“Have some fun” is the unofficial catchphrase of Xuan (pronounced Swan), Palo Santo Records’ indie-pop maven. Not only is she the ex-host of a TV show in Vietnam, Xuan also lived in Australia and Ireland, and is an admitted world wanderer. Her “performing bug” would often appear in karaoke bars before she was discovered by PSR’s A & R man, Salim Nourallah, at an open mic night. “Salim approached me afterwards and said he really liked my songs and that I should record them. I thought, ‘yeah, yeah, I bet he says that to everyone,’” she says. It turns out that he doesn’t. Xuan’s witty relationship-centric lyrics & catchy melodies are at the center of her debut record, Have Some Fun! With the danceable melodicism of the Cars and Gwen Stefani, Xuan’s debut with absolutely get listeners moving and singing along.
What is the inspiration for your Album?
I was singing harmonies on the track “I Wanna Know You” and the last line of the song is “have some fun.” Salim shouted with ecstasy, “That’s it!”.
It makes me laugh because I’m a very emotionally sensitive person, but despite all the overthinking, it really is that simple – I really do just want to have fun.
My sister loves the title because my parents immigrated to America in 1980. They mostly speak Vietnamese, but whenever we would go out or on a trip mom would always say in English, “Have some fun!”
What was the songwriting process like?
Incredibly fulfilling! I had a few songs already finished and written, but once I got into the studio it was as if a new life force was awakened within me! The anticipation and motivation I’d been quietly harboring my whole life had finally found the correct creative outlet at the right time and I felt very secure in Salim’s company. He was very supportive and it fueled me to keep writing and feeling and thinking and writing – I wrote 7 new songs over the course of making the album and Salim helped musically with 3 songs and with words on 2 songs.
We co-wrote an entire song from conception to finish, which was absolutely amazing. Until then, songwriting for me was a way to understand and accept things in retrospect. “We Were Just Talking” materialized because we were two friends, talking about my personal life and boom Salim immediately starts singing a melody and says, “write about this boy.” I was so inspired, I wanted to be the listener and hear about the story too! So I wrote feverishly on Thanksgiving day, but the holiday spirit made me romanticize things and I wasn’t completely happy with the words but we both wanted to record anyways because the melody was so juicy.
Just the urgency of wanting to finish the song had us throwing words back and forth through the glass window. It was completely electrifying because there’s always that small voice that says “No we’re rushing, these words aren’t going to work, they don’t capture the essence,” but the fighter in you that has years of maturity and confidence is ready for the opportunity when it comes – and we knocked that shit out. Teeth on the floor and everything…my sister makes fun of me because I had braces twice
Who collaborated with you on the album and in what way?
Well, all the boys that broke my heart had me writing in the first place…haha. I had always wanted to be in a band, but I just didn’t think I had the skill set – I thought I needed to be a better guitarist. So I started taking classes at the Dallas School of Music and they have you fill out a questionnaire that essentially tries to classify who you are as a person. They set me up with Eugene Cantera and it was such a good fit. Yeah, I’d be learning new chords on guitar, but my lessons were more like mini therapy sessions in which I would talk about my failed relationships and try to communicate them through songs I would write. It was like this every week – I wouldn’t have practiced any of the technical knowledge he tried to give me, but I would talk about my feelings or bring in the newest song I wrote for him to review. Eugene really gave me the confidence to believe that my songs were good, and without him, “Big Blue Ocean” wouldn’t be as coherent.
Like I said earlier, Salim would help fill in a bridge if I didn’t have anything written. I would usually go in with a song and sing it to Salim. He’d track the tempo and find a drum sample and would start piecing it from there – laying down rhythm guitar or a bass line. Then he’d have Jason Garner lay down drums and Nick Earl would play some killer riffs. I absolutely love watching all of them work – way more fascinating than anything I’d ever seen. I’m obsessed with watching musicians play.
How were you discovered by Palo Santo Records?
I double majored in Theatre and Film at UT Austin, but shied away from the stage because I didn’t think what I had to offer was authentic. As much as I tried to hide it, the performing bug would always creep out in different ways like karaoke at Twilite lounge and I was in an improv troupe at the Dallas Comedy House.
After watching a friend perform in the Dallas storytelling show, Oral Fixation, I was pumped to submit a story. My first attempt was rejected, but I submitted again and ended up in the same cast as the guitarist for the Old 97’s, Ken Bethea. A few months later he was the special guest for one of Salim’s open mic nights at the Vagabond. I asked Ken if I could perform and he said yes – it was the second open mic I’d ever performed at. Even though I started songwriting in 2012, I didn’t have the courage to actually sing in front of people until 2015.
Salim approached me afterwards and said he really liked my songs and that I should record and I thought “yeah yeah he says this to everyone.” I went into the studio once to discuss recording, but I just wasn’t confident enough to move forward.
A year later (May 2016), I just happened to be at a bar in uptown (an area I wouldn’t ever frequent) and Salim walked in with his guitar! We both immediately recognized each other and hugged and he said, “Xuan! I’ve got a couch I want you to upholster!” (Salim knew I owned an upholstery business). I struck up a barter – I’d upholster his couch if he would produce a song or two for me – and the rest is history. The first two songs that got produced from the couch money were “Addicted To Your Game” and “Not The Man.” If I ever have a DJ persona, my name will be DJ Couch Money because that’s how I got my foot in the music industry.
What is your Dallas story?
I was born in Dallas and raised in Carrollton, so naturally I was so excited to get the hell out into the “real world.” After graduating from UT I moved to San Francisco and worked on some music videos, but I was mainly job hunting while volunteering at the local catholic church. I didn’t think my theatre and film degrees had equipped me with any real skills, so a friend in Vietnam offered me a job at the tv station in Ha Noi and I said yes. A few days later the music director at the church offered me a job as the cantor at mass, singing on Saturday and Sunday for 1,000/month! I was floored – I had no idea I could make a living singing, but unfortunately I had already accepted the Vietnam offer and bought my ticket already.
I hosted television shows in Vietnam and met an Irish guy at an expat party. He introduced me to the guitar because he was a singer songwriter. He had actually sold a song to Van Morrison and was receiving royalties from it (even though we never heard the song get played), and traveled SE Asia with that money. He asked me to go to Australia with him and I had nothing better to do, so I said yes. We lived there for 6 months, but I was really depressed and lonely there. I moved back home for a few months and moved to Ireland to be with him a few months later. I lived there for 2 years and we traveled Europe a lot. The first year I got my license to teach theatre to kids and the second year I worked full time at the grocery store and started my own program teaching theatre to the neighborhood kids.
In 2012 my parents feigned retirement to get me to take over their upholstery shop, but I really think they thought I was in a dead-end relationship and the move was definitely a catalyst in ending it.
It was actually really nice to be back home. I had built so much of my life around him, I had forgotten my identity. I made a vow to do all the things I always wanted to do – so I started taking salsa classes and guitar lessons. I started writing songs in 2012.
I never thought I’d be back in Dallas. My dad somehow got half of his family to emigrate over here, so I really wanted to be free, to be rebellious, to make it on my own. But I didn’t have the emotional maturity to make it on my own. I had to live in all those countries to gain perspective (I lived a sheltered life growing up, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), but coming home really helped nurture all the wounds I’d received from living abroad and being in an emotionally exhausting relationship.
I love this line of poetry from T.S. Eliot, “ We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
That’s how I feel about Dallas. It will always be my home.
Who are some of your musical influences?
Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, Britney Spears
Tell me more
I never want to be on my death bed thinking, I wish I did that, I wish I said that. So I will literally try everything that I find interesting…I actually compiled a list earlier this year of all the things I’ve done since the break up
I have a bucket list of things I want to do before I die – the album is done, so I can check that off my list. I also want to tap dance, cut hair, finish a screenplay and get that produced. I’d be okay with a film short. I also want to design a fashion line. Just one season would be acceptable.