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Thao Nguyen’s Next Chapter of Songwriting and Advocacy Arrives in Your Inbox

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Thao & the Get Down Stay Down plays the 2018 Noise Pop Music and Arts Festival. (Estefany Gonzalez)
Thao & the Get Down Stay Down plays the 2018 Noise Pop Music and Arts Festival at the Fox Theater in Oakland.  (Estefany Gonzalez)

Looking back at the early days of her career, Thao Nguyen remembers times she didn’t feel whole. Navigating a mostly white indie rock scene since the late 2000s caused her to downplay aspects of her Vietnamese-ness in the face of covert and overt racism. And she wasn’t out as queer to everyone in her life, which made it impossible to share her full self with some of the people close to her.

After years of searching and processing, she’s arrived in a secure place where she lives proudly in her truth.

“With all this time off, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about what it was like to come up at the time that I did,” says the San Francisco musician, who leads indie rock outfit Thao and the Get Down Stay Down. “Even though 2007, 2008 doesn’t sound that far away, it was drastically different. The tolerance for racism was a lot higher. And there was a lot less that you could do about it—or that I could do about it—that I feel like I can do now.”

Her imperfect self-discovery process became the topic of 2020’s Temple, her most personal and poignant album with the Get Down Stay Down, named one of KQED’s top albums of that year. The project’s driving, post-rock title track captures the feeling of coming home to oneself after denying a long-held pain. Nguyen wrote the song from the perspective of her parents fleeing the Vietnam war as refugees, contextualizing her own life journey in their stories; instead of blaming her parents for their shortcomings, she creates a visceral depiction of earth-shattering loss and survival that set the stage for her upbringing in Virginia. On the songs that follow, Nguyen sounds palpably fed up with diminishing herself to fit other people’s expectations. The instrumentation is at times raw and jagged, as if evolving in real time, and her lyrics express a yearning to be seen and appreciated.

Thao Nguyen’s 2020 album ‘Temple’ saw her open up about her imperfect journey to embrace her identity. In her new newsletter, she’s sharing the creative process of her next album and deepening her Asian American advocacy work. (Eric Einwiller)

Temple was as much about being Vietnamese as much as it was being proudly queer,” says Nguyen. “And that aspect, especially now given the incredibly harrowing and disturbing rise in violence towards Asian people due to all that rhetoric and racist fear mongering—I think the next album will have a lot more to do with my Asian American identity.”

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This vulnerable new stage in her songwriting led Nguyen to her latest project: earlier this week, she launched a Substack newsletter called For the Record. With weekly free content and additional dispatches for paid subscribers, Nguyen is opening up her creative process for the tight-knit community of fans as she embarks on her next album.

“It’s almost like me being able to have an independent media company entity, and I can maintain my autonomy in a lot of ways,” Nguyen says.

For the Record will include essays, poems, new tracks, performance videos, Q&As with fans and other behind-the-scenes content. Like many independent artists, Nguyen has had to step into new creative roles to continue to connect with fans online in lieu of live performance, which she previously relied on to make a living.

Nguyen released Temple in May 2020, when the realization set in that the COVID-19 lockdown would last much longer than a couple of months. In the past year, the concert industry independent artists relied on has been decimated, exposing just how devalued recorded music had become. (To earn the equivalent of full-time work at $15 an hour, an artist needs to get 657,895 Spotify streams a month, according to NPR’s calculations.) Artists at Nguyen’s level, who have devoted followings but aren’t chart toppers, have had to get creative about harnessing monetary support from their fan bases.

“I’ve been cranky about it in the past, but at a certain point, you figure out how nimble you wanna be and how you wanna adapt, what you’re willing to do and what you’re not willing to do to adjust to the realities of the way music is disseminated,” she says. “I’m so grateful to be able to rely on the relationships I’ve built with fans over the last 15 years. So Substack, a platform where you can directly rely and foster and continue to enrich that relationship with people who support you, is something I’m really interested in.”

Despite its challenges, the last year provided opportunities for Nguyen to align further with her purpose. She performed an NPR Tiny Desk Concert from her San Francisco home with her neighbors on cello, where she addressed the Vietnamese American community about building solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. She began working with the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization, and volunteered and fundraised for numerous get-out-the-vote campaigns.

“I was really grateful to receive messages from people … thanking me for being a proud member of the Vietnamese American community or being queer and Vietnamese,” Nguyen says. “There were so many points of real candor and connection.”

Indeed, Nguyen’s straightforwardness is refreshing. While media is full of stories of barrier-busting girl bosses—or on the flip side, depictions of people of color that focus exclusively on trauma—Nguyen takes a more nuanced approach in the way she opens up about her process of becoming.

“I wanted to be specific and present the realities of all the different complexities and conflicts within trying to negotiate a lot of different things, and to acknowledge the challenges I’ve had in my own family and my own community,” she says. “I had gone a long time without acknowledging any of it.”

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