Who was your inspiration(s) growing up? I loved Celine Dion and Mariah Carey! How can you not!? I also loved all of my teachers at school dearly, and they were big inspirations to me, as was Walt Disney. I did a report on him in 3rd grade, I was obsessed! Later, in my twenties, I actually worked for Disney in Beijing, China — I wish my nerdy 3rd-grade self could’ve seen that. What sparked your love of music and how did you turn that into a career? I always loved to sing. My parents invested in singing lessons for me, and my brothers and I spent most of our summers growing up doing musicals and community theater together in our hometown of Olympia, Washington. When I was a senior in high school, I applied for the University of Michigan’s extremely competitive BFA Musical Theatre program, the top degree program of its kind in the country. I got in. That definitely helped to open doors for me including an opportunity to perform on Broadway in a one-night Michigan Alumni event. Then, I accepted a position as a production singer on a cruise ship immediately after undergrad. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made because I learned so much about myself during that contract, made some money, got to sail to nearly every country in Central America and the Caribbean, and it officially sealed the travel bug itch! That contract also set the stage for recording my first album, moving to LA, and eventually working full time with my two brothers under our sibling trio project, Derik Nelson & Family.
Who are your biggest musical or artistic influences? I’m the female vocalist for our sibling trio, Derik Nelson & Family Trio and we love performing music from a variety of genres and styles including a lot of covers and originals. Derik is our primary songwriter, and he draws from contemporary pop/folk artists like Dave Barnes and Drew Holcomb, and our parent’s generation of music like Joni Mitchell, Eagles, Kenny Loggins, Crosby Stills & Nash, and Fleetwood Mac.
You have such a diverse skill set from marketing to singing to calligraphy. How do you balance all of these different passions and projects? I’m still learning how to balance everything! For the last few years, I feel very blessed to have generated nearly my entire income through arts and music-based projects, but some projects require more intense emotional availability than others. So one of my biggest learning curves and accomplishments has been managing my mental health and emotional energy as an empath and natural introvert in a performing and travel career. Our touring seasons have typically happened in 6-8 week “sprint” chunks in fall and spring, so I block art and calligraphy commissions around that. I also spend time volunteering at a local performing arts non-profit in my hometown when I’m not on the road and networking with an amazing group of fellow female entrepreneurs. Moving forward, I’m really proud to announce I’m working on the first draft of my first book this quarter - non-fiction about my life and lessons up to this point - and some other creative and teaching projects for 2020. This will include a short term recruiting/judging project position with American Music Abroad through the Department of State in New York, Nashville and LA. But no matter what project I’m doing, I’ve learned to rely very heavily on journaling, yoga, exercise, and eating well most of the time to really take care of myself on and off the road. I don’t always do it gracefully, but I’ve learned that “health is wealth,” as many artistic and wanderlust souls reading this may agree with. You have to have a “full cup”, mentally and physically.
Why do you consider music and art to be a “universal language”? Why is that important? Music and art are so expressive — they reach a place in your emotional body that’s difficult to replicate any other way. In my experience of traveling and teaching all over the world, music has the ability to make people really feel something. No matter what language you speak, what culture you come from, what religious or social beliefs you hold, we are all incredibly united by music. In the last 15 years or so, we’ve finally developed the technology abilities and advances to reach anyone across the globe through YouTube, Facetime, and social media. I truly believe music, art, a revolution in compassionate expression, and possibly the universal love of amazing food and culture will heal our planet and bring more love to the world. What do you do as a US Cultural Ambassador? As a U.S. Cultural Ambassador, I travel through the U.S. State Department to countries like Moldova, Albania, Ukraine, Egypt and Eritrea on special assignments to represent our country and cultivate people-to-people diplomacy through music. Alongside my brothers, I work with U.S. Embassies to help advance their in-country strategies through specific educational programming and performances. I’m so lucky to be in this position for a second year in a row. Egypt and Eritrea in April 2020 is our next journey. Have you faced any setbacks during your journey? What did you learn? A significant setback we’ve had to encounter many times on the road domestically and internationally is getting sick and taking care of each other, not only as a family but as a band while working. Wellness and prioritizing health while traveling as a singer is so critical. Most people don’t realize how fragile the human voice is. Even very common travel conditions like lack of quality sleep, dehydration, jet lag, poor nutrition, lots of speaking, flying, etc. can really impact our voices. Our voices carry much of the weight of our job so we’re extra cautious and try to practice good vocal hygiene as much as we can so we can always do our job phenomenally. That means prioritizing hydration, sleep, limiting sugar and alcohol, and being very mindful of vocal rest when traveling for work. If anything, this career has taught me so many lessons about the incredible superpower of the human body, and how strong and regenerative it is!
Your website mentions dealing with travel anxiety. What are your tips for coping with mental health while traveling? I’m a multi-passionate creative person. I’m an empath. I was diagnosed with clinical depression in high school. I tend to over-think things, and I struggle with anxiety. This little perfect storm of qualities has been a rough combo at times, and simultaneously an amazing teacher for me. I was medicated on anti-depressants for many years throughout high school and college. I’m 33 now and have become very aware that exercise, diet, and a “spiritual toolbox” is the key to managing depressive episodes. I’ve felt really well most of the last few years, as I started traveling with what I call my “Pouch of Calm:” a small tangible collection of comfort items for every hotel nightstand. Some of the goodies inside include tiny printed photos of people from home, a necklace of my mom’s, some pebbles from my favorite National Park, a travel candle, lavender sachet, a tiny gold buddha from one of my travels to Thailand which has a lot of meaning to me, favorite lip balm… even tiny printed-out screenshots of inspiring iMessages and emails I’ve received from friends! It’s a “reset” I can physically hold, especially on bigger tours where I’m working long hours and in a different bed every night for more than a month, which is really disorienting.
What does travel mean to you? Travel means emotional connection to me. I am extremely curious and pour my full attention and heart into a new place. I love exploring, in ways that fulfill my emotional cup. For me, that looks like prioritizing one-on-one conversations about language and family with interesting people, quality fresh food that has a richness or deep history to the community, learning about the culture through on-the-ground interactions with local people, and teaching kids and students of all ages. That is an ideal and deeply fulfilling day for me!
Why is travel so important, especially for women? I believe our world would be so much more peaceful and less fear-based if more women could travel, share and exchange their creations, voices, and hearts with other cultures and other women! Women are naturally compassionate nurturers. We see ourselves in others easily. As women, we’re the natural creators and life-givers on the planet, and we have that motherly intuition to help others open up and share themselves with us. That courage to share our deepest expressions vulnerably, and help others open too, can change the world.The idea that traveling abroad as a woman is somehow “dangerous” will always be around, but I find it far more irresponsible and dangerous to allow a belief like that to confine you to one’s hometown forever. The world beautiful, with so many inspiring humans just waiting to meet you. So travel! It’s through traveling abroad that I’m reminded an American passport is one of the greatest luxuries on Earth.
What advice do you have for anyone who wants to pursue a career in the travel industry? My biggest advice no matter what career you want to pursue, is to constantly seek to discover what helps you feel like yourself. This transcends work and dives into relationships, hobbies, and life in general. There’s no “needing to act a certain way.” So, one of my biggest passions is to continue, daily, to remind myself “who I am” and when I feel most like Riana. This feeling of living truly as yourself only adds depth to your life, to your travels, your friendships, and to how you contribute to the world. And karma, baby! That goodness will come back to you!
What is your dream for the future? Ultimately, I’d love to meet an incredible, intellectual, goofy, spiritually conscious and handsome man, and have a family one day, because I know I’ll be an awesome mom. In the immediate future, I’ve been thinking more about coaching others in tandem with publishing this first book I’m writing right now. It’s just a feeling I have, but I think I’d be good at it because I’m a natural teacher. I think I’d be a fabulous coach to encourage and inspire other women to feel like themselves, so this is on my dream list. If I could build an online empire through that, then I can travel in meaningful ways when I want to, hang out with my brothers (they’re hilarious in addition to being talented in their own right!), and I’d teach, paint, and perform abroad on my terms without financial worry. All while making a valuable and positive impact on others!
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