Photos by Maria Kanevskaya, courtesy of Thao Nguyen
Thao Nguyen is honored if you cry to her songs. And the ones on her new album A Man Alive, with her band Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, will probably make you do exactly that.
“I don’t want [listeners] to be sad, but I appreciate that that’s a part of emotion, and if I can help bring it out if it needs to be brought out, then yes, it is an honor,” Nguyen says on a call from the car headed towards Minneapolis. She's soft spoken, but never lacking eloquence even through areas of patchy cell service and an always-altered schedule. Her previous session had run long, and she was headed straight to the venue. “Any time someone brings what you’ve made into their life and interprets it however is most beneficial to them, it’s a true honor.”
On the surface, the collection of 12 songs, released March 4 on Ribbon Music, is percussive and upbeat, driven by beat and rhythm. But beneath each track’s sunny exterior lie personal revelations, ones Nguyen had never revealed on any of her previous five albums. For the first time, she’s talking about her father—or rather talking about the void left from her father’s desertion.
The San Francisco-based artist has been an indie stalwart for over a decade, crafting folk-pop and morphing with the ever-changing dynamic of the genre. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s previous release, 2013’s We The Common, was less inspired by her own personal ruminations than it was heavily rooted finding a place within the bigger picture, largely influenced by her outreach efforts for the California Coalition For Women Prisoners. But this time the focus is back to a smaller scale.
At a time in her life when thoughts and her own perception of the relationship—or lack thereof—with her still-estranged father, who left her family when she was young, were in the forefront, Nguyen worked through her memories and insecurities with somber lyrics paired with joyously triumphant pop soundscapes. Produced by good friend and longtime collaborator Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, the album crackles with disjointed energy, squelching bass, and raw emotion. On “Guts” Nguyen’s woodsy voice pops and skips as she repeats “You know I’m so easy to find / You won’t come get your girl” while Regina Spektor-esque keys thrum behind. The two had worked together before when Garbus produced the 2011 collaborative album Thao & Mirah, igniting a partnership that extended beyond their friendship. The close relationship was integral to this project based on the intimate nature of the songs, where the lyrics include such phrases as, “Oh Daddy, I broke in a million pieces / That makes you a millionaire.”
Straying from her folk-rock roots into the more off-kilter world like that of her pal tUnE-yArDs, Nguyen heads into new territory, musically and emotionally—and, if she’s being honest, it’s liberating, she says.
Noisey: I just watched the Funny or Die video you did with Merrill Garbus where you guys spoof Diplo, Skrillex and Justin Bieber, and it’s hilarious.
Thao Nguyen: That’s probably my proudest crowning achievement. They were very kind to host it. I didn’t even know the original existed actually. It was brought to us by our label and management as a potential spoof, and then I saw it was a goldmine. I didn’t know it was so popular, that original video.
We all knew Justin was a little bit of an airhead, but that video is: wow.
Then I saw him in that karaoke thing that he does with James Corden where he seems like a pretty cool guy, and then I felt a little bit bad. But it’s all in good fun. We tried to be as respectful as possible.
If anyone can take a joke I’m sure it’s Justin Bieber.
I’m sure we’re just a speck as to what he’s dealt with.
On from Justin Bieber. I want to talk about your album. How are you feeling now that it’s out?
It’s been very freeing to get out the suspense stage and be able to play the songs live. I can’t be happier. I’m pretty surprised that with this kind of content and showing this kind of vulnerability, it’s really sweet to see how people have responded in kind with their own vulnerability. It’s a very humane interaction. I think that everyone has familial issues that they deal with, so it’s a common ground that’s immediately laid down. Even in interviews, music writers have been more forthcoming with their own personal encounters. It’s so different than the run-of-the-mill releasing a record and doing promo and whatever. The shows have been so sweet, and it’s very rewarding to be that emotional and that vulnerable in front of people.
It’s got to be nerve-wracking to have all of this vulnerable stuff and not know how it’s going to be received.
It’s been really incredible. I make a lot more eye contact now because I feel everyone is just trying to communicate—moreso than with any other record we’ve released. It feels like there’s more intimacy there. It’s been very sweet and very heartwarming.
Right, because like you said, everyone’s got their familial issues, so you hear a line and you’re like, “Yeah, that totally applies to my relationship with my dad, with my mom, whoever.”
Yeah, which was something I was nervous about in the beginning. When I was writing these songs and in the recording process, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there. I had a lot of reservations about it.
Why did you have those reservations? What were they?
To openly show sadness, to openly excavate and present it on stage every night. I wasn’t sure how much of a toll it would take and how taxing it would be.
In hindsight, how impactful was it on your emotions and mental sanity?
The writing and the recording were very intense, but it came with this energy and momentum that I’d never experienced before. I think it’s because it was the first time I’d tried to be so personal and so honest for me in my writing. It was a new kind of urgency, and it felt like I was on a mission. And I knew if I was to not be as forthcoming or I didn’t see it to its end, I’d have left it incomplete and it would be nothing else besides a disservice to me.
What was going on in your life that you decided to do this now?
I think in my personal life I was getting to a point where I was more willing to explore this relationship and its effect on me and how it has informed my entire life. I’m in my early 30s now, and I have friends that are dealing with the immortality of their parents in a very real way. It just woke up this part of me, this willingness to consider this relationship and consider why it was the way it was. The very inevitable truth that our parents will die and what kind of peace would I have reached with my dad. I have a very close friend who has a similar relationship with her dad, and she found out he was really sick and I saw her grapple with getting in touch and what that means. It was real life catching up.
It’s emotional and musical therapy.
I saved thousands of dollars. I spent thousands, but now I will save thousands.
Did you cry while you were making this record?
This is why I made this record, so we could work it all out! This is the only batch of songs I’ve ever worked on where I was crying while writing. I would be singing a lyric I’d just written and I’d be crying, which is very liberating in its own way and also very intense. And it’s also the only record where I’ve been recording vocals and crying. Some of them were pretty tough: “Millionaire,” the ones that are more straightforward to the core.
You were working with your good friend Merrill Garbus. How was she reacting to your raw emotion?
She was awesome. She was everything I needed her to be: a steward in support. I didn’t want to put “Millionaire” on the record because it felt too vulnerable, and she said, “Are you fucking kidding? Of course we’re putting it on the record”—which is what I needed. She’s such a beacon of power and fearlessness and a real strong believer of “Why not?” And I’ve benefitted so much from that throughout our friendship and especially making this record.
I guess it helped that you two are good friends.
Oh yeah, there’s no way I could’ve made this record without a good friend at the helm. That was non-negotiable. I knew from the beginning that I was going to do that.
Then on the flipside of these heavy lyrics and themes, you’ve got these rhythms and upbeat melodies.
That part was also a priority from the beginning. That part was dialed before I knew what the record would be about. That comes from toward the end of our last touring cycle, the most fulfilling parts of our live show, that we love the most and what the crowd seemed to love the most were beat and bass driven. I wanted to move away from chordally based songs, and I wanted to rely more heavily on the beat and the groove. We wanted to pay more tribute to hip-hop influences. It’s always been an influence for me, but it’s never been captured on a previous recording. That was from the beginning. Once I realized what this record would be about, then it was definitely a non-negotiable in that it would be fun to perform. You can’t be sad every night without fail.
It would be a lot if you had these ballads with the lyrics paired with it.
Oh yeah, I couldn’t stand for it.
It is an interesting juxtaposition to be able to dance to something while someone is singing about their relationship with their father.
Right, isn’t that funny? It’s kind of peculiar. But it’s working out so far. There’s also a lot of joy and vitality in this record given how difficult the relationship is or was or what kind of pain that brings up because there’s a lot of joy in acknowledgement in pain and the release of it. That’s what we wanted to capture as well. Any sort of celebratory tone on the record is intentional. It’s just as honored and necessary as the darker stuff.
What has your family had to say?
[Laughs] Nothing. No one’s said anything, which is fine. We communicate more through food.
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down are on tour now. Find more dates here.
Allie Volpe is a writer based in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter.