Ambivalence is a difficult emotion to deal with in pop music. Yet, there it is in the title of D.C.-based songwriter Carol Bui’s second album, Everyone Wore White [54 40 Or Fight! Records].
To a Western eye, white is, traditionally, the color of purity, and of celebration, new beginnings (brides wear white, for instance). From an Eastern standpoint, white is the color of mourning, of loss. But, to Bui —who is of Vietnamese descent— “white” is culturally fraught, speaking as it does —sociologically, culturally, and racially— of the aspirational desire to assimilate, to “pass” into the dominant culture, and in doing so, to mourn one’s own cultural identification.
The resulting album touches on such complex socio-political themes with a marked lack of earnestness —Bui’s elegiac songs are candid, yes, but play out with the complicated, ambiguous shading of narrative. The album draws a great deal of power from Bui’s poetic yet plainspoken lyrics, expressive vocals, and her unerring ability as a guitarist to pit delicacy against dissonance. The resulting album is a watercolor wash done in bright, saturated hues; multi-faceted, it is as much bluesy lament as it is pure pissed-off fury, as much catharsis as elegy.
Bui was kind enough to answer some questions for me last week, and her answers were thoughtful, candid, and funny. She’s in the middle of an extensive tour for the album —check the tour dates at the end of the interview to see if she might be playing your town. She’ll be in Providence tonight at AS220 —she’s on first. (I think. Whatever you do, arrive early!)
A fair number of your songs deal, either directly or obliquely, with your Asian heritage, either slyly (“Hyphen-American” from This Is How I Recover), or poetically (drawing on traditional songs and arrangements, for instance). You also deal quite frankly with sexual politics, utilizing narrative to give voice to differing perspectives. I imagine that was also your intent with the cover art. The juxtaposition of the elegaic title (Everyone Wore White) with the woman’s pose and inscrutable expression hold a great deal of tension. It’s a frozen, morally charged moment, all but asking viewers to supply a narrative to go along with it. Why did you pick this image, and, in doing so, what was your intent?
Carol: Honestly, I saw this painting on the artist’s website and just thought it was so beautiful and provocative, I had to have it on my album. It wasn’t until later, when I had to actually stop and think about how to name the album, when I saw how it all fit so well with the music. The title came from a lyric in “Rockville.”You’re quick to see that it’s about both celebration and loss. Most people I presented the title to were like ‘um, explain, please?”
White is the color of mourning over in most parts of the east… but I also meant for it to be about race, too. I wanted to be white as a kid. And whether my family knew it or not, they did, too. When I was younger, we used to go to Vietnam every summer to visit family. And I remember it being so weird that people loved how light my skin was. Everyone wanted lighter skin over there. My aunts even wore some kind of face cream in this little green tub that supposedly lightened the skin. Fair skin was important. So was the number of creases you have on each eyelid, which kind of translates to how western you look. I remember watching Hong Kong epic movies with my mom and she’d comment on the actresses, how one was ugly because she had only ‘mot mi’, or one crease on the eyelid…how another was beautiful because her eyes were bigger, skin more fair, and so on.
The title of your new album, Everyone Wore White, evokes both celebration and loss. The music bears this out too, playing out with a kind-of defiant, scorched-earth delicacy. Were these songs conceived as a song-cycle? What was the process of like?
Another question I don’t know how to answer! I didn’t really have one idea or theme for the album as I wrote the songs. Some of them took months to piece together. Others took maybe a day. My songwriting process has always been kind of instinctive —not so objective, which I think really frustrated some past band mates. I typically start off with a chord progression or ‘riff’ and then build on top of it. I’ll play those parts over and over again for months sometimes before I know what to do with them next. Vocal melodies tend to come easily. I like to sing stuff that kind of bounces off the guitar a little. And I almost always hear drums as I go along and my guitar playing usually reflects that. It’s a very physical thing…how it feels to sing and play the songs pretty much dictate how they ultimately come out, I guess.
When did you first start writing your own songs? How has your process changed over time?
I started writing songs when I was 15 or 16. I think it was when I first started listening to Hole and Sonic Youth, because I loved their music, but they also made it seem very doable…that the rules aren’t quite so rigid. My process has changed over time somewhat as I’m starting to write less out of ego and more out of …I don’t know!
Songwriting is an incredibly personal form of expression, but one’s personal style is inevitably shaped by formative influences. What songwriters or bands would you count as your inspirations? Then and now? Do you remember the first sounds that obsessed you, or that shifted your perspective?
My mother used to play these Khanh Ly tapes to help me sleep. I slept in the same room as my parents for a long time growing up, more than most people I know. I remember feeling so sad because some of Mom’s favorite songs were about death as a result of war and being displaced, and I kept thinking to myself “I want to die before my parents die. I wouldn’t know what to do without them!” I obsessed over that thought all the time. I was always afraid of losing them for some reason. And Khanh Ly —she’s a very convincing singer. I think my favorite singers have always been those with voices that are more expressive, dynamic, and “chesty”…not as in breasts, heh —but the push seems to come from their chest or heart rather than the sinuses or nasal passages. Like Stevie Nicks. Jeff Buckley. PJ Harvey. Kathleen Hanna. Kat Bjelland. Robert Plant. Maura Davis. Billie Holiday. Ella Fitzgerald.
You make music in Washington , D.C. There’s this clichéd idea of the great big extended Dischord family, but obviously it’s a lot more complicated than that! How would you describe the scene there?
I don’t know, I don’t feel like there’s one singular ‘scene’ or community that stands out to me as the fingerprint of DC right now. Musically speaking, there’s TONS going on, especially since those new venues (Rock and Roll Hotel, The Red and Black) opened up on H street. We’ve got a country, swamp-americana thing going on with bands like Revival, These United States, Shortstack, and Mikal Evans. They’re all terrific. We also have this new wave of traditional pop-rock and roll thing with Georgie James, Middle Distance Runner, Greenland… They’re all getting a lot of attention.
Dischord is still very active and thriving —with the new Evens record, the Farraquet reunion… Beauty Pill resuming their touring and whatnot. That new Aquarium album that came out last fall is really effing catchy. And there will always be a diy/punk/hardcore/noise scene among the younger bands, mostly supported by Exotic Fever and the local universities. I was just asking Katy Otto of Exotic Fever what she thought because I had absolutely no idea how to answer your question at first, and she said a few things that I think hit the nail on the head. She describes it as “self-started”, “risk-taking, and “ever-shifting.” I guess throughout the city, those are the constants that we’ve all inherited from the Dischord legacy. More people are booking their own tours, self-releasing and producing their own records —and so on.
Favorite guilty pleasure (musical or otherwise)?
I don’t feel guilty about any of it!! Just kidding, that’s a total lie…I haven’t learned to be THAT self-assured just yet. Heh. I LOVE Beyonce’s “B’day”. There’s this song called “Suga Mama” that’s just amazing —so many hooks on that album! I used to be apologetic about liking the Riverdancesoundtracks. Some of that stuff is just gorgeous. There’s this song called “Macedonian Morning” that’s on the second one…I think? I dunno, I love it. The strings are so curvy and beautiful.
Something that inspired you today. It could be an overheard conversation, a piece of music or a passage from a book…
I read “This Band Could Be Your Life” several months ago, and there was one Kim Gordon quote from the Sonic Youth chapter that really sticks to me…it was something like, “people pay money to see musicians believe in themselves.”
What do you do when you’re not making music? And, if you didn’t have music as an outlet, what do you think you’d do instead?
I’m a web programmer by trade. If it weren’t for music, I don’t know what I’d do. I’m really obsessed with cinnamon raisin peanut butter from the Peanut Butter Company. I’d probably just eat that all day!
9/24/2007: AS220, 115 Empire Street, Providence, Rhode Island 02903 – $6, 8 PM
9/25/2007: Night Owl Records, 72 Cottage Street, East Hampton, MA, 8 PM
9/26/07: The Skinny Pancake, 60 Lake St., Burlington, VT
9/27/2007: Valentine’s,17 New Scotland Ave, Albany, New York
9/28/2007: Geno’s Rock Club, 625 Congress St., Portland, Maine
9/29/07: Philadelphia, PA
09/30/2007: 449 Room, 449 South Broad St., Trenton, New Jersey
10/1/2007: Washington, DC | 10.2 Chapel Hill, NC | 10.3 Greensboro, NC | 10.4 Knoxville, TN | 10.6 Murfreesboro, TN | 10.9 Austin, TX | 10.10 OKC | 10.11 Tulsa, OK | 10.12 St. Louis, MO | 10.13 Lawrence, KS | 10.15 Madison, WI | 10.16 Bloomington, IN | 10.17 Indianapolis, IN | 10.18 Chicago, IL | 10.19 Traverse City, MI | 10.20 Canton, OH | 10.25 Wilmington, DE | 10.26 Harrisonburg, VA | 10.27 New York, NY | 11.2 Durham, NC | 11.3 Williamsburg, VA
Carol Bui, “The Year After” (from Everyone Wore White, 2007)
Carol Bui, “This Is How I Recover” (from This Is How I Recover, 2004)
PHOTO BY SHERVIN LAINEZ