“There is a strength and confidence that you have when playing music that to an extent I think the world tries to stomp out of you.
I think it is so tough to be a young girl growing up into a woman in this world, with all the weird pressures and the odd demands and the self-hate. Music is totally an outlet for that for these girls,
and I swear it wards off demons.”
–Thao Nguyen, general badass
Growing up as a Vietnamese-American in the largely white suburb of Falls Church, Virginia with her single mother, Thao Nguyen found a new connection and identity in music at the age of twelve when she first picked up a guitar. After teaching herself to play, she has spent the following thirteen years honing that craft — from the singer-songwriter folk duo she formed with junior high friends, to the accomplished, talented, fearless artist she is today.
Her latest album We Brave Bee Stings And All (2008) is one of my most-listened-to records of last year. Sometimes her songs hit me with playfully familiar roots of girl groups or 1950s classic pop, but then she turns up the fierce, clever rock — just as a hint, Jack White is a fan of her skillful guitar playing.
Along with her raw and earnest vocals, Thao makes music that strikes deep at the heart of truth, and isn’t afraid to mix trombone with beatboxing. Now signed to the venerable Pacific Northwest label Kill Rock Stars, Thao has released two albums with a third due this fall.
Fear and Convenience – Thao Nguyen
Thao is a smarty, and I so enjoyed our time ruminating and intellectually meandering together (two of my favorite pastimes). She studied Sociology and Women’s Studies at the College of William and Mary, and she is one of the most articulate and thoughtful artists I have had the pleasure of speaking with.
You can tell that this is a sharp person who has wrestled to present the very best of her thoughts and talents on her albums and in concert, and to challenge others to rise above prescribed gender roles in music and in life. Everything about her is a delight.
INTERVIEW: THAO NGUYEN
ON THE BROWN PLAID COUCH AT THE HI DIVE, DENVER COLORADO
May 6, 2009
I decide to start the interview with the behemoth that often comes up in her music career and in so much of what others write about her. She is a female in rock music. I am interested in what goes on in those halls as well, and I want to talk to her about it: the pigeonholing, the battle that sometimes feels uphill, the club that at first might seem unwelcoming, even if unintentionally.
I show her a comic strip that I ripped from the Feminist & Gender Studies newsletter off the bathroom wall at the college where I work:
F/F: So, this. What are your thoughts on this, as it may relate to what you are trying to do as a musician?
Thao: (laughs) I think that there is a very pervasive enveloping stigma about women as musicians, and I think that within my personal experience you are, to a degree, immediately dismissed. I know that only through experience, and that it is unfortunate but it becomes part of the deal – not only are you playing music but you are having to sort of debunk negative stereotypes and myths about women who play. For a long time, I was qualified as “a good guitar player, for being a female”…that was immediately the caveat.
F/F: Did that drive you crazy?
Thao: No, only because I have concerns about my blood pressure, so I try not to absorb it. But of course it does stick with you and float around in your mind. If nothing else, it is a motivator. I want to be good enough that it doesn’t matter what gender I am. That may be the ultimate goal, that we eliminate even the passing thought of it. It’s disturbing how much it plays a factor – but then on the other hand I think it should be totally acknowledged and commended when any woman gains a foothold in any male-dominated industry such as this, that she’s done it as a woman, with no apologies.
It’s a weird line to toe and strange territory to navigate – being proud of being a woman, yet being willing to disregard that fact. And all the while just trying to maintain respect for yourself, and command respect at the same time.
F/F: Amen. I hear that you are volunteering this summer for Rock Camp For Girls?
Thao: That is correct! I am so thrilled, it is in Portland this June. I have dreamt of it for so long, since I found out that it existed, but I have been on tour every summer since I found out about it. My friend Laura Veirs mentioned it once a while back when I was on tour with her. This is the first summer that I have been able to make a window so that I can participate. I’m totally excited – I mean this sincerely, I really need a reminder sometimes to keep going and keep playing music and being involved in the industry, pushing along. I was filling out the application, I remember, and it asked me why I wanted to participate, and I think I started to tear up. It’s that significant to me.
I want girls growing up to have this experience, and I think back to when I was young and I would have been ruined without music. I don’t exaggerate, I think it saved me in a lot of ways. I just want little girls to know that it’s possible, you know? Just help them along. I am going to be a band coach and I am going to teach guitar – they haven’t told me what age yet, but I hope younger so they’re not better than me, because that would be embarrassing. But I just want the opportunity to show that it is possible, just to give them a vague idea of where they want to get to, and the rest is up to you. Just to tell them not to be intimidated.
There is a strength and confidence that you have when playing music that to an extent I think the world tries to stomp out of you. I think it is so tough to be a young girl growing up into a woman in this world, with all the weird pressures and the odd demands and the self-hate. Music is totally an outlet for that for these girls, and I swear it wards off demons.
F/F: For some artists there seems to be a difference between simple performance and true catharsis – really feeling a song. It seems no matter where you perform, from small radio station to big loud club, you always give authentic catharsis, with a lot of yourself.
Thao: I think it’s just the easiest thing for me to do, because however many times you do it, if you don’t hearken back to why you wrote it and how you felt when you did, why you needed to expel it from your body, then it becomes insincere. It is easier for me to just check out and immerse myself in the song, sink into something else, rather than be cognizant of how awkward the show could be. If I don’t do that, I just feel totally stupid — you gotta go all the way or it feels worse. I do sink my teeth into it because they are really personal songs, and if you don’t give that of yourself when you present them to people, then you do the song another injustice. I enjoy it — it is very draining, but I would rather that than be detached from the performance. Also, as people pay to see us, part of my job is to put on a good show. It’s really important for us to build a connection with the audience, and I want to build as honest of an experience as possible.
But [laughs] now that I think about it, you know, that’s kind of fucked up! But part of my job is to wallow in these terrible aspects and experiences. It’s not great for morale. After a while, I don’t want to think about them anymore, but for my job I have to.
F/F: Tell me about your work with the Portland Cello Project, which sounds amazing. You recorded an album recently with cello interpretations of your songs?
Thao: Yeah, well, I am performing with them on the record, so in a way they become my backing band. Willis [the drummer] plays on a few of the songs, and there’s my guitar, with the rest all cello. The songs we contributed were “Beat (Health, Life and Fire),” “Violet,” “Tallymarks,” and “Geography” with them, and the Kill Rockstars label is releasing it in June. It’s a full-length album — The Cello Project has a few songs they’ve contributed just of their own, and then another artist named Justin Power has a few of his songs on there as well. The Portland Cello Project has also recorded with artists like Horse Feathers, Laura Gibson and Mirah.
F/F: That sounds brilliant. Cellos are such honest, sad, gorgeous instruments, and I’m curious to hear what they bring out of your songs.
Thao: Yeah, they definitely bring out the sadness in my music, I’ll tell you that.
F/F: Your record We Brave Bee Stings and All (on the formidable Kill Rock Stars label), is one of my favorites of the last year. I understand that you guys are putting the final touches on the new album?
Thao: That is correct, we have one more week of working on it in July, and then it will be released in October. It is tentatively titled Know Better Learn Faster, but I am not completely sure on that yet. I’ll decide when they make me. The record is primarily a response to the end of a relationship, so a lot of it is pretty reactionary. It’s trying to be introspective, but there’s always got to be a little “fuck you” in there – or, sometimes there’s a lot. I am excited about the emotional content of it and how we tried to convey our live performance and that level of energy that we have now. On We Brave, we didn’t have that, because when we recorded it we weren’t really a band yet.
F/F: I heard one new song performed in Austin, and I read that you’ve been interested in exploring new sounds and instruments and songwriting techniques. What are you most excited about with the new album?
Thao: Lyrically I think the new album is a lot more straightforward than We Brave, because on that album I just danced around a lot of things, it wasn’t a total confrontation. But this new record was very intense and emotional to write and it all came out very quickly, in a month or so. I think the album is a lot more intense and energetic and straightforward.
We’ve been playing three of the new songs on the road, “Goodbye Good Luck,” “Body,” and “Easy,” and the album has 12 or 13 songs on it total. On this record, we’ve got a female choir, a lot more organ, more horns, a lot of trumpet, slide guitar.
There’s one song that’s only handclaps and stomping, it’s a very short song, and we’re calling it “The Clap.” That’s the title – and I’m not changing it.
[this interview was originally done in conjunction with gigbot.com [R.I.P.], with great photos taken by Todd Roeth]