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Q+A with Early Bird Finalist The Singer and The Songwriter

August 24th, 2022

California-based duo The Singer and The Songwriter, aka Rachel Garcia and Thu Tran, were recently chosen as the first finalist in this year’s NewSong Performance and Songwriting Competition!

The identities of Rachel Garcia and Thu Tran — a queer mixed-race-Mexican-American and first-generation-Vietnamese-American, respectively — inform their music. Together they create eclectic and heartfelt songs that tell emotionally honest and compelling stories. Their unique and vibrant style is sophisticated but playful.

The California-based duo met and began writing and performing music together in 2006. Together Rachel and Thu won the West Coast Songwriters International Song Contest, were nominated for Best Adult Contemporary Song at the 16th Annual Independent Music Awards and, this year, were named as a finalist in the prestigious Grassy Hill New Folk Song Competition for Emerging Folk Artists at the Kerrville Folk Festival.

We caught up with Rachel and Thu to learn a little bit more about their original music project.

NewSong: You’ve been having an amazing year, with being named a finalist in the prestigious Grassy Hill New Folk Song Competition for Emerging Folk Artists at the Kerrville Folk Festival and then being chosen as the NewSong Music Performance and Songwriting Competition Early Bird Finalist. Why do you think the stars are aligning right now?

RACHEL: Thank you! We feel that alignment too and I think it’s because we’re feeling in musical integrity. With this latest set of music we have finally caught up to the musicians we have always hoped we would be. We have been in constant pursuit of the best version of our musical selves. This looks like constantly honing our skills as songwriters and working our respective crafts; me with singing, Thu with guitar. We’re clear on our perspective as folk musicians and deliberate in the stories we want to tell. When we tell an honest story and give that story a simple, clear musical home, folks connect with it. Early on we often unintentionally hid our lyrics behind more flashy production, but as we’ve become more precise lyricists we’re able to put forward work that is unencumbered. The music that’s gaining some notoriety from Kerrville and now NewSong are all story songs that don’t have any obligations but to directly and honestly tell a story. 

You have been creative partners for 16 years. What has been key to establishing and nurturing trust and communication in that relationship? 

RACHEL: Has it really been 16 years?! This has been sweet to reflect on. Our trust and communication is something we’ve intentionally worked on over our long collaboration together and it hasn’t always come easily to us. We know that it’s in the music’s best interest if the stewards of that music are in sync with themselves and each other. We know that if we are in rupture, the music will suffer (say bickering for two hours and then trying to play a show together…) Over the years, we’ve become better attuned to one another’s needs even (and especially) when they’re different than our own. For instance, I know that Thu prefers to rehearse a ton before shows, whereas I prefer to rest my voice. I get really nervous before a show so I need a lot of ritual and warm-up, and Thu doesn’t really need that. So over time, we have found ways to communicate our needs and make enough space for each of us to be operating at our best. So now, for instance, we rehearse early and often (not right before a show), and we have some warm-up rituals that we do together that ground us. For us, this kind of compromise is a reflection of our individual commitment to the band and to the music. The more I acknowledge and embrace the needs of my bandmate, the more it feels like I’m leaning in towards the music. And I trust that Thu is leaning in equal and opposite measure which creates an equilibrium that, I think, has kept our band sustainable for all these years. 

During the pandemic you developed a system to bring music to people as they quarantined. Is there anything you gained from that experience that you plan to continue in your post-pandemic performance?

THU: There’s this thing that we heard Susan Gibson say that really stuck with us which is, “Your music is a service, not a product.” That ended up being such a perfect articulation of what we learned from doing The Songmobile. When the pandemic first hit, and we were feeling so powerless, it was Rachel’s idea to just put a battery-powered speaker in the car and drive around the Bay Area, playing private concerts to individual families from their houses’ driveways. It was such a straight-forward solution and I think the reason it worked is because it really got to the heart of music: it’s the connection between the music and the listener. It was an important reminder that when we perform, we get to be of service to the audience. I love being able to focus on that idea when we perform because it helps me take my ego out of the equation, and allows me to just connect to the music and the listener.

You recently shared a bill with another duo from the NewSong Music family — Ordinary Elephant. What does it mean to you to be part of a community of songwriters and performers such as NewSong?

THU: It means the world to us to be part of this community! When we look at the list of past NewSong finalists, they are songwriters that we genuinely admire and we have discovered some personal favorite artists by keeping up with NewSong each year! It’s an amazing feeling to be considered peers with artists you’ve loved for years.

Any updates on the planned release of your new album, Dreams! The Dead! Ghost! Future?

THU: We are in the process of approving the masters right now! It’s been a long journey for this album since it got stalled by the pandemic, but we are so excited for how it’s turned out. All the songs that we submitted to NewSong will be on this new album so we’re hoping that our participation in NewSong will get more folks excited about the record! As of now, we’re planning on releasing it sometime in 2023. More soon, we promise!

Submissions are still open, through Sept. 18, for the 2022 NewSong Music Performance and Songwriting Competition. Enter your original songs here.