Thao Nguyen: Q&A

Thao Nguyen of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down (photo by Shane McCauley, PR)
by Kara Manning | 05/12/2020 | 10:00pm

Thao Nguyen of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down (photo by Shane McCauley, PR)

Quarantined Artists is a new FUV feature that includes online Q&As and on-air conversations with musicians dealing with life in Covid-19 lockdown.

Thao Nguyen of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down wasn't sure that she really wanted to make another album after the release of 2016's A Man Alive. For a long time she had dodged some truth about her personal life in public forums, but Nguyen wanted to be frank about her queer identity with her fans and her family—and acknowledge her recent marriage to her wife.

The daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Nguyen began crossing that cultural bridge with her family and community in A Man Alive and the 2017 documentary "Nobody Dies." Her unveiling of her inner truth, and the peace that brings, continues on Thao and the Get Down Stay Down's riveting new album, Temple, released on May 15 via Ribbon Music. "I believe that shame has made my work more general, when I’ve always wanted to be specific," explained Nguyen in a press release. "This record is about me finally being specific. If you listen to my music, I want you to know who you are dealing with.”

Producing her own album for the first time with bandmate, bassist, and keyboardist Adam Thompson, Nguyen and the Get Down Stay Down announced Temple's impending release and their own summer tour on March 10—ten days before Nguyen's own state of California went on lockdown due to the pandemic. Improvising in the best possible way, Nguyen and the band recorded a sultry, super choreographed video for their single "Phenom" entirely on Zoom — the first band to take on the coronavirus-era, online chat medium of choice in that way. A new video, "Pure Cinema," finds another clever way to film at home while social distancing as a band.

As for touring, it's all looking hazy at the moment, but Thao and the Get Down Stay Down will be hosting a listening party via Zoom on Thursday, May 14 at 7 p.m. ET for fans who pre-order Temple.

When FUV caught up to Nguyen for a Quarantined Artists Q&A, below, she not only talked about Temple, but revealed her love of gardening, reading, and her nascent steps into children's TV, inspired by her nieces and nephews. She also touched on how we can all help our communities during this crisis and kindly wrangled a "Stay at Home" Spotify playlist for FUV too, with songs from some of Nguyen's favorite artists, like David Bowie and John Prine, plus three picks from Temple.

In the player above, listen to the conversation between Nguyen and evening host Eric Holland, which first aired on FUV on May 11.

You've made history as being the first musician to shoot a video on Zoom, in support of your single "Phenom." It's fantastic, suits the intensity of the track perfectly, and also must have been daunting to choreograph and rehearse. What was the biggest challenge of its execution and how did you wrangle everyone on board?

Oh wow, thank you! We were incredibly fortunate to have co-directors/choreographer and a producer who were extremely up to the newfangled task. Everyone was a trooper, rehearsing for hours on Zoom. I'd say the most pressing concern was staying true to the darker, chaotic energy of the song and making sure it didn't veer into anything too cute. The hardest thing for me personally was hitting some of that choreography alongside the professional dancers without looking like a buffoon. There was some stuff I just had to skip. Dancers are amazing.

In addition, you've also launched a "Thao TV for Kids" livestream on Instagram. You're apparently the very best aunt! What was your vision for this project?

Ha, perhaps one could call it a soft launch. "Thao TV for Kids" happened once, a few days into the shelter-in-place order in California, as a real-time response to the newfound panic/overwhelm all my friends with kids were experiencing. I wanted to do a live Q&A, answering only questions submitted by kids. I'm not quite sure when the next installment will take place. Livestreaming a TV show is very stressful! I don't have enough tablets to make it run smoothly.

I wouldn't say I'm the best aunt, but I am striving! If I were the best I would send more physical letters and things like homemade kid garden kits. I think my problem is I'm terrible at sending packages. I have compiled a ton of toys, cool erasers, and picture books to send and they are all still in our house.

How are your nieces and nephews responding to "Thao TV for Kids?" 

I don't think any kids in the family saw the first episode! Figuring out Instagram Live proved to be an issue.

What did you love best as a little girl?

When I was young I loved "Sesame Street" and "Reading Rainbow" and then, as I approached double digits, I loved "Carmen Sandiego" and "Ghostwriter."

Your fifth album, Temple, comes out this Friday, May 15. It was an album that you've said nearly didn't happen, but it did because of your need to be your full self: one guided by love, candor about sexual identity, free of shame, and celebrating your recent marriage to your wife. When you listen back to the album now, what you've accomplished here, what makes you most proud about that journey you've taken?

I am most proud that I finally acknowledged how much shame I carried. Just that recognition alone provides a lot of momentum to get free.

Is there a particular song on Temple that's taken on an additional resonance for you, lyrically or personally, since this crisis and why?

"Rational Animal." I wrote it about who decides the worth of one life over another, the dismissal and dehumanization of a person, or a group of people, at the whim of another. Seeing what's happening, who actually is dying from Covid-19 in America. Unfortunately all those themes do resonate.

Where are you and your wife spending this lockdown era? How are you both keeping yourself healthy, both mentally and physically? 

We are in the Bay Area in our little house that we are trying very hard to stay in (luckily, my wife isn't a musician). We are lucky and doing our best to stay healthy on all fronts. I've been gathering seeds like I'm in [Octavia E. Butler's] Parable of the Sower. I'm trying to grow a lot of our own vegetables. I'd been trying before but touring always decimated everything. Or rather, me on tour decimated everything. I very much lacked focus. Now I have tons of food-supply focus. I'm out there all day. I watch "Epic Gardening" YouTube videos. Exclusively. I've been FaceTiming with my mom a lot. We never did that before the pandemic. She shows me flowers and vegetables in her garden and they are way healthier looking than what I've got going. I worry about her and I don't know when it will be safe enough for me to visit her. The most helpful thing is to see her and talk to her every day on screen.

Are you reading anything wonderful?

I am reading Sakaya Murata's Convenience Store Woman and yes it is wonderful! I bought a bunch of books from Shop for books and support independent book stores!

You are very involved with charities like Alma Backyard Farms, a non-profit supporting urban farming. During this pandemic, how else do you think folks can help their communities, even while staying at home?

I think now is an incredible time to seek out and participate in mutual aid organizations and efforts taking place in our communities.

With some hindsight and a great deal of positivity, if you were to look back two years down the line, let's say in 2022, how do you dream the world might have changed for the better following this crisis?

This is more positivity than I typically traffic in! I dream that all the inequality laid bare ignites a more unified, organized anger and unrest, aimed accurately at the true American cesspools, and that its efficacy changes legislation, dismantles corporate power, topples totally inadequate leaders and honors the dignity of all people. And I hope the middle seats in all airplanes get torn out.

- Thao Nguyen
May 5, 2020


Stay at Home Playlist (compiled by Thao Nguyen)

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