By Reyan Ali
Realistically, a young Thao Nguyen was going to play guitar wherever she could, so why not do it at a laundromat? Growing up in "deathly suburban" northern Virginia, Nguyen was about 12 when she started learning pop covers ("Everybody Hurts" and Brown Eyed Girl" were her first), playing blues and country numbers, and fidgeting with originals.
Stationed at her mother's laundromat business, Nguyen cultivated her skills when she wasn't aiding customers. "[The laundromat experience] taught me a lot, but not about music," she says. "My mom was a single mom, raising me and my brother and working so hard. She worked 17 hours a day, seven days a week to keep us afloat. I learned a lot about bearing witness to that kind of hardship and how resilient she was."
At the outset, Nguyen maintained no singing ambitions (her voice was just a vehicle to test her songwriting), but it's a good thing that she and her sonorous tone defied those instincts. She's tidily carved out a handsome career for herself as the leader of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down and through collaborations with indie rocker Mirah and the string-based collective Portland Cello Project. After a rare year off from touring and recording, her main band has returned with We the Common. As always, Nguyen's mélange of alt-country, indie rock, and folk runs the show, but her rhythm section -- now colored by her interest in '90s hip-hop beats -- is heavier on fatter beats and fatter bass lines.
We the Common's appeal stems from Nguyen's ability to generate genuinely optimistic music -- stuff that will tackle downer subjects but still keep the sonics upbeat.
"The content in the lyrical matters are always on the darker side, but if a listener doesn't pay attention to the lyrics, there's no way to tell that at the core of it, there's a sadness to my music," the San Francisco-based 28-year-old says. "But I am inclined to be more lighthearted, and I'm inclined to have a good time. I want that for my shows. I want for people to connect on an emotional level, and however many layers there are -- hopefully, there are some -- to just travel with me."
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down is scheduled to perform Saturday, April 6, at Crescent Ballroom.