Article by:
Tiffany Lai

Where are you from? U Look Asian.

T: Let’s start with the name of the EP, U.L.A as in “U Look Asian”. How do you feel about that question? Because I find that an interesting statement. Normally I get “where are you really from?” but rarely something as bold as “you look Asian.” 

M: Yeah, Western people ask me “where are you from” as well but I think it was one of those things where I didn't want it to be so evident that I was making music about race. It was more of a reference to when other Asian people ask me a question about heritage. If I'm in Vietnam, for example, they're often like, “where are you from?”

And I go, “Australia” and they say “okay but you look Asian.” Like okay… you're not…wrong! (laughs). So it was kind of a way to acknowledge that heritage can be quite confusing for Asian people as well, especially if you were born in a Western country.

T: Most of your experience has been in DJing as opposed to producing. Talk me through the journey of creating this EP.

M: Over lockdown I started an online Ableton course and at first I tried to sample Cambodian music (Tra is Cambodian/Viet Kieu) but I didn’t know how to do it. I just kept getting stuck on this beat that wasn’t moving anywhere and it was frustrating. Eventually I got a lesson and that’s how “Pretty Srey” (Tra’s first single) came about.

T: What’s your relationship with Cambodian music? Was it something you grew up with? 

M: I always listened to it at weddings. So a lot of my friends in Australia have Asian backgrounds and at their weddings there was always a live Cambodian band. At first I used to think, “this sounds terrible! There are way too many noises!” But I was a lot younger then and didn’t understand it. Traditional Cambodian music is really unique and a little hard to describe but I started digging and soon found songs that I enjoyed so I ended up listening to it more. 

I guess this E.P was really about trying to build a bond between my Khmer and Vietnamese ancestry/ancestors. 

T: What do you tend to listen to? 

M: Recently I’ve been listening to artists of a younger generation that often rap in a mix of English and Cambodian. 

Can I get close to you?

T: So let’s talk about the first track - “Can I Get Close To You?”, there’s some really interesting Asian instruments in there that I recognize but can’t name and trying to find them really broadened my knowledge of traditional music. 

For readers, "Can I Get Close to You?" Is a darker track with glitchy breaks and plucked strings.

M: So what you hear there in "Can I Get Close to You?" is a zither (a kind of horizontal soundboard with around 25 strings). And this track wasn’t supposed to be on the EP, the track you hear is actually a live 15 minute production I did for an NTS show. In that show I invited this all-female, Vietnamese band to sing over it so what you hear in the EP is the backing track I created then.

T: God that’s impressive. Was that the first track you worked on for the EP? 

M: No-- "Soy" was but creating "Can I Get Close To You?" was an interesting process. I originally had a traditional zither player come and play on it but she didn’t like that I was using non-traditional timing on the track and I’m not sure she quite got what I was trying to do here. Obviously we went our separate ways. 

T: What are some of the struggles of matching electronic music with more traditional sounds? 

M: Sounds weird but trying not to make it sound too… ‘Asian’, you know what I mean?

T: Yeah completely, you don’t want it to sound like a Western representation of Asian music right? Like the opening of that Kung Fu Fighting track. 

M: Exactly. I wanted something a bit more modern.  

T: Let’s move on to "Soy" then. ("Soy" opens with a tinkling shimmer before a relentless highhat kicks in. If you need feet on the dancefloor - "Soy" is your track). I remember listening to this and thinking that’s disco capital D! I like the vocals at the beginning - what can we hear there?  

M: That’s my Vietnamese textbook! It’s the intro to the textbook and he’s basically saying ‘’Welcome to the first textbook in your Vietnamese course.’’ Learning Vietnamese whilst living in Vietnam really brought me closer to the local people and my family. 

T: Did you grow up speaking other languages?

M: Yeah I grew up speaking Khmer fluently because of my mum and when I went to live in Vietnam I started Vietnamese classes which was so hard at first! But I did three hours a week and kept at it. In the opening of "Soy" you can hear a woman shouting quay lại (turn around) in Vietnamese which is one of the first phrases you learn, especially if you’re in a taxi. 

T: Like turn around the car, you mean?

M: Yes but that particular recording is from a field recording I made. I used to live next to a pho seller that would deliver pho on a hoverboard in Hanoi.

T: What?! 

M: Yeah! He was super famous and that field recording is from a day when the Vietnamese news came to film him and a producer was asking him to turn around on his hoverboard. You can hear the traffic and the scooters in the back too. 

T: So then in the EP we have "Brown Girl, Yellow Girl." Tell me about that title. 

M: ""Brown Girl, Yellow Girl" leads with a strong zither carrying the melody supported by a rolling broken beat. It’s a bit of a moodier track and my favourite from the EP.) 

It’s a reference to some of my experiences growing up as an Asian woman. I used to get called ‘yellow’ and it’s just offensive, like obviously you look at my skin and you can see that I’m brown.

T: This track also has some interesting textures, it sounded a bit like locusts to me?

M: That’s the sound of a dog and a rooster I manipulated for the track actually. I was just taking field recordings around Hanoi and my mic picked that up so I played around with it. 

T: And finally we’ve got "U Look Asian" which is more of a classic house track with a traditional Cambodian ending.

("U Look Asian" is dominated by playful Guqin sounding plucks with a steady drumbeat in the back. The latter part of the song is where things really get interesting, we hear an echoey voice saying go! before a break leads us to a traditional ending that reminds me of old school historical dramas on TVB)  

Most of the tracks are either Cambodian or Vietnamese but this track mixes in both in terms of instruments and samples. 

T: What would you say is the key difference between Cambodian and Vietnamese sounds?

M: To me, Cambodian sounds more chaotic whereas Vietnamese music is a bit smoother but they’re both fun to play with. 

T: I can imagine. What’s up next for you?

M: A few more releases and then hopefully a break!

T: A very well deserved one at that, thank you Maggie!

Follow Maggie Tra on Soundcloud and Instagram.