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Regional Interests

Rising R&B Artist Thuy Sings to Heal Her Past

Thuy is rewriting the rules of her universe. Hailing from the East Bay town of Newark, the up-and-coming singer is carving out new paths, bringing light and vulnerability into her galaxy of sound. It’s music she’s spent her whole life wanting to make. Now, she’s found her voice, and is done waiting for what anyone else has to say. 

Throughout her work, 29-year-old Thuy turned the private process of reckoning with her past and present selves and translated it into TikTok-trending singles. Tracks like “In My Bag” and “Chances” show Thuy as a purveyor of aughties R&B as she croons luscious melodies, layered with the lived-in experiences of coming into her own as both a musician and a woman. She’s proud, effervescent and every bit invigorating on “In My Bag”: “Leveled up, baby, I’m outta your reach / Passed on me but I’m taking all the shots now,” she sings about her self-confident agenda over a pulsing synth. 

The personal truths of Thuy’s life embed themselves throughout her melodies and come to life with her silken voice. This vulnerability is what earned her over 569,000 listeners on Spotify and 209,000 TikTok followers. With her dedicated fanbase and growing popularity, it’s hard to believe only a few years ago she was working as an optometric technician, wrestling with the weight of keeping her dreams afloat.

Throughout her life, there has always been the push and pull between Thuy, the UC Santa Barbara graduate bound by Vietnamese American traditions, and Thuy, the singer. Nevertheless, she still remembers herself as a kid, completely alone in her parents’ garage, belting out Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” and recreating Christina Aguilera’s runs for fun. An essential part of her music-making journey comes from being surrounded by Vietnamese culture and karaoke—a mainstay pastime for Vietnamese families. Some of Thuy’s earliest memories of music were being jolted awake to the electric charisma of her parents’ singing. 

Enveloped in these sonic forces, she hung onto that little girl’s voice, the one who already internalized to the core she was going to make her mark on today’s musical landscape. “I knew deep down in my soul that [music] was really something that I wanted to do,” Thuy says. “I knew one way or the other, it was going to happen.”

The number of prominent Southeast Asian American artists is growing, and with that comes “strength in numbers,” Thuy observes. This summer, for instance, The New York Times Style Magazine profiled the Bay Area’s Thao Nguyen and Ruby Ibarra in a feature about a new generation of Asian American pop stars. Just a few years ago, making it in music as a Vietnamese American didn’t seem tangible. 

A few pivotal stars aligned so Thuy could rewrite her destiny. She tagged along with her songwriter boyfriend to a studio session and suddenly, she saw an opportunity to turn her love for the craft into a career. In 2015, her first release, “Hands On Me,” won Bay Area radio station 106.1 KMEL’s Home Turf contest, and it gave her the needed confidence to pursue music. A room opened in Los Angeles later that year, and even without much in her savings, she knew she needed to take the leap to relocate to the industry hotspot. 

“I just had an inner conversation with myself and said, ‘Are you not putting your all into music because you are afraid? Are you afraid of what people think? Are you afraid of what your parents are gonna think?’” Thuy admits. “I just had to have this inner battle with myself.” 

As Thuy evolves, she realizes her growth is marked by moments where fear catalyzed her metamorphosis. Initially, it hurt her when she realized her refugee parents weren’t completely on board with her sudden career shift; they were the type to prioritize the pursuit of stability in her upbringing. Even with her moderate success starting out, she still had to field their concerned, lingering questions about whether or not she would go to physician assistant’s school and when this “phase” of hers would end.

Naturally, changing and becoming this new version of Thuy absolutely scared her—but that fear became a welcome, necessary challenge. “I always believed in myself, and I’m glad I never let that go,” she says. 

For Thuy, her music meditates on her past as she continues to examine it with present day’s clarity. She sees life as a continual pilgrimage to the multiple versions of herself. There was the time when Thuy was the girl who was too shy to audition for choir; the time she was made to feel less than because of her body; the time she was entering the industry where, in rooms full of men, her voice was momentarily drowned out. But those versions of Thuy weren’t final, and she couldn’t sit back and let her shine be dimmed by anyone. 

On her upcoming EP, out Oct. 29, she’s releasing into the world all the raw emotions and experiences that illuminated her growth. In the moments when Thuy’s world is consumed with anxiety, chaos and uncertainty, she turns to music as her intimate celebration of life—one she’s excited to share. “For a really long time, I never really had an outlet for me to talk about [life],” Thuy says. “On the EP, it’s really nice and very therapeutic to be able to kind of just close that chapter, and talk about all the things that make me who I am.” 

She doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional pop star, and it’s taken an extensive self-love journey—one that she’s still undergoing—for her to make peace with that. The little things, she notes, are essential in self-empowerment. For instance, this could look like surrounding herself with only a close, small circle of trusted collaborators and friends. It could also show up when she’s looking in the mirror and is pushing herself to only have positive affirmations on the brain, ones that remind her to be gentle to herself.

It definitely helps that she gets comments from people every day, proud that there is a Vietnamese American R&B artist on the rise and breaking industry standards of age and beauty. Her songs have the power to erase boundaries and make people feel seen—and that’s what she’s most proud of. “When I released [my music], it’s out to the universe. It wasn’t for me anymore. It’s for the listener,” Thuy says. “I hope that they feel like they’re there, in that room with me, making the song.”

In sharing herself, she hopes her listeners become inspired to make peace with their past and embrace joy in the present. “Don’t be afraid to do something that scares you. Don’t be afraid to love again,” Thuy says. “Don’t be afraid to just be like somebody that’s just you, and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.”

Copyright 2021 KQED