x/o interview: Disrupting gender binaries through audiovisual storytelling

The intrigue that surrounds polymaths in the music industry is justified. For those that are aware of the labour that goes into a song or record, artists whose skillsets stretch beyond their music invite listeners to develop a distinct dose of admiration.

Vietnamese-Canadian artist x/o nestles into this echelon; a producer, singer, film-maker and director whose latest album is a manifesto in creativity, ingenuity and uniqueness.

Chaos Butterfly, x/o’s debut full-length release, embraces trip-hop, post-rock and celestial electronics to create a unique ethereal avant-pop sound.

x/o’s music focuses on disrupting gender binaries through audiovisual storytelling. They use butterfly evolution as part of their creative story telling, and the album is a life-affirming tale of pattern discovery, symbolism and intuition that explores the adverse reactions against recurring trauma.

In light of x/o’s new record and their fascinating story, we sat down with them to dig a little deeper.

x/o’s debut album is called Chaos Butterfly

Tell us about becoming x/o.

x/o is a long-running project and safe space for me to explore different concepts, subconscious thoughts, and processing of emotions through music, performance, visuals and more recently, film. 

Your debut album, ‘Chaos Butterfly’, is a fascinating exploration of self-actualisation. Can you tell us a bit more about what went into this record, and what it means to you?

Working on Chaos Butterfly has been a vulnerable process for the most part. From being in your emotions, expressing and processing, to working through concepts or ideas I’m interested in. I found it as a way to learn more about my subconscious while encouraging me to just be myself.

Chaos Butterly album cover

What stands out to us is your ability to channel duality across your album – light & dark, calm & anger, and so on. What do these juxtapositions symbolise?

I use duality a lot to describe gender fluidity or the complexity of cyclical emotions. It’s not black or white, but rather the grey in-between. Juxtaposing two extremes of duality in this manner pairs them together in a sort of equilibrium. I love doing this in a sonic and visual way.

Tell us about the production process behind ‘Chaos Butterfly’. Who was involved and what did you use?

I’m proud to share that I wrote, produced, recorded, performed, and mixed this entire album! It was something really important for me to establish first.

My process is very intuition-based, I start by coming up with whatever sonic idea without any plan in session view on Ableton- this usually starts with an instrument vst like omnisphere, or a sample from splice or freesound.org. If it sparks something in me, I’ll freestyle a vocal idea on top. The vocal you hear in Chrysalis Wrath’s intro was recorded on an improvised first take on my laptop. I couldn’t recreate that and ended up keeping it (if you listen hard enough you might hear ticking from my clock). The next day I’ll start over with a fresh new file and repeat for roughly a month. 

Then from there, looked at what spoke out to me the most. Similar to the process of my first EP cocoon egg, I gravitated toward songs that would hint at the journey I wanted the album to have. From that list,  I would spend time writing more parts, arranging the song and finally writing lyrics to be rerecorded. There were just long time spans of gaps in between, where I didn’t work on it, where I would come back to work on endless iterations of those same tracks. 

When I finally finished mixing them, I sent it to Jan Urbiks to bus mix and Enyang Urbiks to stem master the final project. They did such a fantastic job and were great to work with!

x/o is a founding member of s.Mi.L.e collective

Your music resists categorisation – do your influences span across genre?

Yes, very open-minded when it comes to music. I owe a lot of it to playing video games growing up. Canada doesn’t have a long-standing history with dance music in particular, so I had to be exposed in different ways. In a game you could be listening to classical, nu-metal, acid, drum-and-bass, jazz -you name it. I’m also a curious person so it’s a lot of exploring youtube and Soundcloud. Especially the latter where there’s more of a community there, but there was also a golden age of Soundcloud where everyone was putting out new ideas that seemed really fresh at the time. It can be very inspiring to make something new for yourself.

The visuals for tracks ‘Chrysalis Wrath’ and ‘Red Alert’ are stunning – what was the idea behind these and who was involved?

For Chrysalis Wrath, I wanted it to be a reference or bridge to the first EP, cocoon egg, as the ep and album are both related. Thinking–what if the cocoon egg hatched? I worked with NicoSaba, this incredible illustrator, to bring it to life. 

For Red Alert, it was my first time directing, and I had this overarching story of transformation while listening to our intuition and inner voice set in neon-soaked Chinatown. I worked with talented cinematographer Antonia Ramirez and a small film crew to bring the story to the picture.

Red Alert music video

You’re a founding member of Vancouver’s s.M.i.L.e collective – tell our readers about the vision of the group.

We started the project simply to showcase new experimental music we were excited about. There wasn’t a regular event series like that in the city. Some past artists we’ve hosted include Shygirl, DJ Lag, Mhysa, Malibu, and Mechatok,  

I get nostalgic for all those fun times we’ve had together. We’ve been inactive for a long time now but I have faith with these newer Vancouver collectives popping up in recent time like NormieCorp, and bettr2gether. 

You’re coming on a road-trip with us. Which 3 records are you taking for the ride?

Wow tough question, for a road trip maybe I’ll bring:

All about Lily Chou-Chou OST – Kokyu for contemplative feels through the countryside

Romeo Must Die soundtrack for cruising through the city

Best of Crystal Kay for after dinner on the way to karaoke

You can order Chaos Butterfly here.

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