talks lớn the frontwoman of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down about prison reform và working with Merrill Garbus

Thao Nguyen of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down (Maria Kanevskaya)
Thao và the Get Down Stay Down are a band that’s always seem khổng lồ know their trajectory. Early albums contain hook-laden songs of romantic frustration. Their prior album "We the Common" was inspired by Thao Nguyen’s correspondence with female prison inmates. And all of their albums are driven by Nguyen’s expressive lilt. Their new record, "A Man Alive," produced by tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, was birthed from beats and bass. The band wanted an album that would be exhilarating khổng lồ tour.

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But there’s more to the record than a deep, frenzied groove. The beats & bass are the sonic spine to lớn an album that’s deeply personal and vulnerable, as Nguyen processes her relationship with her mostly absent father. In “Millionaire,” Nguyen sings “Oh daddy I broke in a million pieces / that makes you a millionaire,” lines that brought Garbus to lớn tears during the recording. Yes, there are tears to be shed from this record — but they’re kind of tears you can cry while dancing. spoke to lớn Nguyen about the new album, working with Garbus & what she"s reading these days.

It seems lượt thích early on, you knew you wanted beats and bass. What bởi those things make you think of, or mean to lớn you? Why did you want them there, aside from sonic reasons?

Touring "We the Common," towards the end of that touring cycle, we started to lớn fall more into our strengths. Not only our interests, but our strengths lies in more beat-driven , và that energy is something that I realize is the most fun and rewarding lớn perform. Even though we tried with "We the Common," the live show wasn’t at that visceral a level, yet. Và so we didn’t know what we were trying to capture, yet.

But towards the end of "We the Common," I realized what I wanted khổng lồ be able to do live would sort of inform and be led by what we did for the next record. But all of that is to say that it was meant to lớn capture this kind of emotion and this kind of very deep-rooted frenzy và an energy that I wanted to be able lớn tap into live. Every night. And I wanted to lớn capture that on record. I wanted lớn move in a way that I hadn’t moved before. & this is on every level.

Without paying this much attention and stripping things away, & relying more on beats & bass, & grounding in that & growing from it, content-wise, song content-wise, the emotion of it wasn’t going to be reached without it.

Was this your first time programming drum beats for a record?

Definitely for a record. Yeah, I had messed around a little bit on the record that I had made with Mirah. But that was definitely a more concerted effort this time, khổng lồ explore and mess around with it. I don’t claim to lớn be proficient with that computer, or that software at all.

How did working with Merrill Garbus come about?

We are very good friends. And we had collaborated & co-produced that record together. The one that I made with Mirah, years ago. We’ve known each other for years, and have toured together, and have always been really great friends. Và have wanted to work together more extensively for a long time. But scheduling wise, I didn’t know if it would ever happen. And for this new record, my manager & I started talking about the songs for it, in the really early stages. I had mentioned that I wanted to ask Merrill lớn produce a tuy vậy on it, to lớn make beats for one song and work on it from there. And then my manager suggested, why not the entire record? I loved the idea. But I just didn’t think it was logistically possible.

We were able lớn work it out, and then it became such so fulfilling và rewarding, and productive beyond what I could have hoped for. There’s no way this record could have been made without her. Not just sonically, but content-wise. I don’t think I could have gone there and made anything without really trusting who was at the helm. Và without infringement và – first & foremost, as my friend.

There were some very intense moments, & very vulnerable moments where I didn’t even think the song <“Millionaire”> would go on the record. I would write a line, & then I would refuse to lớn sing it.

I wasn’t planning on putting it on the record. But then it became clear that it was, in a lot of ways, the heart of it. And the purest part of it.

Since the last time we talked, you had taken some classes with the writer Lidia Yuknavitch. I wondered if any of those writing classes or writing that you have done since then helped open you up khổng lồ the writing you did for this record.

Yeah, I think definitely. With "We the Common" và all the other records, whatever I was reading at the time and whatever I was seeking out khổng lồ read was a major inspiration và motivation. Within songwriting, there’s so much writer’s block that my favorite thing to vì chưng is just read about the discipline of other writers. I really love khổng lồ read about other writers’ routines.

Prose writers, or whatever. & I don’t necessarily vị it, but I appreciate that they vày it. & I love lớn hear when they limit their writer’s block, as well. I was writing every day in a journal and free writing. A lot of that writing turned out khổng lồ be the germ of a tuy vậy or lyric.

But this record, I wanted to lớn credit Marilynne Robinson’s "Gilead" when I first started writing songs. It’s – oh my God, I wept. And that doesn’t happen often, where I’m reading it và I’m just weeping and weeping. I finished this particular chapter, a passage toward the end of the book. That helped me write “Astonished Man,” which then mix the tone for the record. That song sets it, sort of sonically & also content-wise.

One of the things that I really lượt thích about this record is that the content is raw và dark & vulnerable. And then the musical style is not. Did you consider how the nội dung and the form would go together?

Yes. Yeah, I think that it was always going lớn be like that, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a conscious decision. It’s just that I am more attracted to more upbeat songs with hooks.

I really have always appreciated that juxtaposition. And I wanted people to dance khổng lồ it if they so chose. But if they wanted to spend some time with the lyrics, then maybe it would evoke something else. We also had an eye towards the future of touring this record, and playing shows. When you’re recording the record, you’re also considering how it will be performed live. I knew that if I was going to vì chưng it every night, I wanted khổng lồ also be enjoying myself. It’s a downer enough already, just thinking about it. But then actually having to play back and forth for a while would be exhausting.

While you were writing the album, were there things that you learned or connections that you found that surprised you?

Yeah. I was surprised. What surprised me towards the kết thúc of it, và towards the kết thúc of the writing process, which the writing process was comprised of two or three different sessions. Wherein I thought we had enough songs for the record, but then we had extra time. So then I was asked to write more songs for the record. There were a few months in between recording sessions.

I think that the earlier batches are more optimistic. For example, in “Astonished Man,” there’s a bend towards acceptance và forgiveness. Và I thought that it would be more of a linear path. Và I thought that – because emotionally, what was happening was I did feel that I had sort of reached a different place, where I could accept và forgive và all that.

Then it turns out that it actually doesn’t really happen that way. My intentions for the record was lớn be almost a chronological document. The songs kind of turned on themselves, as far as whatever grief, or whatever anger. It doesn’t necessarily go anywhere because I was experiencing it just in my personal life, as it was happening.

Basically, the surprise was nothing has changed so much yet. I was really hopeful. & you can hear that in some of the songs. I don’t think I should have been surprised. Because a few months of concerted songwriting is not necessarily going lớn change the course of what’s been happening for most of my life.

One of the songs that really grabbed me was “Nobody Dies.” and I was hoping you could speak about that, as far as any aspect that you want lớn go with.

“Nobody Dies” was an earlier one. Probably the second tuy vậy we recorded. Và it was very much a full band session. It was a live recording. I know we tracked it all live. Và we were working out different vibes và arrangements, and then we fell into this – I have – I had decided on its Breeders-esque tones.

What it ended up being in the studio captured that kind of panic and urgency that was the root of the song. Which also set the tone for a lot of the record. I have friends whose parents are ill, & closer khổng lồ passing on than staying around. I had a very close friend – I guess I still vày – who has a similar relationship, with similar estrangements with her dad. And he was really sick. Anyway, it motivated me lớn start wondering and worrying. What if something happens & we have not moved beyond this impasse? và that we were still frivolous in our inertia? Too complacent.

One more question for you. I’m curious if you’re still corresponding with inmates, và also how "We the Common" affected the desire of other people khổng lồ volunteer and work for prison reform, or vị letter writing. If you could just kind of catch us up on where all that went.

Yeah. I’m still in correspondence with a bunch of different people in CCWP , and in different institutions in California. Và Valerie and I had exchanged letters for a while, & we actually heard from a radio producer friend of mine who went in. She’s down in the LA area at CIW . I unfortunately haven’t been able to lớn go see her because I’m up in San Francisco. It’s just been harder lớn figure out clearance và scheduling & all that. But we were sort of in communication with Drew, my friend who’s a radio producer who is interviewing her and doing an ongoing document of her time inside, and whether or not the tuy vậy played any role, or what she thought of it.

I’m still going on prison visits when I can, but with the start of this album cycle, I don’t know if I’ll be able to lớn go for a while. I went a couple months ago, và I’m still trying to lớn stay involved in the local CCWP organization as much as I can. Just went lớn a meeting last week.

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And touring the record was awesome. It reinvigorated our energy around touring. & for me, the perspective that it gave me, và the idea that we actually were just sort of sharing time with people. It felt like a more communal space. Và there were some people who did come up to me and say that they were getting more involved, và were curious about local organizations in their area that would be involved in prison advocacy, or prison reform.