Thao Nguyen grew up in North Virginia, where she began playing country music in high school. She spent a long time playing small venues, like a Potbelly Sandwich Shop in Washington, D.C., before she began touring extensively. When she finally took a break from the road to write her new album, Nguyen found herself engaged in social issues-especially the plight of women serving life sentences in prison. The resulting album, the soaring and anthemic We the Common, doesn't feel at all like your typical protest album. She and her band, The Get Down Stay Down, will be performing at the Ottobar on Friday, July 26. City Paper caught up with Nguyen by phone in San Francisco, where she has settled.
City Paper: It's almost impossible to describe We the Common in terms of the typical music-writer's formula of "x+y." How would you describe it?
Thao Nguyen: I haven't tried describing it in a while. This one more than others enters in the realm of not being identifiable. It has more deftly covered the ground of influence that I've absorbed over the years, and I think it best represents all of the kinds of music I'm interested in. I've always been a big hip-hop fan and folk and old country and country roots fan, and these songs are a more complete idea of my interpretation of how they would be combined.
CP: It definitely has a different sound. Are you working with the same musicians in the Get Down Stay Down that you have in the past?
TN: Adam Thompson, who's our bassist, is still in the band and a big part of the band, and the collaboration and the arrangements and everyone else is new. Jason Slota plays drums, and I wrote these songs with the idea that the rhythm section and the production would feel like a hip-hop record in that there's a lot of repeating elements and [it's] bass-heavy and rhythm-centric. And Jason is a great drummer and he had a power I wanted to better accentuate.
CP: You mention it as a hip-hop record, and there are a lot of politics on this record but it doesn't sound like a political album. Can you tell me about Valerie Bolden, to whom the title track is dedicated, and the politics of the album?
TN: In my time off, when I was beginning to start writing this record, I started working with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. I've been involved in social activism before, but as a musician and not as a member of the community. And it became a big part of my life. I was part of a weekly empowerment group at the county jail and then I went on these prison visits as an advocate, and all of the women we see are serving life sentences. And Valerie happened to be the second person that I visited and I had never been inside a prison before and the whole thing was new and grave and devastating and shocking. What compelled me to make the song and what inspired a lot of it was how every day the conversation would be marked with these poignant moments that could have been my mom saying these things. And she missed her kids. The candor of it was really powerful and also that so many of the women we see inside are there by a matter of circumstances and resources.
CP: It's strange that it is such an uplifting song. It sounds very happy. I won't try to imitate your "whooo-hoo-hoo"s, but they sound joyful.
TN: That's one of the things that struck me and changed my perspective on a lot of things. The amount of humanity and optimism and positivity I've encountered among these women is really remarkable, and that's what I wanted to capture. It's the resilience and the endurance in the situation when they have been marginalized. But there is so much strength there.
CP: What did she think of the song?
TN: She hasn't heard it yet because you have to jump through a lot of hoops. You have to insert the CD into a library catalog and then it has to be ordered and sent through a vendor. I brought in the lyrics as soon as I could, and she was really excited and very touched. The first thing she said is, "I hope this means people will write me letters." We've since posted her information and I think folks are writing.
Thao and The Get Down Stay Down play the Ottobar July 26. For more info visit thaoandthegetdownstaydown.com.