Thao & The Get Down Stay Down: ‘I Had Never Experienced Anything Like It Before’

Thao Nguyen tells Sam Bolton about visiting women’s prisons, Joanna Newsom, and dirty jokes.

Sat on a balcony somewhere in a vaguely miserable looking San Francisco, Thao Nguyen, of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, has not long started her day. On the other side of the world, in the much-more-miserable, snow-clad Midlands, the day is drawing to a close and I’m barricaded in the only mildly warm room in my house.

There may be thousands of miles between us, but thanks to the wonders of the 21st Century we may as well be sat opposite each other, chit-chatting over a freshly brewed tea, or perhaps a hot cup of Java.

Well, that’s how it is for me. Thao’s struggling to get my video feed to display on her phone. “Let the people know I wanted to see you, Sam!” We give up and move on.

The new album will be out soon, what was the inspiration? What was the motivation?
I think what inspired it the most was that grew up a little bit and I wanted to make a record that was less about me and more of what I could do and how I could be better. I think it was a real opportunity for me to change my song writing style a little bit and expand and go beyond myself and my problems, you know?
I think what helped a lot was that I had over a year off and I became a part of the city that I live in. I became a part of my community, I spent time with my family and I sort of developed these parts of myself that had gone undeveloped for years because I started touring as soon as I left college, as soon as I graduated. I think that I sort of missed out on bits of existence.

Is being back in San Francisco for a while has been a nice break?
Yeah it has been. It’s been nice just to see people, to see my friends regularly and I started working with this organization called the Californian Coalition for Women Prisoners. I spent a lot of my time off with them and I think it really offered a perspective and a grounding that I really value.

It seems charity plays a sizable role in Thao’s life and, as she reveals more about her work with organisations such as Oxfam America and 826 National, it quickly becomes apparent how influential it is on her creatively. But as we discuss the work with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners conversation takes a somber turn.
The group has removed Thao from the familiar and, unlike past charity work, which she explains, ‘‘was always in the context of me being a musician,” appears more emotionally demanding. The influence is apparent right from the opening of We the Common.

The first track on ‘We The Common’ is ‘For Valerie Bolden’, who was she?
She was one of the first people I met who is serving a life sentence in California State Prison. I went on an advocacy visit and she was one of the first people I talked to and that conversation’s stayed with me. I had never experienced anything like it before, I had never been inside a prison before, I’d never talked to anyone.
That thing is so bizzare and so surreal and so devastating on so many levels. To know that we were having this very light hearted but connected conversation and to know that I would go and she would stay… nothing would change about that.
And what really struck me was how well we got a long, our senses of humour, and how poignant the conversation would turn when she spoke about her daughters but for the most part it was a very matter of fact, almost stoic presentation. What was really devastating was that she’s there, you know?
So many of the women that our group visits are sentenced to life for whatever reason but that’s really not the focus of the group: it’s to offer advocacy, legal or healthcare advocacy, or just a human connection – that’s the most important part of it for me.

It sounds tough, it must be difficult emotionally?
It is, it is actually. I’ve done work with a lot of amazing organizations before but […] this was the first time it was about being human and was about showing up and being present for another person in this way that I’ve never been before.
It is incredibly hard to go every time we go. The most we can visit is once every couple of months and so and every time you spend the day there and speak to however many people for about an hour at a time. I’ve never experienced anything like it and I’m really grateful for that opportunity. It’s really hard to bare witness to the conditions and what people are enduring.

Whilst the recent charity work has had an obvious and immediate impact on Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s music, there’s a lighter side to album; collaborations, work with a renowned producer, dirty jokes, a love for early 90s hip-hop and a move to Domino each had their part to play in the making of ‘We the Common’.

How did the collaboration with Joanna Newsom on ‘Kindness Be Conceived’ come about?
I was so glad and fortunate to have Joanna on the record. Joanna and I met at this writing retreat for women, called Hedgebrook. It’s this non-profit organisation, that’s basically this amazing farm on an island near Seattle, Washington and it’s a Virginia Wolfe style thing.
Each writer has their own cabin and all you have to do is meet at night to have dinner and talk. They had their inaugural song writer’s session and they invited Joanna and myself, and Sera Cahoone and THEESatisfaction who are on Sub Pop, and let us have the run of the place.
We would all write and work on our songs in the day time and in the night we would all meet up and I was just finishing up this song and I asked Joanna if she would be interested in just working out a harmony, because I knew there would be harmony, and only in my wildest dreams did I think she’d do it for the record.
We demoed that and then a couple of months later after we tracked it I asked her if she would sing on it for the record… and that was what was conceived.

John Congleton (who’s worked on the last Clap You Hands Say Yeah record, the last few St. Vincent albums, the David Byrne/St. Vincent collaboration and a whole host of other releases) produced ‘We the Common’. What was it like working with someone as prolific as him?
It was great, John is… a character, but he’s so good at what he does. He can dial in sounds faster than anyone I’ve ever seen or worked with and he just has a great sense; I think that we were on the same page from the beginning as far as what we wanted from the record and what departures we wanted to take.
We’re both fans of 90s hip hop, East Coast hip hop, and so there’s tributes to that all throughout the record, the kind of vibe and the way I wanted my voice to sound and the energy, that sort of raw energy that I think is a strength, that I don’t think has been conveyed to it’s fullest potential in previous recordings - he got all of that and I trusted him to.
And the sound that he gets for drums and bass! For anything really, but especially for those, I think is remarkable. I was a huge Bill Calahan fan and he’s produced all his records so I would reference different songs and different sounds and ask for those. It was great and we had a great time and it moved really quickly because he does hone-in so adeptly.
It was a ball. He made dirty jokes.

Can you share a few?
I can’t, I promised John I wouldn’t say! But I think if you talk to anyone that works with John they’ll know what I mean. He’s a good guy!

How would you characterise your music?
I would say that it is… it’s blues and country influenced dirty pop music.
Once I descried it as dirty pop, this was years ago, and I didn’t realise it was an N Sync album and I had to stop saying that. [laughs]
What’s important to me about these songs are their lyrical content and subject matter and how they are presented. If someone chose to listen to the subject matter it’d be more sober, the song would be more somber and the song would take on a more serious tone, but if they chose not to it could work as well. I would hope that there’s an emotional element that’d be easy enough to connect too, but what you intend and what actually happens… You know? Ne’er shall the two meet.

Is that polarisation between music and lyrics something that you set out to create?
I think that’s always what I’ve gone for and I think I’ve always appreciated that juxtaposition and dichotomy of happy sounding music that, actually, is based on the trials of being alive, and I think that comes from being a Motown fan.
The idea of that melancholic content with a more uplifting sound is something I’ve always been really attracted to and I think that comes from loving soul music and blues and Motown and hearing that pain, hearing that healing pain that’s presented in such a way that’s really energetic and sort of a rally cry. […] That peculiar joy, I’ve always been drawn to that.

Is that the sort of music you listened to growing up or is it something you’ve discovered more recently? What else has influenced your music?
You know? Ever sine I was young I used to listen to my brothers old records I was greatly influenced by late 80s, early 9o0s hip hop and I listened to the old station all the time when I was a kid
As I grew older and I picked up guitar I’d started listening to more country blues, like Layton and Hopkins or Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters; I wanted to play guitar like that.
Then I went to school In Virginia, I’m from Virginia, but I went to school in the more southern part of Virginia and there was a lot of Appellation music and bluegrass circulating.

You’ve recently signed to Domino. How has the transition been?
It’s been incredible. I feel quite fortunate. Ribbon, which is an imprint of Domino (in the States it’s Ribbon and it’s Domino Worldwide), they’ve been remarkable, you know? I’m really glad and I’m excited to see what happens. And if nothing happens then that’s fine too.

The Skype connection begins to weaken (we’ve already been disconnected once – whether that was the fault of the technology or the user, we’re still not certain) so we decide it’s time part ways, but not before enquiring about a UK tour.

Is the UK tour happening?
Yes, yes it is. I don’t know when but it’s certainly in the works, especially since we moved to Domino; their infrastructure is so much stronger and broader.

Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s new album ‘We The Common’ will be released on 4th February via Domino.