Meet Tiana Ohara, the 22-year-old guitarist who’s ready to conquer the world

Meet Tiana Ohara, the 22-year-old guitarist who’s ready to conquer the world

There are 22-year-olds like me who are still meandering through quarter-life crises and barely have their lives figured out. Then there’s Tiana Ohara, a fresh-faced musician who’s already living the life every aspiring performer dreams of. With years of stateside touring under her belt, the guitar wunderkind has worked with the likes of UMI, Raveena, and 88rising’s NIKI—and she’s just getting started. 

Trained in jazz but a self-professed R&B lover, LA-based Ohara is a fluent multi-instrumentalist who traverses between guitar, bass, and keyboard. “I always want every note or chord to be heartfelt,” she tells Bandwagon, which succinctly encapsulates her artistic ethos. Although the pandemic disrupted much of touring throughout 2020, Ohara maintains an energy of excitement and hope for the year ahead, some of which she’s also channelled into concocting solo projects of her own.

We caught up with Ohara recently to speak with her about her journey thus far, the joys of performing, and the importance of representation in music.    


Hi Tiana! Have you been working on anything recently?

Hey! Lately, I’ve been doing more in-person sessions and doing some one-off performances with artists. I’ve also been working on producing some of my own music.

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Tiana Ohara (@tianaohara)

How did you get started on your journey in music, and what led you to become a touring/session guitarist?

I was always singing and performing around the house when I was a little kid. I think my mom saw I had a knack for music and encouraged me to play the piano and the guitar. When I was seven, I started guitar lessons and realised that I had a real connection with the instrument. In middle school, I joined an extracurricular music programme where we formed bands, wrote original music, and performed at venues around Los Angeles. I subsequently attended a music magnet programme in high school that helped form my musical foundation. 

I decided I wanted to do music professionally when I attended the California State Summer School for the Arts before my junior year of high school. It was a month-long arts intensive programme where I gained new skills and knew that I wanted to become a guitarist. I went to Berklee Five-Week the following summer, and it reassured me of my decision. 

I ended up studying jazz at The New School in New York. After my first year of college, I decided to move back to Los Angeles and everything started falling into place. 

 
 
 
 
 
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How would you describe your playing style, and what’s your typical setup like?

I think ‘soulful’ and ‘feel-good’ are words that come to mind immediately. I gravitate towards R&B, but I don’t like to limit myself. My playing style also became so much more intuitive after taking time to discover my sound when I came home from New York. 

My usual setup lately has been my Fender American Pro II Strat into my pedalboard and then into my Benson Monarch Reverb Combo Amp

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Tiana Ohara (@tianaohara)

What was it like working with NIKI for Moonchild Experience and 88rising’s Asia Rising Together concert?

It was a blast! I always love working with NIKI and the whole team. She’s refreshingly authentic, both as a person and in her music. Moonchild Experience was the first project I worked on after the pandemic hit, and I nearly shed a happy tear when I walked into our first rehearsal. It was the biggest set I’ve ever worked on, and it was incredible seeing the final product. 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Tiana Ohara (@tianaohara)

Performing for Asia Rising Together felt effortless, and everything came together so naturally. I loved playing NIKI’s music in an acoustic setting.

What are some of your most memorable performances thus far? Tell us more about it. 

Playing Staples Centre with Queen Naija [in 2019] was special to me because when I was younger, my family and I always drove past the stadium in Downtown Los Angeles. I had never been inside the venue, and I would have never thought that my first visit would be to perform on the stage.

Another memorable performance I got to check off my bucket list later that year was playing NPR Tiny Desk with Raveena. The whole experience felt like a dream.

Tours are resuming in the United States; what’s the next one you’re embarking on, and how are you feeling about that?

I should be back on the road in the fall. Although I’m a bit nervous about the Delta variant, I’m so excited to get onstage. I’ve really missed exploring cities and performing to crowds, so I can’t wait to do it again. 

 
 
 
 
 
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Who are some dream artists you’d like to work with next?

Just naming some artists whose music I especially admire from the top of my head: Tom Misch, Audrey Nuna, Kehlani, Rina Sawayama, and James Blake.

Do you have any plans to release solo material of your own?

Yes! All in due time. 

There’s been a lot of discourse about women in guitar music. Some champion the need for female representation, while others feel that this emphasis can become tokenising. Do you have any thoughts on this representation, and do you often find yourself boxed into the label of a ‘female guitarist’?

I’ve definitely had mixed feelings about being labelled a ‘female guitarist’. I don’t think gender even needs to be tied into my career label, but I also think it’s great that artists have actively hired women to show that we’re here. I strongly believe representation onstage and online is inspiring more young women today to pick up the guitar or another instrument.

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Tiana Ohara (@tianaohara)

On a similar note, do you think Asian-American musicians like yourself also struggle to achieve meaningful representation?

We are a minority in this industry, but it’s been really empowering to meet and play with fellow Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) musicians. When I started working with NIKI and 88rising, it opened my eyes to the amount of thriving Asian talent that exists right now. So many artists are breaking boundaries, and I’m excited to see what the future brings for our music community.

If you could meet your younger self, what advice would you give her?

Don’t be afraid to try something new...and don’t overthink.


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