ABOVE: THAO NGUYEN. IMAGE COURTESY OF NICK WALKER
You won't find Thao Nguyen's likeness on her latest musical offering. The reason? For We the Common, Nguyen's fourth musical outing with touring band The Get Down Stay Down, the Virginia-born, San Francisco-based songstress is looking forward.
"This is me as an offering," Nguyen declares, "trying to be part of the world, trying to understand how to be better." Common, out tomorrow via Domino, dismisses the wide-eyed naïveté of We Brave Bee Stings and All (2008) and electric heartbreak of Know Better Learn Faster (2009) in favor of anthemic, weathered storytelling. Rejuvenated by a four-year sabbatical spent with the likes of Dave Eggers, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, and a stateside Radiolab tour alongside Demetri Martin, Nguyen returns with the stories of those she's met on the dusty American plain.
In her spare time, Nguyen may be found jogging, writing, meditating, or picking lemons—which she was in the middle of doing while answering our call. ("I can pick lemons really well," she added.) She touched on the benefits of meditation, small islands, a promise made to Joanna Newsom, the connection between music and activism, short-form prose, and, of course, the perfect lemon.
JOHN TAYLOR: So correct me if I'm wrong, but it's three in the afternoon, and by now you've already gone for a run, meditated, cooked brunch, and done a little bit of writing.
THAO NGUYEN: Yeah. And I adopted an underprivileged kid from another country.
TAYLOR: Not bad for a Friday.
NGUYEN: That's what I'm saying.
TAYLOR: What are you doing right now?
NGUYEN: I'm picking lemons off a lemon tree with a fruit picker.
TAYLOR: That's what you're doing right now?
NGUYEN: That's what I'm doing right now.
TAYLOR: [laughs] What's the secret to finding the perfect lemon?
NGUYEN: The one that has the most exposure to sunlight, and is medium sized. The ones that are really large have been on the tree too long, and the ones that are too small aren't ready yet. They can't be brown, or moldy. And, they shouldn't have bugs crawling out of them.
TAYLOR: Well, so much for my first impression of you.
NGUYEN: [laughs] You can be honest, what were the initial thoughts?
TAYLOR: Honestly? When I first discovered your music, I was surprised to find you were Asian-American. Do you get that a lot?
NGUYEN: Yeah, that happens pretty frequently. I think because I'm Asian-American, there might be some preconceived notions. It was a lot weirder for me in the beginning, because that was the angle when there was press, when the first record [Like the Linen] came out, you know?
TAYLOR: I remember. And now?
NGUYEN: I think it's cool for young, Asian-American girls to come up and say that they're really excited that somebody who they see more of themselves in is part of the scene.
TAYLOR: But you weren't always a part of this scene. Once upon a time, you were a college student...
NGUYEN: Yeah. I graduated college, and then the next week I was on tour.
TAYLOR: What did your family think?
NGUYEN: My mom was very supportive. The rest of the family, they kept their distance. I was initially going into women's advocacy. I was a sociology and women's studies major, so, plans changed. I think everybody was a little worried in the beginning, but it seems they are calmed now. Optimistic.
TAYLOR: As they should be! I don't know too many sociology majors who went on to record with Joanna Newsom. How did you two meet?
NGUYEN: We were both fortunate enough to be invited to this songwriter's retreat at Hedgebrook, which is this amazing organization that helps women writers. It's set on this beautiful farm on an island near Seattle. Each writer has their own cabin—you just write all day long, and then you meet for dinner. They take care of everything for you. All you have to do is write.
TAYLOR: Wow. And Joanna?
NGUYEN: I met Joanna on the ferry, on the way over. I didn't really know what she looked like, but it's a small ferry, and a small island, so I figured it was her.
TAYLOR: "This person has to be Joanna Newsom."
NGUYEN: "That person looks like they're on Drag City."
NGUYEN: I introduced myself, and we became fast friends—she has a wicked sense of humor. We had a lot of fun right away, giving each other shit.
TAYLOR: Tell me a Joanna Newsom joke!
NGUYEN: I'm not at liberty to divulge.
TAYLOR: She made you promise not to tell anyone?
NGUYEN: She made me swear.
TAYLOR: Did she threaten you with her harp?
NGUYEN: She threatened to have her harp eat my guitar, and said, "You'll never play a string instrument in this town again."
TAYLOR: Fair enough. [both laugh] Tell me about the song you worked on together, "Kindness Be Conceived."
NGUYEN: The main refrain, "Kindness be conceived / In the California light," is from the aftermath of a one-night stand. Essentially, the song is about how people disappoint each other, and what to do about it. How to separate, or absorb it.
TAYLOR: A song for the kids, then.
TAYLOR: So, let's side with the press and say that your last record, Know Better Learn Faster, is a "breakup album." If that's true, then what kind of a record is We the Common?
NGUYEN: I think that all of the previous records have been my sort of understanding what happens to me. Talking about my problems. And then, [We the Common] is my trying to understand what I can do to be better to those around me. It's a record about the collective energy and harvesting it, about how people can pick up from each other. There's a current of hope and optimism, a sense of camaraderie. A lot of the record was written when the Occupy movement was just taking hold. It was really exciting, and the energy was palpable. You could feel something was changing.
TAYLOR: Why stay in music?
NGUYEN: I think I'm more effective as an activist if I stay in music, to be honest. Music, the way it reaches people and transcends divisions, is a really effective and powerful forum. You know, the first song on the record is about Valerie Bolden, this woman I visited in state prison. So, instead of talking about how old I was when I first started playing guitar, I could talk about her, and about the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.
TAYLOR: When you're onstage, singing all these songs... what's going through your mind?
NGUYEN: You know what's awesome? It's nothing. That's what's so amazing about meditation—achieving that state, getting to a place where you're clear and present. I'm not thinking about anything except connecting with an audience.
TAYLOR: Is meditation helpful?
NGUYEN: I think meditating on tour is integral. It's a priority, because everything is so chaotic, and the calmer you stay, the calmer everybody is. Sometimes I do it hotel lobbies, or in corners, and I try to find moments. It's not ideal when people come out and almost step on you.
TAYLOR: That's dedication.
NGUYEN: [laughs] I try. My discipline isn't that impressive, but I always wanted to be a writer instead of a musician when I was young. And, I still harbor that dream. I remember in third grade, Bill Clinton was being inaugurated, and I wrote a short story about how all of my teachers and their husbands went to the inauguration party. Ms. Kuster, who was my primary third teacher, her boyfriend—I can't believe my memory! It's incredible, because I don't remember that my credit card bill is due, but I can remember that Ms. Kuster's boyfriend's name was Clark, and the main thing that happened in the story was that he fell into a pool, and his toupee fell off. I think he had all of his natural hair, but for the sake of the story I gave him a toupee.
TAYLOR: Wait, are you still picking lemons? What number are you at?
NGUYEN: [laughs] Oh, Jesus, like 1,000!
TAYLOR: 1,000? That's a lot of lemons.
NGUYEN: It's a very productive tree.
TAYLOR: It sounds like you're doing a very good job of multitasking, holding all those lemons and talking on the phone.
NGUYEN: Thanks, I'm juggling them all.
TAYLOR: What's gonna happen to all those lemons?
NGUYEN: Some will be preserved, for future generations, and then there will be some lemonade. And I will probably eat salmon, and use lemon juice upon it. If I get sick, I will make hot tea with lemon and cayenne, and it will cure me. I think that's all I'm going to do with them. I'm going to give them to people as free gifts, just to strangers on the street. I'm feeling quite generous.
TAYLOR: "Hi, I'm Thao, here's some lemons."
NGUYEN: No, no name necessary. Lemons in San Francisco are a very valuable commodity.
TAYLOR: So, when life gives Thao Nguyen lemons...
NGUYEN: She gives them away.
WE THE COMMON IS OUT TOMORROW. THAO AND THE GET DOWN STAY DOWN WILL PLAY MARCH 22 AT BOWERY BALLROOM. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, VISIT HER WEBSITE.