Thao Nguyen on Songwriting, S.F. and Sorting Through Her Troubled Relationship With Her Dad

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San Francisco singer/songwriter/musician Thao Nguyen, of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down.  (Maria Kanevskaya)

The versatile San Francisco singer/songwriter/musician Thao Nguyen and her band, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, are coming home to California this weekend, wrapping up their nationwide tour with shows in L.A. and San Francisco.

Nguyen's style has been described as “country-tinged indie folk pop," but she, like her music, is hard to categorize. Her latest album, “A Man Alive,” focuses on her estranged relationship with her father. The California Report Magazine’s host, Sasha Khokha, talked with Thao, who admitted she’s a big fan of The California Report. She brought along her mandolin and played a song for us.

Khokha: Your new album is about your dad, and I know he was a Vietnamese refugee and he met your mom when they were both resettled in North Carolina. What was he like when you were growing up? How did you process the loss when he left your family?

Nguyen: He was at times incredibly charismatic and then other times unreachable and tyrannical. A very complicated, turbulent figure. But, you know, I adored him. And the absorption of his loss was ... well, silently. Because we grew up in a pretty reserved household. The priorities were on food and shelter, and the emotional life was not necessarily a priority. I don’t even think that it occurred to anybody that it could be a priority.


How old were you when he left?

I think I was 11 or 12. But to be fair, he was never quite there when he was there anyway. Obviously, there was a stark difference when he left for good, but we were familiar with that kind of scenario.

And when you were a kid your mom supported your family running a laundromat. You used to play guitar behind the counter?

Yes. That’s where I learned my first chords and my first little riffs between making change for customers.

So did you start playing music around the time your dad left?

In retrospect, I did. I think that music was an incredible outlet and a true companion at the time. And it helped me to, if not process what was happening, to just ignore what was happening. I was just able to retreat to myself and deal with that kind of life change and that kind of sadness.

When I heard your album for the first time, I did feel like there was so much unfiltered pain in it and so much vulnerability, but it still feels so upbeat and makes me want to dance. How intentional are you about that contrast when you’re writing a song?

I’m really glad to hear that. I knew that I wanted to make a danceable record before I knew it would be about such dark subject matter. But that juxtaposition has always been one of the things I always enjoy about songwriting, and as a listener that's what I enjoy most in songs. There were a couple of considerations once it became clear that this record would be about my relationship with my dad. There would be only so much room for straightforward-sounding or sad-sounding songs with a more somber energy, because I knew we would be performing them every night. And I didn’t want to immerse myself in that kind of sonic sadness. Too, there’s a lot of freedom and liberation in acknowledging grief and sadness and anger, which I hadn’t quite considered before.

How do you take care of yourself on the road? You’re doing these songs, over and over, that hold a lot of pain.

At my best self, I try to meditate and exercise, and I drink a lot less on tour these days. But for the emotional output, there’s no way to prepare. There’s no way to simulate the toll it takes. I want every night to be connected, to present these songs as they were intended, and it is a lot more exhausting than I could have imagined. So I don’t know yet. I bought a lot more vitamins. I downloaded some exercise apps that I haven’t looked at yet.

You’ve decided to make San Francisco your home at a time when many artists are leaving, feeling pushed out because it’s so unaffordable. Why do you want to stay rooted in the San Francisco music scene?

I’ve lived in San Francisco for almost 10 years now. I moved here because it’s where I wanted to be, it’s what I wanted to return to when I came home from tour. It’s a great source of sorrow for me, that every artist and musician I know, and have known, can no longer afford to live in San Francisco, and so many families can’t either. At this point, I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to stay, and I will for as long as I can. And I think that anyone who can, should. I feel very protective of the city, and I want to do my part and help and preserve and maintain.

You’ve been on tour for a while now. How does it feel to come home to San Francisco and to California?

It feels like a huge relief. It feels the way coming home should. It renews and reinvigorates my energy and my dedication to locally based organizations. I’m a member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP). We do a lot of prison advocacy work, we go in and visit those that are inside. We follow their lead as far as what kind of lobbying, what kind of legislative action can be taken in Sacramento. There’s lot of action that needs to be taken around solitary confinement in women’s prisons and the incredibly high suicide rate in California state prisons. A woman just committed suicide there this month.

The title track of your last album, "We the Common," has a song about a woman that you met while volunteering to visit prisoners in Chowchilla, the women’s prison.

That entire album, "We the Common," is either directly or indirectly inspired by CCWP and people we’ve met inside. I’m forever grateful for the kind of humanity and gratitude I’ve gained from being involved with this group. So much of it is about appreciating life and the time we have. I wouldn’t have that kind of perspective without these people.

What is it about meeting women prisoners in California that’s changed you?

I knew very little about who is in our prisons before I joined this group. A very personal issue to me is domestic violence, the prevention of it and the response to it. So many of the women that I was meeting inside were survivors of domestic violence who had defended themselves against their abusers. In so many cases, by virtue of resources, or lack thereof, they’re inside. It could happen to everybody. But it doesn’t. The systemic failure and disappointment of our criminal justice system is devastating.

You might hate when people ask you about this, but as an Asian-American woman with a confusing identity history myself, I’m wondering what you think about your visibility as an Asian-American woman in the indie pop world?

I used to hate getting asked that. Now I’m all for it, and I appreciate getting to talk about it. When I first started in my early 20s I was trying to begin my career in music, and everything revolved around my ethnicity. It was just so aggravating to me that this would be the qualifier. I was playing at that point very American folk music, or American folk-influenced music. But my ethnicity would always be brought in, and not in a respectful way. In a pretty deductive, demeaning sort of wholesale way, which I resented so much. So I kind of responded in the extreme, and I didn’t want to talk about it at all, ever.

But as the years have gone by, I’ve come to terms with accepting what my heritage was. You know, I grew up in Virginia and the emphasis was always on assimilation. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. You wanted to fit in, obviously. Had I seen people who looked like me in pop culture or on any fringe in pop culture, maybe my response would have been different and more positive.

But now I am a champion of my heritage and I’m so grateful. I can’t believe what my parents went through to provide such a life for my brother and myself, and I can’t believe that they lost their home and had to start a new one in an entirely different language. I don’t think I would even know where to begin. Now, I do want young Asian-American girls to see that it’s possible. That you don’t have to be quiet and that you don’t have to defer to anyone. I don’t have any tolerance for that.

Read more about Thao Nguyen’s thoughts on songwriting in the essay collection “Inside Song.”