Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Tao of Music: A Conversation with Thao Nguyen from Thao and the Get Down Stay Down

Written by Brittany Shoot
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The story of Thao Nguyen’s humble rise to fame is one of those easily quoted examples of rags-to-riches that, while inspiring, often seems embellished for the sake of a good story. The daughter of an immigrant single mother, for example, overcoming adversity is Nguyen’s claim to fame among the indie white boy critics who fawn over her records. They may like her music, but they also don’t fail to mention her looks, and at times, treat her like an inaccessible woman, wise beyond her years. But what about the actual talent, the voice that tells the story?
Photos by Jonathan Ratcliff
 

Active Image                                                                            Photo by Jonathan Ratcliff

The story of Thao Nguyen’s humble rise to fame is one of those easily quoted examples of rags-to-riches that, while inspiring, often seems embellished for the sake of a good story. The daughter of an immigrant single mother, for example, overcoming adversity is Nguyen’s claim to fame among the indie white boy critics who fawn over her records. They may like her music, but they also don’t fail to mention her looks, and at times, treat her like an inaccessible woman, wise beyond her years. But what about the actual talent, the voice that tells the story?

 


Nguyen began singing in her mother’s laundromat, later performing at open mic nights. After finishing degrees in sociology and women’s studies from The College of William and Mary, she joined up with the Get Down Stay Down and went on the road full-time. Their first album, We Brave Bee Stings And All, came out in 2007 to much acclaim, and their forthcoming Know Better Learn Faster is a beautiful record about love lost and the possibility of moving forward.

Currently on tour with the Get Down Stay Down, Nguyen took some time out to speak to Sadie.
 
Brittany: You’ve been called an “earthbound Beth Orton ” and “Cat Power’s plucky adopted sister,” and mentioned in the same sentences with the likes of Jodie Holland and Feist. Are those kinds of comparisons flattering or intimidating?

Thao: I have absolutely no idea what it means to be an earthbound plucky adopted sister, but I have admiration and respect for all so I think I am flattered. However, in an effort to be more removed and in turn healthier about the whole process, I am trying this thing where I don't react at all to much. So far, it is going pretty well.

Brittany: I heard that a random email intercepted by Kill Rock Stars founder Slim Moon is responsible for your record deal. What’s the truth behind that rumor?

Thao: Slim Moon was managing Laura Veirs, of whom I have always been a fan. I emailed her asking to open sometime, anytime, sort of a snowball's chance in hell approach, and thankfully Slim responded and I became more and more involved with Kill Rock Stars after that, and eventually President Portia Sabin offered to put out our record.
 

Brittany: There was a lot of positive press for your last album, We Brave Bee Stings And All. Is it tough to live up to that?

Thao: It was once I sat down to write the [new] record and again when we went into the studio to record. It is one thing to know you have to create something people may or may not pay more attention to; it is another to actually buckle down and do it and try not to write for others. I felt the pressure of expectation, as anyone might. Then one day I thought and really believed, I don't give a fuck. I mean that in the best, most freeing way.

Brittany: I’ve read that your last album was inspired by your dad leaving your family and how you’ve come to deal with that as an adult. What inspired
Know Better Learn Faster?

Thao: Whoa, I've got to stop speaking so generally in interviews; they always come back somehow sounding not quite how I intended... I think a lot of the last album was about me growing up and how I did it and how it informs my interactions as an adult, and definitely, many parts of that involved and involve my father. But that album was a lot of autobiographical things.

Know Better Learn Faster was more of an acutely felt affair. A lot of the album is about the end of a relationship—I have called it an audit—of how the ship went down and what did and did not happen and some of my musings and resignations about why.

Brittany: It seems like your ethnicity always comes up in interviews. How do you feel about constantly being asked about your Vietnamese heritage?

Thao: I feel two things: that perhaps I should start trying to understand why people keep asking, and that maybe I should start trying to make up other heritages for my own amusement. I've often thought I should deny any heritage at all and just say I was an alien baby dropped from the sky. On the whole, it makes me a bit uncomfortable because I'm suspicious of why it matters. It's one thing if my songs talk about my heritage. But since they don't, I'm apprehensive about such tags and their relevance to this operation I've got going.

Brittany: Tell us about how you got together with your backing band, the Get Down Stay Down.

Thao: I went to college with Willis, our drummer, and we met Adam, our bassist, at a show in Richmond, and we have not gotten out of the tour van since.

Brittany: You’re often called a “singer-songwriter,” but a lot of people also have a particular—and not always positive—association with that label. How do you feel about being branded that way?

Thao: I try to shirk it only because of the stigma. If it didn't have such negative associations, I would more fully embrace it—because it's true—I do write songs, I do sing. But I think of myself more as a songwriter for a trio of musicians, of which I am one. I'd say we're more a rock band than anything else.

Brittany: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a female musician?
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Thao: An utter lack of faith (others', not mine); blatant shows of condescension; more vulnerable, physically threatening situations after shows concerning dudes and their feelings of entitlement.

There is more, of course, but I don't want to be negative. Things are changing; I am optimistic. It's a sisterhood of touring musicians out there; we are just trying to do the good thing. I hope by the time we look it up [in history books], it only mattered that we were females making music when we said it did.

Brittany: Who would you love to tour with?

Thao: A vegetable farmer with a movable plot.

Brittany: What are your top five favorite albums of all time (right now)?

Thao: Madonna:
The Immaculate Collection, John Prine: The Great Days Anthology, Orchestra Baobab: Specialist in all Fields, Aerosmith: Big Ones, and Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

Brittany: Your mom has been hugely supportive of your career and even sells your CDs in her dry cleaning/laundry shop. Does she still also sell the merch at your shows?

Thao: What a great lady. She's never sold at shows, only at the 'mat where she would sometimes overcharge and keep the difference.

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