In Conversation: Liz Glennard and Tash Kovalenko talk about Hanoi and music, about loss, about the amazing energy that was GỗLim and about lyrics that sum up life.
Some expats come to Hanoi, perhaps for six months perhaps longer, but they barely graze the surface of the city. Others come and they change the very fabric of the place. These two women, Liz Glennard from London UK and Natasha (Tash) Kovalenko from Australia, have fundamentally changed the Hanoi music scene.
Tash is a prominent musician, the Freebirds’ former vocalist and has done solo music projects and occasional collaborations for the last two years the latest of which is her new band Dr Peacock. Liz Glennard co-founded Hanoi Rock City (HRC) and currently takes to Hanoi’s stages as front woman of new band Xai. Tash is due to leave Hanoi, after five years here, and will play a farewell gig at HRC as part of specially formed band Dr Peacock.
Liz and Tash met & Of Other Things at HRC to talk and reminisce over a bottle of wine.
Photos by Thủy Tiên Nguyễn ● Interview by Sam Heaps ● Edited by Rose Arnold
MAKING MUSIC IN HANOI
Liz Glennard: How hard was it to start making original music here and to what extent do you think the city has played a role in how you’ve changed musically?
Tash Kovalenko: So, I have written music before, a lot, and from an early age. But at that stage I was just playing piano, and starting to sing. I hadn’t really started to sing properly yet. I was in a band when I was 17. And then the reason I started doing it here is because well, the turning point was buying the keyboard… And friends here, amazing people…Max and Christophe have encouraged me so much and been such an influence.
It’s what I love, it’s who I am
And there was some amazing stuff happening at that [Gingerworks] night and that’s why I’ve decided to make my event similar to those kind of things because it embraces creation and creativity and just the whole kind of vibe of everything. It’s what I love, it’s who I am, it’s what I can give back so I’ve written stuff. I was reading a book about lots of different rituals from lots of different creative people and the way they go about their work and setting aside time each day so I’ve… Lately my purpose has been to have a fucking big show before I leave, I have to do it. I wanna fucking be a rockstar.
Liz Glennard: Do you think living here, do you think being in Hanoi, has helped you to get to that place?
Tash Kovalenko: Ah fuck, yes. Absolutely. Well, you are the sum of your parts so everything I’ve experienced before Hanoi and here is who I am, and the pain goes in there man…
Liz Glennard: Don’t it just.
Liz Glennard: So, talking about your songs since we’re on the subject, I’ve not heard Dr. Peacock. Love the name love the hair, love the poster. Can I ask you a bit about a lyric that struck me at open mic night? I hope this is going in one of your Dr. Peacock songs. I heard it and was like… this is the best rock lyric we have heard in a very, very long time. And we’re not talking about local here we’re talking like musicially… Sing it for us Tash.
Tash Kovalenko: It’s not the best lighting/ but it’s the best lighting in the room./ It’s not the best lighting/ but it’s the best lighting in the room. I have to credit that line to [my friend] Tom. He said a couple other things, and other people did too, but that one stuck.
Liz Glennard: I felt like that described my life, literally and metaphorically, in so many ways, when you sang that.
Tash Kovalenko: What about you? What does Xai mean to you?
Liz Glennard: I wasn’t going to talk about Xai, we’re so new, you know? But I guess Xai is a massive part of my life I can say that already. It’s a huge part of my life. It’s taken a very long time for me to be involved in any music project in Hanoi. I’ve been here for five years, and some people who knew me before I moved to Hanoi knew that I was playing some music for myself but the majority of people know me as Lizzo, the crazy girl in the front row at Hanoi Rock City everyday.
Tash Kovalenko: (laughing)
Liz Glennard: The fan, Lizzo the fan.
Tash Kovalenko: Well maybe tell us a bit more about your performance background, what else has drawn you to the stage?
One thing that is really important for me is that it feels right before I feel ready to expose myself in that way.
Liz Glennard: That’s a difficult question Tash. I’m just drawn to the stage, I always have been. But one thing that is really important for me is that it feels right before I feel ready to expose myself in that way. I’m not a natural….
Tash Kovalenko: So you feel exposed on stage?
Liz Glennard: Well I feel exposed not in the sense that I feel lacking in confidence but more in the sense that, for me in any kind of arts, it’s important to me to be doing something that’s really true to myself. What drives me to perform is feeling like there’s something inside me, that I’m not completely conscious of, that I feel needs to be released. And if in my life I feel that I’m not quite there yet then I don’t want to get out and bring that. I’ve been to a lot of shows that have inspired me and I’ve just wanted to go right out the next day and do that but I’ve had something inside of me that’s told me to be patient with myself…
Tash Kovalenko: One of my other questions I was gonna ask was how do you prepare for a performance? Because I know for me, umm, it’s so full for energy, like I like to have a few drinks, and with my band mates.
Liz Glennard: I’m the total opposite.
Tash Kovalenko: A few shots maybe…
Liz Glennard: I freak out. I can’t drink. I can’t smoke. I’m just waiting, just waiting, to go onstage. And then the second I’m onstage I feel totally different.
Tash Kovalenko: How do you feel different? Because this is what people need to understand, this is how they can understand this conversation and make sense of that night, or when they see you perform.
Whenever you’re given a chance in this life to be creative, that is such an opportunity.
Liz Glennard: Whenever you’re given a chance in this life to be creative, that is such an opportunity. Whether that’s taking photos or making music or whatever… But the second you’re on stage you’re there with a bunch of other people and its about that connection, its about that relationship. It takes on it’s own life. It’s this new… it creates another person, it creates another world. For me there’s no way you can really prepare for that, which is why I freak out. And the second that I get on there and I’m connected and I’m in the zone just let whatever happens happen.
Tash Kovalenko: And what about being in Hanoi?
Liz Glennard: Hanoi’s my life, Hanoi’s my home. So, I’m maybe someone who doesn’t have very clear boundaries in my life. For me it took a pretty long time to get to a point where I could find other musicians that I felt able to work with. Three of the guys from our band I met them from this school set up by an amazing woman named Kim Ngoc, they’re really young guys, 16-21 in age, and those guys, can’t speak English, and know nothing about my life, know nothing about who I am.
Tash Kovalenko: I can relate to that with Freebirds, that’s exactly how I started too.
Liz Glennard: I know nothing really about them apart from what we do together. Making music, I love that kind of relationship with people musically that obviously you wouldn’t get back home quite so easily…. It makes it feel really organic.
Tash Kovalenko: So then that’s when music is a language.
LOSS AND GỗLim
Liz Glennard: Yes exactly – Listen Tash, you’ve just dried your eyes and stuff, but I obviously I can’t have a conversation about the music scene in Vietnam without talking about a certain person, and a certain band.
Tash Kovalenko: I’ve been thinking a lot about that, about Nhí and Cedric. I’ve been thinking a lot about that loss that we’ve experienced, and the people that are gone, and yeah you’re fucking doing it for them man. Yeah.
I’ve always been drawn to female rockers you know as someone to draw from and collaborate with or not or just stand side by side or not even stand – fucking jump!
Seeing Chuối and My do their stuff too… I love those women. I love the whole band but I think for me I’ve always been drawn to female rockers you know as someone to draw from and collaborate with or not or just stand side by side or not even stand – fucking jump and girl, [Nhí] fucking gave that and then some. Last three shows [GỗLim] did were so influential to me and that goes back to me not feeling like I answered that question, how has Hanoi influenced how I’m doing now. I think that was probably the turning point for me, seeing them, and her, and they know, they all knew, I told them many times. It was a fucking huge inspiration and what I needed. She’s gonna be there. She’s here now.
Liz Glennard: I remember the day that Nhí died and I came from her house and I came straight here and it was one of the most devastating moments of my life losing her. But, when I saw you and you looked me in the eye and you just said, “we’re blessed.”
Tash Kovalenko: We’re fucking lucky man. Lucky to have been that close to someone so amazing.
Liz Glennard: I think my question is, I felt like with Nhí, when you said those words, we’re talking about more than just we’re blessed to have an amazing person in our life.
It’s not just music, it’s not just a performance, it’s giving your soul.
Tash Kovalenko: No it was about the gift that she has, that we all have a duty to do. To find our gift, and use that gift like she did. This is what people don’t get. It’s kind of, if you got something like that you gotta do it. It’s an obligation to the whole fucking universe man. They were the only kind of original force in that vein in that style.
Liz Glennard: When you talk about that style, unbelievable what they were doing. Everything about the lyrics, the intent, the delivery… Nhí being the most gentle creature in the world and she’d get on stage and just go insane. And then she’d just get right back off again and just be the loveliest …
Tash Kovalenko: I was worried about her being so sick and she was so skinny and frail and then you’d just never know when she got up on stage those last few shows I remember those days going into the show and seeing that, what was it, tornado or something, I don’t know. An impulse, just a really strong thing. I don’t have the words to describe what I experienced but it definitely influenced, it sparked me needing to do that.
And you know I lost Cedric too. I’d lost a bandmate too, and when you connect in a way that’s beyond language and you have those amazing nights of just like revelry and abandon, and you share that with people, that’s never lost. And then you lose that person, and you have a duty to honor that. You have to.
When you guys [Xai] were at QUEST, I mean I know some of the song content that’s why I was thinking this is a difficult interview coz I know you and I know this background. It’s not just music, it’s not just a performance, it’s giving your soul…it blew my mind.
Music doesn’t have to be for entertainment and let’s dance and verse chorus verse chorus.
This is what music’s meant to do. Music doesn’t have to be for entertainment and let’s dance and verse chorus verse chorus and I’ve got … a little bit punk we’ve punked it up. And I reckon for about fifteen minutes me and [our friend] Kaitlin stopped and were like, what just happened? And I’m crying but going this is great, this is what music is supposed to do, this is art! It’s not always comfortable.
(Editor’s note – in the last few years Hanoi, and those connected with the music scene here, have lost two key members: Nga Nhí – much adored front woman of GỗLim, a band unlike anything Hanoi had seen before – died in 2012 aged 28 of lupus. Cedric Idaddadene – a Frenchman, solo singer and guitarist, who sometimes sang with the Free Birds – died in a motorbike accident in 2011. Cedric had played a gig, gone to the Pray for Japan gig at Hanoi Rock City and was on his way home when it happened. )
THE PAST FIVE YEARS AND THE NEXT FIVE YEARS
Liz Glennard: What’s changed in the last five years? It’s hard for me to answer that because my life has changed dramatically so it’s difficult for me to remove myself from that and see it from a really objective perspective. Ummm, obviously we have venues, we have bands that are writing original music, we have electronic music that was basically non-existent five years ago, and we’ve had a number of, a good number of bands and acts who have really made a profound impact. Having said that you know, there’s many days where I feel like we’re still not where we need to be in the music scene.
Tash Kovalenko: Where do you think we need to be?
Liz Glennard: More open with each other. Is the main thing. Because I think things grow out of that.
Tash Kovalenko: I think it’s on its way I’m seeing a lot more kind of camaraderie in that way, people supporting each others shows…people standing in the front row and screaming ya know. That’s what the best part right now is for me.
Liz Glennard: With Xai it’s about playing in the kind of spaces and for the kind of people that are going to also inspire you and keep you fresh, and obviously we get that a lot here in Hanoi.
Tash Kovalenko: That’s exactly who I’m playing with in Dr Peacock, people who inspire me. It’s really sudden, it’s basically a group of fucking awesome musicians who also are also awesome people. I watch these guys and I’m like, do you want to be in a band with me? I’ve got some originals…
Liz Glennard: And that’s how it has to be.
Tash Kovalenko: It’s becoming more of a supportive community, it’s where you want it to be.
Everyone is aware that things are changing, and it’s not your standardization or trendsetter set.
Liz Glennard: Oh absolutely and to be honest you’re a massive player right now, you’ve been a massive player because you vocalize your support.
And I think in a city where things are growing and everyone is aware that things are changing, and it’s not your standardization or trendsetter set, or things to aspire to…
Tash Kovalenko: No, that’s boring.
Liz Glennard: Of course it is!
Tash Kovalenko: We need more people who are willing to go out there and try and dare to be themselves…Some of the young [Vietnamese] people are starting to do it, not so much the older crowd. But community, I still feel like it’s segregated, I’d like to see that as one, [expats and Vietnamese together]. It’s starting to happen.
We need more people who are willing to go out there and try and dare to be themselves
Just starting. But of course we’ve got HRC, with so many things that you guys do, and other music venues as well, you go to see each other you go to support each other and it’s not just music, it’s art. Full stop. Like it’s creation.
Anyone who creates is invited. They’re who I want to invite to my party.
And I guess expats come and go but those people that I’m leaving behind that I hope to see again here. That’s where it all started for me, here in Vietnam. It’s a community, it’s a family. Like HRC. It’s not a venue it’s a home, memory happens and magic happens.
And five years from now…I thought to myself… within five years I’m gonna be playing here. I wanna just do it.
Liz Glennard: You come back here, and hopefully we’ll even have the money to bring you over.
Tash Kovalenko: Yeah, how awesome would that be!
Liz Glennard: So, the future for me will hopefully be Xai, and…
Tash Kovalenko: There’s that gig you’ve got at the end of June that sounds amazing…. there’s a lot of buzz around that already.
Liz Glennard: We wanna go to Saigon, we wanna play in East Asia, Southeast Asia, maybe South Asia if we’re being super ambitious! Tash. Your confidence is inspirational.
Tash Kovalenko: I’ve got no problem with that though really (laughing). I don’t know what it’s like though sometimes for people.
Liz Glennard: … (laughing) stuff those peacock feathers back into your head
Tash Kovalenko: ROOOCK and fucking ROLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!! Forever, HRC, and everything else that’s happened here, and in Hanoi, yeah I’m gonna do you justice.
See both Tash (Dr Peacock) and Liz (Xai) perform at Le Festival FanTASHtique, HRC, Friday 6th June
This In Conversation was conducted by Sam Heaps over the course of nearly three hours. It has been edited and condensed.