Le Cat Trong Ly performs at Yen Café in Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh City is awash in poppy pap. While cafés abound, it seems that the city has run clean out of poets and thoughtful songwriters.
Thank God for Le Cat Trong Ly.
Seated at the Yen Café, the tan 23- year-old looks almost Mediterranean. Curly hair frames a pair of bright eyes that sparkle with the excitement of someone whose career is just taking off. Last month, she represented Vietnam at the Hue Festival where she performed alongside artists from five continents.
"I was invited to play at a festival in Norway this August and France later this year," said Ly who can't wait to travel the world and broaden her musical horizons.
They are already quite broad.
Ly manages to sound at once spritely and languid. Her original songs range from slow and sorrowful ballads like Ghen (Jealous) to the measured sweetness of Troi oi (My God!). Heavily influenced by northern Vietnamese folk melodies, Ly compliments her lyrics with minimalistic guitar picking.
At times, she sounds like the Eastern re-incarnation of Joni Mitchell. At others, her voice channels the sound of a young Alanis Morisette.
Ly grew up in Da Nang surrounded by the high green mountains and white sandy beaches. Ly's father is a singer; she believes music is in her blood.
"I came to HCMC to study classical violin three years ago. I always loved singing but I had no intention of becoming a singer. When my sister needed me to sing at her HCMC café, I agreed to help her out. I've been a singer and songwriter for two years," she said.
Ly made her major debut in 2008 when she won the Young Composer prize at the Bai hat Viet (Vietnam songs competition). She also took Song of the Year, the most sought-after prize at the competition.
Ly views songwriting as a natural process that must be tempered with hard work. "The lyrics find their way out of me all by themselves," she said. "The hard part is honing the song; singing it again and again until it becomes what I want it to be."
During those first two years at the Nep Café, Ly composed 24 songs most of which are touched with her unique blend of Western classical gravitas and folksy Vietnamese simplicity. Her songs reflect her personality: thoughtful, smart, and sweet. She's now exploring singing in English.
For a long time, Ly's performances were limited to a trio of HCMC cafés: the Yen, the Nep (her sister's place, which has since closed) and the Acoustic Bar.
Recently Ly has been in high demand.
In August of last year, French singer-songwriter Francis Cabrel, invited her to sing three songs at L'Espace in Hanoi. In June 2010 the French embassy invited her back to its prestigious venue. This time, she performed for three consecutive nights. Tickets sold like hotcakes.
This spring, French singer Philippe Bouler wandered into the Yen Café on a lark and caught Ly's act. Bouler was so blown away, he invited her to play at the festival he was helping to organize in Hue.
Sitting in her presence, it's easy to understand why Ly caught Bouler's eye. Despite her burgeoning success and young age, Ly remains grounded and focused on her work.
She's come a long way.
SEE HER SING!
Ly performs at the Yen Café every Tuesday and Wednesday starting at 9 p.m.
9A Pham Dinh Toai Dist. 1, HCMC 0958096903
Ly confesses that, when she was younger, she got caught up in the nonsense of HCMC. She says she wasted time blogging and picking out fashionable clothes. Then, one day, she realized that those things would take her nowhere.
"I'm not at a point in my career where I should worry about marketing myself," she said. "I tried to produce a CD three times and ended up owing my friends and family VND39 million."
Following the Hue Festival, she paid them all back. She now plans to focus solely on her work - even if that means turning down lucrative commercial offers.
"I am not that famous," she said. "To me music is a career which should be built on a solid foundation. I think I need to focus on the work." Ly doesn't need much. No car. No makeup. She doesn't have to support her family. She is free to focus on her music and developing herself into a healthy, well-rounded person. She wants to improve her heath: eat better and exercise more.
But, Ly isn't much for plans. "Too many plans can make me feel like I'm not rooted in the moment," she said. "I prefer to make the thing I am doing now better and better."
Demand has drawn Ly out of the HCMC cafés and into bigger venues. Determined to shape her own career, she decided to give up her violin studies at the HCMC Conservatory of Music. She felt lonely in the solo classes, she says, particularly when her teacher showed up late or not at all. "I didn't have any friends at the university," she said. "Who knows? Maybe I'll return to my studies. I already quit once before."