Vietnam-born Tien Nam Nguyen studied in the States and came back home to continue a journey of self-discovery. Like lots of homecomings, it’s been up and down, and emotionally fraught, with lots of learning along the way. And so, this is the soundtrack to Tien Nam Nguyen’s return to Saigon.
“Who am I? I’ll tell you when I know,” our 25-year-old protagonist, Tien Nam Nguyen, shrugs.
As an outstanding college student in the States he won lots of awards in fashion competitions. Since then he’s worked with Uber as a marketing guru. And as a data analyst. While still working out who he is.
Growing up in Vietnam, Nam possessed the ‘American dream’. And like a number of kids from his generation he fulfilled his goal and went to the States “hoping to find my purpose of life”. He returned in the summer of 2018 with a desire to live a genuine, meaningful, emotionally-grounded existence. And there’s been one constant throughout all this – his irreversible love of performance art. “Music is the soundtrack to my life, the stage is where I shine…acting is like breathing to me,’ Nam says whole-heartedly.
So we met him beside Saigon’s Municipal Theatre, or the Opera House as its also known, to get his ten-track guest mix. “Music is my creative outlet…it’s where I escape to and where I can live out my performance art fantasies,” Tien Nam Nguyen sighs. And his mix is all about self-identity and his personal evolution (that’s still going on) with ten tracks that go from house to disco to electropop.
What was your first meaningful experience of music?
I remember being a senior at High School. I had been hanging out with this girl for some time. She was studying singing at the Vietnam National Academy of Music. One day she sat down at the piano and sang “Kiss Me” by Six Pence None the Richer and I fell for her right away.
It’s funny, we never did become a couple (and she went on to become famous although I won’t namedrop). I was discovering my own sexuality…that I wasn’t straight. But that was when I also discovered music as a way to communicate romantic feelings.
Then, in my junior year of college, I landed after a 16-hour flight in New York. And I received a message from my boyfriend. He’d written a song for me that he sang over Skype later. The lyrics went: “He is an orchid but blossoms more, he is the one my heart adores…” I was overwhelmed and I had butterflies in my stomach. And all this reaffirmed my belief in the power of music to express deep feelings.
How does music relate to your daily life?
I listen to music whenever I don’t have to think too much. During commutes. Grocery shopping. Walking in the park.
At work, when I don’t have to talk to anyone, I’ll put on a mix. Something by Vini Vici, Vicetone or Martin Garrix. It kind of works well while doing data analysis or planning. It keeps me awake and my blood pumping.
How have your listening habits evolved since you first started listening to music?
It’s pretty much the same to be honest. I have always loved listening to music when I travel. I lay my head against the window of a car or a plane, look out and escape.
What’s the most underrated genre of music? And the most overrated?
I think people should give musical theatre a try. People respond very well to musicals like “La La Land”, “The Greatest Showman”, and Disney movies. So, I think they can easily relate to this genre. Broadway musicals produce some of the most emotional and meaningful songs. But people don’t know about them and I think it’s a shame.
If you want an easy entry into this genre, try works by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul (who wrote the music for “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman”). There’s also their highly acclaimed Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen”. I would also recommend some younger-sounding musicals like “Spring Awakening”, “American Psycho” or “Bare”.
And I would say hip hop is quite overrated. Maybe I just don’t listen to it enough to really see its beauty. I do enjoy some hip hop music though. I love Lil Dicky for example. Did you know that “Hamilton”, the most acclaimed Broadway musical in recent years about American history, is mostly entirely a hip hop show?
You have one track to make someone love music. What do you play them?
If I have to choose one, I’d probably choose “Love is a Losing Game” by Amy Winehouse (Live at the Mercury Music Awards).
I think that performance fully embodies the power of music. Amy’s soulful vocals are drenched in raw emotions and the realest thoughts. The lyrics are autobiographical too. They’re told in the most poetic prose.
Her relationship with her husband, Blake, was deeply toxic and she was so vulnerable. It was the only love she knew and hung onto it even though she knew that the relationship would eventually destroy her. And it did.
She conveyed all of that with her mournful delivery with its stripped-down acoustic backing. It’s probably the most beautiful live performance I’ve ever seen. I cried when I first watched it in the documentary, Amy.
Describe your guest mix in a few sentences.
This mix is the soundtrack of my life in Saigon, of who I was and who I’ve become. Since I’ve changed so much, the genres you’ll hear are diverse and somewhere in the middle, you’ll experience a very sudden shift in tone and mood. But overall, the tone is quite happy and positive.
And can you tell us about the ten tracks you’ve chosen?
This mix charts the changes in self-identity that I went through since I started my life over in Saigon. I moved back here to a new job, and a new life. It felt exciting. So I was often listening to this upbeat, happy song by Sinkane called “Favorite Song”.
Throughout the last quarter of 2018, I lived a pretty private and quiet life. I didn’t go out much. I didn’t hang out with anyone except for one or two close friends. I didn’t date. I felt quite numb emotionally — I didn’t feel anything much and I was okay with that. The music I listened to fitted the mood. It felt quite old, with a vintage cinematic feel. Songs like “Heart of Glass” by Blondie, and “Venice Bitch” by Lana Del Rey.
Then came 2019. I broke out of my shell so you’ll notice the tracks feel more vibrant and youthful. I started having feelings for someone. For a couple people actually. I felt more tender, emotional, in love. And the music in this part of the mix is softer, more introspective, with more feeling. Tracks like “Thirteen” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and “Day 1” by Honne. Also, I’ve chosen “2Shy” by Shura. It’s the ultimate I-have-a-crush-on-you song.
Feelings become complicated. And there’s some bitterness and longing in my next tracks.
There’s “Dancing with a Stranger” by Sam Smith and Normani, and “Tror Du Att Han Bryr Sig” by Benjamin Ingrosso and Felix Sandman. The title translates as “Do you think he cares about you?”
That romantic period ended without any resolution. But I was fine with it because that experience helped the numbness I used to feel go away. My emotional world warmed up and I realized I’m still capable of caring and feeling for someone, so we end this chapter with a very tender, passionate love song: “Someone to Fall Back On” by Jason Robert Brown.
Amidst the romantic turmoil of my life, I actually found my footing in this city. And I found a group of friends that I truly adore. I was promoted to manager during this time as well so my career was going well. Now, I go out more, enjoy my life more and know where I want to go. I went through lots of ups and downs this year but I have a strong support system who walk me through everything. Hence the final happy track is the “Vicetone remix of Oceans Away” by Arizona.
Where would be the perfect place to listen to this mix?
On a trip somewhere, looking out the window of a car, dreaming…obviously.
Photos by Nam Tran Duy and edited by David Kaye