Thao Nguyen, the creative force behind Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, has been releasing albums since 2005. The San Francisco-by-way-of-Virginia-based artist has worked with Andrew Bird, the Portland Cello Project and Joanna Newsom, while also fostering a strong presence in various humanitarian organizations.
However, not until her latest release, February’s We the Common, have those two worlds been so thoroughly intertwined.
Nguyen’s volunteer work with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners helped spawn the album’s title track, “We the Common (For Valerie Bolden),” and has changed the singer/songwriter’s approach to making music -- and creativity, in general.
During a recent tour stop, SoundDiego spoke with Nguyen about the new direction before her band makes a stop at the Casbah
on Sunday night.
Scott McDonald: How are you?
Thao Nguyen: Good. How are you?
SM: Great, thanks. We’re one of the last dates on this tour. Have the songs changed at all over the course of performing them for these last few months?
TN: I think what has happened is that everyone has become more confident in what they’re doing. And within that, the more you commit everything to memory, there’s a lot more freedom in it. As a result, we play more loosely and are comfortable enough to be able to go somewhere else with it.
SM: You’ve switched the focus a bit to a bigger picture.
TN: It was just personal growth and maturation, and definitely one of the greater influences on me has been my work with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners [CCWP]. A lot of that work has inspired how I think about things and has given me a different degree of gratitude. And I think that’s definitely a foundation and undercurrent of the record.
SM: What made you choose the CCWP?
TN: I sort of stumbled into it. I have a few good friends who have been members of the coalition for years now, and I had always heard about it. I just never really had enough time off of the road to get background clearance and jump through all the hoops they make you go through, and also be home to do advocacy visits. This was the first time I could get the clearance and go in, and, really, everyone associated with it is so dedicated, devoted and attached to it. I mean, I’ve worked with some really great organizations, but the emotional connection and loyalty these people have is something I’ve never seen before. I was so intrigued by that.
SM: All of that said, can you just make a pop song now?
TN: [Laughs] Yeah. It is really hard. But I’ve always appreciated the juxtaposition in pop music I like, as well as the music I make, to have a very accessible sound, but a darker and more serious content. And I think this is just another step in that direction.
SM: The title track is dedicated to Valerie Bolden. Do you remain in contact with her?
TN: Definitely. Valerie and I have kept in touch through letters because she was transferred to Southern California. I haven’t seen her yet in her new facility, and I’m trying to work it out. But I still do prisoner visits when I’m home, and I’m still involved with a weekly women empowerment group at the San Francisco County Jail.
SM: Do you plan to continue this work, maybe even take on more?
TN: I think it’s an intriguing balance to strike because I am doing partnerships and affiliations with different groups like Oxfam America and 826 National. I just think it’s an issue of making sure that you don’t spread yourself too thin and what you’re giving is honest. But I think it’s all the same in that there’s a level of humanity that wasn’t there before and any time that I can strengthen that, I want to. And touring helps with that as well. We invite different organizations in each city to come to the show. We talk about them onstage and drum up some support and donations in their own community.
SM: You’re getting to operate on a lot of different levels each night.
TN: Definitely. I think that it helps things to stay above the drudge of tour, and it really helps me to stay motivated. And every night before we play “We the Common,” I’ve been saying a few words about Valerie, and it always reminds me why I wrote the song and why this records exists as it does.
SM: You’ve always worked on multiple projects. Is all of your focus currently on this?
TN: More and more, I’ve been trying to incorporate a more creative life on the road. It’s just so exhausting, and it reduces you to such a primal existence: The focus becomes little more than eating and playing the show. So we’ve been writing some comedic sketches that are in line with the record, and I’ve been trying to just write more in general. But a lot of the energy just goes into making sure that we put on a good show and that everyone’s happy.
SM: Do you know what’s next?
TN: No. No, I don’t [laughs]. But I do think there is an energy and life to this record that is much different than the previous record, and I am interested to see where that goes. But I think being a part of the coalition is the knowledge that I have a home base and community, and if I don’t necessarily figure out what is coming next right away, I know that all of my energy will be focused on something completely worthwhile.