Thao Nguyen puts music first but popularity also makes her proud to be a woman of color
Thao Nguyen, lead singer of Thao With The Get Down Stay Down. (Photos by Trang Do)
By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
MINNEAPOLIS (July 1, 2010) – This wasn’t the first visit to the Twin Cities for Thao Nguyen, and her popularity filled the Cedar Cultural Center early this month for a performance that may mark a transition in her career.
Nguyen is the vocalist, guitarist and songwriter for the band, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, which has enjoyed much airplay on college radio, Adult Album Alternative (Triple A) and XM Satellite Radio.
“We are doing all right,” said Nguyen. “It depends on the city, but for the larger cities its pretty good.”
The band began getting a lot of video and audio play with a breakthrough hit, “When We Swam”, which led new fans to discover a wealth of material that brought forth more popular songs, ”Bag Of Hammers”, and “Cool Yourself”.
Thao describes her music as “country and blues influenced dirty pop with an interesting rhythm and arrangement.” She said her songs are “incredibly personal and autobiographical.”
She and her band mates, Willis Thompson, a college classmate who started playing drums on Nguyen’s early work, and bassist Adam Thompson formed the band four years ago as the primary project of the trio – but with an understanding that they each have other projects and interests.
“But, this project in particular allows us the freedom to do other things,” she added.
The songwriting process begins with Nguyen and her guitar. She writes the lyrics, the melody and the song structure, and then brings in her partners who enhance the roles for their instruments.
“They are incredible musicians,” she added.
Nguyen has three albums on her own, “Like the Linen” in 2005; “Daytrotter Sessions” in 2006; and “We Brave Bee Stings and All” in 2008. The first album from the band, “Know Better Learn Faster” was released in 2009.
Thao appeared with Mirah (Yom Tov Zeitlyn), a cause-driven folk singer – but as much fun as she is serious – playing her issue-based songs to a fiddle, or to the beat of Cuban or Native American percussion. She and Thao closed the show with a song about the depletion of natural resources – as a retro disco song called “Gone Are All The Days.”
“Mira is able to write completely fun songs about serious issues and is as talented a musician as she is a singer,” said Nguyen.
“I was a huge Mira fan. I was a fan of hers for a while,” she added. “It’s pretty interesting to become a collaborator and a colleague.”
The two met at the 2009 Noise Pop Festival in San Francisco. They got along and began performing sets on stage together until the idea grew into a five week tour.
“We decided to make it more of a high stakes affair and so we smashed our bands together and so everyone learned everyone’s songs and now it is this extended set – where we switch off back and forth – but everyone plays on all the songs,” she added.
The band, These United States, joined the tour for the last three weeks. The quintet with members from Kentucky and Washington, D.C. play country music with a blend of mountain, psychedelic and southern rock.
Jesse Elliott, leader of These United States, said the tour is an amazing experience and that he was “blown away” with Nguyen’s “triple-threat” abilities as a songwriter, singer and guitar player – along with her unique voice and strong performance style.
Thao and Mira and These Unites States all have their own sets but they also perform together. There were drums, bongos, banjos, clarinets, violins, blues guitars, a peddle steel guitar, standard electric, xylophones, keyboards and even a 60s pop organ.
Thao played a blues guitar that was nearly as big as she is tall, along with a banjo, a standard electric and drums.
Nguyen is perhaps the first Vietnamese American to reach this level of success as a popular singer in the mainstream. That said, she is careful to present herself as a performer with her roots in music.
“It is okay, except I don’t write songs about being Vietnamese American, and so it became an issue,” said Nguyen. “I was just really suspicious of why that mattered when it was a distraction from the music.”
Nguyen said she is now comfortable with herself as a woman of color who is in a position to expand the boundaries for people of color in American culture and media. She is happy to think that through her in some way young fans could find themselves within the stereotypes. In the end, however, she is all about her music.
“My illusions aren’t so grand,” she added.
Nguyen was born in Virginia in 1984, where she was raised by a single mother. She had somewhat of a cultural upbringing but said it was more the life of an insulated suburban DC kid. She was into the rhythms and energy of her elder brother’s old-school hip hop albums, Motown, country music, blues and 60s pop.
Nguyen said she didn’t face a lot of resistance at home, adding that her mother was supportive of her music all along. There was concern about her earning a living, but that was answered with her relative success and her mother likes to attends the shows.
“I had no concerns about whether or not they would be in my corner, because, it didn’t matter to an extent, but I’m glad that they are.”
Nguyen began playing guitar as a young girl and was writing and performing songs in high school. She attended William & Mary where she earned degrees in Sociology and Women’s Studies.
She interned with a domestic violence shelter and planned a career in women’s advocacy work. She believes in the work but said she didn’t have the constitution to deal with the painful issues on a daily basis.
Writing, recording and performing music in college, Nguyen said it was there that she decided music would be her career. She was a fan of singer Laura Veirs and sent her a demo she recorded with a friend. Veirs gave it to Slim Moon of Kill Rockstars records, who is now Nguyen’s manager.
Nguyen said her songs are not about social issues but that they remain an important part of her life and uses her recognition to support causes.
“That actually gives me a reason to want to succeed in this industry,” she said. “I don’t much care for a lot of the hoopla, but there is a lot of b.s. too. But, if you can sort of maintain focus on something more important, then I welcome, and am grateful for the opportunity and the position that I can be in to better help.”
There are 18 causes listed on the band’s Web site, and Nguyen is particularly concerned with issues of women and girls, empowerment and domestic violence. Now living in San Francisco, she is a friend of author Dave Eggers, who co-founded 826 Valencia, a national nonprofit a youth creative writing and literacy program.
She also supports Oxfam America, an international relief and development organization working on solutions to poverty, hunger, and injustice with partners in more than 100 countries.
Nguyen will have a short break when the tour concludes and will then begin a side project without her band. She will write and direct a record with the Ava Brothers, a bluegrass, folk rock band in the Northwest.
“I’ve played with them before and they’re great,” she said.
She is also putting together ideas for recording with Mira on another project. www.thaomusic.com