Thao Nguyen Shows Some Teeth on ‘A Man Alive’
“Oh my oh my god we didn’t know you get ferocious!” shout-sings Thao Nguyen on the song “Meticulous Bird”, from her album A Man Alive, which is her sixth musical release (her fourth as the band Thao and the Get Down Stay Down) . One of the merchandise items for this new album is a shirt with those lyrics written on what looks like a protest sign, with the proceeds going to Planned Parenthood. As of February 27th, $3500 was raised from sales of the shirt for Planned Parenthood. They will update on Thao’s website as to whether further sales of the shirt can go to the cause. It’s an incredibly empowering song about reclaiming your body, as she sings “I go to the scene of the crime, I take my body back.”
I had the opportunity to sit down with Thao in a Mission district San Francisco cafe recently, in anticipation of her San Francisco show that is tonight at Davies Symphony Hall, opening for Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. She is articulate, smart and self-effacing in the most adorable way.
“I had programmed the rough framework of the beat”, Thao explains of the song ‘Meticulous Bird’: “Lyrically it started because Merrill [Garbus of the band tUnE-yArDs] challenged me to write without an instrument. I was walking in woods [near her friend’s cabin up north] when I thought of the lyrics. We wedded some of those lyrics and the vocal cadence with the beats I had programmed. Jason [Slota–drummer] recreated the beats, and I improvised a little bit over that. We took portions of what Jason was drumming, and different baselines that Adam Thompson [bass, piano, guitar] had layered on top of that. Some of the production is from the actual demos. Given the subject matter, it was important to be able to show some teeth. Those were really some of the most exciting sessions vocally–to get more firey.” ‘Meticulous Bird’ is her favorite song to play live–solo and with a band–“solo is a different beast, it’s very interesting to figure out how to arrange to do on my own. ‘Fool Forever’ would be my other favorite to play live.”
Thao and Merrill, “–met at a show years and years ago, playing on the same bill, when Merrill was playing with the band Sister Suvi”. The process for writing this album was: “Similar to the way I’ve written other records. Everything starts with me. All the other records have been me starting on an instrument. This one began with beats, so I was experimenting with writing music first. This album was a lot more personal, so there were some considerations to be made about whether I wanted to go there. Then with the songs that were coming out of it, it was clear that that was going to be the subject matter. Some songs were a lot easier to write because they were so emotional. I wrote with different sonic dimensions and instrumentation. Some of the album was written in Guerneville/Sebastopol, and some in SF”.
Although Thao has lived in San Francisco for almost eleven years, it has only begun to feel like home: “–more recently. I have more flexibility since I’m touring less. And you know, through community here”. You may have caught her free performance at the 20th Street Block Party in San Francisco if you attended a couple years ago. In the Bay Area, you may have also come across her performing at Outside Lands or recently at the last Lighting in the Bottle Festival. She is certainly a local favorite. “I knew I wanted to live here when was in college,” she explained. “A couple friends & I were able to spend a summer here when I 19 years old–I got a grant to work at a homeless skills center at 9th & matona. We resolved to come back after we graduated. A lot of it was the organizing & activism, and the queer community. Some of my closest friends and greatest educators are organizers within this city & in the East Bay. And the produce and the ocean. I knew it was the quality of life and freedom of life I wanted. The music scene here wasn’t what I was considering because I knew I’d be on tour a lot. There has been a noticeable shifting–I’ve only been here eleven years–which feels like a long time, but I haven’t seen as much change as other people have. I remember when a lot was possible– people could work in a coffee shop & make rent here. Musicians & visual artists can’t live here anymore. No one is able to move here. As long as my partner and I are able to stay here, we will. The sort of dismissal of the history of the city and culture, and the disrespect I see is really saddening. I don’t know what resilience means in this case. I don’t know if accepting all the changes is the way to go. There are so many things to love about it still. It feels weird to feel trapped by the city as well–it’s really difficult, you can’t give up the apartment you find”.
Thao works with California Coalition For Women Prisoners, which (according to it’s website), is “a grassroots social justice organization, with members inside and outside prison, that challenges the institutional violence imposed on women, transgender people, and communities of color by the prison industrial complex (PIC). We see the struggle for racial and gender justice as central to dismantling the PIC and we prioritize the leadership of the people, families, and communities most impacted in building this movement”. Thao tries to be as involved with them as she can, given the March 2016 release of her latest album and the the touring surrounding that release.
On the political situation, Thao explained, “I am very heartened about the ongoing uproar. It seems that it is a sustained and extended effort against, I like to call him, King Joffrey. I am as concerned as anyone else. It is definitely hard to figure out how to maintain joy & still participate & hold people accountable. It’s been good for me to keep it local, to asses the needs of different efforts– if it’s money, then give what money we can, if it’s physical presence, then do that. It’s an ongoing negotiation, if you have sit out one thing or another. I will say, my summation of the music people created before–people were more hesitant to be political (and this is just from rough sampling of my peers), but now it’s more unconscionable to not be political and vocal. I’m really glad that we all feel that freedom and still have that freedom.”
A highlight of her collaborations so far was working with, “Joanna Newsom, who agreed to play on a song. I was on a writing retreat put on by a group called Hedgebrook (off the coast of Seattle) for women writers. This was the first retreat that they provided for songwriters. I had finished a song and was about to go into recording. She was great, she added really cool character to the song. Another favorite was that record with Mirah [Thao & Mirah, 2011]. I really enjoyed the opportunity to play more instruments. When we played live, it was nice to only in be charge for half the show [laughs]– it’s nice to relax onstage sometimes”.
If Thao could collaborate with any musician, she explained, “I’m a fan of a lot of people. Elvis Perkins would be one– I’m not sure if he’s writing & recording anymore. I loved “Elvis Perkins in Dearland”. There’s a lot of hip hop production that I appreciate but I don’t know who it is [laughs]”. If she could simply be in the same room as a musician who is not around anymore, it would be Towns Van Zandt. “If I could hear someone’s voice in person, it would be Cesaria Evora. She’s too good to collaborate with. There’s a few people I’d love to play weird guitar with–old time, Appalachian, country blues pickers”.
Thao actually wrote record reviews for No Depression Magazine, at a time when she was working at the farmers market to make some money on the side. “I loved the magazine, it was a big influence. I obviously have roots in the kind of alt-country and alt-folk genres. When I was at William and Mary College in Virginia, Grant Alden was a guest lecturer in my literature and cultural studies class. I do credit Grant and the magazine a lot as influences on my music.” Alden co-founded No Depression Magazine with Peter Blackstock in 2005. Thao was a sociology and women’s studies major. She explained that it didn’t seem “karmically sound” to continue writing record reviews when she was about to release her own album, and that that was when the print version of No Depression folded anyway.
On what she loves most about being a musician: “I have this abiding sense of gratitude– I know how hard it is to make a living being a musician, and I don’t take it for granted. Currently the main thing I feel grateful for is being able to communicate with people–having an authentic emotional connection with people during shows. The collaborations–the talent of other people that you can learn from. Anyone who I know that’s been touring for as long as I have–you get a little tired, you’re not sure it’s sustainable, for how much longer. You get to see a lot of places in the world. I appreciate the incredible experiences that you can’t find otherwise. I appreciate it, but it’s emotionally & physically draining; that feeling of never being at home and missing out on lives of people you love and people you actually know. I really like to go to bed early [laughs]. When you tour– the moment you’d normally be going to bed, it’s jarring to force your body to do the exact opposite. You have to force your body to rise to the occasion”.
On her musical influences growing up: “As a listener, I was always avid, but no one in my family really played music, no one was particularly inclined towards music. I kind of had to figure it out on my own. I always loved the oldies station on the radio. As I got older, I liked the 90s pop, early 90s. I picked up guitar around twelve. I started getting into blues and folk through picking patterns. My brother listened to hip hop–that is the most far reaching and long standing influence. I was a big Lucinda Williams fan and her ‘Live @ the Fillmore’ album has always shone as a beacon to me; so getting to play the Fillmore is always a real joy”. As far as other favorite places to perform: “The Great American Music Hall is a beautiful venue. The staff at the Independent are very sweet. The 9:30 Club in DC–I grew up around there and that was my dream as a kid, to be able to play there. I love playing Austin–really awesome crowds, great energy. A bunch of the cities are always really nice to us. I’d love to play the Greek Berkeley–I’ve been part of shows there before. I’ve always wanted to play the Newport Folk Festival”. The musicians she listens to currently: “I love Kendrick Lamar; the more instrumental band Orchestra Baobob–I love their musicianship; Run the Jewels. Merrill Garbus and her bass player and husband Nate. I think my bandmates are really incredible musicians–anyone who I’ve gotten to record with. Jay Som- an Oakland musician who wrote & recorded her official debut album herself”.
“Books inspire my music more than other people’s music, since it’s a blurring line with other people’s music. With my last record, there’s a novel called Gilead [by Marilynne Robinson, 2004] which inspired the song ‘Astonished Man’. I’m a huge George Saunders fan, I also love Laurie Moore and Grace Paley- who inspired me from college on. And I like John Steinbeck a lot as well.”
On being queer, Thao answered: “It’s funny, it mostly doesn’t come up. It’s a funny territory to negotiate. Interviewers don’t usually ask. There is a sense that you want your private life, but when in this realm, omission is political as well. That is on me, that’s something that I’m concertedly wanting to be more up front about. You do sacrifice privacy in ways you wouldn’t in a different career. My songs are already so vulnerable. But it’s [not talking about it thus far] not bc I don’t want people to know. This album in particular is so vulnerable. I’ve never been not ‘out’ –it’s been so long, it’s hard to remember [laughs]. I would say that I’m late in acknowledging the implications of being quiet [about it] in public. It is a choice, and I do think it’s Important. In CCWP [California Coalition For Women Prisoners] –there’s a lot of activity for trans rights for prisoners. The acronym doesn’t cover the fact of trans men in women’s prisons. I haven’t been as visibly or vocally in partnership with specific queer rights causes. I definitely think that’s the next step for me. I like working with Oxfam, as another organization to support, they have great transparency”.
This album is largely about Thao’s father, who left her family when she was young, and who she is still estranged with. Thao’s mom is very supportive of her career: “As soon as I’ve mastered a record, I send it to her. We all [her family] have a knack for floating above the issue. I’ve grown to accept that–it’s not ideal, but you can’t really architect around that. There was so much acceptance [within herself] that happened in the process of making this record and performing it. It’s about managing expectations. Whatever conclusions or plateaus I came to were what I could control–I have to accept that and have that be enough”.
And how does Thao juggle her current relationship and being a musician? “Thankfully with this last album cycle–I was away a decent amount. I didn’t have the grind I had in years passed. You can say no to tours more and say no to as much traveling. Having a partner gives you more of a reason to be home. If someone has a lot more consistent work schedule than me, that is hard. It’s hard to know when to get off the phone. It is possible, you just have to communicate a lot.”
Go and see Thao open for Gibbard tonight if you’re in the area and looking for some amazing lyricists to enliven your evening. Too bad the show is seated–it’s impossible not to dance to Thao’s beautifully crafted music.