Xuan (pronounced “Swan”) Nguyen has a talent for extracting lively conversation from the most mundane details. At AllGood Café on a Saturday afternoon, Nguyen takes a look at her glasses of water and begins to discuss at great length how she quit drinking. The Deep Ellum Outdoor Market was hindering traffic a few blocks from us, so then she talked about how comfortable she feels singing in the solitary, judgment-free environment of her car.
The daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, Nguyen, who performs under the moniker Xuan, had a conventional upbringing in Carrollton. Disenchanted with suburban life, she challenged and reinvented herself in her travels.
After Nguyen graduated from college, she moved to San Francisco and worked various odd jobs, among them doing stage design for music videos and volunteer work for a church. The choir director took a liking to Nguyen’s voice and hired her as a cantor. She simultaneously put her television and film degree to good use and accepted an offer to work at a TV station on weekdays.
“This was back in 2008 [during the recession],” she says. “A lot of people [needed a job].”
During this time, she kindled a romance with a musician from Ireland who had once written a song for Van Morrison. They traveled to Southeast Asia and lived in Australia for six months. Tired of her day job in Australia and homesick, Nguyen came back to the United States, then moved to Naas, Ireland, with her then-boyfriend during a two-year stint in which she taught theater while honing her musical chops.
“I always knew I could sing, and I have a good ear, but I didn’t really have enough life experience to sing about anything,” Nguyen says. “I didn’t want to be 80 and think, ‘Oh, I should have done this and this.’”
Travel provided the life experience, and in 2012, Nguyen returned home and began to work at her parents’ upholstery shop. A naturally crafty person, she enjoyed the work but did not find it fulfilling, so she pursued other hobbies, such as rock climbing, drumming and salsa dancing. Around this time, she submitted stories to the Oral Fixation storytelling series, and through this experience, met Ken Bethea of Old 97’s.
Bethea invited a 30-year-old Nguyen to perform an open mic he was hosting at the time. It was here that her set caught the attention of producer Salim Nourallah.
“I wasn’t confident in my music yet,” Nguyen says. “As a woman, you think [when men compliment your music], ‘What are your intentions?’ I know it’s fucked up to say that, but it’s the world we fucking live in.”
Despite her initial skepticism, Nguyen and Nourallah cemented a strong professional relationship. Nguyen would upholster a couch for Nourallah’s recording studio in exchange for Nourallah offering Nguyen studio time.
Their collaborative efforts resulted in the release of Xuan’s debut album Have Some Fun, a 2018 release of candy-coated pop infused with garage rock influences and power-pop song structures.
“I’m a singer-songwriter, I guess, but I didn’t want it to sound like that,” Nguyen says. “I told [Nourallah], ‘Hey, I don’t want to cry anymore, I just want to dance.’”
The album does possess some dance-worthy moments. “The Panties Song” is as quaint and risqué as the title indicates. The opening chord progression and accompanying Moog instrumental bring to mind the sensibilities of Cheap Trick, and in a possible nod to one of her biggest influences, Britney Spears, Nguyen kicks off the track with the lyrics, “Oh no, I did it again.”
In an apparent shift of mood just a mere four tracks later, she expresses heartbreak and vulnerability in the song “Break This Heart Again,” a cathartic number that addresses the end of a former romance. These Octopus Project-esque instrumentals glisten in the background, and as she approaches the hook, an eighth note guitar rhythm (a bit similar to that of Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out”) adds to the song’s tension.
What is perhaps most striking about Xuan’s music is the smorgasbord of influences she employs into her sound. With the help of guitarist Nick Earl, each instrument sounds like it developed a mind of its own and was left to its own devices, but somehow, they all morph together and provide a surprisingly unified texture.
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Since the release of Have Some Fun, Nguyen has written an EP’s worth of songs, which she describes as “already dated.”
“Maybe I’ll revisit [them] later,” Nguyen says. “I feel like the life [Have Some Fun] is already in motion.”
While playing gigs in support of the album and occasionally writing new songs, Nguyen is earning her way in the cosmetology industry as a traveling hair stylist. Before this, she worked as a stylist at Hairstory on Henderson Avenue. She tendered her resignation from the position last month.
Cosmetology, of course, is merely a sliver of a vast list of professions she carries under her belt. The one trade she has proved to be most proficient at is that of an artist, and as evidenced by her life story and artistic output thus far, she is a versatile and accomplished one, at that.