The Liberation of Thao Nguyen
“I’ve never been interested in making something so personal”
By Libby Webster,
11:45AM, Wed. Apr. 20, 2016
Thao Nguyen’s work with the Get Down Stay Down has zig-zagged inward to outré, some of it dealing with heartbreak, some of it revolving around the singer’s volunteering with women inmates. Fifth LP A Man Alive grapples with the pain of an absent father via off-kilter, electrified funk in a tour de force of beats, bass, and groove. Mohawk hosts her on Saturday.
Austin Chronicle: I’d imagine that going into making an album you probably have an idea of how things are going to sound, but with this one being so funky, were you ever surprised by the sounds coming out?
Thao Nguyen: There were a couple times, songs like “Meticulous Bird.” I was just demoing, just a drumbeat and some programming, and then I realized I was rapping. I was like, “Am I rapping? I am, for sure.” In pre-production, going into this record, we knew the album would be a lot more beat, bass, and groove-driven, but we weren’t totally sure about what was going to happen. Anytime we were surprised, it was pleasant.
AC: What was it like having a close friend, Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus, work on and produce an album with you, and how did it affect the sound of A Man Alive?
TN: Merrill and I are very close friends, and we’ve been talking about working together more extensively for years, so it was just good fortune that scheduling worked out. In so many ways, on so many levels, I couldn’t have made this record without her. It has such serious and personal content that that was one of the things where I don’t think I could have made this kind of record with someone I didn’t know well.
Merrill knows my history and she’s been around with me through a lot of that stuff, so that was so important in being able to tackle this territory. She and our sound engineer, who’s essentially another member of the band, created such a warm, welcoming environment for everyone to try out whatever they wanted instrumentation-wise and effect-wise – all the different sounds and manipulations and pedals and everything.
It was so rewarding and different than the way we’ve worked before. I was encouraged and I was really excited to do things I’d never done before, play instruments I’d never played before. There was a very, very healthy, “Why not?” attitude, which we all loved and really thrived on.
AC: The first time I heard “Nobody Dies,” I was driving in my car and it came on the radio. I thought, “This is such a fun song!” Then I revisited it on the album and thought, “Actually, this is intense.” It’s such a personal struggle you’re covering, but it’s something you can dance along to. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.
TN: Before I knew I was bringing in such serious subject matter my priority was to make a record people could dance to. Then it became necessary, because if we were going to be performing these songs every night, we would have to have fun performing them. I wasn’t going to be singing these sad ballads all day, every day, endlessly.
AC: Was the absence of your father something you always wanted to approach artistically, or is it something that surfaced recently?
TN: It’s very recent – as in, when I started writing songs I noticed that they were all circling around this content. I’ve never wanted to or have been interested in making something so personal and vulnerable, but that was the way I was in my life. I never talked about it, and even my closest friends are surprised that I’m doing it or that I did it. So it was never anything I planned on. It was just the right time in my life to be exploring how this relationship – and not just the estrangement, but all of the turbulence before that, all that stuff – helped inform my life.
AC: When you’re working on an album that’s so inward-facing, does the process end up being more of a struggle or more soothing?
TN: It was incredibly intense, and emotionally and psychologically consuming to write these songs, but at the same time also the most freeing and liberating thing I’ve done. I didn’t do it for that kind of catharsis. I did it because I needed to. It was time to look at things in a more honest way and talk about them more honestly. And that process is really gratifying, to just accept things the way they are.
There’s no intention with this record that it would fix anything, and it hasn’t, and I don’t believe it will. I did it for myself. This is the first time I’ve written songs and been crying while writing [laughs] – so intense! I wouldn’t necessarily do it again, but I’m glad it happened.
AC: What do you think 2005’s Like the Linen-Thao would think if she heard 2016’s A Man Alive?
TN: Ahh. I think she would think [laughs], “What are all those drums doing on there?” You know, I think she’d be excited to hear very deep-rooted intentions manifested in a way that’s always been there. I know people say – and it’s true – the sound of this record is definitely a departure from what we’ve done, but in a way it’s the truest. It’s embodying the elements that I’ve loved the most from music and writing. It took us a while to zero in on it, but we’ve done our most effective job of capturing what I’ve wanted to hear from us.