Thao Nguyen:
The TVD Interview

Last month, Thao Nguyen’s band Thao and The Get Down Stay Down released their latest album, We The Common, on a new label, Ribbon Music—part of Domino Records. Thao, originally from Falls Church, Virginia, grew up never having lived in DC proper, nor had she included herself in the DC music scene. She was a kid of the suburbs, a part of her “bedroom scene,” teaching herself guitar in her mom’s basement and attending open mics with her friend. After Nguyen graduated from high school, she went off to William and Mary, where her senior year she was signed to Kill Rock Stars, a career started by sending off an email to her idol.

Nguyen’s story is a humble one, raised by her single mother in the suburbs. She was always interested in music, but it was at the age of 12 when she first picked up an instrument and concentrated on this endeavor. “I was working at my mom’s laundromat. I’d make change behind the counter, fold laundry, and play my guitar on the side.”  When Thao was not at home or at her mother’s laundromat, she often loved visiting the CD Cellar in Falls Church, a place where she discovered and bought music.

I had the opportunity to talk to Thao on the phone, in between getting back from Canada and driving to an in-person radio interview.  We talked about Virginia, the beginning of her career as a successful musician, and her album. Thao and The Get Down Stay Down play tonight, March 20, to a sold-out crowd at the Black Cat.

You said you were a kid of suburbs. How did you go from playing music by yourself to knowing that music was the career you wanted for yourself? Did you play with bands growing up?

I wasn’t really part of a real band; there was a sort of folk country trio I was a part of, but that didn’t go anywhere. We had a band for an afternoon trying to cover Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine,” but I couldn’t get past that first riff. I spent a lot of time doing music on my own and going to open mics with my one friend.

How did you start with Kill Rock Stars?  

I was a big fan of Laura Veirs, who was living in Seattle at that time. One day I sent an email to her website asking if I could open for her sometime. Her manager at that time, who was also head of Kill Rock Stars, responded to me and asked me if I wanted to contribute to a compilation. From there, we went on a little tour, and then he asked to manage me.  I ended up signing with KRS my senior year of college. I was really lucky. I didn’t know who they were, and I had no sense of the music industry. I led a very insular, folk-songwriting life. As I figured things out, I realized what an amazing thing I was a part of. It’s pretty wild that it actually worked out on the first try.

Now I am signed to Ribbon Music, which is a part of Domino Records. It was time to move on, and I wanted to see what else was possible, plus it was a good time to transition.

How did taking time off in between labels help you find your grounding? Did that affect your new record?

I took time off to become a part of my community, and I also released a side project record during that time. The time off gave me time to throw myself into the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. We are advocates for incarcerated women’s health care, legal issues, and a support system. There is also a weekly empowerment group that I am a part of. That experience had a lot of influence on We The Common.

How did the move from Virginia to San Francisco shape your career?

I think it helped in a way that it couldn’t have where I grew up. I didn’t move to San Francisco to be a part of a scene, as I was never a part of a scene. I wanted to move there for the pace and how beautiful the city was, but my family is still in Virginia, so I come back home a lot. I wanted San Francisco to be the place to come home to from long days on the road, as I knew I would be touring a lot, so it didn’t matter where I lived—just where I came home to.

Can you talk about which songs from your album you are most connected to?

“Holly Roller” set the tone and precedence for that feeling of revival and wanting to be a participant of life—to be a part of something. That one song made that happen and is really important to me.

“We The Common” comes from a poignant and personal experience in my life.

The one song that really sticks out to me is “Clouds for Brains.” I love how haunting it is. 

I’m glad you mentioned that one; no one ever brings it up. That was inspired by a collection of short stories called, Jesus’ Son, the first collection of stories by Denis Johnson.

The strongest lyric that sticks out are from “Every Body”: “We get naked but not naked enough.” The term walking naked makes me think of ourselves as completely vulnerable.  As a society we are not ever as vulnerable as we could be. Is that what you meant, that society is not genuine enough?

Yes, that is exactly what it is about; it’s about vulnerability. A friend of mine that I worked with at Radiolab, the artistic director, shared a story and said the phrase, “You are physically naked, but you are not naked enough.” So I asked him if I could borrow that line.

What was your first experience with vinyl?

My first real experience with vinyl was when I was in high school, with a friend of mine. Every weekend we’d get together and listen to Moondance. We were so sick of suburbs it was the one way we could escape and hang out. Moondance was always the first record and last record we played. We’d also go to record shops and hang out. I also remember watching The Last Waltz and then getting it on vinyl—that was amazing! Vinyl is my preferred mode of listening.

As a lot of DC musicians leave the city, they often forget about the scene that’s still going on in their city. The musicians in the city that are working hard to make it are forgotten.  Do you think that more could be done by those, like yourself, who have made it, to help those unknown musicians?

I think the most helpful thing in my experience is to take unknown bands out on tour with you. That helps expose them to different and bigger crowds every night. And also doing what I did. The advice I was given was to find people you are fans of, whose music you appreciate, respect, and whose careers you’d like to emulate, and get in touch with them. Ask them if you could go on tour with them. I assume it’s still like that, but the internet plays such a large role in that now. Just asking the person you admire to help you out can go a long way, if they accept.

So if a DC musician contacts you to go on tour with you, you’d be up for that?

Yeah (laughs), certainly, we’d love that. We haven’t heard from anyone yet, though…

Thao and The Get Down Stay Down
Official | Facebook | Twitter

Tour Dates:
Wed 03/20/13 – Washington, DC, Black Cat
Fri 03/22/13 – New York, NY, Bowery Ballroom
Sat 03/23/13 – Philadelphia, PA, The Underground
Sun 03/24/13 – Cambridge, MA, The Sinclair
Mon 03/25/13 – Brooklyn, NY, The Bell House
Wed 03/27/13 – Toronto, ON, Lee’s Palace
Thu 03/28/13 – Ann Arbor, MI, The Ark
Fri 03/29/13 – Chicago, IL, Lincoln Hall
Sat 03/30/13 – Milwaukee, WI, Turner Hall Ballroom
Sun 03/31/13 – Madison, WI, Majestic Theatre
Mon 04/01/13 – Minneapolis, MN, Cedar Cultural Center
Tue 04/02/13 – Iowa City, IA, The Englert Theatre
Wed 04/03/13 – Kansas City, MO, The Record Bar
Fri 04/05/13 – Albuquerque, NM, Launchpad
Sat 04/06/13 – Phoenix, AZ, The Crescent Ballroom
Sun 04/07/13 – San Diego, CA, The Casbah
Mon 04/08/13 – West Hollywood, CA, Troubadour

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