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Hồ Trâm Anh Writes Music for Those Who Walk City Streets Yearning for the Open Sky

When I begin my interview with Hồ Trâm Anh, a light shower starts sprinkling over Saigon’s overcast maudlin sky. I apologize if any errant pitter-patter might distract our call, but Trâm Anh brushes it off saying Hanoi has also been in a drizzly mood.

It’s fitting weather, both in Saigon where I am and Hanoi where Trâm Anh sits in her apartment overlooking a small patch of sky, to discuss her debut album “The Poetry of Streetlights.” The Hanoian singer-songwriter found her musical footing first on SoundCloud just by sharing a few tracks she wrote and recorded herself to warm reception by fans. She then presented her three-track EP “Low” back in 2019, a thorough study of stark isolation and haunting piano-tingled longing. And in early September 2022, Trâm Anh marked yet another milestone with an 11-track full-length album.

Before the debut album, Hồ Trâm Anh's solo tracks are often associated with the piano. Photo by Marilyn.

In “The Poetry of Streetlights,” Hồ Trâm Anh hasn’t completely left behind the wintry solitude, which colored much of “Low” and her previous solo works, but rather, she expanded on the world that “Low” built, weaving in new layers, painting new textures, and giving room to new musical influences. The new album chronicles Trâm Anh’s journey deep into a version of nature that’s untouched by humanity, gliding across the vastness of the sky and plunging deep into the ocean, at times, quite literally.

“I used to take walks at night under the streetlights when the roads were deserted. It helped me calm my mind, giving me space to mull over the music I’m about to write,” she explains the simple inspiration behind the name. “During the pandemic, the streets were also empty. I wondered to myself ‘if everyone is suddenly gone, what would happen?”

Hồ Trâm Anh adores nature despite her label as a “city girl.”

An introvert by nature, Hồ Trâm Anh finds comfort in solitary walks along the bank of Hồ Gươm and Hồ Tây, reading, and thinking her thoughts out loud, but music came to her the earliest in the form of piano lessons she took thanks to her grandfather’s insistence. Still, like any restless child being forced to spend an inordinate amount of time in one place, she didn’t find any creative enlightenment in the ivories. Trâm Anh dropped piano lessons in seventh grade, but coincidentally, that was also the year she penned her first song: “I thought ‘no more lessons, but what about the piano?’ even though I was still playing classical music, and then I wondered: ‘What if I play my own music?’ It was something I found exciting.” It only got serious in college, especially after 2014, when she “couldn’t live without music.”

“I still wrote [music], but I wanted my songs to have listeners. I wanted to feel the joy of standing on stage,” she reminisces about the turning point in her connection with music. In 2016, Hồ Trâm Anh and a few university friends formed The Veranda, an indie collective performing an eclectic mix of tunes, from alternative, dream pop to shoegaze. Flash forward to three years later in 2019, when the group was no longer playing, Trâm Anh once again came back to her roots with a piano-forward debut EP.

A clarion call for nature

Hanoi-based LP Club helped produce “Streetlights” as part of an initiative to assist independent musicians create physical products while Trâm Anh and a group of kindred friends worked on the music, coordinating night recording sessions across everyone’s own busy schedule. The album cover, a Leonid Afremov-esque closeup of a radiant streetlamp flickering amid tree branches, was painted by Trâm Anh’s artist friend Nguyễn Ngọc Uyên with whom she went to college. Big brushstrokes, incandescent colors, a striking contrast between light and dark — it serves as a visual harbinger of what listeners are about to step into once they press play.

Artwork by Nguyễn Ngọc Uyên.

“The Poetry of Streetlights” might be named after urban infrastructure, but one should not mistake it for yet another attempt to romanticize the city. On the contrary, this record is about walking under streetlights and yearning desperately for the open sky in every way — sonically, lyrically, and spiritually. The album opens with ‘Haze’ and ‘Mansloughing,’ both featuring expansive instrumentation as if to emulate a rollercoaster of movements across the atmosphere while Trâm Anh sings about a “celestial divine” and finding “freedom on the cloud nine where Shangri-La begins.” In ‘Feel the Flow’ and ‘Along the Lines,’ the compositions are awash in water, shimmering like a nocturnal lake and droning on like pouring rain.

Hồ Trâm Anh adores nature despite her label as a “city girl,” she tells me. And then she goes on to describe what she’s currently seeing as we speak. She can’t even see the sky; there’s only a narrow swath of space right where she’s sitting under the window. She cranes her neck to see how big the sky is, and realizes that it’s just tiny. This is either very ironic or very telling, considering the sky is a recurring subject across the songs on “Streetlights.” She also admits to not knowing how to swim, but is strangely drawn to the water. After all, it’s only human to dream about what we don’t have.

In Trâm Anh’s lyrics, she writes with the aerial freedom of a forest spirit, always on the move, always phasing in and out of our physical world.

Rising within the sun / Holding out reaching for love
Let's go on a one-way ride / Surfing the tide
— Radio Ecstatic

“Have you ever felt as if you’ve achieved a state of peace and mental clarity, when you don’t say anything or do anything, just listen for the sounds in your ears, observe the sky, sway in the water? When I do that, my mind becomes magically clear, I feel that I’m present everywhere,” Trâm Anh says of her affection for nature. “I really like that feeling. And being in the city can never give you that, so I have to seek out music as a reprieve.”

Many fans have commented that this particular scene in the album art looks like Ô Quan Chưởng in Hanoi. Artwork by Nguyễn Ngọc Uyên.

The songs on “Streetlights” are often escapist and indulgent, but there exist darker corners hinting at the inner struggles of a sensitive soul. In ‘Minefield,’ a bossa nova-inspired mid-album track, she takes on a more accusatory tone in lyric-crafting:

What did I do to deserve your silence
What do I lack so that you stay indifferent
to my emotions
Now we're disconnected
All I've seen is we're walking through a minefield
— Minefield

The debris of my past haunts me
The echoes of timeless fear
Falling back in my bed
How I cannot see an escape
— Nightingale

If in the album, a bond with the natural world is embraced and craved, miscommunication and irreparable distance plague the human relationships depicted, even though they are only alluded to in faint brushstrokes and ambiguous story-telling. It is, however, a conscious decision by Trâm Anh to stay on the metaphorical side of lyric-crafting. “Many people write very direct lyrics, very straightforward; whatever the words mean, the lyrics are the same,” she explains. “Sometimes I want to escape from that and run away from literal meaning to create a more abstract atmosphere. I love giving listeners a space to imagine, to contemplate, to dissect art in a more open way. It [the lyrics] is no longer just my message, it’s both mine and the audience’s.”

Artwork by Nguyễn Ngọc Uyên.

How to moonlight as a recording musician

This is the second time Hồ Trâm Anh has come down with a COVID-19 infection this year, she explains to me, as we decide to talk over the internet without a video feed. She’s a little tired but otherwise fine, having accepted that exposure to communicable diseases is an occupational hazard for a tenured interpreter under the Vietnamese government. Trâm Anh’s day job means she has to travel a lot, both inside and outside Vietnam, meet many people, and unfortunately doesn’t have much free time to dedicate to making a full-fledged album.

“The Poetry of Streetlights” might be named after urban infrastructure, but one should not mistake it for yet another attempt to romanticize the city.

The eventual release of “The Poetry of Streetlights,” of course, is a big relief. “I often joke with my friends that this [album] is a brainchild that I struggle so much to give birth to,” she quips. Many of the tracks were written years ago, but the official recording process only commenced in January, taking advantage of a slow period after the Christmas and New Year holidays. The studio is only open on weekdays, so Trâm Anh and her collaborators made plans to gather after work, gnawing on bánh mì as a quick dinner, and then plunging straight into recording until 10pm. “Do you know that feeling when you've just finished reading a book, like sadness for having completed an adventure?” Trâm Anh poses a rhetorical question, reminiscing about the time crunch, scheduling clashes, and creative conflicts during the album’s making. But at the end, to her, everything was worth it, even the dry bánh mì and late-night recording sessions, because “it gives life a meaning.”

In the studio working on the album. From left to right: Hồ Trâm Anh, Cao Lê Hoàng (drummer), Hà Đăng Tùng (Đờ Tùng: producer, mixing engineer), Nguyễn Quang Ba (engineer: studio Kiên Quyết).

Still, the release of “Streetlights” also comes with a personal quandary, one unique to our current era of instantly accessible music: should the album be on streaming platforms? Trâm Anh and her team eventually decided against it for a range of reasons that perhaps can’t be fully explored within this artist profile, but could be summarized into a wish to retain freedom to make music for music’s sake without feeling pressured by the music industry’s commodifying forces (she explains her stance more thoroughly in an essay on her personal blog). “Streetlights” is currently only available via physical copies and her personal website.

Photos by Mai N. Phạm.

“If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I would have said ‘no,’” she admits when I wonder if she’s content with the decision. “I didn’t know if it’s the right choice or if I was building a hurdle between the listeners and me. It really wasn’t my intention. I really appreciate those who listen to my music and feel emotionally connected to my music. Now, after everything, I feel that it’s the correct path, and I’ve made peace with my choice.”

I decided to purchase the album on a whim; it took LP Club a few days to mail it to me from Hanoi. Only as I was eagerly unraveling the bubble wrap did it dawn on me that I have no way to play it, no thanks to Acer’s decision to render the CD tray vestigial. This is probably not an uncommon problem for other music fans as well, especially when many records now arrive discless. In the US, for the year of 2020, streaming accounted for 83% of all music consumption, compared to physical formats’ meager 9%. Eventually, I dug out my 2017-era old laptop, and managed to rip the CD using my trusty iTunes. I have to acknowledge that it was a hassle, but the process took me down a specific memory lane I have not tread for the longest time: that fresh-CD sense of giddiness as you painstakingly type out song names and scour the internet for an album, and then finally loading it into your iPod for a first listen.

Photo by Nguyễn Duy Anh, Marilyn.

Hồ Trâm Anh’s decision to resist the allure of streaming services is certainly not a popular one, or a common one, though for someone who has determined right from the start to not sing because of any monetary or popularity ambitions, it might be the right one. The songs on “The Poetry of Streetlights” might not be strategically slipped in new music playlists by algorithms to attract new listeners, but those who resonate with Hồ Trâm Anh’s music will have no qualms about buying CDs to support their favorite artist. “Many tracks in this album were written long ago when I just graduated. I hope that listeners my age will find in them the emotions and struggles of youth, and feel consoled somehow,” Hồ Trâm Anh says. “As long as the audience can feel anything, to me that’s already a success. The album has fulfilled its purpose. I don’t wish for anything more.”

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