Does the name Carol Kim mean anything to you? To most people reading this, probably not. But to anyone who knows Vietnamese pop music, it means the world.
Kim was the light of Saigon when the country was in a dark, dark place, singing to U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War and eventually packing up and moving to America with one in 1975.
In the four decades that have passed, Kim has released numerous albums — both in English and Vietnamese — and tours the world, giving international Vietnamese communities a nostalgic ride down memory lane. She is considered the Tina Turner of Vietnam. But to Trace, she’s just mom.
“I forget it wasn’t normal,” Trace (stylized as TRACE) says of her childhood, sitting in a coffee bar in Los Feliz. “My mom raised me on her own, so I would go to rehearsal with her or dinners with her and stay up late. It was a fun life that I was fortunate to be around … I felt privileged and not famous but,” she notes with a laugh, “my first birthday was in the Vietnamese newspaper.”
“My mom can’t believe that I write my own music. A lot of Vietnamese singers don’t write their own music.” -TRACE
Despite being surrounded by music and entertainers her whole life, TRACE did not start singing at an early age. “I grew up never wanting to do music,” she says matter-of-factly. “Everybody’s first question was always, ‘Is she going to sing?’ And my mom always said, ‘She has a great voice, but if she does sing, she’ll sing for the Americans.’” TRACE pauses and chuckles before continuing: “Where did she get my good voice from? I didn’t sing growing up, and if I did, I don’t remember.”
But it’s funny how life works out sometimes. For TRACE, her fate of becoming a singer started to take form in 2013 — a mere four years ago. Between sips of decaf espresso over ice, she explains her path to a music career.
It began when a boy she dated in college asked her to sing on a track he was working on. “I’ve always had an acoustic guitar in my backpack,” she recalls. “I would just play to myself, but I never sang — I just cared about the writing.” Always up for trying new things, TRACE agreed to record vocals, and after two takes she had nailed it.
In 2014, the song popped up on iTunes, and TRACE listened to her recorded voice for the first time. “I didn’t hate it, but it was not me,” she says of the track. “So I panicked, because even though I still didn’t consider myself a singer, the only thing I had out didn’t feel like me.” A friend told her she should create her own music — an idea TRACE called “insane” at the time — but after more thought (and some beers), she decided to go for it.
“Being in L.A., working at a magazine, I felt like I had a good network of creatives around me, so I ended up launching a Kickstarter that same day, and it funded the production of my first EP.” Even now, years later, she says these words with a tinge of disbelief.
Jump to present day, and TRACE has released her debut EP, Low, toured the country with the likes of Mr. Little Jeans and Jai Wolf, and is gearing up for her first headlining show at the Echo on June 20. She’s confident on stage, where she prefers to wear all black, and has found her place in the world of moody, electronic indie pop — a world much different than the one her mother created for herself.
When asked what her mom thinks of her music, TRACE puts down her mason jar of espresso and smiles. “My mom can’t believe that I write my own music; she’s really impressed by that because she’s never written music. A lot of Vietnamese singers don’t write their own music,” she explains. “I’m such an emotional person, and my mom’s not. Being emotional and self-reflective and an over-thinker has led me towards this genre of diary-writing songs. That’s the core of me.”
Her genuineness has connected with listeners; in less than a year, Low has racked up more than 30 million streams on Spotify. That success has enabled TRACE to create music full-time, a milestone many musicians strive for but few achieve (especially in just four years). In a music industry in a constant state of flux, she’s grateful, but knows her career is delicate.
“I’m super glad to be here. I want a lot — I want the stars — but at this moment of time, it feels unreal to me, and the moment it starts feeling normal is when I’ve probably lost my mind,” she says, sipping her last drops of espresso. “I want to always feel kind of anxious, kind of nervous. But I’m just glad to be here.”
TRACE headlines the Echo on Tuesday, June 20. Tickets and more info.