Releasing her first record back in 2005, Thao Nguyen was quite a musical contrast to what was making it into the charts on the other side of the Atlantic. In a year that saw our summer dominated by James Blunt’s pop ballad schmaltz and the sad [inevitable?] demise of peppy boy band Busted, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down released their debut, Like The Linen. The record led to a chance meeting with producer, Tucker Martine [Beth Orton, R.E.M, My Morning Jacket] and became the first of many prolific collaborations spanning Nguyen’s career. Following 2011’s split release with K Records, Mirah and recent on stage rap spats with Carrie Brownstein, she still finds the time for a spot of female activism on the side; can this lady do wrong?
One part rollicking riff, one part understated Stateside cool, we caught up with our San Fran sister to talk guitar heroes, the new record and those booty jam vibes…
The Girls Are: You started playing guitar at a very early age and it’s written that Lilith Fair was one of the big draws for you which is an longstanding feminist music festival over in San Francisco; it’s not running any longer though is it?
Thao: [laughter] No, that’s right. I laugh because there’s a bit of a stigma around it here in the States, just because it consists of women and a lot of people have shit to say about it. But yeah, it was really influential to see these women playing music and to know that it was possible. I think that was the most influential part, seeing the women performing there, not only headlining but, composing and curating the whole thing.
TGA: Speaking of guitar and your roots as a musician, who were you guitar heroes growing up? Who inspired you into this creative channel?
Thao: I didn’t have specific players but I was always a huge fan of old country music and I listened to a lot of old soul and Motown and sixties rock, in general. Then, as I became more interested in guitar, it was a lot of country, blues players listening to old Elvis’ Sun records. The typical you know; Muddy Waters, Lightening Hopkins and then a litter later on, Robert Johnson. Always Elizabeth Cotton. Her track ‘Freight Train’ and that kind of country blues picking – I was always aspired to do it. I was enamoured by it but at the same time, I was baffled by it.
TGA: You’ve been quite prolific in some of the collaborations you’ve been working on recently and back with Mirah in 2011. Merril Garbus of tUnEyArd’s fame notably produced the collaborative album between you and Mirah and the record has a far, stronger digital sound than any of your previous works. Would you say that’s something that Garbus brought in the production or your relationship with Mirah?
Thao: It depended on what song it was, you know and the way Mirah and I split it up. It was a funny decision; we basically each wrote half of the record and then, we were also co-producing on the tracks too but obviously, whoever track it was more often got a bigger say! [laughs] It wasn’t really a democracy in that sense…So, it depends on the tracks you’re thinking of a more than likely it would have been Mirah’s that had more of a digital edge.
[we were thinking tracks like ‘Eleven’ and ‘How Dare You’; incidentally, our favourite track on the record]
Thao: Oh, well thank you! In fact, ‘How Dare You’ was one of mine. We really wanted to go for that booty jam vibe…so that’s the exception there! That track was one that I was really open to taking a new approach on as we really wanted to have that groove to it.
Were you a big admirer of Garbus’ work before you started on the record together? Did you approach her to take on the production role?
Thao: We’re actually friends from way back. We’d been on tour a while and when Merrill was with Sister Suvi was when we first really met and then just became good friends from that point. Once Mirah moved to San Francisco and then Merrill moved to Oakleigh, we all know each other from before and a mutual friend of ours suggested that we do a record all together.
TGA: Following your collaborative album with Mirah, did it change the way you were writing and gaining inspiration? Where you looking forward to getting back to more guitar based songs and structures?
Thao: In a way, yes. I was excited to get back to a folkier effort because going in we knew that it would just be a side project and hopefully, a way to collaborate, have fun and let loose. We weren’t really worried about what would happen with the record , as a source of livelihood. But at the same time, it was a really important record to make and it was deeply educational in a lot of ways. It was nice to come back to something that’s your own though, of course. I learned so much working with them and they’ve certainly influenced my song writing and my musicality and the way I hear things. You know, like the way that Mirah hears songs, that’s very outward looking and humane. I get a real sense of citizenship of the world in her music. I’ve spent so much time with her, exploring and working on stuff that can only impact on me to write a record that is less about me.
TGA: This leads nicely into your latest release, ‘We The Common’; a record that you did consciously take some time out from before writing in order to settle down in San Francisco and also, get involved with some volunteering as well?
Thao: Yeah, that’s right. A few good friends of mine are really amazing activists here in the city and they asked me to start helping with prison advocacy visits and this thing called ‘The Californian Coalition for Women Prisoners’. I started to do some of the state visits to these women prisons and I started being part of this Women Empowerment group at the local county jail. Without a doubt, this group, this coalition and this group of people I have met, have played a really big part in the writing of this record and taking a new perspective.
TGA: You enlisted the production skills of John Congleton for the new record who is renowned for his work with fellow US singer songwriter, St Vincent and her Strange Mercy release. How did that collaboration come about?
Thao: John and I had been wanting to work on a record together for almost a couple of years. It was a long time of figuring out scheduling and his gracious patience waiting for me to write these songs as well. We met through my former manager, Slim Moon who started Kill Rock Stars. John’s amazing, I think we both had the same idea of what the record would sound like, the energy of it and what we were going for so there were those same guiding principles…So, you know, there are a lot of references to 90’s hip hop!
TGA: Well, in a seamless link, we actually spotted a certain other collaboration online, an amazing rendition of Salt n Pepa’s ‘Push It’ with Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen. Are you a big Portlandia fan?
Thao: Oh yeah, they did a fantastic job with that. I knew them a little before anyway and then found out they were coming through San Francisco. Carrie is friends with Mirah from Portland back in the day, I think they went to school together…So, we happened to be there for that show and played some songs.
[Well, it was quite a fine rap spat!]
Thao: Ha, thanks. I mean, I don’t want to boast but in third grade, I was voted ‘Best Rapper’.
TGA: There’s a huge US tour planned in support of the new album, what else is coming up for Thao and the Get Down Stay Down?
Thao: Yeah, we’re doing that. So, that will be about six weeks and then things will be booked up accordingly.
TGA: Do you have any UK dates pencilled in or any forthcoming festival plans?
The last I heard, they were in the works but I don’t have any definitive dates. It’s looks like a pretty good shot!
TGA: Can you sum the Thao and the Get Down Stay Down in five words?
Thao: Oh, sure. I would say that we are salty, boisterous, well-groomed [well, we’re working towards it] Respectful and grateful.
[An impressive feat to be both boisterous yet respectful; you know, you’re respectful but not a push over..]
Thao: Not any more, sister!