Although based in Northern California, musician Thao Nguyen is an honorary Oregonian of sorts. She came to prominence a little over a decade ago after signing with Portland-based label Kill Rock Stars. Her band, The Get Down Stay Down, is made up of several long-time Rose City residents, including Adam Thompson who co-produced the group’s newest album, “Temple.” And part of that album, like much of her previous work, was recorded in Oregon.
“Temple” (out now via Ribbon Music) is an intensely personal recording for the songwriter. It serves as both a very public embrace of her queer identity and a vehicle to explore the complex relationship she has with her family, which includes a childhood and cultural upbringing heavily influenced by her mother’s status as a Vietnamese war refugee. It’s a fearless performance that leaves virtually nothing in reserve.
Nguyen joined us to chat about the serious and sometimes unreasonable demands of her chosen career, the new album’s surprising hip-hop influences, and gardening as a replacement for touring during the pandemic. Listen to the interview above or read the full transcript below.
Jerad Walker: A milestone for you on this record, and in your life, is coming out publicly. How did that manifest itself in the songs on this record?
Thao Nguyen: “A lot of the songs certainly deal with and are the platforms on which I’m trying to communicate with my family in ways that I would never talk to them in real life. And a lot of the songs have a lot of grief, but also this letting go, this shedding of a lot of shame and acknowledging at a certain point, if you don’t live entirely for yourself — if it’s always been for your family or for the perceived comfort of your family — it’s untenable. It is not a life. And a lot of this album is an embrace of my life. But within that, there’s also optimism that I can belong to my family and belong to myself as well.”
Walker: So I read that you wrestled with the idea of possible retirement or at least quitting touring before beginning work on this record. Is that true?
Nguyen: “That’s very true. [Laughter]
"Yeah, I don’t know — retirement sounds funny.
“But yeah, I was thinking that — you know what it was was the incredible weight of what I knew I had to address in my music [and] what the ramifications could be in my family. I think what was at stake as far as estrangement within my family and what that would do with my relationships. It was so heavy to consider. But I also knew that this was the record, if I was going to write any batch of songs, it would be this. And so it was just really difficult to get to a point where I was emotionally and mentally prepared enough.”
Walker: Does the song “How Could I” reference that kind of exhaustion? There’s an incredibly powerful line in the song “I was sing to the strangers late into the night / I’ll be singing to the strangers 'til the end of time / I know it can give so much / I know it takes everything.” That is just an exhausting lyric.
Nguyen: “Thank you so much for saying that because I was truly exhausted writing it, and I’m so glad that that’s how you absorbed it because that’s what I meant to convey. Especially given the subject matter of that song and the moment it was written in.
“What I was trying to capture — it was basically about being on tour and my grandmother passing away. She raised me, so I grew up in the same house as my grandmother, and I was incredibly close with her. It was just me grappling with the fact that I had gone to see her, but I had these tour dates. It’s always this unfortunate calculation you have to make. And I thought she had more time. And she didn’t. And so “How Could I” is the moment where I missed her passing by a few hours because I was racing back from this show in Philly. So that’s when I’m referencing that this career can, as I say, it can give so much. But it does — it feels, at times like you have given everything. An unreasonable amount.”
Walker: If there’s a theme I think that probably runs through the whole album, it would be concepts of freedom-- both fundamental freedoms and much more complex ideas of personal freedom. These are two things I think are really resonating with people right now. I love album openers, and you apparently do, too, because you waste no time on this record. The title song ‘Temple’ is one of the most impressive opening tracks I’ve heard all year long, and it tackles both of those themes.
Nguyen: “Yeah, it was incredibly important for me to open the record with ‘Temple’ because it is the heart of the record in so many ways.”
Walker: Musically it’s got this really incredible dirty blues background. But lyrically, man, it is just intense song. It was partly inspired by a trip you took the Vietnam with your mother. Correct?
Nguyen: "Yes. I wanted to write the song from her narrative perspective. My initial intention in doing that was to offer her story as a refugee of war an opportunity to be a more complex, more nuanced rendering of what it is to be someone who loses their country to war and what has to happen afterwards.
“My mom never directly addressed the war because obviously it’s such a source of sorrow and trauma and grief. But she would throughout my childhood and into my adulthood kind of pepper tellings with these really striking images of her life before the war in what she was doing at the fall of Saigon. And so I wanted a song that collected these images and presented them in conjunction with more general images that we have of the notion of this war.”
Walker: It’s so vivid at times. You even reference the style of her in the in the early 70s. Was it easier for you to place your mother in that setting after going back and seeing her there in the place of her birth?
Nguyen: "It was. And I hadn’t anticipated how much easier it would be and how important it would be for me to do that and to try to capture that and capture that vibrance and energy. But, you know, being raised by my mom in the US was so different than being with her in Vietnam because I could see her in the most relaxed state. She just had an ease about her, which could never have been afforded her in in the States.
“I was raised in Virginia. And my brother and I grew up helping to translate for her and for my dad, and we would be the ones to read the documents and explain all the things, all the stuff that kids who grow up in immigrant families and refugee families are sort of tasked with. And so it was so incredible to see her haggling with people and deciding what we would order at the restaurant or asking people for directions. It was just this lightness that I had never seen in her.”
Walker: And there also seems to be sort of a keen awareness in the song as well, about the expectations that I guess could be crushing at times of being a daughter of a refugee and maybe a recognition from her about that in this track. Am I reading too much into that?
Nguyen: “No, you’re not. I think that if you are, then I was, too, because there’s so much that goes unspoken but I believe is communicated and has been communicated through just the daily demonstrations of care and love that don’t necessarily end up in language. But, yeah, I think my mom would acknowledge that growing up in the culture and also in a refugee family where there’s not necessarily a lot of space for personal expression or the pursuit of freedom or expression that is outside the bounds of expectation. And I think she’s bristled. She has had her own experiences in life bristling in those confines, and so she can acknowledge those in mind as well.”
Walker: You were raised in Northern Virginia. People may not hear it now, but your earliest music was influenced a little bit by country and Appalachian folk music of that region. And I think the first time I ever heard you play you had a banjo in your hand. Fast forward 15 years to today, you’ve produced a record for the very first time, along with bandmate Adam Thompson, and musically it sounds nothing like that. You’ve been exposed to so many styles and worked with so many talented producers in your career. How did you decide that when you took the helm, what direction you would go in?
Nguyen: “It was easy in some ways. I knew that this record, even though all records of other herds I’ve made up in personal this was incredibly so and was a culmination of so many things, so many different avenues of growth, professionally and personally. And I knew if I was going to make a record this personal and this honest, then I would definitely produce it. And in a lot of ways it was because I wanted to return to my sonic roots. And I totally agree with you. My main instrument is guitar and I grew up most influenced by the country blues and Appalachian stuff I was hearing in Virginia, but I also listened to hip hop all the time. As a kid, my older brother loved hip hop and pop music of the 80′s and 90′s.”
Walker: What were your big early influences in those genres?
Nguyen: “In those genres? My brother, he had a Fat Boys tape that I listened to all the time. But he also was listening to Duran Duran. And then, you know, I love Salt-N-Pepa. I loved MC Lyte. And then, as I got a little bit older, I found De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest, and Naughty By Nature. And then there is all the top 40 pop stuff happening.”
Walker: And now that you said, I can totally hear that on this record.
Nguyen: “So there are many nods to a lot of different influences that I wanted to be sure to pay tribute to.”
Walker: So, Thao you’ve obviously got a little bit of downtime this summer. I listened to an interview with you that you did earlier this year, and you mentioned that you had been gardening. I wanted to know how your vegetable garden is doing?
Nguyen: “Thank you so much for asking. Ah, it’s just nice to have a true and clear and simple purpose, which is to keep these plants alive so that we can eat. Things are doing better because I committed to watering every day, which had been an issue before.”
Walker: Gotta water them.
Nguyen: “Gotta water them. I know! Because the thing is, we live in California. There’s drought. So I was trying to do it where it’s only water from the shower. It’s only like water washed vegetables in and, you know, I was being very, almost too conscientious about it. But yeah, gotta water. We’ve got corn. I just put some kale and lettuce in for the fall. And potatoes. I don’t know anything more rewarding than just harvesting this bounty.”
Walker: Well, I’m glad that the vegetable patch is doing well. That’s good to hear. And but hopefully next time we speak, it will be in person, and it will be right before a sold out show in Portland, Oregon.
Nguyen: “I hope so, too. With all my heart. Thanks for saying that.”
Walker: The album is called Temple and it’s out now on ribbon Music. Thao Nguyen, thank you so much for chatting with me today.
Nguyen: “Thank you so much. It was a delight to speak with you.”