“Nothing between me and the audience”: An interview with Thao Nguyen
When I was fifteen years old, I spent hours ripping music from sketchy MP3 song download apps on the Android store.
I leaned hard into the indie scene with my own version of theft, as much of the world was inaccessible to me in my suburban sprawl. A product of this time period was an introduction to the music of Thao Nguyen. Up until that point, I was certain that my ethnic background had no bearing on my reality. But when I heard this Vietnamese American woman confidently spin humorous, jangly, folky songs with unapologetic intensity, I considered for the first time that maybe my Asian-ness could be a feature and not a bug, and that didn’t have to be a bad thing.
Today, I am a proud Asian American. Sometimes I take for granted the generous Asian American spaces I felt I had to earn to be in. Seeing Thao perform at this year’s SXSW felt somewhat of a homecoming for me. She was always the artist that moved not only my body and soul, but also the needle in how I could accept my full self sooner. She helped me become me. Her unrivaled ability to steward joyous, kinetic, live performances for the people were only stories until I was able to be part of the crowd.
I finally had an opportunity to ask what her journey had been like, the reasons why The Get Down Stay Down is no more, and the personal reflections of 2023 Thao Nguyen after several turbulent years for independent artists, the queer community and Asian Americans.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How was your SXSW experience?
It was lovely. Thank you. It was light by typical historical SX standards. So we had three shows, but each just one show a day or one show an evening.
And it was so fun. My friends and bandmates flew in, and we had even the luxury of a couple of days of rehearsal because not everyone had played together yet. And yeah, typically I missed the energy of SXSW. In 2020, we were scheduled to sort of debut Temple at SX, and then that was the beginning. Once SX was canceled, you kind of understood what was going on. I hadn’t played SXSW since 2016. Yeah, I love Austin. And I think with it being more laid back, there are more often residents who might be more interested in attending, and being part of it contributes to a different atmosphere.
Where does performing “Road to Nowhere” in the Central Presbyterian Church rank for you in terms of epic career highlights?
You know, it was certainly one of the more joyful experiences I’ve had because that song is so remarkable. But given everyone’s state of kind of slow burn despair, it’s couched within this kind of dark optimism. That’s one of my favorite spaces to occupy. There’s just something about that song and everyone getting to sing it, where we all acknowledge, yes, we are on a road to nowhere, but there’s this buoyancy about it, and there’s still this verve for life. And so getting to be a part of that, there’s a very particular kind of joyful release to that. It’s tinged with this dark reality that we are in.
That cover happened because Sean, my manager, asked if there was a cover that we could do that everyone could kind of hop up for. And I’ve been listening to that song a lot. I really wanted to get a chance [to play it] and the band pulled it together so quickly. They’re so great.
I want to read you a quote from PC Munoz in a 2009 interview you did with them on PopMatters. “In my opinion, Thao Nguyen has significant cross-generational appeal. Young folks of course are already taking to her music, but I also recommend her stuff to any Boomer or Gen X’er who is interested in finding a Millenial songwriter to really dig into.” Any reactions to this from the Thao of 2023?
So I’m flattered and heartened to hear that and I’d never considered which direction my music could span, but I do really appreciate that, and that does remind me that the makeup of my live audiences do reflect that, which I’m incredibly grateful for. That’s so sweet.
Intergenerational audiences, it’s so powerful. And I think that was definitely represented during your performance in the ballroom in the convention center, when we were all hiding away from the rain. It was all types of folks out there dancing and singing. People were asking us what the words to some of the songs were. It was such a really fun experience.
That’s so great to hear. What Thao of 2023 would say is… that was from 2009?
Wow. One, I thank God I’m still around. It reminds me that, especially in those days, just the fever pitch of touring and making records and being so worried about whether or not it would work, and not believing in myself enough to just relax a little bit.
It’s nice now to be able to absorb it a little, because I bet you even at that point, if I had encountered that, I would have found a way to sweep it off and not internalize it, and instead make too much of an effort to internalize negative things or critiques. And so it’s a blessing to be still making music and to make music from a different place where I can hear that and just appreciate it for what it is.
Notably, in 2021, you had announced the dissolution of the Get Down, Stay Down. Could you say what went on behind that decision?
It was a culmination of a lot of different factors. What was important to me was that I found myself in this interesting quagmire of, like, when I performed solo, that was Thao. I started as Thao, and then Thao with a band, and then Thao [again.] It’s just been all these different iterations of names, and it made me wonder why. So it had gotten to a point where when I was with, quote unquote, “the Get Down Stay Down.” That was the rock band. That was the rock show. And I wanted the consolidation of it to be that I could just be Thao and it could be a rock band.
There’s a certain baggage to having a name like that when I wasn’t really quite sure why I chose that in the first place. And I will be honest with you that one of the things that I admitted, remembered, and conceded was that when I was first starting out, it was too exotic to perform under my name. And so when people would see it, they wouldn’t know what it was, and they would see this ethnic name and I just knew they would dismiss it. And so I created the distinction of this band so that it would be more accessible sounding, and that was a lot of my reasoning around it. Do I wish I had just performed under Thao for the entire time? Yes, totally.
There was a certain party vibe that I was going for at that point. I wanted whoever was in the band to be recognized as such. The same drummer who you saw at SX, it’s still Jason Slota, who’s been playing with me since 2012 or 2013. There are a lot of people within that sort of roster that are still in and out and playing with me.
Thank you for illuminating that, because it really does say a lot to how much times have changed. And there have been plenty of interviews that we’ve done as a site where we ask, “How did you get your band’s name?” And many times it honestly is like, “Oh we don’t know.” And so it’s honestly refreshing to hear someone say you can outlive what you don’t need anymore in that way.
Yeah. And it’s funny. I don’t know why I necessarily chose that. That’s part of the problem, is that there was no strong identification with it. It was just, what does the purpose serve? But then when you interrogate what purpose you’re trying to serve and why, then you’re like, “Well, no, we should be done with that.”
Do you feel different performing now than you did before the peak of the pandemic, or does it feel more like a return to form?
I do feel different. I don’t know if people can tell, because I pride myself on a certain level of energy for my live performance and a certain level of access and rawness or whatever, but for most of my career, I wasn’t out publicly. That’s what a lot of Temple has to do with. And it was around family and cultural things and a lot of internalized stuff, but I knew I was inhibited. I don’t know if other people could see it, but it inhibited my art and it inhibited my performance. And now I just feel unequivocally free. And whether or not that can be seen from the outside, I embody that from within. And it’s a much clearer, more pure experience for me. Whereas before, I was really conflicted, but I was trying not to show it. And then now there’s nothing between me and the audience, me and the music and me and my band.
Your “Song and Dance” essay is brilliant. I felt so much kinship to the unfurling adult distances with my own parents. You mentioned a future writing project in your most recent Substack post. If you can say, is that writing project more or less like “Song and Dance?”
It is more like “Song and Dance.” It’s looking like a collection of essays that I’m working on. It’s early days. I’ve been drafting a lot, but I definitely want to bring in my experience of growing up in the specific Vietnamese diaspora in Falls Church, Virginia, and just the characters that I remember. And it’s like a tribute to the people I grew up with.
We’re eagerly awaiting the next album and how For the Record has imprinted onto it. Is there anything you can tell us about how it’s going?
Well, and thanks for bringing up For the Record. I know I’m sorely, sorely behind and I owe everyone just a giant apology, but there’s a ton of things that’s been going on and I basically had to stop working on the album to work on this theater project that I can’t quite announce yet, but there is a musical that I’m developing. But the way the deadlines have lined up, this writing project and then this musical, I had to put the album on the back burner for a little bit. As soon as I get my arms wrapped around the musical, more like within the next few months, I’m going to start making the record. Thank you.
So it still exists! I think that’s good news for me. And I totally recognize that daily turmoil of trying to post something on Substack or on any social media site these days and those days.
It’s a funny undertaking because it’s not only you deliver the thing you said you would deliver, but then you have to present it in a way that is deliverable. It’s just like twice the amount of work for everything.
Our site is always interested in the ever changing landscape of Asian American creators across the diaspora. Our editor-in-chief and I had discussed your long storied career last night. In your perspective, how has Asian America changed in parallel to you and your music?
Some grandiose thinking on my part. And self aggrandizing. Obviously this is just my perspective, but one thing I would say, and I don’t know if it’s been mirrored in me, in my career, or if it’s just I’m different now, is that I’m evolving to a place of higher sense of community and awareness and pride. This is something that I addressed in Temple and in the press around it. My experience as a Vietnamese woman, as an Asian American woman in indie rock, and in any kind of public facing realm that I’ve been involved in has been so tumultuous.
I grew up in Virginia. There’s a ton of internalized racism and shame that I had a really difficult time acknowledging until very recently… somewhere between making A Man Alive, going to Vietnam, and making Temple. And when I was first starting out, I didn’t understand that people saw me as how I looked, you know? I had grown up with such an emphasis on assimilation that it’s taken a long time to unwind all of that and sort of recalibrate and have a course correction.
But all this to say, I never wanted to be identified as an Asian American artist when I was starting out. And the way it played out was there would be an offer from an Asian American student union or whatever organization, and I would turn it down. Anything that had to do with how I looked or where I came from, I was like, absolutely not. Because I didn’t want to be distilled to it. I didn’t want to be reduced to it. But that was like a very narrow, closed way for me to deal with or to not deal with all of the shit. It’s taken me a long time to be proud of who I am and painfully long, and I’m so thrilled that there is less of that now.
And I will say that again, I’m glad I’m still around and that over the past few years, I can be a part of the Asian American indie community in ways that I would have never allowed myself to be before. Do I have many regrets? Yes, absolutely. But it’s been amazing to get the opportunity to start fresh. For younger people coming up, my hope for them is that they see what I did as inane or absurd. I hope that it is absurd.
A new friend of mine, Vijay Iyer, who’s this amazing jazz pianist, he had this Asian American music course at Harvard, and I just did a guest thing with them, but it was over Zoom. I was telling the students basically the same thing. That I hope that when I recount how difficult it was for me to be at peace with who I was, that it sounds absurd, but that if it doesn’t, that all these younger people coming up understand that there are older generations who know what that’s like and who are working to continue to dismantle it and to make it absurd.
Which of your songs, albums, or projects has grown on you?
I think both Know Better Learn Faster, and We the Common have grown on me. Again, that’s just you know, I was mired in such darkness around that, so much pressure that I was putting on myself that it was just really hard to be proud of the thing that I had made because I had made it, you know, which is fucked. And being almost a different person now, I can look back on it and appreciate it for what it was.
What message do you have for queer Asian kids of the world?
You can be exactly who you are and still belong to the community you come from because you are part of it and you’re the continuation of it. And don’t try to exist separately. It’s not healthy or possible. My experience is that it’s not tenable and find the people within both worlds who understand that and who can be your family. For some people, it’s not possible, but look within your given family as well.
This interview was conducted by Justin Ricafort virtually on March 31st, 2023 as coverage for SXSW 2023.