Thao Nguyen’s Uncommon Life

April 4, 2013


Songwriter Thao Nguyen has been performing for the better
part of the last decade with her band Thao & the Get Down Stay Down,
garnering praise from NPR, Pitchfork, and hell, this very publication. The
wobbly-voiced singer was recently part of Radiolab’s In The Dark live tour and
is currently on the road touring her new album, We the Common.

We the Common features
Thao’s smoky vocal melodies over a triumphant medley of banjo, horns, guitar,
keys and some satisfyingly heavy beats. Her lyrics are indirect and often sad, and
the music blends folk, bluegrass and rock into a bright and sometimes bittersweet
mélange. “Holy Roller” is the clear standout, a feel-good single worthy of any
road trip soundtrack. Raised in Virginia, Thao shows off her Southern roots on
several tracks, including the opener “We The Common (for Valerie Bolden),” and “Kindness
Be Conceived,” a duet featuring Joanna Newsom that’s reminiscent of the gospel
classic “I’ll Fly Away.”

Thao’s singing voice is distinct, rich in texture and
capable of some athletics. Her vocals are styled with an affectation à la Regina
Spektor, but unlike some indie songstresses, she isn’t shy. Her attitude comes
through best when she unleashes yells, such as on the most unkempt track, “Move,”
where she proclaims, “Oh, to be free!” like a battle cry.

Hyphen caught up with Thao by phone at a diner somewhere
along her tour.

Hyphen: Before recording We the Common, you said that you wanted
to take time away from touring to “try to be an actual real live person, rather
than just singing songs about them.” You emerged from that period with this new
album. What was it about touring that made you feel that you were not a real

Thao: I think it was a matter of always being away, and just a
kind of transience that comes with being a touring musician. I spent most of my
twenties on the road and that’s a very developmental period in one’s life. There
were dimensions that were underdeveloped in me. I didn’t really live anywhere. I
saw my friends and family but not on a regular basis.

So how do you feel being
back on the road?

[Laughs] I’m
excited to be back on. There’s a gratification from playing live that can’t be
replicated. It would feel incomplete if we didn’t tour.

What was it like for
you growing up Asian in the South and how did that affect you musically?

I didn’t realize until I was older the effect that it had on
me. I do think there was a pressure that we felt to assimilate, and I grew up
with primarily white kids. I think we people of color tried to blend in as much
as we could. It wasn’t until later that I enthusiastically embraced my heritage
and my ethnicity.

Do you feel like race
was a barrier to your musical career and success?

When the first record came out, there was a lot of talk
about my ethnicity, as the angle. That was the qualifier for what was happening.
In the beginning it was always something about me being Vietnamese American and
people would ask if I was playing Vietnamese folk music. Which didn’t make a
lot of sense to me at the time because it didn’t really have anything to do
with what I was writing. But it’s become a lot less of an issue.

I think that Asian
writers are expected to write about the Asian American experience, but I feel
that it’s the opposite with Asian musicians. I think people don’t want to hear songs
from an Asian musician that directly address race. Do you agree?

You know, I’ve never considered that, only because I’ve
never been compelled from a musical standpoint to incorporate those elements. But
I would agree. I think that if I were to consider [writing songs about race], people
would be less receptive to it.

What’s next for you?

More touring. As much as folks will have us, we’ll be
playing these songs.