What makes a songwriter decide to share their most personal stories in their songs? To make themselves so vulnerable that issues they’ve struggled to even face in the privacy of their own mind are now laid bare for anyone with CD player or a Spotify account? For Thao Nguyen of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, it wasn’t really a decision so much as a recognition that the pain she’d buried—especially when it came to her father, who abandoned her family when she was young—was trying its hardest to come out in song.
“There was a lot of internal resistance in terms of doing something so personal and making this thing so public. But every song that was sort of visiting me or making itself known to me, it was all about this relationship. And so I also think in my personal life at the time I was more open and ready to explore it and its impact—its reach—in a way that I had never been interested in confronting before. And then after a while, it was sort of the train of making a record—it’s not as though I could have written a bunch and then discarded them, or just sort of corded them off. I knew that I would be with them. I started to embrace the truth that it needed to happen, and I started looking at being vulnerable in a different way. In a way that I knew I needed to, and wanted to. And it was just the most honest process that I’ve been through and I wanted to honor that part by actually going through with it. But I really did not want to at all.”
But there’s a difference between pouring your heart out into a digital file and getting up on stage every night to share your deepest pain with a room full of strangers. For that reason and others, Nguyen approached these songs wanting them to be more driven by drums and bass than the band’s guitar-oriented 2013 breakout record We the Common. She enlisted her longtime friend Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs to produce, and the result is a more danceable, layered and loopy album than anything they’ve ever done.
“I basically made a deal that if I was going to tackle the subject matter, I’d be able to do it in a way where I could perform it every night,” she says. “And the way to do that was to make them fun to perform and to have an energy and a beat and be able to immerse ourselves more in the performance of it. And manage to be able to dance and see the crowd dance, you know? It directly would not have happened without both of those holding the same amount of weight and gravity. So to go out and do it, yeah I mean when you write the song it’s like one thing—never before have I written a song where in the middle of writing a lyric I just started crying. That was new. But that is an entirely separate process. The thing that I needed for my own self was done, and when we perform it, it’s a different kind of communication.”
The writing itself was a catharsis, and Nguyen says there’s something liberating about reliving that catharsis on stage, even as she dives back into songs that spring from a deep well of negative emotion. “This whole process has been really freeing, and I’m really excited to do it live because there’s another level of release that just cannot be replicated. And also in a way the ongoing relationship that we’ve built with our audience, the people who show up for every tour cycle every time we come through town, that is fulfilling to me in a way, which I hadn’t realized. And so to be this vulnerable to people who want to listen to the record in that way and show up at the shows it’s kind of a thank you, an acknowledgement to how important touring and making records has been.”
Part of enlisting the help of Garbus was just for a chance to reconnect with a dear friend who she’d worked with on a collaboration with Brooklyn singer/songwriter Mirah. “Merrill and I had been friends for years and years,” Nguyen says. “We’d worked together before in more narrow capacities and with more constraints around them, and we’ve toured together. She is such a lifeline for me because we work in the same field because we understand things about work that it’s hard to convey. Our touring cycles are basically opposite each other and so if we didn’t find a project together we might not see each other. All of her incredible musical talents aside, and her skills as a producer, I totally trusted her with this subject matter. And also I don’t think I could have written some of the songs without knowing that they were going into—they would be handled with care. And that I would be handled with care as well. I trusted her so much from the beginning. We talked so much about what I wanted this record to be and she created so much space to creatively just experiment which is what we wanted.
“That kind of fearless that she has—that kind of ferociousness—is something that I’ve always admired and has always inspired me,” she continues. “It was incredible to have it on our side, just from the beginning to draw upon these resources. She inspired everyone to create at their highest level and to experiment, which was awesome. Throughout this it was like ‘Why the fuck not?’ Why couldn’t I use something that I demoed, on logic why wouldn’t we just put that on a record instead of recreating it in the studio? Why not? Why wouldn’t I play the bass here? Why not?’ There’s just so many levels of her expertise and her acumen. And also there’s her spirit.”
The result is a creative leap forward for Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, but there’s enough here to connect with the fans who came on board for We the Common, an album inspired by Nguyen’s time volunteering for the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (watch the band perform songs from that album here). “I started volunteering almost four years ago,” she says, “and I still do. It’s just hard with scheduling and with the record coming out. It’s really hard. As much as I can I do advocacy visits with our visiting team and we go into a couple of the women’s prisons in California. It’s incredible. A lot of the people we see are sentenced to life without parole and we try to visit regularly and maintain friendships and relationships with them. A lot of the organizing happens from the inside out and so we’ll follow the lead of people who have been inside and who even within those confines are doing amazing work, connecting work. And I learned so much more about being a person in the world. Talking to people who are in this situation.”
Since the release of A Man Alive, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down have embarked on a US tour, one that has Nguyen both excited and nervous. “It’s really cool to visit these songs and really dig in after recording them and walking away for a little bit,” she says. “One song that I’m a little bit terrified to play it live is ‘Millionaire’ because it’s so stark and bare in comparison to the other songs. And it is definitely the most vulnerable and the saddest song on the record. It was the most direct line to that and the one song I had the most difficulty including on the record. You know, I’m glad we did it and I’m glad it’s on there. There’s a sympathy in it that I think is really important.”
And for anyone at a Thao & the Get Down Stay Down show dealing with their own pain, there’s a special kind of catharsis, along with a whole lot of groove, in these songs.