Growing up as a Vietnamese-American in the largely white suburb of Falls Church, Virginia, with her single mother, Thao Nguyen found a sort of rock and roll salvation at the age of 12 when she first picked up a guitar. After teaching herself to play, she has spent the next thirteen years honing her craft -- from singer-songwriter folk duo with junior high friends, to the accomplished, talented, fearless artist she is today.
Now signed to the Kill Rock Stars label in Portland, Thao has released two albums with a third due this fall. Last year's We Brave Bee Stings And All is a masterpiece of brightly colored, intelligent, multi-instrumental songs which has been receiving growing critical acclaim. The New York Times called it "a winning, eccentric collection of pop-friendly indie rock with occasional splashes of the baroque." It is an album that strikes deep at the heart of truth, and isn't afraid to mix trombone with beatboxing. After tours with folks like Rilo Kiley and Vampire Weekend, Thao hit the Hi-Dive in Denver recently and took some time to talk to us about her new album, what cellos can bring to her songs, and the catharsis of a deeply honest performance.
F/F - For some artists there seems to be a difference between simple performance and true catharsis - really feeling a song. It seems no matter where you perform, from small radio station to big loud club, you always give authentic catharsis, with a lot of yourself.
Thao -I think it's just the easiest thing for me to do, because however many times you do it, if you don't hearken back to why you wrote it and how you felt when you did, why you needed to expel it from your body, then it becomes insincere. It is easier for me to just check out and immerse myself in the song, sink into something else, rather than be cognizant of how awkward the show could be. If I don't do that, I just feel totally stupid -- you gotta go all the way or it feels worse. I do sink my teeth into it because they are really personal songs, and if you don't give that of yourself when you present them to people, then you do the song another injustice. I enjoy it -- it is very draining, but I would rather that than be detached from the performance. Also, as people pay to see us, part of my job is to put on a good show. It's really important for us to build a connection with the audience, and I want to build as honest of an experience as possible.
But [laughs] now that I think about it, you know, that's kind of fucked up! But part of my job is to wallow in these terrible aspects and experiences. It's not great for morale. After a while, I don't want to think about them anymore, but for my job I have to.
Tallymarks, Featuring Thao Nguyen
The Portland Cello Project
“The record is primarily a response to the end of a relationship, so a lot of it is pretty reactionary. It's trying to be introspective, but there's always got to be a little "fuck you" in there - or, sometimes there's a lot. ”
F/F - Tell me about your work with the Portland Cello Project, which sounds amazing. You recorded an album recently with cello interpretations of your songs?
Thao -Yeah, well, I am performing with them on the record, so in a way they become my backing band. Willis [the drummer] plays on a few of the songs, and there's my guitar, with the rest all cello. The songs we contributed were "Beat (Health, Life and Fire)," "Violet," "Tallymarks," and "Geography" with them, and the Kill Rockstars label is releasing it in June. It's a full-length album -- The Cello Project has a few songs they've contributed just of their own, and then another artist named Justin Power has a few of his songs on there as well. The Portland Cello Project has also recorded with artists like Horse Feathers, Laura Gibson and Mirah.
F/F - That sounds brilliant. Cellos are such honest, sad, gorgeous instruments, and I'm curious to hear what they bring out of your songs.
Thao -Yeah, they definitely bring out the sadness in my music, I'll tell you that.
F/F -Your record We Brave Bee Stings and All (on the formidable Kill Rock Stars label), is one of my favorites of the last year. I understand that you guys are putting the final touches on the new album?
Thao -That is correct, we have one more week of working on it in July, and then it will be released in October. It is tentatively titled Know Better Learn Faster, but I am not completely sure on that yet. I'll decide when they make me. The record is primarily a response to the end of a relationship, so a lot of it is pretty reactionary. It's trying to be introspective, but there's always got to be a little “fuck you” in there – or, sometimes there's a lot. I am excited about the emotional content of it and how we tried to convey our live performance and that level of energy that we have now. On We Brave, we didn't have that, because when we recorded it we weren't really a band yet.
F/F - I heard one new song performed in Austin, and I read that you've been interested in exploring new sounds and instruments and songwriting techniques. What are you most excited about with the new album?
Thao - Lyrically I think the new album is a lot more straightforward than We Brave, because on that album I just danced around a lot of things, it wasn't a total confrontation. But this new record was very intense and emotional to write and it all came out very quickly, in a month or so. I think the album is a lot more intense and energetic and straightforward.
We've been playing three of the new songs on the road, "Goodbye Good Luck," "Body," and "Easy," and the album has 12 or 13 songs on it total. On this record, we've got a female choir, a lot more organ, more horns, a lot of trumpet, slide guitar.
There's one song that's only handclaps and stomping, it's a very short song, and we're calling it "The Clap." That's the title - and I'm not changing it.
Get More» More from this conversation and photos of Thao can be found at I Am Fuel, You are Friends, where Gigbot's pal Heather Browne discusses being a female in the world of music.
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