @ War" as your first single?

It makes a statement. The song is talking about everything I see going on--teens going through peer pressure, trying to be cool or doing the wrong things just because their friends are doing that stuff. It's just me talking about how I don't feel like that's right and people should take a stand and just be who they are.

Do you ever experience peer pressure like that?

To a certain extent I do, but I would never give in to it. Nobody could ever force me to do anything.

You also have a track featuring Lil Mama on this album, "Baby, Baby." Was that the first time you worked with someone around your age in the studio?

Definitely. I met her a year before I worked with her, at a studio in Atlanta, and we just bonded right away. We always talked about working together. "Baby Baby" is about me...well, not dissing a boy, but just talking about how I'm not gonna let him do anything stupid. He has to respect me because I don't play that when boys try to be fresh.

What's your favorite song on your album?

"First Love," the title track. I just love that song a lot--it starts out sounding like I'm singing about a boy, and everybody's confused, trying to figure it out. In the end I say that it's about music. I don't know how to describe what happens to me, but every time I sing that song I just live in it.

We noticed that on your blog (www.meetkarina.net), you wrote that Brandy's Full Moon is your favorite album of all time.

I could listen to every single song on that album back to back and not get tired of it. The way she sings and her melodies and the harmonies, it just puts me in a trance. I always sing along and figure out every little thing she does with her voice. I'm dying to meet her!

Have you met Alicia Keys?

Yeah, my sister and me met her back stage at Radio City Music Hall when I was 10. We have a video of it on YouTube, and we look tiny! We were so young. She was really nice.

You started your career at such a young age. What's the hardest thing you've faced so far?

I mean, it's just hard thinking about everything that I have to do. The responsibility that I have...everybody's expecting a lot out of me so I just have to live up to those and you know, just strive for the best. Seeing all the famous people and what they have to go through, and just knowing I'm on that way...sometimes I think about it and I'm like "Wow," but I can't imagine doing anything else.

How do you deal with those feelings?

I just pray. I always keep my faith in God, and I know that He's always going to be there for me. My family, because they always have my back. And I just think about my music, and the love I have for it.

What do you love about being a Latina?

I love being Dominican and going to the island. We just hang out with my family and go to the beach and stuff. I love the food, the culture and my grandma...the roots...everything. I miss it so much! But Washington Heights is basically a little Dominican Republic. My grandmother on my father's side lives with us, and she cooks for me every day.

Any Spanish songs you love?

I love "Contigo en la Distancia." I perform it sometimes. It's a classic. I found out about it because Christina Aguilera sang it, but my dad knew about it from Luis Miguel's version.

What do you like to do when you're not singing?

I like just laying down and thinking. I'm a regular 17-year-old so I have sleepovers, talk on the phone, rent movies...I especially love the beach. That's the best place for me to relax, and I love tanning. I like sports, too--running and baseball.

I also like acting. It's really cool to just be somebody else, and you don't have to hold back. You can act crazy, and it'll be ok.

How does it feel to be so supported by your family?

I'm just very blessed to have them. My mom is very supportive, always worried about my health and making sure I'm okay. When I'm performing, my dad will breathe with me while I'm singing and he's just always there making sure everything is perfect. I know that I'm very fortunate that my whole family is behind me. I really wouldn't be where I am without them.

You've been touring with Lupe Fiasco. Were you nervous before your first show with him?

Yeah I kind of was, because he was like, "I'm gonna go watch your set." I was like "Ohhh, I gotta step it up!" But I had fun and I had my dancers and DJ with me, so it was cool. We could wile out backstage and just have fun.

--Monica Herrera