Traffik Island’s  Zak Olsen is back with A Shrug Of The Shoulders

Original photo by Ashley Goodall. Handmade collage art by B.

Since Gimmie last spoke with Zak Olsen he’s been working on Traffik Island album number three (and four), and moved out of Melbourne into the country. 

Album A Shrug Of The Shoulders feels effortless and is a sheer delight, giving the listener a sense of sitting in a lounge room as friends make music together—in a word it’s, joyful. There’s a naturalism and realism along with beauty, nuance and humour revealed as the collection of songs unfold. The songs are stripped down to their essentials, influenced by 60s music but with a modern sheen. Zak’s sincere expression and ability to turn lyrical gut-punches into catchy psychedelic folk-pop riffs is truly charming. Today we’re premiering second single, ’You Do, Don’t You?’

It’s great to be talking with you again today, Zak.

ZAK OLSEN: It’s nice to be back! I’ve just moved out of Melbourne, I live out at South Gippsland now in a small dairy farm area called Wattle Bank.

What made you want to get out of the city?

ZO: It was more, what was making me want to stay in the city? That was more the question I was asking myself. I couldn’t answer it. Obviously I have lots of friends in the city, and I miss seeing them frequently. For me personally, Melbourne wasn’t really the ideal place for me to be at the moment.

What’s moving out into a more rural area given you?

ZO: Lots more time outside and plenty more of the colour green, which feels good. There’s heaps more space, the house is a lot bigger than the one I was living in. There’s lots of room to set up instruments. We have chickens! I’ve been enjoying spending time with the chickens.

I saw them on the Traffik Island promo vid for the new record! In the video you were baking something; what was it?

ZO: Yes, that’s the chickens in the video. I was baking a Lemon cake. It was a basic one. I thought I’d put some eggs to use.

Last time we we spoke you mentioned that you love cooking things and that you were trying to master the art of cooking different kinds of roasts. Is there anything in particular that you’ve been working on in the kitchen lately?

ZO: [Laughs]. Maybe “master” is a bit of a strong word to use. I made my first pumpkin soup last night, which isn’t too hard to master. It’s good out here because there’s a lot of less options for takeaway food, cooking is a necessity, and there’s great farmers’ market, so everything is really cheap. Everyone is really friendly too, it’s really nice.

I know that where you were in Melbourne you had a studio around the corner from your home. Do you still have it?

ZO: At the moment I’m still renting it. It’s nice to have when I go into the city, but for the most part I do everything out here.

Are there many other people around near where you live, or are you on acreage?

ZO: We live in a little cut-de-sac with four different farms on it. The house I live in is owned by the couple next door, they’re an old school Dutch farmer couple. They give us some of the food that they grow. 

That sounds nice. It seems like you have a real little community around you.

ZO: It’s great getting to know the neighbours, everyone has different skills. If shit hits the fan, they can help you out [laughs].

So, you mentioned you have a lot more space to set up your instruments; is it kind of a jam room or do you have a little studio there?

ZO: We have construction happening at the moment, there’s builders there, so our house is in a bit of disarray. Eventually one of the rooms that are being built will have my music stuff in it, but at the moment I just have mobile setups around the house whenever I can. 

My dad is here. The plan was that I was going to move in once he moved out, but because everything is the way it is at the moment he can’t exactly go anywhere. He was going to Western Australia. I’m living with him now. It’s been good, we’ve been jamming together. He hasn’t played music in a long time; he was playing all the time when I was growing up. 

Because of the harsh lockdowns in Victoria, you didn’t get to see your family for quite a while, right?

ZO: No, I didn’t get to really.

There seems to be a sense of new beginnings for you right now.

ZO: It does feel like that. It’s also my thirtieth year! It was my birthday at the end of August.

Happy (belated) Birthday! Did it feel like a milestone for you?

ZO: No. I’ve sort of felt thirty for ages [laughs]. It was more a feeling of, finally!

What were the things that made you feel thirty already?

ZO: [Laughs]. I’ve always just been rounding up since I was around twenty-six. I thought I started looking thirty!

[Laughter].

ZO: Let’s hope it stays at thirty [laughs], even when it gets to forty, I’ll just stay here at this age.

I know that feeling. For me as I’ve gotten older, I kind of stopped counting the birthday number and focus on doing the things that I love and hanging out with the people I love, spending my time on the things that bring me a lot of joy.

ZO: That’s exactly it. I get to do a lot more of that out here, which I’ve been really, really enjoying. It’s nice taking things slow, but at the same time I’m still making and playing more music. The days feel like they go a lot longer. It can get a bit suffocating or claustrophobic in the city. Once you add social media on top of that, it can get a bit much.

Photo courtesy of Zak Olsen.


I definitely feel that. You sound so much lighter, happier and brighter. I feel like your new record A Shrug Of The Shoulders has that feeling too.

ZO: That’s good, I’m glad to hear.

Of course there is still your humour and sardonic-ness in there.

ZO: Yeah. I feel like it’s a strange one. It’s the longest one I’ve ever done. It’s the first album that I’ve made in the last decade that doesn’t have a synthesiser on it. It’s a backlog of guitar songs that I had for ages. I wanted to record them in an instant manner with the band. I’m not unhappy or happy with the way that it turned out, the name really is how I feel about the album. It’s not to say that I am indifferent about it, I still put effort into it. I wanted it to be a bit more rough around the edges. I didn’t want it to be all glossy and Hollywood-feeling, I wanted it to be the opposite.

So, you wanted it to be a bit more understated?

ZO: Yeah, that’s the word I’m looking for, thank you. Understated, and there’s nothing sort of punk about it, but I just that more DIY-feeling. With me, the more you make the more you feel like you have to be of a certain standard or fidelity, I wanted to throw a spanner in the works for myself so I could clear the plate again. If that makes sense?

Yeah, it totally does. After doing a record like Peanut Butter Traffik Jam that was more glossy, it makes sense to want to go the other way and do something opposite. 

ZO: It had started turning out that way, that I do a synth-y one and then a guitar one, then a synth-y one. The one that I’m working on now for Traffik Island is a synth-y one again.

You’re already working on the next one?

ZO: With A Shrug Of The Shoulders some of the songs are quite old. I am working on the next one, but it’s not like I’m a workaholic, I just slowly work away. That’s the good thing about having guitar songs and then synthesiser songs, there’s always stuff there to go. 

What’s the difference between the two for you?

ZO: With the guitar songs, I’ll sit there with a guitar and write lyrics and work lyrics out with the chords. It’s a straight up and down old way of writing songs. The synthesiser stuff, I don’t have anything written before I start making it, I make it as I’m going in the music program.

Do you look for different sounds or start with a loop?

ZO: Yeah, I might have a drum loop that I like or I might just keep fishing around until a sound sounds cool and sparks an idea. The synthesiser stuff is good in that way because I never really feel like I’m running out of ideas with it. 

It’s totally endless. When I sit down at our synths we have set up, I can be there forever. You could sit there for days, weeks, and forget to eat cos you’re down a rabbit hole of sounds. There’s the sounds and then the variations you can make to the sound. 

ZO: Exactly! [laughs]. It really is. It’s probably what I enjoy doing the most out of the two styles. The guitar stuff is much more rewarding though to me because it takes more planning, effort and time.

Do you think part of it is that you’re more comfortable with doing acoustic music, having done it for so long?

ZO: I’m not sure. I go through stages of being comfortable with the guitar stuff. Sometimes I’m not very comfortable doing it.

Wow. Really?

ZO: Yeah. Especially when I play solo acoustic shows—it’s like a bad dream [laughs]. 

I guess being on stage with just your voice and an acoustic guitar might make you feel a little more vulnerable than if you had a band with you.

ZO: Yeah. It is really naked. There’s good things about it, if you make a mistake sometimes you can cover to up easier and it doesn’t matter if you miss a verse. Other times, if your voice breaks or something, it can feel like the most embarrassing thing in the whole world [laughs]. I know when I see bands, I do like to see the human touches.

That’s one of the things that I love about your new album Shrug… there’s little fragments and character touches, things like the background chatter and crack of a beer. What was the thought behind including these things?

ZO: 40% of the songs, I’d written lyrics first without any music. I wanted to work backwards. I was, for lack of a better word, scoring the lyrics. It was great doing it that way, some of those songs are the most enjoyable for me, the more lyrical ones. Along with that came the background effects and noises compliment the lyrics as well. I wanted to have it all in there so it would be like sitting in a room with us at a rehearsal—all the chatter, all the beer cracking or there’s cars driving by in the background of the songs. Leah [Senior] is talking at the end of the album.

I thought it was Leah! At the end of ‘New Leaf’ there’s a female voice saying, “I thought that was good.” 

ZO: Leah sang the harmonies on that one.

Nice! You mentioned before that you wanted to do the songs pretty instantly when you recorded them. I understand that they were learnt on the day by the band and you played them five or so times before recording them. Did you do it like this to capture a spontaneity or have that fresh sounding spirit for the listener?

ZO: Not the whole album was learnt on the day, some songs we had been playing for a little bit. Lots of it was quite fresh when we learnt it. It was mainly because of necessity. All the stuff with Traffik Island is always out of necessity. I’m super blessed to have those guys playing with me, I love how they all play and they bring so much to it. We all came together and started playing out of necessity and living together. I was going to play a solo gig and realised that I didn’t want to beforehand, so I asked Myles [Cody] and Jack [Kong] to play. A year later, I moved in with Jesse and he had a day off work and I asked him if he wanted to sit in on piano at a practice. Every thing I do with Traffik Island isn’t mega planned ahead. Again, I’m not complacent with it, I like things to be spontaneous; it’s the nature of the project.

Can you tell me about the joy of playing with everyone again?

ZO: It’s always a real pleasure. The song ‘Papers’ on the album is improv, but it’s actually four or five different takes of the same same motif we jammed on and I stuck them all together in a collage style. That song, as ridiculous as it is, was the most fun for me on the whole album because there were no plans and everyone played what they liked; we were having fun and laughing while we were doing it. It’s always a real pleasure to play with those guys.

Photo by Jamie Wdziekonski.

What song on the album was a little trickier to do?

ZO: For whatever reason, the second song ‘Do You, Don’t You’. We’ve been playing that one for a while live, but it’s just one of those things, sometimes when you go to record something on the day you can’t do it. It took us a while.

We’re premiering ‘Do You, Don’t You’.

ZO: That one is quite old. I wrote it just after Nature Strip, before even starting any of the Peanut Butter album. I did those two chords at the start, liked it. I wanted to make one with lots of chords, a garage-rock opera [laughs]. 

Because it had this obviously sixties inspired old dusty garage-y sound, lyrically I went down the typical path; all those sixties garage songs are about teenage relationships [laughs]. That was the natural thing that I felt like singing about. The words on that one was more of an afterthought, it was more of an impression of the music that I grew up listening to.

You mentioned before that the album wasn’t really punk, but I think a lot the songs have that spirit, like ‘F.T.U.’ Rather than fuck the world, it’s fuck the universe!

ZO: [Laughs] Yeah. That one was written on a Monday morning, I wasn’t feeling too crash hot that day and I thought about, what is the most angry thing that I could say? That was one of the ones where I wrote down all of the lyrics first and made music around it. 

I feel like that’s a song a lot of people will be able to relate to, we all have those kinds of days! You took it that next level with ‘fuck the universe’! [laughter].

ZO: [Laughs]. I’ve always felt a bit iffy about that song and wasn’t sure if I’d put it on there.

I’m so glad you did. It made me happy hearing someone else gets those thoughts sometimes too.

ZO: Aww thank you. That’s good!

I love the piano on that song.

ZO: That’s Jesse, the piano master. It’s amazing, he’ll play some chords and just do all of these beautiful things and flourish and bring all of this colour out in a song.

It’s so emotive. I guess moments like that also speaks to the joy about collaborating with other people. 

ZO: Yeah, especially Jesse [Williams]. He really, really is a master. I didn’t really know Jesse or Leah before moving in with them. They had a room up for grabs and I was blessed enough to be chosen [laughs]. Those guys are just super talented musicians. It was a nice house to live in, it was always inspiring and encouraging to make things. Jesse has been a big help with Traffik Island. He recorded all of Shrug… and the majority of Nature Strip in his backroom, which was nice. 

Other than piano flourishes, what else does he bring to the recording?

ZO: He plays guitar all over the album too. He was that missing piece, without him we were jamming as a three-piece. It was a lot more raw then. I remember the second that he started playing with us at rehearsal, the rest of us looked at each other and it was like, “Whoa! We sound so much more like a real band now!” [laughs]. He glued it all together. It was really something. He’s a master recorder as well; he really knows what he’s doing and really takes the time. I was wondering how it would come out after the last album, being so different. I’m happy with it and I’m glad that I’m going to have it out and I’m able to move onto another one.

The song you mentioned before ‘New Leaf’ is a really great song. It feels really introspective. I love the lyric: Turning over a new leaf, what does that even mean?

ZO: [Laughs].

Was that another day where you were like, why life? Why?

ZO: There were a couple of “why?” moments with writing these songs. It was written over a long time, some would be from 2019, even end of 2018, and some were written this year—it spans a lot. I’ve obviously gone through a lot of things in that time. 

What kinds of things?

ZO: Nothing crazier than anyone else. A lot happens in three years. It feels like a strange one to me, it doesn’t feel super cohesive, but it also sort of does, I guess because I made them all [laughs]. Usually I’d do overdubs into oblivion, typically there would be synthesisers on it, for this one I didn’t want to do that, so it’s pretty raw to my ears.

Album art by Jamie Wdziekonski

We love the album art that Jamie Wdziekonski did!

ZO: Yeah, he nailed it. 

I was speaking with Jamie the other day and he told me a little about making it. The whole concept of it is really cool—33 photobooth strips taken in consecutive order.

ZO: It took a fair bit of planning because we wanted to be able to take the photos and lay it out on the table and have the album cover there. We were going to do it individually and make it up on the computer, but we though we’ll go the whole nine yards and do it the way we did. 

Jamie mentioned that it was a funny and hectic shoot.

ZO: It was! We went there at night time to avoid as many people as possible. It was a busy night though, so it was hard, we had these giant letters with us and all our stuff. We did one shoot of it and then took the slides upstairs, there was a couple of letters that weren’t ideal, we had to run back downstairs and take some more. We had hundreds of dollars in gold coins. It was crazy. I was very happy how it turned out. It was this old photo booth that had been there a long time. The same guy services it, so we got to show him the album cover, which was cool; he was really happy that we used it.

Besides the next Traffik Island album you mentioned you were working on is there anything else in the works?

ZO: There is that one in the works, which is back to Peanut Butter… there’s going to be singing all over it this time. I want to try and blend the more song-iness of the guitar songs and have the production of the synth-y ones. 

What song have you most recently been working on?

ZO: This morning I was doing a remix for a band from Melbourne called Mug.

We love Mug!

ZO: I’d actually never heard them until I got an email asking me to do the remix. I really enjoyed them so I was more than happy to give it a go.

I know that you’ve done a few remixes now; how do you approach doing them?

ZO: It’s different every time. One thing I do try to do though, is that I won’t listen to the original song more than once or sometimes I won’t even listen to the whole song. In the past I have listened to the song too much and the remix I ended up with, wasn’t as different as I would have liked it to be. A lot of the times people like to use the stems when doing the remixes, but I don’t like doing that; I like getting the final mix of their song, listen to it once or half way through and then go from there. I never want to make it too similar. 

What have you been listening to lately?

ZO: I finally set up my record player again, my records have been away for a little while. I’ve just been going through them. With my dad around, he’s keen to go through my records and listen to stuff. I’ve been showing him lots of things that have been my favourite things and trying to get him used to those sounds. He hated jazz a few weeks ago, and now he is coming around to it [laughs]. I first played him Can on my thirtieth birthday and he was not interested, but the other night it was his birthday and we listened to the again and after twenty minutes he was like, “wow! This is really good!” He’s fallen in love with Hawkwind all over again; he hadn’t listened to them in over twenty-five years. He wants to listen to them all the time now again, while he’s driving trucks, that’s his job.

That would be perfect driving music!

ZO: That’s what he said! He said he wanted to get Space Ritual and put it on USB so he could listen to it in the truck and just drive all day to it [laughs]. 

You mentioned there was always music around growing up; did your dad get you into music?

ZO: Yeah. When I was really young we lived on a farm in New Zealand. He played in a thrash metal band. When you’re a little kid, there’s nothing cooler than pointy guitars and thrash metal riffs; everyone had skull t-shirts. He definitely inspired me to want to be in a band. We grew up with [Black] Sabbath on all the time, passively I had no choice but to like Sabbath [laughs]. Who doesn’t like them? It’s very likeable music.

How did you make the jump from Sabbath to 60s folk music?

ZO: [Laughs]. I grew up around lots of heavy metal. Megadeath do a cover of ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’, I always remember that from my youth, pre-school and primary school. One day in high school I was watching a documentary on SBS and the Sex Pistols came on and did ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ and I was reminded of the Megadeath version. From that I got into 70s punk and you keep going back and you find The Kinks, once you get into that the 60s opened up, especially 60s garage. I got into a lot of 60s stuff though garage music. My grandma bought me Beatles CDs; people are lying if they say they don’t like Beatles songs [laughs]. Personally I think a lot of garage stuff from the 60s is more punk than what actually got called punk in the next decade. Any genre or sub-genre that exists has it’s roots in the 60s; you can trace everything back to there. As far as I can tell, it’s all there. 

Anything else you like to share with us about your new album?

ZO: It’s coming out in November, around the same time as Jake [Alien Nosejob] is releasing his album. The last two Traffik Island albums came out at the same time as Alien Nosejob albums, which is nice. 

Shrug Of The Shoulders is out November 19 on Flightless Records. 

Please check out traffikislandbandcamp.com.

Leah Senior on new LP The Passing Scene: “I went through a really long period of not being able to write, this album is rediscovering play in creativity”

Original pic: Jamie Wdziekonski. Handmade collage B.

Melbourne-based musician Leah Senior writes philosophical, thoughtful, joyous songs. New LP The Passing Scene explores impermanence, acceptance, the natural world and the freedom of simply being. Gimmie spoke to Leah about her new record.

Right now you would have been finishing up a US tour with King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard but due to the pandemic it was cancelled. You decided to go ahead and release your album; what inspired you to put it out now?

LEAH SENIOR: I don’t think the pandemic holds that much sway, from my perspective it was always going to come out now and it doesn’t matter if I’m touring or not, it’s a totally separate thing. Now is as good a time as any to put out music, if not more so.

The title of the album The Passing Scene is taken from the song of the same name on the album; as the title of the album what did you want it to represent?

LS: Looking back on all of the songs on the album there’s a real theme I suppose and it’s just acceptance of transit, that nothing ever stays the same. I just started reading a book by Pema Chödrön who is a Buddhist writer. I was reading this morning about the idea that everything falls apart and then comes back together and then falls apart. I think that “The Passing Scene” the song is about tuning into nature but at the same time accepting that nothing stays the same.

Impermanence?

LS: Yes, impermanence is the word I’m looking for.

I love the moving cover of your record, it’s pretty incredible!

LS: Yeah, it’s the same idea, that impermanence or that the passing scene is always changing. It was a way to visually express that idea.

Jamie Wdziekonski did the cover, right?

LS: Yeah, Jamie did it, yep.

Photo/album cover: Jamie Wdziekonski.

Was it his idea or yours?

LS: It was his idea to have it lenticular. I would never have thought of that.

Going into the album did you have a vision for it?

LS: No. This album has been recorded at home over the last few years. It’s taken a long time, I’m a slow song writer. It gradually was a piecing together of a record. I’d have a few songs that took it in one direction so I’d follow that and then I’d have songs that took it in another direction, so I’d cut songs; it was a real process of slowly piecing together the puzzle.

It’s a little bit of a departure from your previous work.

LS: Yeah. It comes out of trying to change my approach to creativity, I suppose. After my second album I went through a really long period of not being able to write, this album is rediscovering play in creativity. I was trying to relax a bit more, the songs come from play rather than anguish.

Often an artist’s work reflects or correlates with what’s going on in their life; were you writing from a happier place?

LS: Absolutely. It’s having stability.

You mentioned you recorded in your lounge room over a long period of time; how did this help shape the record? It feels more intimate.

LS: That’s good. Me and my partner Jesse Williams worked on it. He recorded the album. It affected the way it sounds so much. I have a really strong vision of how I like things to sound and for better or for worse having my partner record it means that I can really get it exactly how I want it. Having total control over how it sounds has affected it. It’s definitely intimate and relaxed and it’s meant that I haven’t been on anyone else’s time when I’ve been making it. I think the relaxed approach has translated to the sound.

I get that from the record, I also get that it’s hopeful and joyous.

LS: That’s good, I hope so.

Photo: Jamie Wdziekonski.

Can you share with us a fond memory from the recording process?

LS: I love doing full band stuff, again it’s just being relaxed and getting to play with all of your friends in the lounge room, it’s the best possible way of recording;  studios can be cold and scary and impersonable. It’s great to be able to just sit in my pyjamas and record [laughs].

I really love the last song on the record “Time Traveller”; what’s it about?

LS: That one I wrote about my niece Eleanor, she was a baby at the time. It’s about being frightened to look into the future. There’s a line in there: see the smoke hanging over the city… that was like a prediction for the summer [bush fires], I guess. It’s about being scared to look into the future and feeling that we never seem to learn from our mistakes.

What were you like growing up?

LS: I guess I was a lot of things. I grew up in the country. I was always really obsessed with music. My dad would sing me Beatles’ songs and my mum would sing me folky songs; she’s Swiss, and would sing me folk songs. From there I really just went on my own discovery expedition. I would work at a shop blowing up balloons on a Saturday morning and then go to the shop next door and look at the covers of CDs and buy the ones I liked trying to find new music.

Nice! I know that Howard Eynon performed in your living room not too long ago; did you learn anything from watching him play?

LS: Yeah, absolutely. That was a really powerful night! He can teach us all a lot. I felt a lot of the themes that I’ve been feeling on the record I made, he embodies that stuff; trying to relinquish ego and accepting impermanence. His presence is so joyous and free and youthful. He’s a perfect example of a way to live a life, I reckon.

Another song I really love on your album is “Jesus Turned into a Bird” it’s really pretty, especially the piano; how did that one come together?

LS: That song was written from being up really, really late one night and looking around me and seeing the sun come up and feeling so profoundly disconnected from nature. I wrote it the very next day. I constantly feel that way, I feel like we are so, so far away from nature the way that we live our lives.

Is there any songs on the album that hold a special significance for you?

LS: I feel like “Graves”… I really like playing that one still, even though we released it a little while ago. My partner Jesse and I wrote that one together. I’ll never not feel like I felt, what I was expressing, in that song. They’re all genuine expressions, they’re all real.

Jesse is from the Girlatones?

LS: Yep.

Is it nice having a partner that is also creative?

LS: Yeah, it’s great. I don’t think I couldn’t not have a creative partner. It’s especially nice working on my music with him. He can play anything on anyone of my songs and it sounds like how I would envision it. He has a total musical understanding of my emotions or something. I feel very lucky to have that.

The video for your song “Evergreen” was shot at a castle?

LS: Yeah. Kryal Castle.

Where did the idea for that come from?

LS: My friend Jess who shot the video we were talking and she was envisioning some kind of fun medieval thing. It was her idea. We were scouting out places and that place was perfect.

Do you have any other film clips coming up?

LS: Nah. I have a live clip… I’m not sure. Not at this point in time.

How has not being able to play live affected you?

LS: It’s been fine. It’s actually been pretty good. It’s freeing and fun for me. I’m not an extrovert, I don’t get my kicks from that sort of thing. I like trying to make things. For me, it’s been fine.

Have you been making anything lately?

LS: I’m always making things here and there. I haven’t been writing that many songs. One day I’ll do a tiny bit of poetry and the next day I’ll do a tiny bit of painting—I’m bad at settling and focusing on things.

What have you been writing about with your poetry?

LS: The last poem I wrote was about this idea that we are attracted to nature because nature can only be itself. It’s not my own idea, it was inspired by John O’Donohue. He was saying that a crow doesn’t wake up one day and go “oh, I wish I was a crow” it can only be itself, and there’s something really beautiful about that. We spend our time trying on new outfits and constantly trying to become, whereas birds don’t sing the song of becoming, they’re not song writers, they’re song singers.

Why is music important to you?

LS: That’s a huge question. It speaks the language of nonsense, the reality of the world is all nonsense—music is in tune with that. Music expresses so much more than we ever could express without it.

Vid: Button Pusher more here.

Please check out LEAH SENIOR; on bandcamp; on Facebook; on Instagram; Get The Passing Scene via Flightless Records.

Thao and the Get Down Stay Down: “Temple was the creation of a space in where I can exist as my whole self”

Handmade mixed-media collage by B.

Thao Nguyen is an Oakland-based musician that is about to drop the most honest, beautiful and self-healing record of her life. Temple finds Thao comfortable in her own skin and sees her finding the courage to finally publicly come out as her whole self, confronting the shame, grief, division and silence she has felt in her life, making for a collection of powerful songs. The album is in essence pop but goes beyond that with elements of hip-hop, funk, folk, with punk roots. Temple is a celebration of living life on your own terms!

THAO NGUYEN: I’ve been screen printing in our garage. I took a screen printing class because I had this idea to offer a tea towel as part of our merch bundle – this was pre-pandemic – I would screen print a tea towel for them. It’s reclaiming my name because kids used to call me “Towel” when I was younger and it was really traumatic. I’ve been screen printing all day.

Nice! It’s cool that people will get to have a handmade little piece of you in their kitchen.

TN: Thank you so much for saying that! I hope they turn out OK. I hope it’s just enough that I’m doing it myself. It’s harder than I thought it would be [laughs].

My husband and I do screen printing in our garage, hand-making things is so much more personal and special.

TN: Totally! It’s been so fun. Do you have trouble with the ink drying up sooner than you think it will and then it gets hard to have a clean print?

Yes! Parts of the screen can get clogged a little, we still haven’t worked out how to combat that, we just try to do the prints as quickly as possible.

TN: [Laughs] Yes! I gotta move faster. It’s getting hotter here, that thickens the ink up too.

I noticed that during the song writing period for your new LP Temple you spent a lot of time in the kitchen baking sourdough bread.

TN: [Laughs] I did. Song writing can be so painful and take you to such dark places, also there can be very little return on a lot of effort. It was so nice to do something tactile and to see your work result in something, besides a song that you don’t know whether it’s good.

With bread I think it’s a food that can be really comforting too.

TN: Oh yeah! It’s been remarkable. Luckily I had already stockpiled a lot of flour from the song writing time, rolling into the pandemic we do have enough flour to keep baking.

What does your new album Temple mean to you?

TN: Temple was the creation of a space in where I can exist as my whole self. It’s the culmination of a whole life that I’ve lived in a very divided way. It has a lot to do with claiming my own life and still belonging to my family, and trying to find out how to still belong to my family and culture while being publicly out. I got married in the process! It was a real culmination of life and a celebration of that.

Congratulations on getting married! I can definitely feel that celebratory vibe on the album. There also seems to be a real feeling of freedom on it.

TN: Yeah, there is. It was like a bloodletting! [laughs]. There are moments of heaviness but also lightness and shedding a lot of the past and ghosts.

On your last album A Man Alive you were talking about your father, and on this record the first song, the title track, is celebrating your mother.

TN: Yeah. They have had drastically different influences on my life. My mom has always been so steady and consistent but, she has her own complex life. I wanted the chance to honour that and make her refugee story to be beyond that, to give her a fuller humanity.

Was it scary to put all of these thoughts and feelings out there?

TN: Oh, terrifying! Absolutely! It took years to make this record, it took probably a year and a half just to get the gumption to write the songs that I knew I had to write. Now it feels almost surreal like it was someone else’s turmoil and toil. It took a lot! I said that I didn’t know if I would make another record because it was such a herculean task to me to confront all these things.

I think sometimes listeners don’t quite get how intense it is for some artists to tap into their pain to write a song. Writing things from an honest place you have to confront yourself and what’s happening in your life, it can be scary.

TN: Yeah. It’s the artists own decision to do that, it was mine. There wasn’t another option for me. It’s the type of work I am drawn to. You hope that people will spend some time with it but it connects how it connects and it finds who it needs to find.

Have you always been creative?

TN: I think so. Growing up I didn’t have a lot of resources. When I started playing guitar that’s when I felt I could tap into creativity, I was about twelve. Before then I watched lot of television [laughs].

I know that some of your favourite writers inspire your lyrics, this time around it was James Baldwin, Octavia Butler and Yiyun Li; what was it about each?

TN: James Baldwin, his language and his eloquence and succinct manner is so remarkable. He’s such an incredible, incisive writer, whenever I reference him it’s the present tense, he is such a presence for so many people. The way he wrote about injustice and abuse of power and systemic inequality, the way he wrote about race, about being queer—it was all inspiring. A real source of courage for me.

Octavia Butler, the way she imagines and created these dystopic realties; this near future dystopia that we have actually been living in now. That was before all of this was happening though, there was already so much to work with as far as the corruption in the world and destruction of the environment and society. She’s a luminary, a prophet.

Yiyun Li, the way she has an incredibly powerful, very potent style of writing that isn’t dramatic at all but it’s devastating to me. The way she writes about families and familial relationships. She writes about Chinese families. I found a lot of similarities and commonalities that resonated with me and my Vietnamese family.

I’ve always liked how in Octavia’s stories she always has fascinating, strong female characters.

TN: Yes. ‘Phenom’ the song that draws the most from Octavia, the narrator of that is the voice that I imagine as one of her strong characters that leads the army of the scorched Earth to come back and bring to bear.

Have there been any books that have had a profound impact on you?

TN: So many, yeah. I love panoramic, cross-generational, sweeping narratives. The first one that I read like that was The Grapes Of Wrath or East Of Eden. More recently, Grace Paley, all of her short stories. I discovered her in college through my roommate; she influenced my song writing a great deal when I was starting to song write more seriously. Her economy with words is something that I have always admired. She’s a general influence.

For the last record, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, oh man there’s one passage in it where the son is getting on the bus and leaving… that influenced the creation of A Man Alive. There were a few sentences within that that just broke me. From there I could access the emotions that I needed to write the record.

Sonically when you started out writing this record, did you have a vision for it?

TN: Not so much. I knew that I would produce it, and produce it with my bandmate Adam [Thompson]. Whatever happened sonically it would be represented in a more truthful was, a more accurate way than any other, because we were doing it. I wanted to be creating more beats. I knew that there would be a strong rhythm and prominent groove and beats. I wanted a lusher soundscape.

I really love the song ‘Marrow’ on the LP; can you tell us a little about it?

TN: ‘Marrow’ I wrote leading up to marrying my partner. The songs aren’t necessarily chronological but they do follow things that lined up with what was happening in my life at the time. ‘Marrow’ is about saying: here I am, you know all these things about me and you accept me still [*gets teary*].

There’s a couple of songs on the album that make me cry every time, one is ‘Marrow’ and the other is ‘I’ve Got Something’. I like ‘Marauders’ too because it’s the most sincere, whole-hearted love song I’ve ever written.

Were those songs hard for you to write?

TN: They were! Especially ‘I’ve Got Something’ it deals with basically getting to a place where I had to be willing to no longer be a part of my family in order to have my own. There are a lot of scenarios that can end up in estrangement, fortunately that wasn’t mine. It’s really hard! How do you belong to where you come from? How do you belong to yourself? And, what are you willing to risk? How much can you deny of your own life?

Last question; what are some things that make you really, really happy?

TN: I love that question! I really love cooking. I love baking bread. I’ve been really into growing vegetables, I know that probably sounds really, really cliché at this point. The only solace I’ve been able to find is really getting into growing our own food. I spend most of my day trying to figure out how to keep the seedlings alive [laughs] and trying to figure out how to make compost. Just this morning the mint had this rust kind of fungus thing, I have to figure that out. It’s a whole other world of being in tune with the food we grow and eat. It’s so awesome! It’s something that I always wanted to do but I’ve always been so busy with tour. Even if I tried I wouldn’t be fully focused on it and I’d come back from tour and it would be dead.

Please check out: THAO & THE GET DOWN STAY DOWN. Get album Temple on Ribbon Music. Thao on Instagram.