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Zionya Nolan

Kevin M. Mitchell • October 2021Parnelli NexGen • October 11, 2021

Zionya Nolan photo by Loreen Bohannon

On the Rise Audio Professional Catching Breaks, Growing and Learning

There are people who want to be in this business. And then there is Zionya Nolan.

The Early Days

“I was driving out of town on my own dime to work for free, even sleeping in my car, so I could get good enough to take on paying gigs.” It worked, because she has gone from mixing local bands and volunteering at festivals to being currently out with Earth, Wind & Fire. And additional future gigs are percolating.

It’s been an unlikely success story for a multiple of reasons. “I come from a huge family of 10, including my twin brother.” She grew up in Sacramento, in California’s Central Valley, where she says there was a lot of music in the house. “There was a huge variety — R&B, metal, Aerosmith, Jimi Hendrix…” But at the age of 11, she and her twin brother went into foster care, and during that time music became a source of solace. “Music was a way I coped with my upbringing.”

At 16, for Christmas, the young girl got an unusual gift: recording equipment. Now armed with an audio interface, a computer and a spiffy pair of KRK studio monitor speakers, she went to work recording music — her friends, and her own. “From there, I was pretty convinced on what I wanted to do when I grew up.” Alas, as she grew into her later teen years, doubts about making that that dream into a reality derailed her, and she pursued “safer” career goals. However, when she was 21, she was talking about it with a friend who convinced her to pursue her dreams. She then enrolled in a commercial music program studying audio engineering and electronics at the American River College in Sacramento. Nolan says it was a great program and she emerged knowing how to operate a console, mix, and even repair audio electronics. She was also busy being an athlete. In addition to juggling school and a job, for three seasons she was a semi-pro defensive end in the full-contact Independent Women’s Football League’s Sacramento Sirens. “That’s where my work ethic comes from — wanting to succeed comes from being an athlete.”

Sometimes after a loud festival gig, a private desert getaway provides just the right amount of solace.

The Next Step

Nolan went from school to interning at Doug Conner Music Studios in Granite Bay, CA. From there she took whatever gigs she could, paying or not. A break came from an unlikely locale: She was hired as a stagehand for the Global Winter Wonderland, an annual circus in Tulare, CA. Well, one day, the audio engineer didn’t show up. “They all looked at me because they knew I had the training, and I’m telling you, I was scared,” she laughs. “I thought, ‘What did I get myself into?’ But I did it. I pulled it off — I’m not saying it was pretty, but I pulled it off, and it gave me the confidence I needed to start seeking other opportunities.”

Another break came when Nolan got herself on the Rat Sound Systems crew for the 2016 Coachella Festival as a stage tech, patching cables, striking the stage between bands, and doing whatever else was needed. “I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, but I knew how to listen and that is half the battle.” She did more than well-enough, as Rat Sound began hiring her for other gigs including mixing monitors for up-and-coming acts such as Ghanaian-American singer-songwriter Moses Sumney and neo-soul/R&B artist UMI. Along the way, Nolan was lead audio engineer for C3LA — the Contemporary Choral Collective of Los Angeles. Then Rat Sound sent her out on the 2017 Warped Tour. “That tour was boot camp! I learned a lot on that tour.” Yet, she was just getting started…

Any aspirations of live audio as a “glamour profession” are put aside when rolling snakes.

Onwards, Upwards!

The following year, Nolan was sent out as an audio tech for Indonesian rapper Rich Brian. From there she got a call from Eighth Day Sound. “They were looking for people who wanted to learn and grow, and that was me, so I took a full-time position with them.” She started in the warehouse and would do festival work and even some monitor mixing, “learning as much as I can.” The pandemic wet blanket happened, but she eventually got back with Eighth Day and is now an audio tech on the Earth, Wind & Fire tour.

“I really like being on the stage, interacting with the musicians, and making those people happy,” Nolan says. “I know it’s hard to put good shows on, and if I can help out in any way, I’m a happy person.” She pauses and adds: “I especially love the challenges of being a system tech. There are great challenges in doing that work but it is so rewarding. I love math, physics, electronics — I always have, and not sure why. Maybe I’m weird!”

Advice & Parting Thoughts

When it’s pointed out there aren’t many women out there on the road, Nolan shrugs it off. “Sure, I’m used to being the only woman in the group sometimes, but you know what? I have seven brothers! So I think I was prepared for this industry perfectly,” she laughs. “Yes, there are challenges, but I do my best knowing that I’m part of the change. I know it’s important to develop and stay focused enough to get through the tough days. There are more allies out there than maybe there were in the past, and I say, ‘Let them know what you need. Talk to them.’ As for the guys who haven’t joined the party yet — ‘Ignore them.’”

Nolan has words for any other women thinking about making it in live concert touring, too: “Stay strong. Know who you are and what you want. Be humble — you’re never going to know everything, and that’s okay. Be open, because almost everyone is here to help you. And whatever chip you have on your shoulder? Get rid of it.”

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