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.