Thao Nguyen on touring, taking time off, and this weekend’s Lebowski Fest
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Thao Nguyen has led a life most musicians only dream of. She spent most of her 20s touring and releasing one critically adored album of nervy alt-folk after another, working with celebrated artists like Joanna Newsom and Andrew Bird, and tagging along with a traveling version of NPR’s Radiolab. But a little more than a year ago, Nguyen decided to walk away from it all. She stopped touring, settled in San Francisco, and dedicated herself to decidedly non-musical pursuits, including getting involved with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Above all, Nguyen used her time off the road as a chance to reconnect with old friends, and to become a part of her community.
Now, a year later, the seeds planted during that respite have come into full bloom on Nguyen’s latest album, the excellent We The Common. Before Nguyen and her band, The Get Down Stay Down, perform at Cathedral Square Friday night as part of Lebowski Fest, The A.V. Club chatted with the singer about the perils of touring, the therapeutic benefits of taking time off, and whether or not she’ll be dressing up for this weekend’s bathrobe- and jelly-clad festivities.
The A.V. Club: You’re on tour through the rest of the year, but your Milwaukee stop during Lebowski Fest is definitely one date that stands out. Do you have any special connection with that movie?
Thao Nguyen: I don’t have a special connection to it besides I think its hilarious and amazing. [The show] just worked out that way. Had I known about it, I would have made a special request, but I’m glad that it worked out.
AVC: The crowd should be interesting. Most of your fans probably don’t wear a lot of bathrobes and jelly sandals to your shows.
TN: Yeah, I heard that people will be dressed up as different characters. A friend of ours who’s acting as a consultant is trying to figure out who in the band could be what.
AVC: Oh, so you’re dressing up?
TN: Well, when in Rome. [Laughs] I think so. I think we’re all fans of the film, so it wouldn’t be too far off. I haven’t told the band yet, but I think they’ll be into it.
AVC: Before recording We The Common, you stepped away from touring and recording for a year. Why did you feel the need to do that?
TN: I think it was just pretty run-of-the-mill. Getting burnt out. Tour fatigue. It was the right time to do it. I didn’t have to promote any more albums, and I was thinking about transitioning from my label and my management, so it was an appropriate time to just chill out. Mostly I just needed a break, and I needed to do things outside of music. I needed to establish my life in other ways.
AVC: How do you go about something like that?
TN: I didn’t know then, and I didn’t quite know what I was doing when I basically eased into all this time off. A really important part of that time off was becoming more a part of my community, and really living in the city, and joining organizations that I had been in contact with and had really admired the work they did. I saw my friends. I went home and hung out with mom. My brother had a kid. I reconnected with my family.
AVC: You’ve talked about spending most of your 20s on tour, and how there are parts of you that maybe didn’t develop because of that. What sorts of things do you feel you’ve missed out on?
TN: Just relationships in general, and that consistency that you don’t have when you’re away a lot. When friends have a problem, they don’t call you, because you’re not home anyway. Just re-establishing those kind of connections into being present. And feeling you have a home.
AVC: Touring seems like the opposite of that. It seems really selfish. Not in a bad way, necessarily, but just very self-obsessed.
TN: Certainly. It’s very self-absorbed, and you exist at a really primal level, because you’re always so tired. You sort of focus on your most basic needs, which are eating and sleeping. And then you play the show, and that’s what you have to do. It’s nice to have stability, because from there you’re capable of more.
AVC: You don’t have any regrets about touring, do you?
TN: I certainly don’t regret it at all. It’s so much a part of my identity. But I wanted to address whatever was happening before I lost my gratitude for it. You can lose that appreciation if you do it too much, and if you don’t balance it well enough. And I wasn’t balancing it well enough. If anything, [taking time off] was an effort to recover so I could come back and appreciate touring, and give it the respect it deserves.
AVC: Now that you’re back on the road, are there certain things you can appreciate again?
TN: A product of this record that I hadn’t really thought about—it wasn’t part of the intention, but obviously it’s inherent in it—is that because it’s a lot more about community and people taking care of each other and showing up in that way, I feel like when we’re touring there’s a motivation behind it that wasn’t there before. I have the privilege to go around and hang out with people and present a show, but also have a connection. Because the record is about that, it’s actually playing out in a live setting. That’s really re-energizing, and it focuses you in a way. At the end of the night when you sing a song like “We The Common,” you feel that. It doesn’t get diluted night to night.
AVC: So that re-energized feeling caught you by surprise?
TN: It was unintended in that I didn’t know it would make touring feel that much healthier. It was intended in a way that I wanted to be able to connect with a crowd in a live setting, but I didn’t know that it would make me less tired. [Laughs]
And I didn’t know that really amazing folks would come up to me because of it. This is a tangent, but this woman came up on stage one night when we were in Ann Arbor. She was drunk, but a very pleasant drunk. She was older, and she said, “My sons brought me here. I’d never heard of you, but I heard that you do prison work.” She sat on stage talking while the show was happening. But then afterwards, she came up when I was signing records, and she gives me all the money in her pocket. She gives me $120, and she says, “Give this to the women in your group.” I never thought that would happen.
AVC: What’s on the horizon after this tour?
TN: If we’re lucky enough to keep going, and keep this album cycle going, then we’ll do more headlining stuff. Eventually I’m going to start writing again, and we’ll head back into the studio when things have quieted down. I just got back from this amazing retreat for activists and artists. We were at Sundance, and making all sorts of plans to collaborate. So that’s a really strong component of what I do that I’d like to always keep doing, even if touring is slowly draining my life force.