Thao With The Get Down Stay Down – Her homework’s done
Performers billed by a single name are often over-the-top: Madonna, Cher, Liberace. But not Thao. The Virginia-bred songwriter isn’t the sort to swoop out from the wings with a crystal chandelier on her head. Nor does she clutter up songs with unnecessary lyrics, chords, or embellishments. The heart of Thao’s artistry on We Brave Bee Stings And All, her second album — and the first to feature her band, the Get Down Stay Down — rests in its economy.
“No one has ever been faulted for saying too little,” she observes. “It is bullshit if you say more than is necessary.”
In conversation, Thao is thoughtful and joking. But in private, she hones her word choices with editorial precision. On “Swimming Pools”, she evokes childhood summers, and the initial twinges of adolescent rebellion, with chlorine sting and a defiant cannonball off the diving board. “Big Kid Table” refracts romantic longing through a familiar holiday dining ritual, yet circumnavigates coyness with insight: “I only drink that which makes me thirsty.”
Thao cites Lucinda Williams and country blues as helping to shape her style, but she also looks beyond music. “A lot of my lyrical influence comes from writers like Grace Paley and Lorrie Moore,” she says. “Their short stories are amazing. Even given the option of complete sentences, in full prose, you can still pare down to the necessities. Concision just feels more honest to me. I like things to feel like little punches.”
The reedy character of Thao’s voice, which belies her 23 years, enhances those blows; a la Jolie Holland and Chan Marshall, she sings like an old soul in a young body. “I listen to a lot of Nina Simone,” she says. “That lower timbre is the vocal quality I’m the biggest fan of.” Still, she is careful not to affect an unnatural register. “I have always thought my singing was more functional than anything else, just a way to present my songs. It was the only vehicle available.”
As a high school student, Thao had to wait until she had access to another vehicle — the family car — before she could fully pursue her muse. “I participated in pretty much every open-mike night in northern Virginia,” she says. “From 16 on, I paid some dues.” Playing to weeknight crowds at Mexican restaurants and suburban ale houses was an atypical proving ground. “Everybody was much older, and much more male…which was kind of cool. But after a while, you’re getting asthma from all the cigarette smoke, and you never get your homework done.”
She kept her grades up and went on to the College of William & Mary. While in college, she made an EP and her 2005 debut full-length, Like The Linen (released under her full name, Thao Nguyen), and began accumulating the members of the Get Down Stay Down: drummer Willis Thompson, bassist Adam Thompson, and guitarist Frank Stewart. In rather naive fashion, she also initiated another pivotal relationship.
“I was a huge fan of Laura Veirs, her Carbon Glacier album, and Troubled By The Fire before that,” she recalls. She went on the Seattle singer-songwriter’s website and sent an e-mail asking if she could open for Veirs the next time Veirs passed near Williamsburg. Veirs’ manager, Slim Moon — founder of the noted indie label Kill Rock Stars — replied. He told Thao he would keep her in mind. A few months later, he solicited a contribution for a KRS compilation, The Sound The Hare Heard. Her track, “Feet Asleep”, appeared alongside cuts by Sufjan Stevens and Colin Meloy.
Moon, now Thao’s manager, helped team her with producer Tucker Martine (Decemberists, Jesse Sykes) for We Brave Bee Stings And All. The resulting sound is much fuller than her earlier efforts, featuring horns, piano, and organ. Economy, however, is still paramount; a simple line of hummed counterpoint on “Bag Of Hammers” adds just as much as the bubbling brass underlining “Fear And Convenience”.
While Thao plays multiple instruments, she welcomed in-studio guests, including Veirs and banjo ace Danny Barnes. Her own banjo skills are rudimentary, she confesses, but she’s OK with that. “Banjo is kind of the mod thing going on right now,” Thao kids, apropos of indie-rock icon Stevens. “And if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s hip.”