Thao Nguyen has always been a happy force in music. Ever since she started Thao & the Get Down Stay Down back in 2003, the folk rock musician has been channeling perky, bouncy, melody-driven songs through the streets of San Francisco. But suddenly, something changed. Nguyen went from songs inspired by prison outreach programs and bountiful optimism to songs about a broken relationship with her dad. Her new album, A Man Alive, is dark and it’s heavy, but musically, it’s the most fun thing she’s ever done — and she’s clearly having fun while singing, too.
“Selfishly, if I were to play this music every night, I couldn’t sing these songs if they didn’t mask the words,” she says. “It was emotionally challenging in a lot of ways to write this. That’s why we kept the crew so tightly knit on this. I couldn’t explored this territory without feeling that I was in a safe space with friends.”
Normally musicians handle topics that intense with soft, patient music. Instead, Nguyen runs head first into the matter, tackling it with bursts of joy while infectious rhythm backs her up. “The guitar I was playing was a lot more experimental compared to what I’ve played in the past,” she says, giggling a bit. It’s one of many crazy moves she made on record, sandwiched between her first time using drum programming and her openness to trying different gear. “I didn’t fully know what I was doing, but the priority was space and time so we made what we wanted. We would give songs the ‘booty test.’ If we played the song and your body couldn’t help but move, then it was headed in the right direction.”
That buoyancy comes from Nguyen’s decision to bring Merrill Garbus, the brain behind freak-folk act tUnE-yArDs, on to produce. It allowed for songs like “Nobody Dies”, which was written as a country-like song, to become dance-oriented. “The whole time I was writing ‘Meticulous Bird’ I kept asking myself, ‘Am I writing a rock song right now? Is this dance? Is this really happening… and from me?’ But it did! Writing these songs was like that: a great combination of premeditation and fruitful spontaneity.”
Garbus believes in being hands on. She encourages those she works with to play with the very objects they believe they don’t know enough about. It is, in the purest sense, incredibly liberating. “It’s true,” Nguyen says. “Everything was so why the fuck not? It was fun to be immersed in that energy. It’s honestly what everybody says: every instinct you have is the one to go with. Nobody knows what you want more than you do.”
A musician’s relationship with the music changes over the songwriting process For Nguyen, she allows her emotions about her rocky relationship with her father to be morphed by the listeners she hands them to. A Man Alive is as much a personal narrative is it is one for others to claim as their own. “I made these songs to be shared,” she says. “At the end of our last tour, I realized our strengths were now that we were beat-driven and engaging listeners to move. I wanted to capture that on this record and explore it to new lengths.”
To strengthen that bond between the listener and the musician, Nguyen and the rest of her band are hosting a dinner at The Sinclair before their show this Tuesday. The meal, in partnership with Oxfam, is inspired by the Five Principles For Feeding the Planet. As such, it sees seasonal produce, local farmers, and the fight against global hunger hold hands, walking forward to serve the country and feed fans at the same time by donating all proceeds to support Oxfam’s work around the world.
It’s strange to think an artist like Nguyen truly finds her voice, brings a sunlight into her work and screams it from the top of her lungs, over a decade in to making music. And yet, that makes it all the more inspiring. She pushed herself to her limits, and as a result she found her true self in the process. “There’s so much power and vulnerability which I had a very hard time with, especially in the beginning,” she admits. “I found it to be liberating, to just show truth and anger, to just say it finally. I was calling things as they were and acknowledging really painful parts of my history. Now I feel so much lighter. I was shouting and screaming and manifesting these emotions on every level.”
Hearing Nguyen have so much fun on record brings to mind a youthfulness, one many people lose as they age. It comes from disassociating from your fears, ignoring pressure from others, and following your heart to the wild, imaginative edges it lures you to. By examining a man alive that left her life, she becomes a woman alive who reclaimed her own.
“I’m proud of how much confidence I have now and how much sureness it took to get there with such horrible content,” she says. “To do that on a stage in front of people is hard. Sure, we have progressed passed our folkier sound, but I must say that the way this record sounds and the way we perform now is much more representative of the way I am and the way I want to be. Actually, it’s the way I choose to be — it just took a minute to figure out how loud my voice could be.”