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Thao Nguyen Doesn’t Stay Down

Oct 8, 2020

By Mossy Ross

Photo Credit: Shane McCauley

When I first listened to the title track off Thao & the Get Down Stay Down’s fifth album, Temple, I immediately hit repeat. After I finished listening to it the second time, I hit repeat again. And then again. And then again. I had a teenage urge to learn all the lyrics, so I could sing along at the top of my voice while cruising down the road. The song describes the pain of losing a home to war, an experience many of us haven’t lived through in America, and yet I still felt a deep personal connection with the song’s powerful message. Perhaps because this country is currently facing such extreme civil unrest, so the thought of experiencing war firsthand is increasingly becoming more real. But the song also touches on the turmoil we can sometimes feel in our own family lives as well. Thao Nguyen seems to be a master at crafting albums that exquisitely make complicated and painful matters a bit easier to bear.

Thao recently won a Sunny Award by CBS Sunday Morning (my most favorite of all morning shows) for the music video to her song “Phenom.” Not only is the video wildly creative and entertaining, it conveys an intergenerational rage that’s finally being collectively realized. It’s the rage of someone who has discovered it’s okay to feel sick of constantly being at the bottom of the ladder, and the message should strike fear in the hearts of corrupt politicians everywhere.

As if a timeless and timely new album and an award winning music video weren’t enough, I was triply astounded after watching the documentary Nobody Dies (available to stream Sat., Oct. 10), which follows Thao on a journey with her mom to Vietnam. The trip was Thao’s first visit to Vietnam, and her mom’s first time back since fleeing the country in 1973. It was a chance for Thao to see her mother in an environment where she wasn’t defined by being a refugee, as she often is in America. In both the documentary and the album, Thao paints a picture we don’t often see in American popular culture: the perspective of a child whose parents have lived through and escaped war.

Mossy: I watched your documentary, and it was such a beautiful tribute to your mom. Is there anything about your mother’s life and experiences that really stand out for you, that you think Americans could learn from?

TN: When I wrote Temple, it was because I wanted to offer a different narrative and rendering of someone who experienced war, and the idea of what a refugee is. And obviously in recent years, maybe throughout American history, how refugees have been reduced and the narrative that has been relayed. I think it’s really important to remember that there’s a distinction between an immigrant and a refugee. And also that someone is not just defined by this war that happened to them and their country. I think that’s why Temple was so important for me. I really wanted to capture my mom’s life before, after, and during; and just help enrich that community. I was raised in Virginia, and growing up, it was so stark the way people treated (refugees). I think that parents that are refugees or immigrants witness a lot of incredibly unfortunate encounters, where their dignity is dismissed. You watch your parents be dehumanized in either casual ways, or really serious ways. So this was one of my efforts to address and make peace with that.

Mossy: When I was watching your documentary I found myself smiling. And then I got to the story about your dad and I just started bawling. What parallels do you see between your father and the patriarchy at large?

TN: That’s an interesting question. My record before this one was about my dad. It’s called A Man Alive, and it’s just about our nonexistent relationship and all the bullshit. But what I started to understand when I was making that record, was just a facet of what it is to be emasculated in American society. And what that means for the families of the men who are emasculated. And I think that you see that a lot, especially in immigrant and refugee homes. And others, I mean, I’m only speaking from my experience. But what does a man do to assert power when he feels as though he’s denied power in society? I think it becomes a really personal and intimate, familial problem. And you know, it helps me understand his experience and what unresolved trauma that basically debilitates him, and renders him an irresponsible, reckless person. Patriarchy in general…I do think so much of it is people not knowing how to grapple with the expectations of masculinity. I could go on. (Laughs) I’ll just say it’s so detrimental in every direction, because if you’re not masculine enough, you will pay and then someone else will pay. And if you feel as though you’re not respected enough, then the ways that men feel pressured to illicit that respect in our society is so deadly.

Mossy: You said in the documentary that when you went back to Vietnam, it helped you understand your dad’s temperament. That you understood it…but you didn’t. It’s like saying, “I do understand where you’re coming from and I empathize, but I don’t accept how you’re treating me because of it.” Which I feel is kind of where true healing from trauma can begin. How else do you deal with trauma?

TN: Well there have been different waves of awareness and lack of awareness of what I needed to be doing. I mean, I’ve done the typical things like drinking. (Laughs) I think touring helped. I’ve spent the majority of my adult life on tour, and it’s a refuge. But it also allows you to not deal with anything for a really long time. You could go your whole life without dealing with things. Of course, songwriting and making music. And really wanting to go there lyrically by being more specific with lyrics. Okay, and then therapy. But as far as music is concerned, I think it’s been really helpful to have these songs and talk about them, even under the auspice of promotion. But it’s also just connecting with people and talking about the songs. These levels of vulnerability make for a lot more humane experience. When we play live shows , if people get a chance, they’ll come up and tell me what a song has meant. And it really is so heartening and gratifying, and part of the healing.

Mossy: So you’re saying drinking didn’t work?

TN: (Laughs) I still do it, so I’m not saying it doesn’t. Just don’t go crazy!

Photo Credit: Shane McCauley

Mossy: You have such a wonderful vocabulary, so I’m guessing you like to read. Who are you favorite authors?

TN: Thanks for saying that. Writing and reading favorite authors are how I prepare the albums and the songs. And when I’m writing songs, I never listen to music, and I only read. But I love, oh man, I grew up reading Toni Morrison and her way with language and the vivid pictures she paints and the way she renders people. Grace Paley is another writer who’s style I love. Marilynne Robinson. George Saunders. I typically am drawn to contemporary literature. And now there’s a lot of reading to be done to learn about how America has become what it is. And to that end, Octavia Butler and James Baldwin really influenced the writing of this record.

Mossy: So you’re like Kurt Cobain over here, writing songs inspired by literature.

TN: (Laughs) I wish I had a cool sweater.

Mossy: Ah, he had the best sweaters.

TN: He had the best sweaters.

Mossy: I saw on your Instagram that you support women prisoners and Critical Resistance. Why are you specifically interested in these causes?

TN: With the California Coalition of Women Prisoners, I’ve been involved with them since 2013. Originally it was because a housemate of mine was an amazing organizer, and has been with them for years. And I was home from tour for awhile and he asked me to join this advocacy group, where we went in to prisons and visited, and we were part of a legal advocacy team. So the album, We the Common is entirely about and in tribute to these people who live inside, and this organization.

Mossy: Do you need to have a law degree to do that? I wanna do that!

TN: (Laughs) You totally can! No you don’t have to have a law degree. So the people like my friend…they don’t officially have a law degree. They just know so much about the system, because they’re constantly trying to help people figure out their parole, and how to get their face back in front of a judge. So we went in conjunction with a lawyer. We were just a team that was basically working with a pro-bono lawyer.

Mossy: You mentioned connection and live performance in your documentary. How do you think the musical performance landscape is going to change since the pandemic?

TN: I don’t know what’s going to happen to the venues as they exist now. I don’t know what kind of modifications or concessions they’ll have to make. So I do think that there will be more unconventional and nontraditional venues that come up by the time we’re ready for crowds to gather. And I think there will be more multi-use spaces and art institutions and contemporary art museums. More of those kind of hybrid events. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the rock clubs. It’s so sad. But I do think that we were barreling towards a reckoning. And I liken the music industry to the restaurant industry in a lot of ways…how thin the margin is for survival. And I think people will play smaller shows, because they can happen more quickly. And I think there’s going to be a lot more direct to fan engagement. And those who have a preexisting fan base will lean more into those fans, and be less concerned with expanding.

Mossy: It’s almost like what’s happening in the music industry is symbolic of what needs to happen everywhere. More localizing and community building.

TN: Totally. And I think Bandcamp is going to take an even stronger role as leaders of a more ethical model. I think what’s happening right now with streaming services is, ah, (laughs) unbearable.

Keep up with Thao’s music and the organizations she supports on Instagram at @thaogetstaydown

Stream the documentary Nobody Dies this Saturday at https://www.youtube.com/user/thaomusic

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