As an artist one of the main things you can try to achieve with your work is to simply be honest but the ability or willingness to convey your most personal thoughts and emotions to a large audience of strangers must feel completely overwhelming. Thao Nguyen of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down has been writing and recording great and thoughtful music for more than a decade but after her last album, 2016’s A Man Alive, the talented musician and songwriter was feeling like maybe the medium of rock music wasn’t the most capable way for her to truly express herself. After feeling divided for so long between her real self and the self she has portrayed in her public life and with her Vietnamese family and community, in which she kept her queer identity a secret, she decided to come out publicly with her latest album Temple. The new album, which she self produced with long time bandmate Adam Thompson, is a grand gesture. A beautifully honest piece of work that finds Nguyen being open about the queer life she had kept hidden, her upbringing with an absent father and the resolve that her honestly will finally allow her to be real with not only herself but with the fear she had about being separated by her community. As she says,“I believe that shame has made my work more general, when I’ve always wanted to be specific. This record is about me finally being specific. If you listen to my music, I want you to know who you are dealing with.” When we reach Thao at her home in Oakland, California, the thoughtful singer and producer guides us through how the honesty she chose to relate made her want to restart her journey with music and why that choice has made Temple her finest record to date.
“I was so hesitant and reluctant to keep going,” Nguyen explains. “I knew what I wanted the next record to be about but it took so much emotionally and mentally to get there and to be publicly out for the first time and I knew that this was a source of conflict within my family. I really had to prepare for what that meant for my personal life and relationships with my family. There’s still a lot of stuff there to sort though.” There wasn’t a choice whether these feelings were going to be put down on an album or in some other medium, as an artist Nguyen has a need to be expressive. She did think about maybe switching to possibly writing but as she thought about it, it seemed like music was the best option to be honest about these feelings and about the feelings she had about making records. “I have always wanted to be a writer and with this stuff I knew I would need more words at my disposal. I got really into prose writing and filmmaking as well but there is something very specific about songwriting that you are able to portray in the music even without words.” Temple has an immediacy that even transcends the energy of the last Thao & The Get Down Stay Down records. You hear it right off the top with the title track and it’s bopping, bubbling bass line and it’s intensely personal lyrics about Nguyen’s family. She knew when she started the project up again, that for it to be exactly what she wanted she would need to be in charge of the entirety of the proceedings. “I knew with this content, and in a lot of other ways, I felt like I was finally ready to produce a record by myself and with (bandmate) Adam Thompson,” Nguyen explains. “It was also honestly the culmination of a lot of years recording with other people and absorbing information.” It turns out that Nguyen absolutely thrived in her newfound position and that growth really comes through when listening to the album. “I loved being in control of everything,” she says with a laugh. “There were always reservations before about doing my own production but it felt very natural to be in control. The most difficult part was just the file sorting and everything,” she chuckles. “There’s always technical aspects with the gear and just the more mechanical side of producing but we had some really wonderful engineers around to keep it all moving.”
Before production began on Temple, Nguyen and her band had the opportunity to travel to Vietnam to perform some shows in 2017. She decided this would be an amazing experience to share with her mother Nhan. Nhan had not been back to Vietnam since she and Thao’s father left in 1973 and Thao really wanted this to be something that they could share together. Nguyen enlisted close friend and director Todd Krolczyk and a small camera crew to join to document the trip and the outcome is a beautiful short film entitled Nobody Dies. The trip, as seen through Krolczyk’s lens, caused Nguyen to really reflect on her family, her absent father and to witness her mother in a new light. It’s a beautiful thing to experience and to see a real family come to terms with their past and come out of it feeling like they have a better understanding of it is remarkable. “It was incredible and so intense,” explains Nguyen, “and it took me two years to fully think about it afterwards because of how meaningful it was for my mom and I and how deeply emotional it was.
Vietnam is still so close to the proximity of the war and hearing and seeing how the war so deeply impacted the country and to go into someone’s home and there is an altar from a family member who had died fighting or who was lost in the education camps was a lot. It was such a good thing for me to go back with my mother and the reason that we got to go because of my career was also especially gratifying.” While Thao isn’t entirely sure of her reach in Vietnam, she was definitely impressed by how people really showed up for the band at their shows. “The turnout was really impressive and surprising. There are a lot of expats and also some people who may have heard my music before but I think some of it was people’s curiosity about this American born Vietnamese artist. They do have a lot Western and American pop and K pop there but nothing really outside of the mainstream, which is where I kind of live.” One of the takeaways that Nguyen was hoping for with the performances was to reach the younger generation of the country. “I would really hope that people were inspired,” she says. “I did feel a special propulsion and energy to perform well for the woman and girls in the crowd. There are cultural expectations, that I grew up and even later in life definitely fought against and I wanted to represent to them that there are a lot of ways to be and you can show passion and anger and be crazy and do whatever and I’m hoping some of the audience came away from the shows with that.”
With Temple now out and reaching audiences around the world, Nguyen and her band find themselves locked down and trying to navigate how to promote an album not only in a global pandemic but a time where there are so many more social issues being brought to the forefront that seem more important than a rock record. “The hardest part about the album coming out now, and I’m sure a lot of people would say this, was to lose that connection with fans and audiences at shows. I really wanted to see how the songs are received live. So much of what we do is performance and with really being excited about the album and I was looking forward to seeing how it evolves beyond that setting. Songs tend to change so much over an album cycle. I certainly hope things get better and there are so many different degrees and the spectrum is so wide for what “better” is. The uprisings and protests have provided a lot more perspective and I don’t know how but, if you are lucky enough to make a living from making music, promoting yourself, running this small business and figuring out how to navigate it now seems less important. How much of ourselves can we devote to a greater cause. My new evergreen priority, and I think this goes for a lot of artists and I don’t know we do this in a sustained way yet, is to figure out how to run our business with an eye to being responsible. People got to work and I think everyone is trying to figure that out and maybe these things will get easier when we are able to go back on tour but I think consistently participating and continuing to dedicate yourself to the cause of racial justice is really, really important right now.”
interview by Adam Fink
Thao will be participating in this online talk with Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer, on August 27th, watch here