Thao Nguyen began her last full-band album with the double-timed handclaps of an ominous, fatalistic field holler, a chorus of voices rising as the singer squared off against a ruthless adversary: “If this is how you want it, oh-kay…OK!” Leaving no doubt as to the romantic nature of the demon being exorcised, the cover photo of Know Better Learn Faster showed Thao peeking out from under a blindfold, armed to take a whack at a giant piñata heart.
Three years later—following a free-flowing side-project with Mirah and some downtime for the Virginia-bred artist to settle into her adopted San Francisco home—Thao & The Get Down Stay Down return with We The Common, a hands-in-the-soil, populist collection brimming with spiritual rebirth and revival. Committed to taking a more outward-looking role in her life and community, Thao has translated the metaphorical, can-do energy of her breakthrough We Brave Bee Stings And All into living action, raising money and awareness for Oxfam, visiting inmates with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, and leading writing workshops and providing after-school tutoring through 826 Valencia, a neighborhood-oriented youth learning program.
This community focus extended to the crafting of the new album. After couch-surfing across Portland to record We Brave Bee Stings And All and Know Better Learn Faster with Pacific-Northwest mainstay Tucker Martine, Thao kept it Bay Area local with We The Common, hunkering down in John Vanderslice’s legendary Tiny Telephone Studios (home to records by Okkervil River, Deerhoof, The Mountain Goats, and tUnE-yArDs among a long and eye-popping list). Working with Tiny Telephone’s prolific house engineer John Congleton, Thao set out determined to capture “a rougher, rawer sound. I wanted to better convey our strength, which I think is the energy of a live show.”
The New Year is only a few days old as I head into San Francisco’s Mission District to sit down with Thao, crossing a handful of blocks from Tiny Telephone’s compound and into narrow streets pulsing with activity. Laborers gather at either side of a thick stack of wall panels, working in mute cooperation to haul the sheets off the sidewalk and into a gutted storefront. A man in froggy goggles power-sprays the street gutters, diverting the stream while a young mother brakes her stroller to light a cigarette. Faces of Oaxaca, faces of Laos—elderly shoppers cluster around bins of plantains and avocados outside the awnings of an open market and fragrant gusts of cinnamon and sweetened almond fill the air as deliverymen back their hand trucks in and out of the neighboring Panaderias. In a blacked-out doorway, a solitary sign in the window reads: Microwave $25. Ring bell if interested.
“Rest and be strong, wash and be clean, start a New Year whenever you need.”—from “City,” on We The Common
Nguyen: That line came to me last New Year’s Eve—I was with friends and we were near the ocean, on an island off the coast of Seattle, and at midnight we jumped into the water. It was really, really…cold. But throughout this record there’s a sense of renewal and revival and an effort to do things differently and exist more responsibly and with more gratitude.
: There’s definitely a consistent return to images of restoration that are…perhaps not denominationally Baptist, but certainly filled with the sort of ecstatic spirit that spills out of the pews and into the aisles.
Nguyen: Yeah, yeah, and then just seeking your life and being grateful and trying to conduct yourself in a way where you take an active part in life rather than simply going along as a spectator of life. I started touring right out of school and I think I missed a lot of the portions of life that are key to your development as a human.
: There also seems to be less opposition between the words and the music on We The Common: where in the past you frequently juxtaposed painful lyrics with upbeat, dance-able tracks, now the lyrics and music seem more of a whole.
Nguyen: I think it’s just a part of me being older and more direct with myself. I think it was an issue of really wanting to feel things—if you really want to feel them there needs to be some streamlining. Whereas before there was a lot of not being able to show what was actually happening—even though the lyrics might indicate something, the emotion of the music might not back it up.
“Would you like to learn something in Vietnamese?”
The title track of We The Common is dedicated to Valerie Bolden, a woman Thao met through her visits with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Bolden is currently serving a sentence of 56 years to life after stabbing her husband in the heart with a kitchen knife. An appeal of Bolden’s second degree murder conviction hinged not on whether her muscular, 240-lb. husband had assaulted her multiple times in the past or whether he’d threatened her life in a raging chase through their home immediately prior to the fatal stabbing (apparently, he did); instead, the fate of the appeal rested on whether Bolden’s trial lawyer committed an irreversible form of “invited error” by not accepting jury instructions for a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter (Bolden lost the decision).
Nguyen: We [Valerie and I] just started talking until we were friends. The first thing I said when we sat down—she’d asked what my ethnicity was and I’d said Vietnamese—and I asked if she wanted to learn something in Vietnamese, so I taught her this phrase and she said it and said “what am I even saying,” and I said “It’s so cold your penis shrivels.” It was an icebreaker, you know? But we started cracking up and it was really amazing. Every time I go back it’s this incredible experience…you just can’t believe these people can have this kind of spirit and that two people can share something within this setting. It’s really inspiring and at the same time devastating, since it has to be in that setting.
: Know Better Learn Faster included a lot of visceral imagery and interpersonal conflict in the context of—for lack of a better term—a classic break-up record. By leading We The Common with a track dedicated to Valerie Bolden—who was involved in a domestic conflict taken to its most fatal conclusion—were you consciously closing one chapter as a way of starting the next?
Nguyen: That wasn’t conscious—I wouldn’t give myself that much credit—but in this time off I’d had the chance to live in the city and be part of a community and I didn’t plan it but what struck me and what inspired me had to do with other people and didn’t have as much to do with me. And when it did, it was “how can I do better” or “what have I learned.” Writing about Valerie was really refreshing to me—in terms of not taking myself so seriously and taking more of a humble approach to my life.
: There’s that subtle, gut-punch line in the song, “I love my girl, will you remind her.”
Nguyen: Nothing was taken verbatim from our dialogue, but when she did bring up her daughters it was the one moment of sadness—everything else was matter-of-fact, we were trying to keep it light-hearted, but there would be these flashes of total, utter pain because she couldn’t see her kids.
: Not to overdo the religious angle, but there are points where you can look around and have that “there but for the Grace of God go I…” reaction.
Nguyen: The idea of “We The Common” and what I’ve learned working for the California Coalition for Women Prisoners is that…for just a few differences it could be any of us. So you just want to help as you can and bear witness as you can—not in any overwrought terms—but from a songwriting standpoint I was tired of “me versus them” and spending so much time speculating about myself. The more real of a person you become, the harder it is to work within those boundaries.
At times, anything but “common”….
: How exactly did the duet with Joanna Newsom [“Kindness Be Conceived”] come about? Did you or John [Congleton] steer her performance at all, since there’s a sort of Karen Dalton/Katie Cruel twang I’ve never heard in her voice?
Nguyen: We met at this writing retreat called Hedgebrook, which is on Whidbey Island, near Seattle. It’s a non-profit writing retreat for women writers patterned after Virginia Woolf’s “Room of Her Own.” Each writer gets her own cabin and this was the first time they offered a retreat specifically for songwriters. I was invited, Joanna was invited, there was Sera Cahoone—who’s on Sub Pop—and then THEESatisfaction, Catherine and Stasia, who are also on Sub Pop. We had heard that Patti Smith was invited, but she graciously declined, which was cool, because we all would have been really nervous. You write all day and you just meet for dinner at night and that’s all you have to do.
: No dish duty?
Nguyen: No, it’s incredible, you don’t have to do anything. They cook for you, they have their own organic garden, everything is local and they have a house chef. All you have to do is write, and while I was there I was working on songs for the album and I had this song I was demoing in my cabin and I thought Joanna would sound amazing on it so I asked her if she would come listen…I wanted that very Appalachian-style vocal. She was great—I recorded her there on Garage Band on my iPad, and a few months later she recorded the vocal again with John in New York.
: John also gets those great tequila horns (most notably on “The Feeling Kind” and “Age of Ice”). I love all that woozy brass, a lot like he captured on The Walkmen’s Lisbon.
Nguyen: Whenever I call in horns I want people to feel like they’re drunk and on a boat. John and I both agreed that we wanted it to sound drunk. I think for this record I really knew what I wanted and John and I were really well aligned with the sounds that we wanted and the elements we wanted to incorporate. We had these talks before we started recording and I told him I’m a huge ‘90s hip-hop fan—and he is as well…
Nguyen: Totally. There are so many components we borrowed from hip-hop records. That fat beat and then layers and patterns of melody that happen throughout. And, sonically, the sounds that he gets from bass and drums are really incredible. John’s amazing. He works incredibly quickly, and his sense of song, his ear… “Human Heart” is one that was finished and arranged at the 12th hour. People were leaving; it was their last day. We broke for lunch but I skipped the break. It was two or three in the afternoon and I was just at my wit’s end trying to finish this song and someone had brought in a bottle of whiskey and I was drinking and trying to finish this goddamn song—I’m not proud of it—but we got it finished. But there was a videographer in the studio doing “Behind The Scenes” and I just thought of my mom watching me drink during the daytime…
: Singing “I got to get devoted…”
Nguyen: Yeah, yeah [laughs]…It’s weird, I didn’t mean to be so pious on these songs but there is a level of spirituality and devotion…to what I’m not sure…[laughs].
“Under Midwestern clouds like great grey brains we left the superhighway with a drifting sensation and entered Kansas City’s rush hour with a sensation of running aground.”—Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son
Nguyen: I came to Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son late, but one of the stories in the book directly resulted in “Clouds For Brains,” which is by far the darkest song on the new album. But there’s that passage in the story (“Car Crash While Hitchhiking”) where Johnson describes the Midwestern sky…where the clouds look like brains… I don’t know, it made an impression on me. Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water also inspired the record a lot: how she approaches memory and writing and how much it’s a lifeline to her. The songwriting process in general was different in that there was this luxury of time that I’d never had before. There was time to make something and then hate it and then make something else and then hate it, and hate yourself, and then feel better about yourself and start over. It takes a lot of time to write. You have to factor in how many times you quit, but then realize your skill set doesn’t really lend itself to other jobs so you should try doing this one better.
: “The Day Long” [a bleary, electro-blues] doesn’t sound like the sort of thing you’d knock out with an acoustic guitar.
Nguyen: No, “The Day Long” existed a lot differently when I first wrote it. I did write it on guitar, but it’s definitely a studio creation—that was one where Congleton had a very big influence on the rhythm tracks. There was a lot of trial and error on that song, going through different beats and grooves, trying to figure out vibe-wise what was happening.
: It seems there’s a little less Motown influence on We The Common?
Nguyen: It’s definitely a dirtier, more Stax-like record. I’ve sort of veered away from the poppier sheen on the earlier records and wanted something a little more visceral.
: The drums don’t gallop in time quite as much, there’s a more established backbeat.
Nguyen: That was definitely an element we wanted more of, to feel that heartbeat.
: The banjo’s also back in a big way. Was that part of the populist vibe you were bringing to the album?
Nguyen: I love the instrument, and I don’t claim to have any level of proficiency but I’ve always really loved playing the banjo, and other than on “Swimming Pools”—where it was played by Danny Barnes, an amazing banjo player—I’ve never really had a chance to incorporate my own playing. Part of it I was getting bored with guitar…
: Really? There’s some incredibly potent guitar on the album—the marauding riff that starts “City” and then that whole “When The Levee Breaks” thing going on in with “Move”…
Nguyen: Yeah, yeah I guess I wanted to better explore what I was capable of.
: Are those songs you’re looking forward to playing live?
Nguyen: Definitely. Definitely. I want the touring of this record to be unifying, I want the live shows to feel like you were part of a group of people doing something together. I hope that’s what comes across.