From Mainstream Success to Indie Reinvention
Navigating the music industry as an independent artist might seem daunting, but music has been a part of Hien’s life for as long as she can remember.
“My parents used to tell me that I started to sing as I was learning how to speak. Music was just always around me. I watched MTV for hours when I was little on TV and my parents always played music,” she reflects. Hien grew up on a steady diet of MTV, karaoke with her family, and Paris by Night, a show which she calls “the Vietnamese Bollywood.”
“My parents and my family are big fans. All day long really, they always played those videos…” she recalls. “It was just a really natural thing for me: music and singing and performing in front of my family.”
Hien learned to play piano at six, took up violin a year later, and began to learn music theory soon after. This early start in music ultimately propelled her towards competing on the big stage in Hungary.
“When I was 14, I took part in a talent show. It was a TV show called Megasztár… basically the Hungarian Idol,” she explains. “I made it into the finals. And from then on, I got signed by a Hungarian label. When I got out of that show, I started to perform all over the place in Hungary.”
Hien emerged onto the Hungarian music scene as a teen pop star, releasing two albums and multiple music videos on Tom-Tom Records. Her schedule was packed, performing multiple times a week across Hungary while also studying for school.
“It was pretty intense,” she recalls. “My music career started pretty early. But it was a very different kind of music compared to what I do now. It was more like this teen pop vibe. I think I started to find my voice and my sound better when I moved to the U.S. for college.”
Hien eventually applied to Berklee School of Music, was accepted, and traveled to Boston, nearly 12 hours away from her home and family in Budapest. The move was a big culture shock both from a musical standpoint and a cultural standpoint.
“In Hungary, I wasn’t exposed to that many cultures and that many people from all over the world…” she shares. “The Berklee years were some of the best years in my life because obviously, artistically, I developed a lot, but also as a person… I had a better understanding that there were different cultures.”
Hien thrived in music school, taking on a double major in Electronic Production Design and Professional Music. She also signed up for a different musical ensemble each semester, exploring a plethora of musical styles and cultures and sharpening her performance skills. These included a Middle Eastern Fusion Ensemble, a Balkan Choir, a Motown Ensemble, and even a Techno Rave Ensemble, where electronic musicians improvised together on synthesizers.
“The ensembles were a really important part of this Berklee journey,” she reflects.
But Hien’s main area of focus revolved around learning about everything that goes into music production from both a technical and business perspective. In Hien’s pursuit of musical independence, it was her audio production classes in particular that helped expand her approach to music composition.
“I learned how to produce music while I was studying at Berklee, which is really important because I was a songwriter, composer, singer before, but I didn’t know how to produce my own music,” she says. “I had clear preferences about what I like in music production and in sounds, but I just couldn’t articulate it. Even though I got to work with really cool producers, I never felt that it was one hundred percent what I wanted.”
For Hien, learning the intricacies of audio production and sound design was a milestone because it allowed her to express her full artistic vision.
“All the production classes; all the sound design projects were cool, because they gave me more and more tools to produce…” she explains. “I got to try a lot of things; I was able to build my own workflow and set of tools.”
With a comprehensive education from Berklee under her belt, Hien set her sights on New York, moving to Brooklyn in the summer of 2019. Even though the pandemic would hit New York City hard within less than a year of her move, Hien says she could not imagine herself in any other place right now.
“New York has been amazing. I know it’s cliché because I feel like a lot of creatives and artists say that, but it’s really the place where you can be whoever you want to be,” Hien says. “I think I grew so much as an artist because I was not scared to just express and make the kind of music I want to. I didn’t feel that thing that people put me into boxes.”
Bloom was composed and produced during 2020. Lockdown gave Hien the time to isolate and really focus on her songwriting. The EP is aesthetically cohesive with Hien’s beautiful, airy high vocals matching the ethereal textures and warmth of the instrumentals. There is an uplifting quality to her music, present both in its sound and in the way her lyrics highlight transformation and empowerment.
Though Hien is grateful for the major label opportunities she received while in Hungary, she ultimately admits that she did not feel like she had full control over the art she was making.
“I have more creative freedom now,” she notes. “That’s why I wanted to try out this whole independent artist thing. I still have a lot of faith that this is my journey. I am open to the idea of being signed again, but I think that for now, this is what I need to develop and grow.”
Family, Community & Creative Freedom
This new era of independence provided the opportunity for the self-reflection and self-discovery that Hien needed not only as a musician, but also as a person. There were times when the pressure of independence left her lonely and unsure. She wrote the track “Family” as a way of forging a connection to her ancestors, seeking their protection and guidance. Over shuffling drum breakbeats, her lyrics are more fragmented than the other tracks, piecing together dynamic words like “Relatives, Origin, Represent,” as if repeating a mantra. Hien explains that the lyrics reflect the thoughts that she envisions when she prays to her ancestors.
“We used to pray a lot at our family altar, which is called bàn thờ. We have these to commune with our ancestors. It’s a way for us to get in touch with them and have their protection in our lives,” she says. “In New York, I don’t have a family altar in my apartment, so I miss that. I started to pray more in my head and talk to them more. Ever since I moved to New York, it’s interesting because I think I felt this protection stronger than ever; maybe because I needed it more than ever.”
This emphasis on honoring family and nurturing a spiritual connection to one’s ancestors is central to Bloom. Hien finds strength in remembering that her parents have gone through the same difficult journey of immigrating to a new country.
“I just know how much more difficult it was for my parents when they moved to Hungary, not knowing the language,” she shares. “I’m so proud of my parents. Every time I feel that life is heavy and difficult, I always think about the struggles that my parents and my grandparents went through because that gives me a lot of strength.”
Bloom is just as much about Hien’s growth as an artist as it is about her personal journey as a Vietnamese Hungarian immigrant. Being far from home and missing her family, she realized how much she had taken things for granted.
“I think I started to embrace my Vietnamese heritage more after I moved to the U.S.” she reflects.
Hien also credits the generations of Asian Americans who have come before her for paving the way for new Asian immigrants to be proud of their cultural heritage.
“I realized that being Vietnamese Hungarian is really unique,” she says. “I think the reason why I have a sound and the reason why my music is different is because of that cultural background.”
While Hien’s fierce independence as an artist is evident through her work ethic and the journey that has led her to this moment, Bloom is also a reflection of growth she has made in advocating for and finding the right collaborators to help bring her artistic vision to life. Of the five artists listed as co-writers, three were already her friends. Co-producers bad entity and lstnght are both former classmates from Berklee and Oreine Robinson, who helped with the lyric writing session for “Family,” is Hien’s roommate. Poets Ore Asonibare and Marissa Davis, who helped with the lyrics on “Bloom” and “Slow” respectively, are new collaborators that Hien met in New York.
“I’m so grateful that I met with good collaborators because I also had bad experiences in the past with collaboration. I feel like those people are the kind of friends that will stay in my life for a long time. I have a lot of trust for them,” she says. “The reason why I love to work with these people on this EP is because besides their talent, they have a lot of humility.”
Hien compares collaborating to dating—an apt description that reflects the trust, vulnerability, and communication required in creating music with other artists.
“Collaborations are really like relationships. You talk to them on an everyday basis, and you really show your vulnerable side to them. These boundaries are much more blurred. A lot of things depend on feelings and intuition,” she explains. “It’s really hard to navigate through that when you just don’t speak the same language, or your intentions are different, or your intentions become different in the process.”
Hien says that “Bloom is the small beginning of this whole journey.” The word “bloom” is dynamic, identifying an action in motion rather than the completion of that action. It is a fitting title for this release, an acknowledgment of growth with a sense of excitement that we are bearing witness to this journey in real time. Both an appreciation of the moment and an anticipation for the future.
Hien has just finished filming the music video for “Family” in Hungary and is already hard at work writing new music—but she acknowledges that her next chapter as an independent artist is a marathon, not a sprint.
“I want to be a little bit more easy on myself with deadlines because although this year has been amazing because of the release and the work that we did, it’s been also really harsh on me,” she reflects. “I want to take care of my physical and mental health more. I think that’s what the third song is about: to take this slow and not let my passion make me make decisions that are not healthy for myself.”