Music Forum Magazine (Vol 15, Feb-April 2009)
By: Joseph Hieu Dinh
Vietlish vox-pop THANH BUI VIDEO CLIP: www.youtube.com/VietlishMedia
At the age of 25, Thanh Bui is already considered an example for other aspiring Asian musicians – which isn’t surprising, especially when he’s been blessed with the kind of vocal edge that sees him touring around the world, competing on Australian Idol 2008 and being the first Asian-Australian in history to have ever made top 10-finalist. Joseph Dinh and Maria Tran interviewed Bui as he prepared for the Idol finale, a live broadcast from the steps of the Sydney Opera House.
“It’s been a very amazing journey,” says Thanh. “Everything’s been taking off so well – it’s just crazy.”
Thanh shows no signs of weakness, contrary to the articles written about him. Instead, he responds with a high-voltage smile and inhibited bouts of laughter. The fact that he’s about to grace a stage once again in front of the panel of judges that he felt was ‘real hard’ on him didn’t seem to faze him.
“It’s very difficult to please the judges. While I take on board all feedback and criticisms, I only take those that are relevant to me, without losing my integrity as an artist. I have my own style of soul and r’n’b, and that is what I’m sticking too.” How does it feel being criticized on national television? He admits he had to put away personal feelings and maintain a level of professionalism. “You walk into this competition knowing it could end anytime, so I guess it was quite an experience. I felt emotional deep inside myself sometimes but had to constantly remind myself – it’s just an opinion, don’t let it put you down.” He finds the irony in that, the week before he gets voted out, he achieved touchdown with ‘The Winner Takes It All’, and the immediate week after, it becomes his farewell song disappointing the strong fan base he’s established.
Thanh feels grateful for all the support he’s received, and determined to get back and reply every single supportive online message or email he received. He registered himself in ‘Thanh Bui Fan Clubs’ created by die-hard fans on Facebook, Myspace and Bebo to keep in contact with them. One fan writes: “Hey Thanh. Guess what, I live on the same street as you, I live like 5 houses away. Don’t worry I won’t stalk you. Ask your mum or dad if they saw a big big poster outside your house which said ‘Go Thanh’ cause I kinda wrote it.”
Being voted off Idol wasn’t the end for him. “Everything happens for a reason and really it’s not about winning or losing. It’s what you can make after the show that is more important”. Sitting at ease showcasing his signature spiky hairstyle, trendy tight shirt with undone buttons and pointy shoes, Bui defy the stereotypical micro-fibred attire Asian male. And it’s these Asian stereotype images that have given him a hard time within the entertainment industry.
“Everyone’s just intrigued to see me in the entertainment business,” he reveals. “They just point at me asking ‘Why aren’t you a doctor, lawyer or accountant like all other Asians?”
“I’ve had a bit of an identity struggle at times,” said Thanh, “I sound like an Aussie, so Asians think I’m whitewashed while non-Asians would see me as a foreigner.”
Thanh feels the Australian music and media industry is not fully representing our multicultural society and often reluctant to promote talents of ethnic backgrounds.
“Ethnicity can still be a bit of a problem, especially on stage. You always have to be three times better than everyone else to be recognized,” claimed Thanh. “I think it’s about time that ethnic Australia breaks through these stereotypes, take the reins and kick-ass in showbiz, cause right now, everything you see on TV are white Australian”. Previous Asian-Australians who have ever made it to the music industry include Jeff Fatt from The Wiggles, whom Bui feels, was given small roles, tagging along with the others.
“During the first few years of high school down in Melbourne, I was the only person of Asian background in the school, and there was a bit of racism. Being labeled a ‘Ching-chong’ when I’m really Vietnamese. But then again, there is always a positive side of things. Thanh shows himself to be very passionate about his culture and heritage. “I try my best to speak my mother’s language, my children will speak the language, my children’s children will too, because it is respectful to my parents and all they have gone through. They risked their lives fleeing Communist Vietnam in a fishing boat just for me to have all the freedom and opportunities here in Australia.”
His favorite Vietnamese song is “Rieng Mot Goc Troi” (translates “Corner in the Sky”), an international hit made famous by Vietnamese superstar Tuan Ngoc. “I really love singing in Vietnamese, I will work into improving my accent, but I hope I will have the opportunity to share my voice with the Vietnamese community.” Thanh already has himself swag of gigs under his belt including a national tour, not to mention a special appearance on Paris By Night (Thuy Nga Entertainment) – a renowned international Vietnamese music concert show.
Growing up in the junction between two cultures created challenges for him. “It took ages to convince my parents to approve me doing full time music. They didn’t see it as an alternative way of making a living whilst being able to develop your own passion.”
“I had to take the Asian way, finish off my IT degree as fallback, before they allowed me to pursue whatever I wanted,” says Bui. “Things have changed and they have been so supportive throughout Idol and had to fly back and forth to Sydney just to see me on stage.”
In fact, it was his very own parents Quang Bui & Nga Thi Ho who exposed music to him in his younger years. His parents, who came to Australia after the Vietnam War as refugees, are a big fan of Asian ballroom dancing and karaoke.
“Sometimes I’m trying to get some sleep and my parents keep singing until 2, 3 in the morning, which can be annoying, but then there’s a positive side to it – it actually got me into music.” Thanh started singing at the age of twelve, being a member of the Victorian Children’s Choir. It was only in his late teens whilst singing karaoke with his friends, that he considered music as a possible career path.
“We were just clowning around in the karaoke bar,” Thanh recalls, smiling to himself. “I remembered myself singing ‘I’ll Make Love To You’ by Boyz 2 Men. My friends told me I could sing and then it probably clicked. Singing is probably the easiest thing I’ve ever done – with anything else, I’ve had to work really hard to become good at it – with music, it’s been quite natural and easy!”
His friend’s instincts proved correct. His music career kicked off from then, starting from local gigs to an appearance on the Footy Show and before he knew it, he scored himself a position in boy band “North”. This was Bui’s launch pad into the music industry being signed up with Universal Music and later with EMI, releasing two albums, securing five number 1 hits and touring across Asia. Not long after the members found themselves heading towards different directions and decided to move on to their own paths. The spotlight time for North was so brief, it is almost non-existent, even from a simple google search.
It was during his time touring Asia, where he met his wife Siriamon (“Pim”) Amonsuthum. He shows off proudly his necklace ornament. “This is what she gave me when we met in Singapore. It was love at first sight for both of us. The best thing about having a wife who is a stylist and retail manager is that you get all the free clothes of different styles.”
He’s since formed himself a production company called Yin Yang Productions, working as a full time professional songwriter, writing songs for artists around the world. It might seem as though this has all happened suddenly, but his burgeoning profile was a result of years of song writing. “In the last few years we were lucky to have landed a few songs with different artists in Japan, America, Australia and Europe, working with some amazing song writers out there. I write for guys like former Australian Idol stars Dean Geyer, Paulini and Cosima de Vito.”
By nature, Thanh is a dedicated songwriter, having his album written and on standby: Gravity, Heartbeat or Nothing’s Impossible (working title). “I’m still indecisive about the title, but I’m certain there will be more big singles coming up clearly labeled ‘Product of Thanh Bui,’ he laughs.
Currently running the Melbourne-based International Artist Academy, Thanh spends his evening as a vocal coach, as he believes in giving everyone an opportunity to achieve personal goals and explore the music within themselves, either for a professional career or simply a hobby as music is to him “a language without barrier or prejudice.”
What does he most miss about Melbourne, apart from is loved ones? “The coziness, the people – I love my cafes, and to you Sydney people, AFL rocks, not Rugby – go the Cats!” “The people in Sydney are way different to home Melbourne,” observes Thanh. “Sydney siders are more direct and in-your-face, whereas Melbournians would keep it to themselves whispering to each other when they see a recognizable face.”
Thanh’s final words of advice: “Always be around people who share your passion, to support you through the hard times. Life is short, just be yourself, be true to who you are. Music is the only thing that is real. Fame and money are only artificial.”
(c) copyright 2009 by Vietlish Entertainment & Music Council of Australia