The innocence and experience of Thao Nguyen
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For a woman with a lot to be happy about—serious six-string skills, an increasingly high profile on the national indie scene, a seemingly endless supply of memorable vocal melodies—Thao Nguyen sounds downright pissed on Know Better, Learn Faster, her recently released third album. Once again working with backing unit the Get Down Stay Down, Nguyen’s muse here has taken a turn toward the caustic, assessing the wreckage of a failed romance while snarling out lines that sound like they could be the female counterpoint to Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks. It’s not all gloom and doom, however: As Nguyen acknowledges on the record, “sad people dance too,” and many of these embittered lyrics are set in buoyant song structures and swaddled in warm instrumental trappings (strings, brass, the occasional banjo). In advance of her Nov. 4 gig at Bowery Ballroom, Nguyen talked with The A.V. Club about purposefully avoiding her press, writing about raw emotions, and how working with young girls has kept her from getting jaded in her own music.
The A.V Club: Are you anxious about how the new record will be received?
Thao Nguyen: As a band, we prefer to stay insulated and just focus on the shows and enjoy traveling. I can’t get too caught up in how other people respond. Particularly since this new record’s so sensitive and personal, I just want to shut all of that out as much as possible. I asked our manager and label people to just give me the thumbs up, down, or sideways when we see them because that’s all I need to know. If I can keep touring and making music, that’s all that really matters.
AVC: You’re not fond of Googling yourself, then?
TN: With the Internet the way it is, you could easily just ruin your self-confidence and ability to play music. Your sense of self or perceived "success" that’s reflected out there can get so fucked up if you spend too much time on the web. I prefer to just stay away from it.
AVC: The new album is at times painfully direct about your relationship issues. Do you have any qualms about having to go out on the road and share these stories with the public night after night?
TN: For me the writing process is always the most personal part, as every song is pretty autobiographical. Each step after that gets a little less personal. When I record the song, I let go a bit of those original driving emotions, and then by the time I’m presenting it to people, my head is usually in a totally different space. I’m more focused on performance and connecting with the audience than any of the emotions I had when I was writing. That being said, we haven’t played any of these songs live before yet, so who knows? Maybe I’ll start breaking down and crying. Hopefully people won’t feel like they’re in a big therapy session where they should start charging me. [Laughs.]
AVC: You spent some time this summer teaching at Rock Camp For Girls. What was that experience like?
TN: Being involved with Rock Camp For Girls was the highlight of my life. I was a band coach for 8- to 10-year-olds in the morning and a guitar instructor for older girls in the afternoon. The kids were awesome. It’s a music camp, but more it’s more than that. It’s a place for these young girls to increase their self-esteem and learn how to work with each other instead of against each other, which is what gets fostered too often in the larger world. It made me want to be a better woman. The feminist ideals of the camp are very warm and hospitable. The camp runners warned us a lot of the girls were going to show up loving Hannah Montana and Britney Spears, and that we should be supportive of that. They reminded us that the last thing these girls need is more examples of women talking shit on other women. Everyone built each other up and led by example. It was really moving. At the end, the kids put on a big concert while the instructors were all just hugging and crying.
AVC: There’s an innocence to making music as a kid that seems like it would be hard to maintain while trying to do it for a living.
TN: Trying to make music for a living has made me really vigilant about protecting my relationship with it and trying to keep it pure. I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunities I have, but at the same time last night I was playing my guitar [just for fun] for the first time in ages because when it becomes your job, it takes on a different role in your life. At a certain point on tour, you can get to the point of just relying on muscle memory and not feeling particularly creative, which is totally depressing. I try hard to remember what it was like to play when I was growing up and stay close to that feeling. It’s a challenge, but a fortunate one to have.