Arts & Culture
10:08 pm
Thu January 23, 2014

Thao Nguyen On Her Time Off And On The Road

Thao Nguyen began playing guitar at the age of 12.  She practiced songs in her mothers Laundromat.  She started bands in high school, a high school dedicated to science and technology.  In college she played weekend shows, while earning a double major in women’s studies and psychology.  

To some it may have appeared she was destined to be a social worker instead of touring artist and songwriter.  Hittin the road with Andrew Bird and Mirah in and out of her band "Thao and the Get Down Stay Down," it seemed that music had won the contest of wills between career paths, but then she settled down and packed up the banjo and started volunteering at a local women's prison--the result, in addition to becoming a staunch advocated for the incarcerated, was her newest album "We The Common."

She's playing a show at the 502 Bar here in San Antonio Friday Night. Here to talk to me about her time in and out of music is Thao Nguyen. Thao Nguyen thanks for joining me.

Thao: 

Thanks for having me.

PF:

The last time I talked to you was a long time ago, 2009, and I asked you if you would have done something else [besides make music] what would it have been and you replied something along the lines of a social worker working with women and girls. And then 2 years later you started volunteering pretty heavily at a women's prison, is that correct?

Thao: 

That's correct, yeah. I had always had a strong allegiance too women's advocacy work both for personal and political reasons. So I've always been involved, but it definitely took a backseat when I started pursuing music full time.

PF:

Talk a little bit about your passion for advocacy work. What about it has drawn you for part of your life?

Thao:

I think this album [We The Common] wouldn't exist without my involvement in CCWP and my time with these folks [California Coalition for Women Prisoners]

I think it stems from being raised in a turbulent home, and seeing my mom endure a lot of hardships.  So you know its very personal why I am attached to these causes. It's all biographical to a point and then I expanded upon it when I was at college.

PF:

So what have you been working on with the, is it, the Coalition for California Prisons?

Thao:

Yeah, it's the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. And I'm a volunteer there and I do advocacy visits in the state prison for women. And when I am home in San Francisco, I was also in a women's empowerment group in the San Francisco County jail.

PF:

And what did that consist of? Was it musically oriented?

Thao:

It had nothing to do with me playing music which was so refreshing and one of the reasons I became so heavily involved. The advocacy visits are...This coalition started in the mid nineties to protest the abysmal medical conditions in the California state prisons. Membership consists of both people in and outside prison and jail. We go in as advocates. We take notes on medical conditions and living conditions and try to incorporate those into lobbying efforts in Sacramento and the state capital. Then we write letters of support for incarcerated women.  And really serve as liaisons as organizers inside. We take a lot of lead from women inside, women and trans people inside. 

PF:

Can you talk about how it has affected your songwriting and how it relates to this newest album?

Thao:

Certainly, I think this album wouldn't exist without my involvement in CCWP and my time with these folks both inside and out. This coalition has greatly informed...and served as a foundation and bedrock for a lot of the songs. These songs are very much more outward looking than my previous efforts. Their a lot about gratitude and revival and taking care of one another and trying to get at a more collective energy. And all of that stems from my work with CCWP.

PF:

What do you mean by that? Expand on the idea that they are more outward looking.

Thao:

Outward looking in the sense that it is more about the collective and there is a lot more consideration on how I could be better as opposed to lamenting or contemplating my emotions or whatever personal interplay is happening. The introspection is in a different direction.

PF:

What was the impetus for you jumping out of the touring scene for awhile?

Thao:

I think I was really burnt out on tour. I spent the majority of my twenties on tour. I didn't have so clear an agenda. I sort of let it fall off. My plan was to switch labels and management and so there was this stretch of respite between.  I knew I wanted to live in one place. I wanted to live in San Francisco. I had, in name, been there for years, but didn't know anything about it. Then becoming a part of the community happened naturally. I had my stuff was there, and I had friends there that I never saw. I just wanted to have a home somewhere. I wanted to actually live in the place where all my stuff was.

PF:

I hate to use the term 'quarter life crisis' but was that what it was, were you taking stock.

Thao:

Maybe...I guess so. Yeah, It was a couple years past quarter life, but...well I mean depending on how long I live. But yeah, there was some of that.

PF:

And what did you get out of it?

Thao:

I got a lot of perspective. I got a lot of gratitude out of it. Well I got everything really. That time off and going and doing these visits and keeping in touch with people I would otherwise never know has taught me so much and given me a lot of appreciation for my life and my opportunities and my freedom.

PF: 

Correct me if I am wrong, but was there a time when you thought about giving up on music. It was between your first and your second major.

Thao:

I think it would be after "Learn Better, Know Faster," after the second album. I couldn't really put it into words. I don't think I cared enough about my career, not consciously. I didn't understand how to value the trajectory and focus and see what needed to be done. But I could feel the momentum shifting and plateauing. And I didn't know what do about it.

PF:

Talk about that. What do you mean when you say you felt like your momentum was plateauing. Do you mean artistically or that the sales weren't there?

Thao:

Right...maybe both. There are concrete markers on the road when you play the same venue however many times. Every time you pass through you play the same venue. And if you don't move up eventually in that market...it's not good for morale.  And someone with greater foresight and business acumen would say something's gonna change. Given my level of maturity at that time, you know I was still mid-twenties, I wasn't paying attention enough to the big picture.

PF:

"We  The Common" is a very very produced album. It's got a lot of instrumentation. It's extremely fun. I feel like there is a different level of energy in this album than your previous works, would you agree?

Thao:

I would agree  with you, and I would tell you that it was one of the main priorities to better capture what our live show is and what our strengths are...to better capture that on record.  And the energy was coming from me having time and perspective and being really grateful. And also it has a sense of urgency that I didn't have before.  

PF:

You've toured with the live show for "Radiolab". What do you think Radiolab was looking for when they wanted to incorporate you into their live show?

Thao:

You know...I never asked Jad why. Ira ​[Glass] introduced Jad to me and I think they just wanted a loose energy.

PF: 

What did they have you doing on stage?

Thao:

We were doing live scoring. Basically all the sound effects and all the soundscaping production that Jad does. We were taking cues from him and then just composing around that. 

PF:

I don't know how to...this is purely constructive and not personal, but maybe cooler prizes for the fund raising drive. Just to hike up incentives a little bit.

Why do you think it is that you get so much public radio love?

Thao:

Maybe because I am a monthly donor? I don't know. I try my hardest to pledge when I hear a fund raising drive. I don't know. I am very fortunate for them, and I love all the folks that I have met.

PF:

You're a public radio fan. You're a public radio listener. What's your favorite public radio show?

Thao:

Well, of course I would have to say "Radiolab" and "This American Life" as they are good friends of mine, but also "Fresh Air." I love Terri Gross.

PF:

Your audience is my audience and my audience is yours, you often probably get tips. Do you have any tips for Public Radio?

Thao:

I don't know how to...this is purely constructive and not personal, but maybe cooler prizes for the fund raising drive. Just to hike up incentives a little bit.

PF:

There's only so many mugs you need?

Thao:

Yeah...And if people could make more self-effacing jokes, I would also appreciate that.