When last we heard from Khuê, he had just put out two new singles, both shimmering bedroom pop anthems in their own right. Those tracks belong to an album known as In This Home We’ve Built, which already stands out as a momentous achievement for the SoCal native. This is the first solo record where he has shared his voice, as well as the most patently pop in his discography thus far. To celebrate the release of the new record, I caught up with Khuê over the phone. We discussed his transition from his electronic roots to now including a moniker change and the addition of lyrics to his songwriting process and so much more.
by: Zoë Elaine
Grimy Goods: Between this and your last album, you slightly changed your moniker [from TheKhue to Khuê]. Not drastically, but still a change nevertheless. Is there a specific reason you wanted to make the update?
Khuê: I wanted to change it because I kind of changed the approach I take to music, especially since I have started singing and songwriting. My music has never sounded so much like me. It’s nice to just simplify my moniker and be like, well this is just me, there’s no more to it than that. Another aspect that I really liked was the addition of the little hat on top of the e in my name. That’s a part of my Vietnamese name that I voluntarily excluded for a long time. After college, I had friends around me who really encouraged me to embrace it. They would ask me “how do you draw that little carrot on your e?” and it made me really appreciate it.
You are an avid collaborator, and this is far from your only music project. Do you think that had any part to play in your moniker change as well?
Yeah, definitely. [In a previous interview,] I already talked a bit about Skydive and how I work with Jack Jupiter. He played a huge role in pushing me to explore that side of my creativity. One of the last songs that we put out together was a song that I wrote in the shower, eventually called “The 80s Song That I Used To Cry To.” We fleshed it out, he wrote a verse and a chorus to it and I sang one-half of the duet. And that song is basically the reason that I knew I could do this [sing on my own songs]. So definitely my collaborations have led me to that.
And obviously working with other people as well: when I worked with Ellen Shieh, that helped me better understand how to mix vocals. When I work with her, she’s always really open to collaboration on every step of like, everything. So I helped write some of the harmonies that she sang on some of her stuff and it allowed me to develop my skills without having to put myself out there.
OK, now let’s really talk about the songs. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like the album has a veneer of heartache. Would you say that’s accurate?
Yeah, I think so. I didn’t go into this thinking I’m gonna make a sad album; I just looked at my nine songs and was like, ‘huh they’re all kind of sad aren’t they?’ I love your choice of words. Heartache is a great word for it.
Yeah, it’s sad, but I feel like there’s something more to it. Like it straddles between being sad and being kind of hopeful about the future. “Disappear” is very moving because you’re looking back on something with melancholy but also, it’s in the past and you’re a better person for it. I get that vibe from the record as a whole.
Definitely. I agree, I really I’m proud of how “Disappear” in particular has a little bit of both.
Do you want to share more about the stories behind some of the songs? I was really curious about “Tell Me If You Can,” which is a very emotional ballad.
I was telling Jack Jupiter that my songs are divided between those based on true stories and ones that are based on true emotions but the story is completely fictionalized. And “Tell Me If You Can” is one of the ones that’s not really a true story in a literal sense—it’s not about anybody in particular. But it came out of this constant fear of pushing people away. Especially with the pandemic and the isolation that came with it, I really felt strongly that where, the less time I spend with the people I love, the more I want to shut them out. This song is my realizing that if I continue to do that, there will be a day when my attachments to the people that I love will be damaged because of it. This song’s like a response to that theoretical fear. Lines like “No matter what I tell you, don’t leave me alone” are about the conflicting feeling of pushing someone away while also realizing that you need them and you’re terrified you might be successful in pushing them away. Fortunately I have yet to put myself in that situation. [laughs]
I think after not seeing anyone for a year, everyone is a ball of anxiety, worried that everyone hates them.
Yeah that’s definitely part of it. That anxiety definitely seeps into a couple other songs as well. “Leave” is about something really similar. It’s about basically the same fear. Honestly you can kinda say those two songs are about the same thing but “Leave” is more about the anxiety of being not good enough and the person that you’re with eventually realizing it.
But the songs sound very different sonically.
Yeah, I like to think that they ended up being different takes on that idea. And for “Leave,” it’s similar with its outbursts of aggression or poor decisions based on negative emotions that destroy relationships. This one was like more of a pleading song right? It’s more like ‘you should get yourself out of my life before it ruins yours’. It’s a bit sadder.
Yeah I guess now that we’re talking about it, it is much sadder. But it’s so funny I thought of “Tell Me If You Can” as the saddest. The instrumentation is so heart-wrenching. But that’s my own bias toward piano and strings being sad. [laughs]
I think this is one of those things where having some hope is always a little bit sadder than if there’s no hope.
I also wanted to ask about the song “Dancing in the Dark.” It’s so fun and Wayne’M really makes a mark on the track too! Can you tell me about how that collab came about?
I met Wayne’M on the internet totally by chance. This would not have happened were it not for the pandemic. I saw his livestream and we kind of hit it off. Turns out he’s actually a musician and I’m like ‘whoa, We should collaborate!’ And I just waited until I had a song that’s a good fit for him.
Thanks to the release of Chromatica by Lady Gaga I became really interested in this really more nostalgic sound in dance music. I knew innately that the song kind of has to be about queerness. The chorus is about someone that I met online who lives in a small town and…he’s out but basically everyone around him does not appreciate who he is for who he is. And while talking to him, I really empathized with how he must feel, like he must feel really trapped where he is. So it made me think about people like him, people like us, who at some point really haven’t really felt like we’ve been able to be ourselves beyond our bedroom. But at some point we’ve all had to limit our self-expression to the four walls where we sleep. I’m singing toward this hypothetical queer person because I want to help them appreciate themselves and feel like they’re loved.
When I brought Wayne’M the song, this guy has an incredible vocal range. He sang what I wrote, the first verse and the chorus. Then he wrote a second verse to it and it has a beautiful melody. The rest of it came really quickly and naturally. He wrote and sang all of those harmonies by himself and it just came together really well. Way better than what I expected!
I should have brought this up earlier—“Hello Dream” is such a lovely song. All instrumental, harkening back to your previous releases. Is that intentional?
Yeah. I wrote that song before any of these other songs on this record. I made it track number one partly because the word ‘hello’ belongs at the start of an album. And also because it kinda feels like we’re picking where we left off. Like I’m saying, ‘I’m not really done with the instrumental stuff.’ It fits because it’s all, this whole record is about something personal and “Hello Dream” is personal in that it is a song that came to me after a long period of writer’s block. And it felt like shit. Then this song came to me like a dream. [laughs] Not literally in a dream, but it came to me so quickly and naturally, it just meant so much to me.
It really is such a sweet little song. OK, so if we’re talking a bit about how your songs are interconnected, then I wanted to talk about how “Tell Me If You Can” cascades into “Come on Home.” The two songs are both a melodic suite but also, the lyrics at the end of one song lead so perfectly into the next.
That was not on purpose initially; I wrote the songs completely separately. This is also why the album is called what it is. I noticed I kept saying the word ‘home’ in my songs and a lot of my songs end up being about home. So I think that “Tell Me If You Can” leading into “Come On Home” just became really natural. It’s also very standard to have a piano ballad second-to-last. And I really like how it’s a soft ballad going into what starts out as a soft ballad.
It makes a really great album closer.
As soon as I wrote “Come On Home” I knew that had to be the closer of some album. I think the reason I decided to really put this out as an album is because of “Come On Home”. I told myself, ‘there needs to be an album for this to be an album closer.’ [laughs]
I love that it was kind of an intuitive process throughout!
I suppose it really was, it came really naturally to me. I didn’t set out to make an album with that theme but especially with the last three songs, they all explicitly mention ‘home.’ I originally was gonna call In This Home I’ve Built but Jack Jupiter pointed out to me that a lot of these songs are about relationships and it takes more than just yourself to build one. So we changed it to In This Home We’ve Built and it became more about these relationships. The last three songs really wrap the album up in a bow.
Did you design the album art? Tell me about the concept for it.
I’ve been trying to reach out to as many artists as I can to collaborate on the cover art. But for the album art… I didn’t want to play favorites, [laughs] so I just thought, I gotta do this myself. If the album is about home, then the art has to feel like it’s a location. I think I literally started googling abstract words about home. I started thinking homeland and mountains kept showing up. I downloaded a photo, pasted it into photoshop and chopped it up. I thought that hands would really well represent relationships. So I had this idea of turning the hands into rocks and turning those rocks into a mountain. And that’s kind of what it is!
That’s amazing, and funny you say that. We consider mountains steadfast and immovable yet I see so much movement in this picture.
I really love that you appreciate it. Not to be full of myself, but I am incredibly proud of what I did.
Before we go, I’d like to shoutout some people. I’ve mentioned Jack so many times in this interview but he has basically helped me with the entire album in a sense. I did most of it myself but he was listening to early drafts of things and giving me feedback on basically every song except for “Dancing in the Dark” cuz I totally forgot to show it to him. [laughs] And I want to shout out Wayne’M for being a great co-writer on that song. I initially thought it might be a duet but I was like there’s no way I might do a better job singing on this than he would. And a shout out to Parker Eberle who played a fantastic guitar solo at the end of “Shards.” I think it was Jack who told me this song had some rock element to it, then a lightbulb went off and I thought, then it needs a guitar solo! So we reached out to Parker who usually doesn’t play guitar, but you really can’t tell. And it really made the song complete. Then obviously shout out to the people who did the art: Brenda Vu, who really set the tone for the art of the entire album. Every person I reached out to afterwards, I sent the art for “Disappear” and said, ‘it’s got to work with this.’ On that note, everyone else did such a great job; Miguel Mendoza, who was the second person I reached out to. We settled on such a beautiful piece of art for that. And Chris Wong who did “Shards”—I don’t know if it counts as synesthesia, but I have colors that I associate with songs and for some reason Chris just got all the colors correct on “Shards.” [laughs] It’s such a purple song, the guitar solo at the end made it more orange and the song has just got black all over it. And one last person, Hussain Adil, who did the cover art for “Dancing in the Dark” but you won’t see it for a while. So that’s one last secret that you don’t get to see.