Concerned Interview: Thao Nguyen
When I spoke to Thao Nguyen she was prepping to leave on a five-week long tour to promote Know Better Learn Faster. The album is Thao’s second release with The Get Down Stay Down, and it features a number of guest appearances, including Andrew Bird and Laura Veirs. Despite her busy schedule, she was still kind enough to chat with me about the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls, her undying love for girl group harmonies, and the dressing rooms at Red Rocks.
You went to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls this summer. How did that go?
It was incredible. It was such a moving and significant experience. The little girls I worked with, I worked with 8 to 10 year olds, that was my band. I taught guitar in the morning and I coached bands in the afternoons. They were hysterical and their energy was awesome. They were break dancing on the stage. And they named themselves “The Silent Ones” because they didn’t have a vocalist. It was an instrumental band. Yeah, the whole thing was such a pleasure to be a part of. The mission is essentially just help build self-esteem for girls through music. It makes you basically want to be a better woman.
Did the girls start out as a group or did the groups get formed at the camp?
The groups formed the first day and then for the rest of the week they are writing a song and then rehearsing it to be performed at the end of the week at this venue in Portland which holds 600 or 700 people, and, you know, it’s a sold out show every time.
It sounds like it lived up to your hopes, and that’s always nice when that happens.
Yeah. When does that ever happen?
Not often enough.
You and the Get Down Stay Down played Monolith this year. How was that experience?
Monolith was a lot of fun. To have the opportunity to play Red Rocks, whenever you have that opportunity you should take it because you might not have it again. The only other time I’ve been to Red Rocks was for a Neil Young/Victoria Williams concert and I accidentally got real high and I don’t remember anything. It was in college. So it was nice to come back. To remember, for the first time.
The crowd was great. And the weather, it had rained, but it let up for us. Backstage, the green rooms are carved out of the mountains and the rock and it’s pretty cool to see.
And now you’re just about to start a tour with the Portland Cello Project, right?
Yeah, they’re coming along as our main support and then our friends from Richmond, David Shultz and the Skyline are the openers. We’ll be out for about five and half weeks, I think. And we leave in a couple days.
Will you be joining Portland Cello Project onstage for any of the songs?
I don’t know if I’ll join their set because I think that would be an unreasonable amount of me onstage, but they might be gracious enough to join our set.
I wanted to ask you about the first couple of songs on the new record. You’ve said you really liked listening to oldies when you were growing up and I felt like I could hear oldies arrangements peaking through particularly on “Cool Yourself” and “When We Swam.” I was wondering if you could talk about that a little bit.
I definitely would agree with you. I think the second and third songs are reflective of my undying love for 1950s and ’60s pop. I definitely wanted some of that girl group vibe, that “oh la la” in the background. I wanted that given the kind of darker, sadder content, so there was still some kind of optimism in the songs somewhere. And plus it’s a lot of fun.
I did some of the backing vocals on “When We Swam” but for “Cool Yourself” there were three of our friends that came in and did that girl group thing. It’s also really fun to sing over it.
It’s interesting that you said it was a lot of fun because I could actually hear that you guys were having a lot of fun, particularly on the last track. You start by saying, “Sad people dance too,” and even though it’s coming from somewhat of a sad place it just sounded like everyone was enjoying themselves. I love that little percussive backing vocal on “Easy.”
Oh yeah. Yeah, that’s our friend Merrill Garbus. She performs as tUnE-YaRdS.
How did she come to be on the record?
I just wanted her on the record. I think Merrill and I have a very strong bond as female touring musicians. There are hurdles and challenges and I think we understand the way each other are. We have a lot of shared goals in music and otherwise. I felt it was really important to have her on the record for the camaraderie and for the comfort, really, so it’s like having a sister around.
(n.b.: tUnE-YaRdS will be opening for Sunset Rubdown on October 23rd at The Bluebird Theater.)