Thao Nguyen has performed with her band The Get Down Stay Down for a decade, and this year's We the Common marks the band's first release since 2009. Thao, a West Coast indie folk staple who picked up guitar at 12, also has released a number of collaboritve projects, most notably Thao + Mirah with K Records artist Mirah.
Following a West Coast retreat after constant touring, recording and extensive volunteer work (including with New Orleans organizations Sweet Home New Orleans and the Gulf Restoration Network), Thao released We the Common, an energetic, eclectic sunbeam of an album woven with her playful guitar, banjo and beaming voice — all dotted with punchy brass. She name drops New Orleans on "The Feeling Kind," in which she sings, "Oh, honey look alive! It's just human troubles in the modern times." She brings it all back to New Orleans at One Eyed Jacks at 9 p.m. Sunday — the above organizations will also be in the house, and Bonerama also is likely to drop by. Below, she tells Gambit how New Orleans inspired the album and about writing in a cabin with Joanna Newsom, and Valerie Bolden, an incarcerated woman who inspired the title track.
GAMBIT: How did you get connected to New Orleans?
TN: I've been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time there in the past couple years. I’ve gotten involved with the Gulf Restoration Network and Sweet Home New Orleans. There’s a song that’s kind of a tribute to New Orleans on this record. I attended these social activist retreats in New Orleans and met really amazing people and musicians. ... I volunteered with Air Traffic Control, which is based in San Francisco but they bring musicians to New Orleans.
Who’d you meet?
I’ve been back two years now, and we do a benefit show with Bonerama, which is fun. Al “Carnival Time” Johnson I’ve spent time with, and Sunpie Barnes was on our last retreat. Also people who work with Sweet Home New Orleans and people who work with Gulf Restoration Network. They’re amazing.
New Orleans is unlike any city I’ve been to, with this incredible vitality I don’t see anywhere else. The West Coast, I would say, I wish we were as relaxed as you were down there. Also, the way music is so imperative to the culture, and how it’s so ingrained in people. It’s really inspiring.
Any particular fountains of inspiration for the record?
I think any time just walking around the city and seeing how important music is, there’s sort of this liveliness. After Katrina is when I started getting involved, and seeing people’s resilience, that really strong spirit played a role in the song, and gave me a new appreciation for life.
Do you remember the first time you picked up an instrument?
I think the first time I played anything was my brother’s Casio or Yamaha keyboard. I didn’t know how to play. I just pressed all the buttons with pre-recorded samples and pretended I could play. A really cheesy song that could be a bossa nova jingle, or something.
What about a stringed instrument?
The first guitar I played was just in my house, a classical guitar. That’s what I learned on. I remember how and what the frets were, or how large the frets were, and how hard that was.
What were you trying to learn?
I remember them well. The first three songs I learned simultaneously were “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts,” and “Auld Lang Syne.” It was really annoying to everybody. I was a very emo 12-year-old.
You’ve been with your band a long time as well. What was it like having those few years apart?
It’s always nice to come back. … It’s nice to come back from peripheral projects and focus again.
Like something familiar?
Yeah, but we also understand what we’re building towards and upon. Nothing can replace that kind of history.
With the other artists you’ve worked with, will you continue that? Or have any run their course?
I think we’re all friends, first and foremost. If schedules would allow, yeah, I’d totally be into it. It’s just tough. Everybody has so many things going on.
This is the first tour with the new record. We’re going to be promoting and touring this record a year and a half or two years if things go well. Our near future, we’re going to get lunch. You got to eat vegetables. We’re on our way to Canada today, so hopefully we’ll have some fruit.
Is there some relief to have the record out?
There is. There’s a lot of, well, there’s so much that goes into writing it and making it and wondering what people will think, and hoping they like it. Now it’s tackling another aspect of it: how to present it live, how to engage people on that level. I’m glad it’s out. It had a long gestation period.
We just played our third show last night, so things are shaping up. Things only get worked out after you’ve played several thousand times.
You moved to San Francisco to write the album and take some time off?
I’ve been living in San Francisco six or seven years, but I’ve been on tour so much of that time.
So this was opportunity for reflection?
Yeah, that was the natural projection of things. I had some time off, and I became a part of my life more. I got involved with different community groups and organizations and they really influenced the record.
What was the writing process like?
There was a lot of starting it and hating it and thinking I should quit and going back to hating it. It was a bit easier in a sense. I was inspired a lot by the different work I was doing with different organizations. I’m a part of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. A lot of women I met inside, there was a sense of new life and humanity I was being exposed to. It certainly helped the songwriting.
When I’m home I go on visits and go inside and visit with women who most are serving life sentences or decades, and work as advocates and do health care and legal aid. We talk, feed people.
The single “We The Common (For Valerie Bolden)” is based on Valerie Bolden, a woman I met inside and that song is based on our first conversation together.
How much time did you spend with her?
She’s since been transferred. You get about an hour each time you go. That first conversation was about an hour long.
Has she had a chance to listen to the song?
Not yet. Due to prison red tape you can’t get the recording in, unless it goes through a prison catalog, eventually. I read the lyrics to her, but she hasn’t heard the song yet.
Joanna Newsom played with you on this record. How did you meet?
We met on a songwriter’s retreat near Seattle called Hedgebrook, for women writers. They invited us to come. We met, and I asked her to sing on one of the songs we just finished. Joanna’s hilarious. We’re friends. We don’t see each other often but when our schedules allow.
She doesn’t seem to play with too many other musicians.
It was a real coup. (laughs) We worked on the song in a cabin — each of the writers had their own cabin. I recorded a demo, then she did a studio recording. She was in New York and I was on the West Coast.
You did a sort of biopic series for the album. What inspired you to get into that?
I guess it was what I found uninspiring. The idea of doing a behind-the-scenes, sober look at, you know, me singing into a microphone wasn’t that appealing. But I did want to give people a glimpse into the personality of the band and myself. It’s a lot of fun for us to make. More fun that just having footage shot of us sitting around, like, restringing a guitar. (laughs) I can only make it so dramatic.
Was that your acting debut?
Unless you count my high school acting in a one act. (laughs) Then it’s my glamorous, triumphant return.