Thao Nguyen, the singer-songwriter behind the group Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, tells me that I need to give the hit Comedy Central show Broad City another chance. I admit to her I haven’t picked up on the vibe of the show yet.
“You got to dig in a little bit,” Nguyen urges. “It’s pretty amazing!”
We made this slight deviation in our discussion about her band’s latest album A Man Alive! because Nguyen has a wicked sense of humor. Her comedic chops shine in her Funny Or Die parody of the New York Times’ visual piece on Justin Bieber, Diplo, and Skrillex. Nguyen and the record’s producer Merrill Garbus (tUnE-yArDs) hilariously describe how they worked to make the album’s first single “Astonished Man” a hit. The short video is a scathing take on popular music’s unfortunate tendency to take itself too seriously.
“It’s fun to engage [with people] on a different level,” she describes with a giggle. “I don’t know what people think of a sensitive songwriter, other than they are always sensitive and serious. I like to spend as little time being serious as possible.”
Humor was a way for Nguyen to deflect the world’s attempts to get her to open up. Nguyen is normally very reserved. It takes some coaxing to get out of her shell. She admits she was raised to be humble and self-effacing, and she laughs when I ask her what Garbus admires about her as a musician, then jokingly says she’s texting Garbus as we speak so she can elaborate on her answer. Sarcasm was her shield before the release of A Man Alive!, her most personal album to date.
“If I am talking about something, I am probably joking about it,” she says. “It’s difficult to be serious. Performing has given me an avenue of communication I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
The record focuses on the relationship between Nguyen and her father, or more accurately the lack of one. He left her family when she was a young girl. You can hear Nguyen’s mixed emotions regarding her father throughout the album. Sometimes she sympathizes with him while at other times you hear anger and disappointment. She says the frank and direct tone of the record has even taken her closest friends a little aback. It wasn’t until she started to write the album’s tracks that she realized how that relationship truly affected her life’s trajectory.
“At every point in the process I wasn’t sure if these songs would be released,” Nguyen says. “I had so many reservations about being so vulnerable. I basically decided to get out of the way because all of the songs that were coming out had something to do with this relationship. The momentum with which I was writing them was something I had never experienced before. I do think because it was because it was so personal. It came from an effort to be more direct and honest.”
Nguyen attributes her sudden affliction of honesty to several factors. According to a recent episode of the podcast Song Exploder, she credits her friend and collaborator Garbus with giving her the courage to put the 12 songs that make up the album out there. Each song is lathered with snappy bass lines and unhinged rhythms that lean towards dance bordering on experimental. It’s new territory for someone who was once labeled folk-rock.
It’s also quite a departure from the band’s previous record We The Common, a concept album that has its roots in Nguyen’s outreach work for imprisoned women in California. She has used the power of her music not just as a way to work out her personal feelings, but as a way to bring attention to social issues. Days after Bruce Springsteen made the announcement that he was going to cancel his April 10 show in North Carolina, she wishes she had the same clout to inspire the conversation and change he did that fateful Friday.
“I loved his statement regarding why he canceled,” Nguyen admiringly states, “I have a lot of respect for what he did. He’s Bruce Springsteen so he has so much more power. I really appreciate his politics and his attention to such matters.”
Nguyen’s decision to open up and make herself vulnerable was a frightening proposition. It’s hard to predict how the world will react to revealing the parts of ourselves that we normally hide deep inside. Since the album’s release last month, she has found discussions with journalists easier, but sometimes it feels like ripping off the band-aid of an emotional wound that has barely been given a chance to heal.
She says, “I basically went my whole life not talking about it to talking about it every day with strangers.”
Other times Nguyen feels like the leader of a support group. A Man Alive! deals with subject matter that many people can relate to. She finds her exchanges with fans and reporters on the tour beautiful and moving. I can hear her get emotional as she talks about the people she sees and hears discuss personal feelings of pain, nostalgia, and hope. Journalists with parental issues bring up their stories. She feels like we’re all in it together and sharing a connection.
“After I accepted that I would be very open about things, it was so freeing,” she recalls. “The thing I was afraid of the most was talking about it with the press, but it’s changed every phone and live interview experience. I think people can relate to familial trouble and it takes the pretense away. It allows for direct and humane conversations. They are much more authentic than they’ve been in the past.”
I take this opportunity to talk about a line in the song “Departure” that resonated with me: “Fight for me in the modern day.” It made me think about my relationship with my own father and how I wish he had fought to be more of a part of my life when I was growing up. She responds in a comforting and reassuring tone. I don’t feel awkward opening myself up to a musician over the phone. I ask Nguyen if there there are people who fight to be a part of her life today.
“I’m lucky enough to have several people who want to [fight for me],” she answers, “I think more of the struggle is letting them stay and be there with you. It’s so much easier to maintain that distance. In the end, it’s counterproductive to keep them at bay.”
With healing comes a new awareness. After exploring the feelings regarding her father so deeply, I wonder if Nguyen is able to trace any of her personality traits back to him. She doesn’t want to seem braggadocios, but she thinks his ability to engage with people was passed down to her.
“It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly because I don’t know him as an adult,” she says. “I think I inherited his sense of humor.”
She hopes at least something good in her came from her dad.