MILPITAS (KPIX) -- Tucked inside a one-story brick building in Milpitas, you'll find a music school, a recording studio and first-time Grammy Award nominee Julian-Quán Việt Lê.
"For me it's an honor to be nominated in the first place but the fact that I got to do it with people that I care about and like as friends makes it pretty amazing," said the 30-year-old Lê whose Chilombo is nominated for Album of the Year.
Julian is a producer, songwriter, musician, and engineer. He is part of the team that helped create "Chilombo," the third studio album from American singer and songwriter Jhene Aiko. Julian co-produced, mixed and wrote a number of songs on the nominated album.
"Pretty awesome to be able to work with her and her team," Lê said.
Julian and his sister grew up in Albany in a home filled with music.
"My mom and dad were always playing classical music around the house and jazz music as well," Lê remembers.
Among his earliest influences was his music teacher Craig Bryant at Albany High School. Lê tried out for the high school jazz band and never looked back. Mr. Bryant helped him with his auditions for college.
"Pick the songs you really like," Lê recalled his music teacher saying.
Julian went to UCLA on a full jazz scholarship and was mentored by music greats like Dr. James Newton and Kenny Burrell.
"Their whole message to me was, like, study the rules but also don't be afraid to break them. Trust your ear and connect with people," Lê told KPIX.
A huge point of inspiration is a lot closer to home: His parents Chan Lê and Minh Ngo are both classically-trained musicians from Vietnam. They met while studying music at the Conservatory in Saigon, in the middle of the war. It was a difficult time.
"Choppers were on top of your head every day and there were a lot of times that we had to be quarantined because of the fighting," said Chan Lê.
After the war ended in 1975, Chan and Mihn fled separately by boat. They were among the refugees who sought to escape Saigon and became known as the boat people. Little did either know how dangerous the trip would become. As many as 400,000 refugees drowned.
"I think I was still too young to realize until I actually got on the boat that I might die," Julian's mother Minh remembers.
"Many people died at sea. I remember it was pitch black. I was lying on the deck because at the bottom you couldn't breathe," Chan said.
Julian took a deep breath and wiped away tears as he talked about the fact both his parents almost died in the water.
"Everything they sacrificed for the kids, they are incredible people, amazing, incredible people," he said.
The album Chilombo was finished before the pandemic hit. The entire production crew made the album while living together in Hawaii.
"It was just all those experiences that we experienced together. It just came out in the music," Lê said.
Connecting through music is what this family cultivates.
Their school, Pacific Music Associations, teaches traditional Vietnamese music to young people.
"For us, I think music is very comforting," Minh said.
"It's all about human relationships," added Chan.
"It's your journey that matters the most," Julian said.
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