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Kim Chi Sun and Charles on the Evolution of Good

"I haven’t lost myself yet, but there are many new angles of me, new realizations; there are some new feelings, new vibes I want to share with you. I want to open up to you," Kim Chi Sun says to her listeners in the mini-documentary accompanying the release of “Still Good,” the remix of her 2019 debut EP “M Good.”

The cover of the "Still Good" EP, a reimagining of Kim Chi Sun's 2019 EP "M Good."

“M Good,” one of Saigoneer’s favorite projects from 2019, is a down-tempo affair that effortlessly blended R&B, pop and chillwave, perfectly suited for late nights sipping cocktails on breezy rooftops with Saigon’s skyline glowing in the distance. But over the last two years, Kim Chi Sun, whose full name is Đoàn Thị Kim Chi, no longer found herself in such settings, and thus the music didn’t fully match who she is now. “For the last nearly two years of staying at home, I changed so much...I became a morning person and listen to music when I cook in the kitchen and I want to dance, so I had a need for that music,” Kim shared with Saigoneer during a Zoom call last month.

“For the last nearly two years of staying at home, I changed so much...I became a morning person and listen to music when I cook in the kitchen and I want to dance, so I had a need for that music.”

“When we listened to the songs from 'M Good,' I felt like it’s not completely her. There wasn’t that much of her influence in the process of making it, so I wanted to re-make it as she wanted it to be. It was a remake, but I think it’s like our real, official version of the songs,” chimes in Huỳnh Phương Duy, better known by his stage name Charles, Kim’s partner and the sole producer off the new release. 

The album was recorded in response to an invitation she received to perform a virtual set for the Joy Ruckus Club, a large Asian music festival. She felt the original versions of the songs were too slow for the event and she didn’t connect with them in the same way she did when she first recorded them. The idea to remix just one song turned into two, and then four. All the audio was re-recorded, hooks were re-written, and some new lyrics penned, making “Still Good” more of a reimagining than a conventional remix project.

The resulting 16 minutes of music are the ideal soundtrack for smiling while hopping around a dining room floor graced with morning sunlight. Kim Chi Sun’s breathy voice floats atop Charles’ lively production, drawing energy from the vibrant selection of piano keys, strings, and percussion. Very much “good mood music,” the four songs each soar thanks to the harmonizing of a charismatic voice flirting with the groovy beats that present a cohesive picture of two artists living lives and making music according to their own passions.

The virtues of not giving a fuck

“We decided to not give a fuck a little bit,” Charles says when discussing how they put the project together. Both are at the forefront of Vietnam’s emerging indie scene, wherein artists craft their sounds and careers without the assistance of record labels or marketing, sales and production teams. Rather, the pair decides what music to record, when to release it, what visuals to provide and what image they will present to listeners. “We learn to do things and then we try. And if it doesn’t work, we learn another thing,” Kim explains while giving her definition of what it means to be an independent artist. 

While budget constraints and a lack of marketing muscle make getting the music to listeners more difficult at times, the pair have succeeded in gathering a loyal “tribe” of listeners — in Kim's words — over the years through an endearing DIY aesthetic and a lot of hard work. Through engaging and approachable social media presences, live online shows, and some stunning music videos, including ‘Lòng Vòng Sài Gòn,’ which Charles shot right before the recent lockdown, the pair is carving out a lane where they can make and share exactly the music they want to make.

Kim Chi Sun cites the Black Eyed Peas, Pussycat Dolls, Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado, and Ciara as important early influences. Born in 1994, this is the music she grew up listening to in Hanoi while Charles, also born in 1994, was listening at the same time in his native Saigon. Older listeners like myself, however, may more quickly recognize the sleek sounds of musicians from an earlier era, including Aaliyah, Brandy, TLC and Destiny’s Child. This makes sense, as the pair are constantly studying the music they enjoy and trying to figure out what they appreciate about it and how they can incorporate it into their own work. Both extremely humble and inquisitive, Charles shares that they hope to “just learn from the best and try to write our own things and create from what we learn.”

Late to the show

“Sometimes we are a bit frustrated because we recognized our love for music too late. We should have started earlier and learned so much,” Charles says. While they may have only begun making music in their mid-20s, they have certainly both made up for the lost time.

“I’ve always loved music, and working around music was good for me already, being involved in the music industry at any position, so I was organizing events and through that, I met many more artists and they kept telling me ‘you sing well, you should sing.’ But two years ago writing a song for me was impossible; I thought I could just write a chorus or hooks, but after that I met Charles and saw him doing his freelancing,” she says of her musical journey that began several years ago.

"Sometimes we are a bit frustrated because we recognized our love for music too late. We should have started earlier and learned so much."

After Kim returned from studying abroad, the two met at a music event she was working at. Of their first encounter, he says: “I saw her backstage watching people sing, and I saw something in her eyes. I saw the love and the passion in her eyes when she was watching her artist friends singing.” 

Kim Chi Sun and Charles have had a positive impact on each other's journey in music.

After several months of dating, the two began making music together. Charles has a part-time job producing music for other artists, which gave him a good starting position for the two of them to learn more about songwriting and how to craft a sound that extends in directions that the acoustic music he was more experienced with doesn’t. Beyond helping her grow technically as a musician, Charles inspired Kim to have more confidence in herself. “I quit my jobs. I had wanted to prove that I could make good money from my jobs and I thought I could have been happy because my career path was going well, but after I met Charles I quit everything and just started again. Basically, I stay at home most of the time to practice composing and now I can write more songs," she said. "Finally.” 

The pair provides a powerful model for what it means to be an independent artist. This means that while she spends a large amount of time working on music, like Charles, she still must make enough money to pay the bills. After quitting her main jobs, she landed work as a voiceover artist, which she also finds satisfying and, considering her vocal talents, it makes perfect sense. Her parents were originally concerned about the financial uncertainty of her career, but have since become some of her biggest supporters. 

Charles' work in music production helps him learn more about songwriting.

Charles explains that working alongside Kim Chi Sun helps inspire him as well. For several years he had been making covers and original works for fun in his free time and garnering some online success but, without any formal musical training or vocal lessons, he never took it seriously. But after receiving positive feedback at auditions for the Vietnamese version of the singing competition The Voice in 2018, he experienced a “kick in the chest,” and became more confident that his somewhat unconventional mixed-falsetto voice and long-time love of R&B had a place in Vietnam’s music scene, even if it wasn’t popular yet. “There has to be someone to pave the way. We want to be that, the first one who wants to bring it out there. We are Vietnamese, our songs are in Vietnamese, but we have the vibe of what’s in the world,” he says.

Making the most of lockdown

“Hello this is the new Kim,” Kim Chi Sun says of how she hopes listeners will receive her new project as a re-introduction to her as an artist. It’s an idea that will extend to the new 20-track project she and Charles are currently working on thanks to the inspiration and free time during lockdown. Currently, with two-thirds finished, it will be “more 90s-esque, retro, disco-vibe.” Charles adds that it will allow listeners to “see her journey of finding herself.”

Meanwhile, on September 30, Charles dropped his newest EP, "Sweet N Sour," with numerous accompanying music videos in the works. He describes it as a “tutorial of how to talk with the darkness and recover and a guide to love again.” The songs, slightly more suited to shadow-filled nighttime hours than "Still Good," reveal an artist confident in his ability to bring together many different sounds and genres. Its timeless R&B sound is supported by slow-paced electronic elements with more recent indie pop and hip-hop sensibilities drifting in to provide a perfect backdrop for Charles’ flexible voice to fluidly rise and fall with.

Charles describes the release of "Still Good" as the start of a “new chapter” for the pair’s work, and one Kim says involves trusting “in the magic of the music more.” It is not hard to imagine that younger generations will listen to them and be inspired to make music in the same way the pair is inspired by the artists they grew up listening to. But even if they never achieve such a level of stardom, they seem happy for the opportunity to do what they love exactly the way they want to.

Quãng 8, which means "octave" in Vietnamese, is a series of articles on Vietnam's new generation of unique music personalities. Know an interesting musician and want to introduce them to our readers? Send us an email via contribute@saigoneer.com with your ideas.

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