For years, Van-Anh had a dating rule. She broke it when she met Mark

For years, Van-Anh had a dating rule. She broke it when she met Mark

So she established some boundaries. Among them: no DJs.

“I thought I knew what their lives would be like – drugs, sex and rock’n’roll.”

Then she met Mark Olsen, a successful Sydney-based DJ. She was in town for six weeks. Olsen, having seen her play piano in a video she posted on Facebook, asked if she would collaborate on a project in a Sydney studio.

They hit it off over their deep love of music although they had nearly diametrically opposed first-loves: he funk and disco; she, Rachmaninov and Bach.

Within three months, they decided to travel to Bali together for a writing retreat. They set up a mini studio in their room with a keyboard and speakers.

“That concreted it for sure,” says Nguyen, speaking of not only their romantic connection, but a new musical venture they decided to embark upon as a duo, with him producing and adding electronic beats to her classical performances.

“We were just a couple of days in, we were just sitting in one of the sunset bars, and I’m like, ‘Hmm, I think this could work’.”

She set down some relationship ground rules. Among them: a call in the morning and a call at night when they’re apart; and they weren’t to be apart for longer than three-and-a-half weeks.

“I had just turned 28, and I just I said, ‘Look, I’m not here to mess around, I don’t really have the time for that, I’m not interested in that.’ And he’s like, ‘How do you know if this is what you want?’ I said, ‘Well, these are basically what I think would work, if we could follow these things’. And I guess it’s worked.”

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So much so that four years ago, Olsen, an accomplished drummer and producer of multiple top 10 ARIA charting songs, decided to throw much of his energy behind her career – either as a producer or manager – and leave behind his past dreams for solo DJ stardom.

“He was like, ‘I want you to be the star, to be the front person. I want to be able to support that, and push that’.

“So much of my life had been solo and trying to do everything by myself, and trying to find the right manager to support you and drive you. It was like, OK, his heart is in the right spot for me. And then, to be able to write music together is a total dream come true.”

We were just a couple of days in, we were just sitting in one of the sunset bars, and I’m like, ‘Hmm, I think this could work’.

Their opposite natures – she, with the discipline of a general in wartime; him, driven, but more relaxed – stem from their incredibly different childhoods. Nguyen, the child of Vietnamese immigrants, grew up in the Hills District of western Sydney. “Like the Von Trapps, but Vietnamese,” Nguyen says, with a laugh, noting that her brother and sister are accomplished musicians as well.

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Olsen, 39, who was born in England, grew up surfing in Balgowlah in Northern Sydney.

But both families share a love of music. Olsen’s grandfather was a trumpeter and came from a family of big band music-lovers. Nguyen, who began taking piano lessons at 13 months old, was raised by classically-trained musicians: her mother an opera singer, her father a guitarist.

It hasn’t been without its stress.

“He definitely had moments where he’d have shows and party really hard, and then forget to call me, I’d be, ‘Oh my god, what happened?!’“ says Nguyen whose latest album, Peaceful Piano Essentials, was released in October, featuring solo piano works by Chopin, Bach and Debussy.

“But we’ve worked past that. It’s quality over quantity.”

And approaching their musical collaborations from completely different skill sets has led to moments where they felt like pulling out their hair.

“There were definitely times I’d just play chords, and he would get frustrated.”

But, she says, coming from two different musical worlds has enabled her to reach new professional heights. Because of Olsen, she says, she was able to overcome her trepidation about reinventing classic composers’ works by melding them with pop beats and rhythms, something that she had long wanted to do but worried was too taboo.

To be able to write music together is a total dream come true.

Of Mark’s influence, she says: “I think to have someone believe in you in that way, and give you that confidence, I guess, to just really go for it [has been key].”

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Before the pandemic hit, the couple’s duo had hit its stride; they performed at a festival in San Francisco and were booked to play gigs in Mykonos and Ibiza.

Also, before COVID-19, they’d only lived with each other for a month, tops. Now, she and Olsen, a manager of a talent agency, share a place in Dee Why, in Sydney’s northern beaches.

After a few teething issues – marked by her frustration at the cancellation of all her shows – Nguyen says she counts her blessings.

“Honestly, we’ve had the best time,” she says. “We’ve been writing so much music together, this is like, we’ll never get this time ever again in our lives.”

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