Music Monday: Thao Nguyen from Thao and the Get Down Stay Down

The artist talks about using music to work through her father's estrangement

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I started listening to Thao and the Get Down Stay Down during my senior year in undergrad. I remember playing Know Better Learn Faster over and over again on my iPod while standing in the middle of my dorm room, realizing how perfectly it matched what I felt about my future, my fears, and my past. Since then, Nguyen's lyricism has continuously served as a cathartic anchor for me and a reminder that strength and vulnerability oftentimes go hand in hand.

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On A Man Alive, Nguyen explores the nuances of her relationship with her estranged father and the way that it's impacted her life. From beginning to end, the songs on this LP are unflinchingly honest, celebrating the lessons that can be learned from even the most tumultuous love. I was so grateful to have the opportunity to talk with Nguyen about the challenges and triumphs that she faced while working on A Man Alive and how songwriting gave her the strength to confront something that she previously had avoided. 

Dianca Potts: On your latest album, A Man Alive, you reflect a lot on the relationship between you and your father. Emotionally, how did that inform the inception of this album? 

Thao Nguyen: The entire record is directly or indirectly related to my relationship with my dad and the trajectory of our relationship. Ours is one of estrangement, since I was a kid honestly, it's something that has been a central part of my life. I didn't think that I could "go there," so this record just lined up with whatever was happening in my personal life, and it just made sense. I couldn't choose another way, meaning that when it was time to write this record, all the songs that were coming up were in some way or another an exploration of our relationship. 

DP: That sounds really intense, but cathartic in a way, no? 

TN: It was intense, so intense! The momentum of it and the nature of it, it existed outside of me in a way. I definitely didn't want to be that vulnerable, and I've always been reluctant to be that straightforward, but there was no avoiding it. 

DP: Being that vulnerable takes a lot of courage. Were there any moments while working on A Man Alive where you found it difficult to be that open about your feelings? 

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TN: I was reluctant, but there was this liberation in it that even if I [had] that back-door [out] of I'll write this song, but we don't have to put it on the record or I'll write this song, but I won't perform it live, it became important to be as honest as possible, and I felt like I owed it to the record and to the entire process and everyone who worked on it. I owed it to myself to just go there. I wanted to embrace this, because in the end making any record or writing any song, I would like to think of it as an effort to communicate, so the idea to do it in the most direct and unobscured way seems really scary but also felt like the right thing to do.

This is the only record where I've written songs and I knew that I was going in the right direction because I would be crying while I was writing lines or singing particular passages. It was so fucking intense, but I was surrounded by really good friends. Otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to go there, at least not in the way that I would have wanted to. 

DP: When I listened to the album, I kept coming back to "Endless Love." It has this visceral and urgent feel to it that reminds me of an echo. There's something really cyclical about it that really connects to the rest of the tracks on the album. Was that intentional? 

TN: I think that was one of the last songs to be written and recorded, and at that point it just felt like an album closer from early on. I was exhausted and glad that we had done it, but I was just emotionally done with it. There was nothing else to say besides what is within that song, the three lines you know, and it was really freeing for me to be able to just cut it at three lines and say, That's it.

DP: Totally! I think that what really struck me with "Endless Love" was the way the repetition creates a sort of lyrical loop or cycle alongside the track's instrumentation. 

TN: A lot of these songs are looped based in a way. We wanted to pay more tribute to hip-hop influences, and I wanted to make a record that was more beat-centric, so a lot of that, the idea was to create grooves and loops and then layer over those, so repetition definitely exists in a much stronger way on this record than on prior records.

DP: I really enjoyed the way that the percussive elements of A Man Alive seemed to create an audible metaphor for the relationship dynamics that you explore throughout the album. Did rhythm shape your lyrics in any way?

TN: One of the original themes for this new record was to pursue that direction, and there's one song from We the Common that was the beginning of this pursuit, but I always wanted more beat-centric songs. I wanted to capture an energy that we have live that isn't necessarily well rendered on previous records. I wrote all of these songs on guitar and mandolin, but I really wanted the songs to be recorded in a way that they weren't reliant on the chordal basic structure, so we treated my guitar-playing more as sampling rather than [it] being the spine of the whole song. It took touring the last record to figure out what I wanted live. I wanted everyone to dance, I want to dance, and I wanted everyone to feel not exactly happy, but definitely exuberant.

DP: What was the most empowering part of working on A Man Alive

TN: I think the most empowering and the most rewarding part of this record was working with my friend Merrill Garbus [of tUnE-yArDs], who produced the record. I don't think that I could have addressed the subject matter in the way that I did without really trusting who was going to take care of it. She created a space where we all felt creatively challenged and encouraged and we knew that it would be what [we] wanted. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Dianca London is an assistant at Lenny Letter. 

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