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Thao Nguyen talks 'Temple,' Virginia roots and the art of becoming

Shervin Lainez
Distance Management
Thao Nguyen considers Richmond a formative place in her career.

The indie musician and Falls Church native performs at Richmond Music Hall on Thursday.

The city of Richmond played a formative role in indie musician Thao Nguyen’s career. As a Falls Church native and graduate of the College of William & Mary, she has fond memories of driving to town on weekends for open mics and concerts — and says the city provided her with one of her first audiences away from home.

Now based in San Francisco, with eight acclaimed albums, she’s coming back to perform at Richmond Music Hall on the 25th – after coming out publicly as queer, appearing on the PBS series Southern Storytellers, and leaving behind the band name Thao and the Get Down Stay Down to perform under her own name.

 She and I caught up about the show, her latest album, Temple, and the art of becoming yourself.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Annie Parnell: You're going to be performing on April 25 at Richmond Music Hall. What can listeners expect to hear?

Thao Nguyen: They can expect to hear some new songs and some old standbys, some in between. And we'll have a full band comprised of very dear friends of mine that I've played with for anywhere from four years to 15 years. My very dear friend and longtime collaborator, Charlie Glenn — who's one of Richmond's finest — will be a part of our band.

I've been off tour for a while working on different projects, but also making a new record. So it's an opportune time to pause and try a few out in a live setting, and get back to playing live shows, which is my favorite thing to do.

You grew up in Falls Church and went to William & Mary. What's it like to be coming back?

Oh, I’m so excited. I make a point to come back to see my family and friends a few times a year, but I haven't been able to perform in Richmond in a long time. When I was at William & Mary, I would come every weekend to play open mic nights or check out shows, so it's a bit of a homecoming for me. When I was in high school in Northern Virginia, I would play open mics every week, but Richmond was one of the first places that was not home turf that I was cutting my teeth on.

Your most recent album is Temple (2020). It's very centered on family, but I also understand it was your first album since publicly coming out that same year.

It was. I was out in my personal and professional life, but had never spoken about it publicly. For instance, I would have never referenced it in an interview. And there’s a lot of long-standing, deeply rooted reasons why. But it was beyond time. It was well past due. And I'm so grateful that it feels so far away.

When you finally come into yourself, there are ways that if you can't imagine having been different. It was just such a long time coming. But it feels like I've never been another way, which is the right thing, the right way to feel.

There's a bit of a sound shift on Temple, which embraces an indie pop sound that’s interesting in contrast to some of your more rootsy, Americana rock.

I have the great fortune of having done this for a long time. And I think every record from 2008 forward, every effort was a little bit more of a departure from those roots. They always will be a part of my sonic makeup and identity.

I don't know if I'll circle back. It's very interesting and more compelling for me to explore different sonic options. A lot of songs still start with just me on guitar, but then they take on different lives. You know, a lot of it is I want to be able to dance onstage, I want to have a good time.

Even if the subject matter is melancholy, no matter how grave the subject matter, I still want to be able to dance. I still want that rhythm. Hip hop has always been a really big influence on me, so that's increasingly more present in my songwriting.

You were recently on the PBS series Southern Storytellers, and you brought up a concept in that episode, this idea of pairing melancholy and optimism in music. I'd love to dive into that a little bit more.

That pairing is time-tested. My favorite songwriters do it. When you listen to Smokey Robinson, you can hear it. I've always been drawn to that: that emotion and pathos, but in a very accessible, lively, engaging package where you still want to move your body even though the subject matter might be heart-wrenching.

I love that juxtaposition.

And I think it is how we all operate, you know — everyone in the depths of despair is still capable of laughter and joy. And in joy, you could still be struck by darkness.

What music have you been listening to lately?

You know, I always continue to listen to Orchestra Baobab, they’re a Senegalese band. I listen to a lot of Cuban music, a lot of different soul music — I’m listening to a lot more Vietnamese soul music that was made before the American war. A lot of Thelonious Monk and different hip-hop artists that my friends send me from the Bay Area and the UK.

You have a new record that you've been working on. Is there anything that you can share on that front?

It'll be more romantic and freer, and more about desire and embodiment. It's been a long stretch since Temple came out, but I've been working on other projects and had to devote all of my attention to those. So it's only in the last few months that I've been more fully engaged in, and diving more deeply into, these new songs.

Timeline, I'm not sure — I'm working as hard and as much as I can, without having urgency negatively impact the making of the thing. I'm very excited to get back out on tour, I want to be out there. But I don't want to rush anything.

It's nice to have an open-ended process. It’s much more instinctive now, how much time I'm taking with each song. I can come back to it, I can let it marinate for a little while, which is different than previous records.

In 2021, you announced you'd be leaving behind the band name “The Get Down Stay Down.” When you perform here in Richmond, it's just going to be under your own name: Thao. What led you to that decision?

You know, there were a few contributing factors. One of them was just how long I've been at this: I started that band in, gosh, 2007 or 2006. And that moniker meant something different from the energy and the approach that I want to take now. There was more of a sort of good time, party vibe with that band name.

I'm all for a good time and a party, but there are levels of more emotion or a more somber take on some songs that I felt it would be easier to access, and to ask people to go there, if it was just under my name.

It was important for me to move forward, even though I'm playing with a lot of the same musicians that I've always played with, because they're incredible — they’re dear friends of mine. It was an energy shift for me.

That reminds me of what we were talking about earlier: this duality between melancholy and optimism. It’s something I see in that first line of "Temple" — "I lost my city in the light of day."

There's such a contrast there. Can you tell me more about the genesis of that song?

“Temple” is a song written in the voice of my mother, speaking to me about freedom. She’s talking about her life before, during and after war. And she's imploring me to consider what it means to be free, and how I will not waste the freedom that I've been so fortunately born into.

It's all these things that she's never said to me, but I am inferring, things that I'm gathering. It's also my tribute to her and her life before she was a refugee of war — the song basically exists as a series of images and then her talking to me. She worked for the South Vietnamese embassy, and “I lost my city in the light of day” is referencing the fall of Saigon.

You mentioned that a lot of the statements are inferred, things that you feel from your mother, more so than things that you actually have said to each other directly. That sounds like a very healing, beautiful writing process.

I think other songwriters experience this. Maybe, in a lifetime, you get four or five that just visit you. That one, the lyrics just came out of me. It's like I saw what she saw, or I saw what I needed to see. And then it just happened. And it was very healing.

Every time I perform that song, I'm so close to crying. And if I perform it for people in the audience who are of Vietnamese descent, especially if they're around my age, and I know that they have similar experiences ... this could go for anyone, but there's just something so specific about growing up with Vietnamese parents who are refugees of war.

I'm an open nerve, you know, I'm a raw nerve. I feel like I’m just a vessel and conduit of this grief, and this mourning, but then also this joy and this appreciation for life that insists on keeping on.

I understand you also went to Vietnam with your mother.

I did! And that was the beginning of the song: One night in particular in Vietnam was sort of the setting for what happened, really this one conversation. She was, in that moment, more forthcoming than she ever had been, and probably ever will be, about the sorrow of war.

It was 2015, it was the 20th anniversary of the normalization of relations between the US and Vietnam, and they invited me and my band to perform. And we played some shows over there, which was incredible. I begged her to come with me, and it took many attempts, because she rightfully has a lot of reservations and concerns about returning.

And yeah, it was beautiful. It was so intense.

The show in Richmond is going to be on the 25th, and we'll be looking out for new music from you. Is there anything else that you'd like to add before we wrap up?

I'm just so grateful to be coming back to Richmond. I am such a fan of this town, and I'm such a fan of the people who live here, and I am always grateful to Richmond for being a part of my career.

Thao performs with her backing band at Richmond Music Hall on Thursday.

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