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Friday, 16 August 2013 11:29

'Wanting to be a true participant in your own life' An interview with Thao Nguyen

'Wanting to be a true participant in your own life' An interview with Thao Nguyen
Written by Meghan McGlynn

Thao Nguyen may be spending her days traversing the country by way of tour bus, putting on shows and taking part in numerous summer music festivals (she and the Get Down Stay Down hit St. Louis for a show at Off Broadway this Sunday, August 18), but that's not all she's up to.

And it's not just blogging and making funny videos with Ira Glass and John Hodgman that she's added to her list of activities. Certainly, Thao is no longer just sitting around throwing her hammers. These days, she's building with them -- raising awareness, touching lives and, damn it, being a walking, talking, guitar-slinging inspiration.

Though she said about being interviewed by a complete stranger, "Um yeah, it is weird, it should be weird," Thao nevertheless graciously shared all sorts of intimate details with me -- about everything from her writing to her personal struggles to her dreams of changing the world, one song at a time. Here's what she said:

Meghan McGlynn: Did I read correctly that you were once a music reviewer?

Thao Nguyen: For a very short-lived time, I reviewed for this Americana/alt-rock magazine called No Depression. It was right out of college, and they were very kind to let me write for them. But it was at the time my first record was being released –and I knew Karmically-speaking that I couldn't review music and try to be releasing it into the world as well.

You mean literally that you didn't have time for both or rather that you couldn't be both the critic and the artist?

Just based on principal, I couldn't release my work and hope people were kind to it and then also be a critic of other peoples' work.

Would you say that you're sensitive to criticism of your music?

(Laughing) I try not to pay attention. Yeah, it is a vulnerable place; it's very personal. And also, if it's good or bad -- neither one is that beneficial.

I think I read somewhere that you had always wanted to be a writer in some fashion; is that correct?

I always wanted to be a short story writer, but I lacked the discipline for it.

The lyrics in your songs: do you write all of those or is that a collaboration with your band?

I write all those.

I noticed some interesting things when I read the lyrics in your newest album, "We the Common" -- first of all, there seems to be a lot of talk of "villains." In the title track "We the Common (For Valerie Bolden)," you say something about "all they wanted was a villain," and in "Kindness Be Conceived," you say "I've been a villain all my life." What does this idea of "villain" mean to you?

I think that the references in those two songs exist independently. The one in "We the Common" is taken more literally; it's more of an indictment of the prison system -- that more archetypical sense of "villain." In "Kindness Be Conceived" it's just somebody expressing remorse; they're not necessarily a villain in that sense. You know, self-guilt or feeling bad about doing something; this sort of self-rapprochement for your past for trespassing, but not in the legal sense.

It felt to me like there was strong theme of self-rapprochement -- maybe "guilt" is too strong a word -- that goes throughout this album "We the Common." For example, I noticed a lot of talk about "I'm going to work" and then following up with a lyric about "do we leave too long."

Right, yes.

And I found very poignant the line in "The Day Long": "The last one forgave me so I forgive the next." It sounds as if you're saying you have to make up for past wrongs and pass on this good deed? That's my interpretation, anyway. That sentiment seems to be in many of the songs. Is that correct that there's a theme of remorse or regret throughout the album?

I think that inherent there is a recurring theme for me, and it does involve sort of guilt and reflection, but this record, maybe for the first time, is an effort to -- it's sort of a revival. It's sort of a declaration of wanting to be a true participant in your own life, you know, wanting to show up for people.

Like facing facts and taking stock? And rather than running away or wallowing, making something better of it?

Yeah. In that decision to be different you have to acknowledge how you used to be or how you still are.

I also noticed something that I thought was really interesting in the lyrics in "Clouds for Brains" and "Human Heart." You have this repeated lyric "startle and change let not the heart blood boil in vain."


So what does that mean for you: "startle and change let not the heart blood boil in vain"? Or do those also mean two different things in two different contexts?

First off, thanks for noticing that I include that in both songs because I did that intentionally! You know, no one ever brings that up.

One is sort of a response to the other. "Clouds For Brains" is the colder, crueler, more pessimistic view of things, and then "Human Heart" is the response, but a lot more optimistic and energetic and hopeful. And uh, "let not the hot blood…."

I may have misquoted. I wrote down "heart blood" when I was transcribing, sorry.

Oh it's "hot blood" (laughing). But, yeah, those lyrics are about revival, about being different and showing up and connecting on an emotional level. All that stuff is about acknowledging that there's emotion coursing through us, and no matter how much you might try to ignore it or how much you may have suffered, there's sort of a desire to be a part of something. That you don't necessarily want to be alone.

Ok, to try to paraphrase: Would you say that this is what we were talking about before, about facing these human feelings or emotions and recognizing they exist, but doing something with them? Meaning you could look at something through this negative, pessimistic and limited way, or you can look at it through a more positive "make something better out of it" kind of way?

Yeah, yeah. And you can be a part of something. You can be with people.

To me, you know I'm not an expert, but in my opinion, if you read all of the lyrics in "We the Common" cover to cover, it reads like a short story in a way.

Oh thanks!

On the one hand, it's this story of personal growth, and then on the other, this more public story -- like you're saying there's a bigger picture out there, there's a bigger calling in life.

I mean they're all very personal no matter the scope or no matter my other intentions behind them. It's a lot of thinking about yourself and trying to chew on it. And if you can talk about something that everybody knows the feel of, but present it in a different way that can make it strike…. I guess it's also about tapping into and sharing those more poignant moments.

You have said that this is your "revival album." But if you hadn't heard these other conversations going on, I feel like you could read the lyrics in "We the Common" and interpret it as sort of a break-up album. Did you intentionally write in this sort of double meaning with both a heartbroken, "I've made mistakes in relationships" sentiment and also a deeper social message about connecting with humanity?

Yeah. You know, I've never been that interested in very straightforward political songs, but I think that in anything you make, if you're interested in people connecting to it, the aim is to try to figure out how to stay true to what you wanted to do and also make it relatable. My favorite kind of writing, it can exist on different levels, but unless it connects on a more personal level, you probably won't get through on the other ones.

Sure, that makes sense. You have to make a connection before you communicate. So what do you think about when you're writing lyrics? How do you get down to business?

I think it depends on the song. With the song that was based on the conversation with Valerie Bolden, it was a lot of trying to write from her perspective, but in a very respectful, distant way, you know, not implying that I knew anything about that situation.

Have you sung that song for Valerie Bolden?

I went in and read her the lyrics, but we're still working on getting the actual song to her -- there's a lot of red tape.

I was just curious what she thought of it.

I think she was very touched. She said she hoped it would encourage people to write her letters.

Yes, I saw on your website that you posted the address. Has she gotten a lot of letters in response?

I don't think so. People have asked, but you know, asking for the address is different than actually writing the letter.

Yeah. There's a big difference between those...

…People have big intentions.

And when you mentioned writing from Valerie Bolden's perspective, is any of this process of naming a song after her and getting to know her and talking about her publicly, is that you thinking about giving a voice to these women who are perhaps otherwise forgotten?

I wanted to do that on a personal level. I didn't want to do that to become a spokesperson for them, because I'm not fit for that kind of responsibility. Nor did they ask me to do anything like that. And that's a fine line to negotiate as well; you know, first and foremost I want to be respectful.

But I do want folks to know what's happening inside prisons, and I do want people to know that they're not monsters. And the stigmas about people in prisons are just so -- it's such a disservice, because there's so much injustice taking place, but because it's happening within the prison system, nobody, or very few people are paying attention. I never did. It was pretty shocking to see and pretty shocking to talk to women who suffered years and years of domestic violence, and then defended themselves against their abusers, and now they are sentenced to life without parole. I wanted to do that song because it struck me on a very personal level.

What would your ideal result be for people that listened to your lyrics? Do you want people to be involved specifically in prison reform or just to be aware of what's going on?

I think my intention with this record in general and with that song about Valerie Bolden is just to try to draw attention and raise awareness to causes that I align with. I guess my strongest aim is to highlight the humanity in them and in places where people aren't often considered.

But you know, the women that I've visited in these prisons have changed me. Without them this record wouldn't exist. So a lot of that is just to pay tribute. But also to try and harness more of a collective energy to encourage people to take care of each other.

I've read a lot of things you have been saying about community and harnessing a collective energy; when did this idea of connectedness become important to include in your music?

I think that was always something important to me, but I didn't try to get it into my songwriting in an explicit and direct sense until this record. I went to school so I could work in women's advocacy. But then I decided that I would probably be more effective pursuing music and then trying to use that to support the work that I wanted to be involved in.

So previously your music had been more of a hobby, then you realized that you could better achieve your goals by using your musical talent?

Yeah. In college I was interning at this women's shelter, and I just didn't have the constitution for it. I didn't have the emotional strength or the ability to detach enough to do that work. I have an amazing respect for anyone who does. But in college, I was always songwriting. So I decided I wanted to pursue it for a living. But I promised myself that I would always come back to women's advocacy work.

Do you feel that you have, not that you're going to dictate this for the world, but that you have a personal responsibility or a duty to make known what you've learned about what's going on in these prisons and to tell those stories about how awful it is?

I think that is my job in whatever platform I have. I do think that I have a responsibility and an obligation to be a part of some kind of truth telling, yeah.

So, if we're talking about activism, can you describe your endgame? What would be the perfect response to your truth telling? For people to join you?

I guess ideally I'd like for folks to get inspired if they aren't already, to find something to care about and to help with whatever that may be.

You sound like a very honest and pragmatic person, so you're not suggesting that we all go out and start revolutions, right? It sounds like you're advocating more for people to get involved in ways that we're comfortable with and capable of doing?

Oh yeah, I mean, I believe firmly in very small moments of sincerity between people. I think that is worth more than a lot of other things we may try to do. But also it's at the beginning of everything we do anyway -- just to acknowledge another person as another person and to regard them with respect.

As said very respectfully from one stranger over the phone to another stranger (laughing), I appreciate that you're willing to share so sincerely with me!

(Laughing) No problem!

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down perform at Off Broadway on Sunday, August 18.

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