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Review: On Debut EP 'Low,' Ho Tram Anh Sings Like a Poet Laureate for the Disconnected

Is anyone else in Hanoi creating music as stark and affecting as Ho Tram Anh? 

With lyrics referencing “empty streets” or the feeling that one “can be lonely but…can't stay alone,” isolation forms the predominant theme on Low, 25-year-old Tram Anh’s impressive three-track debut EP. In persuasive and naked songs about loss, the Hanoi-based lyricist and pianist delves into the depths of human sorrow, but that doesn’t mean the songs should be considered miserable.

Featuring Tram Anh on a borrowed grand piano, Nguyen Dan Duong from Hub Collective on drums, and bass and cello arrangements recorded by Alec Schachner at Ếch Ếch Studios, Tram Anh’s debut took half-a-year to record, was mastered in Brooklyn, and recorded during brief gaps in her hectic schedule as an interpreter for international diplomacy trips.

Naysayers claim she’s too morose, that her songs bring out unwanted thoughts, yet Tram Anh’s music is not for people with pop sensibilities. Her songs are for those soothed by the sombreness of Leonard Cohen, or even Bonnie Prince Billy’s I See A Darkness. Through brittle, yet confident, octave-straddling vocals, Tram Anh reflects on both a self-awareness of separateness while issuing a strong statement on one’s ability to remain stoic in the face of isolation.

For Tram Anh, solitude is not something that brings suffering. Instead, it offers “a time for concentration when [her] creativity shines.” As a result, while her music can seem as dark as despondency, it feels as familiar as skin.

"I spend quite a lot of time in isolation," she says, before adding that she’s had a couple of challenging years, including periods of depression. "Had it not been for music, I would have spent more time in isolation. When I'm with music I feel most free, and that nobody can stop me from doing what I love. There's no boundaries to what I can create and I can just express my thinking, my feelings, without being judged."

Photo courtesy of Ho Tram Anh.

Tram Anh’s musical interests began at a very young age. Her grandfather arranged classical piano lessons for her when she was just six. “I took an early interest in classical music and I’ve played the piano ever since. I started writing music when I was 13 because I stopped taking classical lessons,” she says, although it wasn’t until university that she started taking songwriting more seriously. In her final year of studying, Tram Anh and some classmates formed a band called The Veranda, who performed regularly in Hanoi last year.

She’s also somewhat of a musical chameleon; through performing with her former band, she got into shoegaze, and her website lists this genre alongside dream pop, neoclassical, traditional pop, and electronic music as interests. Low, on the other hand, marks a return to her classical roots.

Opening track ‘Serenity,’ penned in 2016, is relatively upbeat considering what follows. Jazz-tinged drums and soaring vocals lift the listener, although not without an underlying ache of longing: “I’m thinking of you, if only you’re in my arms,” Tram Anh sings. With pensive, meandering lyrics, it wouldn’t seem out of place in a hotel bar scene in Lost in Translation.

“Silent night and empty streets

I wandered, hoping that we'd meet

Tender songs and sheer happiness 

A gentle smile and I feel free

Lightweight as a feather

I'm floating into your heart

I’ve found my serenity”

Second track ‘Don’t Tread Away’ drifts from the relative calm of ‘Serenity’ and, while Tram Anh slips into the all-too-modern obsession with melisma, her vocals remain potent. In them, she wrestles with yearning and asks the kind of profound questions all urbanites face: Is this solitude I’m experiencing, or isolation? Or, as French novelist Balzac once said, “Solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.”

Tram Anh playing piano. Photo courtesy of Ho Tram Anh.

Undoubtedly, the standout track is album closer ‘Low (Requiem for a Soul),’ a stirring ballad featuring flourishes of cello, unorthodox chord changes and vocals recalling more than a hint of Kate Bush. In fact, the British heavyweight appears less of an influence, and more of a leading light. Aptly named, the song is easily the most desolate on the EP, yet within the heaviness, there remains hope. It’s also the only track that breaks from a standard verse-repeating formula. And if there is something ritualistic about the former two songs’ lyrical structure, they at least allow this final offering's alternate layout a new rawness, before ending with only a refrain of “I had it low.”

“I'm staying low again

I’m hitting the steep ground

Plunging in deep circles

I had it low

 --

Chasing shadows, I don't know how

I’m spinning around

They tell me now

Home you go

Back to concealed arms”

At a mere three tracks, it’s a short EP, yet that’s not the only reason I’m left wanting more. If she’s able to continue balancing work and songwriting, Tram Anh could develop into a profound talent. Someone who can address meaningful issues like loneliness — a poet laureate for the disconnected.

"Most of the time I compose my songs alone, and I've been spending more or less 25 years of my life being in solitude,” she says, before adding simply: "The journey to find oneself is to look within."

Ho Tram Anh’s debut EP ‘Low’ is available to stream or purchase on Bandcamp.

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