Linh Ha, also known by the stage name LinhHafornow, was born in Berlin not long after the fall of the wall. When she turned three, her parents decided that she should spend time in Vietnam and start learning the language, so they sent her to stay with her grandparents in Hanoi. They would follow soon afterwards.
Linh Ha has been performing her brand of ambient music — blending vocal looping with minimal percussion — since 2016, as well as collaborating with other artists. She’s also the host of Xom Nhac, a live-music session at Hanoi Social Club, which was where I found her one evening.
The rooftop cafe was packed, so I made for the floor, which was covered with bamboo mats. People were chatting while Linh Ha was performing; I resisted the urge to tell them to be quiet. Then the music stopped, the singer introduced herself and the conversations died. Linh Ha started to sing, her distorted vocals layered over whispery chimes, echoes of her own voice and ornamental instrumentation, including the dan moi. The audience remained silent throughout, the performance disturbed only by the sound of the occasional scooter horn or sticky-rice bicycle peddler. On the side of the adjacent building, projected graphics mimicked the surface of a body of water.
A few days later we met at Tiny Cafe, in an alley off Doi Can. We sat on subsidy-era furniture, beneath rows of books, and chatted over the Backstreet Boys songs on the stereo. We switched between Vietnamese and English.
Linh Ha, what have you been reading lately?
I tend to read psychology books, such as those by Mark Manson. I rarely read newspapers; I’m not very attentive to current affairs. When I read I prefer to go into depth. I like to find out about the human psyche, in particular. I’m interested in how people think and behave. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by my emotions, or find it difficult to think clearly. I want to learn more about psychology and the brain, and why people think the way they do, and see if I can apply these things to myself.
Does this affect your music?
I think so. I often cry when I sing; I don’t know why. It’s an intense emotion, but it’s not sadness — it’s more positive than that. I can’t put my finger on it. Recently this guy in the audience cried, too, and that made me cry more! It’s contagious.
How long has music been a part of your life?
Since I was a child. In the 1980s my parents listened to a lot of New Wave, so that influenced me.
Vietnamese New Wave?
No, artists like Depeche Mode and the Pet Shop Boys. I did, however, spend much of my youth living in Vietnam with my grandparents, because my father spent a lot of time in Germany. And they would let me listen to north Vietnamese lullabies as I went to sleep. They would put on the radio, and the music would seep into my dreams. My grandmother would sing as well; she liked to sing revolutionary songs. I didn’t know what they were, but I sang along. Later my parents let me take singing lessons at the local Centre of Culture, and then at secondary school I formed a band with some friends. We covered German pop songs, including the dance routines! At university, in my spare time, I studied opera music with Thay Ha, a classical music instructor from the College of Music.
About two years ago I started playing the type of music I play now. I’d been fond of ambient music for quite a while, and with that came the feeling that I should create my own. And then I met Brett Zweiman (owner of the venue DeN), who had a lot of equipment. I asked if he could teach me how to use some of it — not thinking he would — but he invited me over to jam that weekend. When we jammed together he lent me some pedals. I sang and he played guitar, or Tay Nguyen gongs, or chimes. This was at the end of 2015.
You speak three languages (Vietnamese, English and German) but write and sing primarily in Vietnamese. Why?
I don’t consciously control which language I write in. I just let my feelings dictate things. When I’m thinking about something and it comes out on paper, only then does it become English or Vietnamese. Actually, the other day, when you saw me at Xom Nhac, I was singing a little in German. When I sing, it can be difficult to hear the words.
In the beginning, when I began to write songs in Vietnamese, I got a little excited, so I decided to continue to write in Vietnamese to see how far I could push my songwriting. Sometimes the language doesn’t matter much; each language makes different sounds, but what’s most important is whether it can convey my emotions at the time. There was even a period in which I wasn’t writing in any language at all — just gibberish [laughs].
Who inspires you?
My dad — he’s a musical person. I really like the Books, Boards of Canada, early Grimes. I was exposed to a lot of Queen, Depeche Mode and Michael Jackson. But right now, I’m inspired mostly by the musicians around me: Tomes, with whom I collaborate, and Brett. I’ve also been influenced by traditional music in Vietnam, such as quan ho, and music from the ethnic minorities of Tay Nguyen. Not to mention the music community in Hanoi; the scene here has been lively for the last two years. I’m amazed by how much talent I can see on one night, at many different venues.
Are there any artists here in Vietnam who excite you?
Yes — the beatboxing duo Loopernatural. They create amazing sounds by using only their vocals. And Trang Ly, an emerging electronic artist; she makes quite experimental, ambient stuff, and uses lots of samples. Go Lim was one of the most influential underground bands in Hanoi. Now Trang Chuoi, the former bassist from Go Lim, and Tuan of Loopernatural are forming a duo, Limebocx, incorporating beatboxing and traditional Vietnamese elements.
Can you tell me about your creative process?
In the beginning I did a lot of jamming and improvising. Then, in about this March this year, I became more structured in my approach to music (while keeping an element of improvisation). When I collaborate with other artists we mainly improvise, and just let things play out naturally. If we’re musically compatible then we take that onto the stage where we perform. I’m working with Tomes on our project Tiny Giant. We’ve composed four songs so far and are in the process of recording and releasing them. One came out just the other day — have you heard it?
I heard a song called “Dan ca hip hop”.
That’s an older song. But the song that just came out, “Flying Mouse”, is electronica, with my vocals. The direction of our project, the genre, will allow the songs to be taken onto the dancefloor, because some of them are upbeat.
Developing these songs took a long time. We started out jamming, with Tomes just playing a melody. I’d already written the lyrics, so I just sang over the top and we recorded it. When we listened back, I thought, “this can be a song!”, so we recreated it. From the first time we jammed until today, it’s taken about three months, just for this one song.
Your music is unconventional, so how do you know when you’ve finished a track?
I ask myself this all the time [laughs]. There are times when I feel a track’s finished, so I stop. But then there are also times, when I perform, that I might take a track in another direction, give it a different ending. It’s possible that I’ve changed “Nhac Trut”, for example, each time I’ve performed it.
What does “Nhac Trut” mean?
Nhac means music, and trut means to pour. I wrote the song at the Jai Thep Festival, in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I was right in the centre of the stage, performing, and in front of me all I could see were trees. Suddenly it came to me. Looking at those trees I felt an urge to write music. In my head, I imagined the music being poured into me, like a liquid.
Have you performed anywhere else apart from Chiang Mai and Hanoi?
I’ve sung in Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok. But, unfortunately, if I tour, I have to cover the expenses myself, because not many people know me.
Soon I’ll be going to Korea, with Trang Chuoi. A couple of months back, we participated in a project organised by the art space Six Space in which a Korean band, Gim Gwa Lee, came to Hanoi. Their lyrics had been translated from Korean, via English, into Vietnamese. All five artists, Korean and Vietnamese, performed together as Cha Lan.
Gim Gwa Lee had sent us six or seven songs already translated into English, and Trang Chuoi and I listened to them and read the lyrics. We went to a cafe and picked our five favourites — coincidentally we chose the same songs. Chuoi did maybe 70% of the translating; she did an excellent job.
It’s weird you used English as a medium through which to translate from Korean to Vietnamese— especially since Korean and Vietnamese are closer to each other linguistically than either is to English. Didn’t using English distort the meaning?
As we translated the song we listened to the original, in Korean. We tried to find Vietnamese words that sounded similar to the Korean ones. We tried to be faithful to the song, while also localising it. We would be singing to a Vietnamese audience in Vietnamese.
Of all the places and venues in which you’ve performed, do you have a favourite?
In Ho Chi Minh City, I was fortunate to work with Xuan Ha, of the Chaosdowntown Chao art collective, at Coeverything, in District 3. I really enjoyed myself; I felt as though the audience really understood me, and vice versa. When I performed at another venue in the city, it was slightly strange, because the audience were not focussed on me. When I was singing, all my emotions were compressed, as I couldn’t feed off the audience’s energy. I can’t really complain; I was happy to perform there and learnt a lot.
In Hanoi I was invited to participate in an interactive art installation at Heritage Space — Intransmission Hanoi. The installation was split into two rooms: one on nature, the other on technology, with different musicians in each room. I, along with a few others, played music using more traditional methods. Our music was channelled via Bluetooth headsets to listeners in the other room, and vice versa. The audience then listened to the music while exploring the artworks in the rooms.
In Thailand, at the venues I played at in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, the audiences were receptive to new music. I love the scene there.
What can we expect from you, and your collaborators, in the future?
I actually just quit my job at the university, where I taught German. We’d clashed for two years or so; my personal and professional lives were out of sync. Tiny Giant will be touring in Korea — and hopefully at Quest Festival in Hanoi, too. I am working on applications for different festivals, in Vietnam and elsewhere in the region.
I’ve also been given the opportunity, by the British Council, to go to Ninh Thuan and Gia Lai provinces and study the traditional music of the people there. I’d like to learn instruments such as the k’ni and the ting ning and combine them with modern, electronic music.
Cuong Pham is a London-based researcher, writer and community activist