Q&A with Thanh Bui (SOUL)

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Thanh Bui is a singer-songwriter and the Managing Director of SOUL Corporation, a 360-degree music and performing arts company encompassing SOUL Music & Performing Arts Academy, SOUL Production and SOUL Live Project.

Thanh was a former Top 8 finalist of Australian Idol (6th season) and previous to that, he was part of the boy-band North who had top ten hits in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and India. Thanh returned to Vietnam a few years ago, producing hits such as Lặng Thầm Một Tình Yêu, Where Do We Go, Danger etc. Thanh has collaborated with world-renowned composers/producers such as RedOne, Apl.de.ap, AJ Junior, Wayne Hector and written music for KPOP and JPOP bands such as BTS and Arashi. Thanh is also an Eisenhower Fellow and the Ambassador of Loreto Kids Charity. 

Tell us a bit about your background.

I grew up in Melbourne, Australia and decided at age 17 after a karaoke session to pursue music professionally. My parents have always wanted me to pursue a medical career and although I did achieve a high academic score of 99.15, I felt that being a doctor wasn’t for me. I made a compromise with my parents to study a Bachelor of Information Technology at Swinburne University instead while pursuing my music career.

During university, I was part of a boyband called North with a few friends. We had some early success and toured in Asia. However, and ironically, North literally went south and I learnt a lot from that experience. At the age of 25, I auditioned for Australian Idol and was in the Top 8 finalist. Through Australian Idol, I got invited to Paris by Night (PBN is a prominent overseas Vietnamese entertainment show). After my PBN performance, my song ‘Mirror Mirror’ became a hit in Vietnam so I was invited back to Vietnam and started to connect with the country and its people.

After being in Vietnam for a while, I decided to set up an education establishment called SOUL in 2012. Our vision is to affect change through music and the arts. I’ve been happily living in Vietnam as a singer-songwriter while managing SOUL.

Growing up, did you start diving into music at a young age or did it come much later?

I started learning classical piano and music at an early age and practiced my AMEB grades like everybody else.   Looking back, I was singing in the Victorian Children Choir, which was an important milestone for me as the Choir was visiting primary schools to recruit children. I auditioned for fun but ended up getting chosen for one of the two spots.

In high school, I participated in drama, dance, public speaking and debating which helped me to acquire performance skills. When you’re in front of an audience, you’re singing, you’re performing. It wasn’t until around 15 or 17 that I really developed an interest in pop music, RNB, soul music etc. Inspirations such as Steven Wonder etc., made me into the musician I am today.

It’s been a long journey and I worked really hard to get to where I am today. I tell my SOUL kids, it’s 1% talent and 99% perspiration.

You’ve been living in Vietnam for a few years now, why did you decide to come back to Vietnam to establish SOUL Music Academy?

Initially, my first stint in Vietnam was for about 18 months but I didn’t feel at home. At the time, I felt it’s not where I want to be because it’s so difficult to understand the culture, the way of life in Vietnam. Even though I spoke Vietnamese, I felt like a foreigner.

At the start of 2012, my wife said to me, ‘Thanh, for someone who’s been so lucky to be trained by the top people in the world, to have been born in Australia and had an incredible education. You complained about the lack of infrastructure and institutions in Vietnam but my question to you is, what are you truly doing about it?’

I couldn’t answer her. I stood there in front of her and told her she was right. I haven’t done anything and that’s why I founded SOUL. I truly believe that through SOUL and its vision to provide access to music and performance arts education, it would help young Vietnamese to understand who they are as people and make them more connected. If you do that, so many issues in society today would not exist. That’s what we’re trying to do in the last 4.5 years.

In Venezuela, the El Sistema program was introduced in 1975 by Professor Jose Antonio Abreu. The Venezuela government then made that music program compulsory to all children and what they saw is remarkable social improvement. We hope to see that for Vietnam as well through SOUL and similar organisations.

What about the indie music scene?

There is an indie music scene in Vietnam but it’s very small as it’s too hard to make a living. We’ve got to develop it on a grassroots level to educate people first through the creation of grassroots initiatives before an established scene can exist. Again, the biggest issue with the Vietnamese mentality is that they want success overnight. They want the biggest scene overnight but they don’t truly understand that it takes years, it takes decades and so much investment in grassroots infrastructure and education to be able to build that into an industry.

What are your thoughts on young Vietnamese artists?

My personal perspective is that in music, you’ve got to be authentic to yourself.  At the moment, there’s still too much copying and imitation. Imitation will come to an end and creation will flourish when we have critical mass of true artists and I believe it will happen.  It’s about understanding music history, what message do you want to speak to your audience, do you want to be relevant or another ‘number’?  If you want to copy, you might be successful for a couple of songs but do you want short-term or longevity?

When you do have a bit of success, it’s about remaining humble, remembering the roots and remember how you get to where you are today. Too many people forget who helped them to get to where they are today.  Those people always fall over very quickly.  It’s those who remain humble and stick to their core values and why they do it that can withstand the challenges and difficulties the industry throws at them. Artists like Tien Tien and Vu Cat Tuong have done well. There is also a new crop of young artists which I’m very excited about.

Are there opportunities for cross-collaboration between Vietnam and Australia for Australian musicians and artists who want to expand outside of Australia?

Definitely. Australia has a small music market but I think it’s very diverse. There are wonderful opportunities for producers and writers to contribute not only to the Vietnamese scene but Asia. As the infrastructure and attitudes in Asia slowly becoming more partisan with the Western market, we’re going to see a lot of cross-collaboration. People in Vietnam can be very open-minded. It’s about time that we learn and collaborate to understand how the world music market works. DQ (David Quiñones), who writes music for Beyoncé and Rihanna was recently here working with a few artists that I’m working with. He was welcomed with open arms and his workshop was wonderful. People here are hungry to learn so it’s an extremely exciting time.

What about overseas Vietnamese talents?

I haven’t connected with many overseas Vietnamese (Viet Kieu) apart from those through my professional circles. I have connected with people like Chi Thanh (first Vietnamese Grammy nominated writer/producer) and Alexander Tu and his friends, Charles Nguyen and Tony Tran. We definitely want the top Vietnamese artists to come back and collaborate, that’s one of our core values and we always want to open that bridge up for our fellow artists to return and build the industry.

One thing overseas Vietnamese need to know is that you need to speak the language. You can’t speak and sing in English in Vietnam, it just doesn’t work. It’s a sad truth that we’re losing our Vietnamese in Australia and I think the young leaders in Australia need to work hard to keep the Vietnamese language for the next generation. If you lose your language, you lose your culture, your identity.

We need to respect our forefathers and foremothers who’ve given up their lives for us to be where we are today. The least we can do is to understand where we came from, stories of the refugees and how we survived one of the nastiest wars in history.

Are your parents proud and supportive of you today and what are the thoughts of Vietnamese parents who send their kids to SOUL?

I think my parents are incredibly proud of me. They never thought that I would still have a career in music since it’s been 16 years now.  This whole process for me is not about them coming to terms with it but it’s about me proving to them that I can actually do this. Ultimately, parents want their kids to be happy so if I can prove it to them that I can make a living and be happy doing it, I don’t think any parents want their kids to be unhappy.

Most Vietnamese parents come over as refugees, we can never understand the uncertainty they’ve been through. The uncertainty of not knowing if you have food the next day and having to fight for every little thing to survive and face death in the eye. It is therefore understandable why they yearn for us to have a steady white collar job where we know what’s going to happen the next day.

Being an artist in Vietnam still has its stigma so that’s where I feel I have responsibility to explain to the Vietnamese parents. People use scandals to become famous and it’s a rogue state where people just do their thing and it’s the law of the jungle so there’s a lot of negative perception.

What we’re trying to do at SOUL is to be able to create an industry, put infrastructure in place and show parents that there is a pathway for their children. If we can do that, it alleviates a lot of pressure and the pains that parents and children have to go through in allowing their children to do music. If we create strong role models in the Vietnamese music industry who can affect change, there’s no reason why parents wouldn’t want their children to aspire to be like them.

We are aware that you are involved in other charitable activities such as the Loreto Vietnam Australia Program, what has driven you to join these activities?

Responsibility. I feel that I’m a very fortunate so I want to affect change through music. There are so many problems in Vietnam that you can’t tackle everything. With Loreto Vietnam, we build music classrooms for kids to have access to music.  Earlier in the year, I went to one of the locations about four hours outside of Ho Chi Minh City, these children have never seen a piano in their life. To see them play, learn, sing and have an instrument that can be part of their everyday life is an incredible feeling. It pushes our message of making music available to everyone. If we can do that, it’ll be a dream come true.

Could you give a few words of advice to the young artists and performers out there in Australia and Vietnam?

Do it for the right reasons – there are too many obstacles in the way if you don’t truly love it. If you love it, you’ve got to do everything you can to master your craft, and to understand the definition of what it means to be an artist and I have no doubt that eventually, you will get to where you want to get to. I can’t stress how important gut instincts is.

I say to all my students that there’s no right path. You need to embark on your own path and have the courage to follow the journey you want to follow. Don’t be afraid to fail because there are times you’ll fail miserably, it will be a test of character and whether you’re in it for the right reasons or not. What you can do is to pick yourself up and come back stronger from it.

Lastly, what would Thanh Bui want the world to be like in 10 years time? How do you think the AVYLD community can help to achieve this?

I’d love to see Vietnam grow, for the world to see the greatness of the country and for Vietnam to contribute on a world level. I’d love to see my kids grow up and be proud to be Vietnamese and be proud that they want to stay here and contribute to make it incredible as we are rich in culture, history, food and natural resources.

The only way for it to happen is to see returning Vietnamese — overseas Vietnam from Australia, US, France and all parts of the world to come together to reconciliate. Vietnam needs its children to come back, there are a lot of difficulties and hardships but it’s time for attitude to change and for people to reconciliate. I hope that we continue to enable the next generation to connect with Vietnam so that they return here to help and contribute back to the country.

In a world where everyone’s trying to find their place in the world, uniqueness dictates your place in the world. If we take away what makes us unique then we’re taking away not only our heritage but also the present and the future.

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