“How can I look this good…and still be single,” Tao shakes his head looking in the Caravelle Saigon suite’s mirror. He does look good. Slicked back hair and dapper suit. But what really attracted us to invite him to join our guest mix series was his lyrics. “I was a poet before I became a rapper,” Tao, AKA Võ Hồ Thanh Vi, AKA Táo The Megalomaniac, remembers…
Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt
You can tell. Intricate verses pile up on one another, heartfelt and confessional. But he balks when we call him a true artist. “It’s a bit grand,” he says uncomfortably shrugging it off, “I’m just a music lover and creating music is something instinctive…”
As a rapper people expect him to be fun and light-hearted. But he’s quick to disavow us of that notion too. “I feel like everyone with an artistic spirit is like a radio sending out signals constantly, and only certain people tune into it…” he adds. The audience dialling in to his particular frequency grows with every emotion-filled track he drops. “But to be honest,” he whispers conspiratorially, “I don’t know how to do anything else except this…” By this, Tao means much more than simply rapping. He’s a performer in the old-school sense of the word, a writer and producer, a singer, and more. “Performing is not just about going on stage and singing. There’s also a degree of artifice, of acting, so you’re presented yourself in this three-dimensional way.”
“So maybe you’re right,” he concedes, “maybe ‘artist’ is the only way to describe it…” His artistry comes through in the level of detail in his lyrics. He knows words have their power to communicate but also to confuse and confuscate if lazily selected too. Paying close attention to the way the elders that he respects communicate has helped, “because their vocabulary is limited and focused; they’re still expressive and their language rich in its own way, and they’re rarely misunderstood.”
As an artist and rapper Tao does accept that no matter how hard he strives for clarity, his messages are always open to interpretation (and occasional misunderstanding). “What I communicate is one-way, I put it out to the world, and it passes through the filters of the listener, and that…I can’t control.”
Take us back in time to the first song you wrote and recorded…
It always felt inevitable that I would make music. And when it finally happened, I did it by recording on my shitty old laptop. Basic. Recording wasn’t as easy and accessible as it is now.
Even back then, I didn’t want to sing covers of other people’s tracks…I just launched into my own work rapping lyrics from my notebook. I’d been writing poems at school, so I simply altered the cadence and turned them into raps…
What does music mean to you right now?
Music should be like a flower. The branches hold and support the flower, like musical bars hold and support the music. And branches alone are rough and abrasive, while the flowers are fragile and enigmatic.
Also, I think that if you’ve only ever swam in the river that’s the limit of your understanding…until one day you swim in the ocean. Music is like that to me – don’t get cornered in your niche genre, swim into the deep blue sea of music and try to stay afloat.
Why do you think listeners have connected with your music so deeply?
I guess it’s my way of accepting different contrasting points of view. My music is a balance of emotions and perspectives. Of course, my own life is marked by conflicts, but I see them as karma and not drama.
Empathy is the key. We can get so wrapped in our own take on events, we fail to see things from one another’s perspective. We may approach things differently, but often we have the same objective in mind. Music doesn’t have to present a singular view, it should present life and love in all its forms. Single-mindedness takes away from the multi-dimensionality of existence. I hope that feeling comes through in my music.
I think artists are often unfairly raised to a pedestal or at worst disrespectfully dismissed. I have this dream that artists will be judged by their acts on stage only, and besides that, they’re just people. They don’t need acclaim or to be defamed, artists should just be judged on their creative merits and the power of their performances.
How are you handling the pressures of acclaim and a growing audience?
I feel that if music has emotional integrity and doesn’t hop around and switch between trends then it will have longevity. That’s the most important thing. People will find emotional resonance in an old song of yours that meant something to them at a certain time. And that’s a special feeling for me…so there’s no pressure, just happiness.
What do you want people to feel and think about you as an artist?
Songs are like mirrors. I see myself in them – the ‘me’ at the time they were made. I like to look back. And for listeners, I guess I want them to see me as a person who’s creative, a little satirical, but also someone who makes songs that are rich and complex.
And how do you feel when your music is reviewed?
You know…all critiques are subjective, and lots are superficial. Not everyone is qualified to offer an in-depth critique of lyrics or production. When I offer opinions, it’s with an awareness of the understanding I bring to that topic. I guess, in short, there are some people’s opinions I value more than others…
Have you ever struggled and thought of pursuing another path?
There are financial challenges…of course. I’m not afraid to say that the perceived glamorous life of a rapper and artist is often less appealing than it seems. I’ve tried doing other things, but this is my passion. If I don’t focus on it, the music won’t be as good, and that’s the most important thing.
I’ve made hard decisions. Like focusing on profiting from performances and merchandise over making money from published music….for now at least. But I never thought there’s any other way. Passion for music is like a stereo you can’t turn off. You have to accept and embrace it, and maybe turn it up a notch.
What’s the future look like for Tao the Megalomanic?
I want to do solo music and play with other artists and bands. Why do I have to choose one, and be one? Why can’t I have it all?
Which of your songs mean the most to you so far?
“Chơi Vơi” marks an important point in my career – the first time I worked with my two closest brothers, Astronormous. I also remember it for being the first time I was willing to welcome a female vocalist onto my track, I never felt I needed guest vocalists before to support me… Khuong Hoan My, or Orange as she’s known, is deservedly successful. She’s talented. On this track, she spurred me to explore deep emotions without sounding harsh or abrasive. The remix is another first for me, and another memorable milestone.
Next is “Cả Nhà Cô Đơn”. There’s a lot of what I learned about songwriting in there, structuring a song around characters who each have their own voice. The theme is our surroundings, which can control us and limit us if we let them.
Back to better memories, with “Những Con Đàn Bà”. I collaborated with two artist I love on this track, Blacka and Cam. I guess you could call them rivals in the industry, but I idolize both of them too much for that. Besides that…I don’t want to say much more about the message of this track. Let’s just say it was a gift to my muse who left me hurt and emotional…
“Dreaming”, or “Mộng Mị”, is about the idea that when two people fall in love they create another being who exists in a different dimension. But if they separate that being dies just like the relationship. And then there’s “Bình Yên” which I wrote before the album Đĩa was put together. If you listen closely, you’ll hear that the second verse deliberately flips the first verse on its head. I’m talking about right and wrong, fairness and inequality — opposing ideas too.
After I’m choosing “Vô Cùng”, or “Infinity”, the first time I reached out and recorded a track by someone else, Nhạc Của Trang. I couldn’t resist. The original impressed and fascinated me in equal measures. At that time, my life seemed to be building to a crescendo of intensity and pressure…and important decisions, and listening back I remember that clearly.
Finally, tell us about your ten-track guest mix…
First, another of my own tracks. “2 5” was an unexpected success for me, so much so that people see it as my signature and I guess it does mark a milestone in my career for myself and my fans.
Next is a track by PjPo that I guested on, called “When I’m 27 years old” or “Năm Tao 27 tuổi”. It made me think about life and relationships. The song after that is “Like Toy Soldiers” by Eminem. Listening to him helped turn me into a rapper who didn’t need to make diss’ tracks to be successful.
Following that is another idol of mine, Tablo, whose track “Dear TV” influenced me. And, the next track, “Vẫn” is my gift my former muse which still hurts so good.
On to my newest mews, Aurora. She’s a true energy source to me, maybe even a crush of mine. “Exist For Love” on the album All My Demons made me fall for her.
Then, “Chết”, represents a less comfortable memory for me. No one I worked with could bring it to life in the way I wanted. So, I played around with the composition, even though I didn’t really have the skills to do so successfully. Finally, Nguyễn Hồng Giang stepped in and gave the track the surrealism and sensation I was looking for.
Then we’re right up to date, with my current love “Hết Thời” by Ngọt. I’ve chosen this track because it reminds me of…me.
Finally, there’s “One More Light” by Linkin Park, because this is what I’ve been talking about all my career. That loneliness doesn’t exist. There are people out there that feel the same way you do…
Listen to Tao on YouTube and Spotify, and his full album Đĩa at Zing. Photos and video by Khooa Nguyen, Jerry Tuan Tran, and Johnny Viet Nguyen. And special thanks to our hosts, Caravelle Saigon, for helping to make the shoot possible.