The indie scene in Vietnam is filled with talented artists. Even though indie traditionally means “non-mainstream,” bands like Ngot, Ca Hoi Hoang, Vu, Hai Sam, and Da Lab are all garnering commercial attention. With the arrival of Spotify in Vietnam and the population’s increasing obsession with YouTube, indie artists like those are now thriving on digital channels as well as at music festivals such as Thơm, Monsoon, and Backstage 11.
Indie Music In Vietnam: Five Artists To Watch Out For
That’s not to say the indie scene is pandering to mainstream tastes. In fact, many artists are excitingly experimental. So, Vietcetera met five Vietnamese indie artists to watch out for.
To Mademoiselle, music is the sound of emotions—the emotions of the singer and of the audience. She describes her music as “narrative-driven, easy-on-the-ear, and subdued.” It’s an apt description of “Loanh Quanh” [Wander], Mademoiselle’s breakout song that introduced the songstress from Hai Phong to music lovers nationwide two years ago.
Songs by Mademoiselle are often melancholy tales of love lost. Her songs tug at the heartstrings because of her dreamlike voice, emotionally expressive lyrics, and hauntingly beautiful melodies. And her songs often present rich narratives that take inspiration from people, objects, and everything around her—ideas she captures even when careening through the streets on her bicycle.
“Every song I write carries a part of myself,” she explains. “It doesn’t matter how my romantic life turns out later, perhaps Mademoiselle will always be alone…” she adds sadly. But happily for her growing fanbase she’s about to release an EP, and hopes to one day put on live shows across the country to connect her heartfelt songbook to fans everywhere.
Trinh’s music embodies his insouciance, simplicity, and candor. His journey into the world of music started with a series of performances at different quirky Hanoi coffee shops where he would perform covers. After learning to write his own songs—which he added to a growing proficiency with the guitar—Trinh had a breakthrough with the song “The Ky 21 Buon” [Sad 21st century]. The song’s sense of excruciating loneliness is shared by millions of people in modern neon mega-cities, and that’s why it resonates with the audience. Beyond its soulful lyrics and heartfelt guitar chords “The Ky 21” Buon is as profound as it is visceral.
His serene and hazily romantic melodies have captured the imagination of indie music lovers ever since. In Trinh’s world, music is life; but life in all its intricacy is also his biggest inspiration. Listeners find themselves immersed in his confessional, unadorned lyrics about love, sorrow, money, and the animals and plants that surround us.
In truth, his style only emerged after a long period of experimentation. “At the beginning of 2017, I released “Khi Hom Nay Thanh Ngay Xua” [When today becomes yesterday] and “Em An Sang Chua?” [Have you had breakfast yet?] to a glowing reception from the music community. Yet afterwards I felt musically stuck for about a year,” Trinh opens up about his creative struggles.
“I fell into a spiral of disappointment and directionlessness. Then in December 2017, I wrote “Toi Biet Em Khong Biet” [I know you don’t know] in a 4/4 beat which I’d rarely used before, and took painstaking care of the production right from beginning to end. People once again showed a deep appreciation of it,” he smiles, “and I was happy that I broke out of the narrow confines of my mind, and that the audience is ready to embrace this new me.”
“Shy words, sweet sounds, and tender melodies,” is how Trang describes her music. A well-known presence in Vietnam’s indie music scene, Nhac Cua Trang (or “Trang’s music”) rose to even greater fame during 2017, when two songs she wrote got picked up by two prominent stars—“Hon Anh” [Kissing you] by Min and “Bai Hat Cua Em” [My song] by Uyen Linh.
With an ethereal and poetic voice, Trang is a gifted singer in her own right but prefers to refer to herself as a songwriter and music producer. “To me, the voice is one among the many instruments that make up a song,” the Hanoian artist explains.
It all started with the demos that Trang wrote and performed, and subsequently uploaded to her Soundcloud account. In those songs, Trang’s words read like diary entries on paper, unveiling pieces of her life without giving too much away. The audience soon became captivated by her weightless voice, the barely-there nuances, and the emotional immensity of the pregnant pauses between notes.
Trang often writes songs while playing the guitar; inspiration comes to her in waves without warning. “‘Hon Anh’ was written within 30 minutes. When it came to me I just picked up the guitar and started singing,” she remembers.
Today, Trang feels music is a medium for her to express emotions and find her balance in life. “Without music, life would be barren,” she says. Trang writes a lot about love, but even when it’s a sad tale there’s never a twang of bitterness or self-pity. Empathy and a life-affirming appreciation of love permeate her songs, such as “Thu Cho Anh” [Letter to you] or “Em Viet Nen” [I wrote]. As she puts it: “When I’m a bit more mature, I’ll probably write more about joy. When you’ve learnt to appreciate yourself more, you appreciate both sad and happy memories.”
“Ever since I was little, the music I liked has always been off-the-beaten-path,” Hakoota Dung Ha explains. The singer is often regarded as a mainstream artist since he was a participant on the wildly popular TV talent show “Giong Hat Viet” [Viet voice] in 2013.
Instead of opting to produce formulaic pop music, he has carved his own path with R&B-infused ballads. “Sometimes I felt insecure, because what the majority of people choose is not me,” Hakoota Dung Ha elaborates. Music is a way to soothe his soul and for many others who have ever experiences alienation.
Hakoota’s music is steeped in the sorrows of his life, especially of the romantic kind. Listeners have been captivated by the intensely poignant emotions he expresses which are amplified by his signature falsetto voice. “Giot Buon De Lai” [Tear drops left behind] is a good example of the range of emotions and musical talents Hakoota expresses. It’s his most-loved song, which took two years to make—which is typical of his songwriting and producing process.
“I take a lot of time to complete a song because I’m not used to forcing my emotions,” he opens up about his process. “It’s a disadvantage in the music business because artists need a clear timeline of when to release their next album. Is it ridiculous to say I don’t have a direction? I’d rather focus on my works than build castles in the sky,” he smiles finally.
“You can mess around while creating art, but once you’re set on releasing something it calls for discipline and commitment,” the genre-defying artist Pham Toan Thang says. Indie music often conjures the image of a young artist with a guitar, often wallowing in obscurity. Pham Toan Thang is an antidote to that. Having been on the scene since 2004, he’s a multi-award winning, highly sought after songwriter behind many hits from artists like Ha Anh Tuan, Truc Nhan,Isaac, and Trung Quan—singers seeking something soulful in a world that’s oversaturated with V-Pop.
But Pham is independent in the sense that he has not signed with any major record label, and still regularly shares the music that has written and produced on Soundcloud.
With a formidable body of work spanning 15 years, Pham nonchalantly defines its overarching characteristics as “romantic” and “bụi đời —meaning ephemeral. He often writes about the deepest emotions which he understands after closely observing life with the attentiveness of a true artist. You can hear it on “Ba Muoi” [Thirty]. And “Bụi đời,” which suggests an unadorned affection towards the littlest things in life. You can hear the same attentiveness on “Uong tra” [Drinking tea] or “Bai hat tren via he” [Song on the sidewalk].
Pham isn’t concerned whether he’s deemed indie or mainstream. To him, “there’s only good or bad music.”
“In the end, people make music not because of the glitter and glamour, but because they have all these things to say, praying that someone on the same frequency will one day tune into them. When you have expressed your deepest hopes and fears, dreams and dragons, it’s better to have an audience rather than no one listening,” he adds.