Certain artists live their whole lives dreaming to shine on stages: not Trace. She’d already seen the life firsthand as the daughter of legendary Vietnamese singer Carol Kim. She’s maintained a good relationship with her mother, but was always going down a different path.
“I’m so grateful for this trajectory I’ve been on, but ever since I was young, I never wanted to do music,” she tells me over the phone in her usual calm, inquisitive tone. “My mom did music my whole life; I thought that was really cool, but I’d wanted nothing to do with it.”
Now, she’s a musical artist; one who has received positive response for her latest music video under Ultra Music, entitled “Anxiety.” It’s a thoughtful track that begins as a soft acoustic number and eventually takes on electronic rhythms, 808s and synths. The lyrics delve into the difficulties of dealing with anxiety in social situations. She’s been selling merch with “anxiety” written as branding and posting “interviews” with friends of hers giving takes about their own experiences with anxiety. She’s very much doing the thing.
What changed? Trace says she’d always been music adjacent, learning guitar at a young age and fiddling with covers. “You’re around something, so it’s a part of you, and it becomes this thing where you can’t really deny it,” she says. She’d always been writing, but during college, she wrote “sort of songs” and “hum things over poorly playing guitar.” Then, five years ago, she wrote songs.
“The first song I think I ever wrote was ‘Heavy Shoulders,’ and that was just very unprofessionally done,” she says.
She started performing in front of friends in backyards, and did a Kickstarter to fund an EP. The first time she played her EP was at one of her mom’s shows: “She was like, ‘You should sing my EP at my show!’ And I was like, Mom, this is never gonna happen. But I was like, so new that I was like, this is so funny, just singing in front of older Vietnamese people who might not understand me. And so that happened a year later.”
And how did that go? “It was so horrible; I never sang in front of anyone before,” she says. While the audience showed her nothing but positive energy, she was still far too uncomfortable at that point to do quite what she wanted to do. “You’re looking at me, who’s just started doing this, and I’m with my mom who’s been doing it for 30 years or more, and she’s just like, glitzed and glammed and so comfortable, and I don’t think I moved my hands. They were on the microphone stand the whole time. I wasn’t comfortable, but I kind of like doing things that are uncomfortable.”
Indeed, comfort in the discomfort seems a recurring theme in Trace’s work. “Anxiety” plays like an ode to a destructive mental force; the end of the video shows Trace feeding a man and woman who move her throughout the video, seemingly personifying the anxiety as accompanying friends; she casually fork-feeds them cake as they stare uncomfortably, literally feeding the eerie presence.
Her eerie R&B crooning feels like a complete redirect from her mother’s friendly, joyous oeuvre. Carol Kim worked with disco, soul, pop; Trace favors Bon Iver, Feist, Kacey Musgraves, and legends like Bob Dylan. “She was all about movement and feeling free, feeling good,” she says. “I would tell her, ‘Mom, I’m more of like, a Bob Dylan fan, or a Joni Mitchell.’ And she’s like, ‘That’s so sad!'”
Trace speculates that her fascination with sadness may trace (for lack of better words) to different perspectives of mental health between generations, and especially generations of Asians. “I just feel like, what I think about my culture and heritage, it’s a bit uncomfortable, but I’m making it more familiar, especially with my family, with my writing.”
Indeed, Trace’s ability to write is central to her artistry. She is a singer-songwriter; different from her mother, who mostly just performs (and finds her daughter’s abilities to be “crazy,” as Trace tells me). She often finds herself writing to bridge gaps; she’s unafraid to be lyrically unsettling, but her warm vocal tonality and her folksy melodies still feel so inviting. Those same folksy qualities are paired with soul music sensibilities and driving dance beats; the latter being sonic ideas not too different from her mother’s.
“I think that being the artist that I am now in my career, I feel like I can be pretty moldable, and I kind of want to do everything,” Trace tells me. “I think first as writing music, I wrote from a folk centered place, but I didn’t want to be a coffeeshop singer; I wanted to play stadiums. Which is weird, I don’t know why. Maybe I like attention.”
For a writer as mindful as Trace, who grew up writing prose and poetry, there always seems to be a philosophy to the elements of her music. “I think psychologically I love… not duping the listener, but I want to distract people from the sadness; for them to feel okay,” she says. “There’s something really cool about moving and dancing and feeling every emotion.”
So how do you map out a trajectory for an artist like Trace? How does an artist like Trace, one who loves to play with genre and versatility, who bridges gaps in culture and sound and interviews artists for their thoughts, see herself growing? The answer, as you might expect, is wide-ranging.
“I think my actionable items are housekeeping stuff; get music out, tour the world, play some big places, get on the radio, maybe win a Grammy or two,” she says, cheekily. She’s currently working on her next EP, set to drop in 2019, which she hopes will keep her on this trajectory. “I feel like the thing I want in my career will always, always circle around exposure. I just want the masses to hear me, because I feel really honored to be able speak some things that I hope are helpful to people. And ultimately, I think I want to be a household name.
So, I just want to be successful I guess is what I’m saying. And do what I love, and keep making sad music that more and more people can hear and relate to.”