DIVA chats to Thao Nguyen all about her new record, coming out to the world and Zoom music video magic
BY SOPHIE GRIFFITHS, IMAGES BY SHANE MCCAULEY
If there’s one great thing to come out of lockdown, it has to be the Zoom magic that has been created by some extremely clever artists out there. We fell in love with Thao Nguyen after seeing her music video for Phenom, as part of her band Thao & The Get Down Stay Down.
She is the lead singer of the band and has been playing guitar and making music since she was just 12-years old, while helping out at her mother’s laundromat.
However, the band’s latest offering, Temple, is Thao’s most open and honest work yet. It’s the first album she’s made since coming out publicly, after a long career in which she’s kept her queer identity quiet – especially from her family due to her Vietnamese heritage.
It’s a lot more gentle than their earlier work, with influences from rock, hip-hop beats and funk and it even has the band’s first love song. Thao is heading into a new territory musically and in her personal life, so we wanted to find out more about embracing vulnerability and opening up about sexuality in their latest album.
DIVA: Can you tell us a little about the new Thao & The Get Down Stay Down album?
THAO NGUYEN: The new album is named Temple and that’s a nod to my upbringing. I was raised Buddhist and spent a lot of time in temples growing up. It’s also about creating a space where I could be my entire self.
Is there a message behind Temple?
The album was the creation of a space where all of the different lives I’ve led. My life has been really divided and this was a place where I could finally gather them all up and they would be in one place. So that my professional life and personal life exist together.
This is the first album you’ve released since coming out publicly, did that make this process any different?
Yeah, definitely. I was out in my day to day life and in my professional life, but not out to the press. When I was promoting a record I wouldn’t talk about it. That was obviously oppressive and unfortunate in its own way.
There was this really difficult and murky conflict between my family and myself. It was a decision that I made to not be out in my career because of the perceived discomfort and these competing elements of shame.
Do you think that under the current circumstances in the world, any of the songs’ meanings have changed?
I don’t know if any of the meanings have changed but they have become even more heightened. There are a few songs on the record that basically consider who decides who is worth the dignity of a dignified life. I think that is coming to people’s realisations in devastating ways right now.
What has the response been like putting something out into the world at such a strange time?
It’s funny. I think that the response has been very warm and people have been really receptive. I think people have been able to spend more time with the record, but honestly, as soon as we released the record, I just stopped going on social media because it’s nice to just offer that and let people take from it. I have a lot of fatigue around being online and trying to see everything, especially in this time.
Do you miss doing live shows and touring right now?
I really do. It makes me really appreciate it. I’ve been touring for a long time and up to this point, it had been a luxury to dread touring or consider if it was the right thing to keep doing and how sustainable it was on every level. But now that we can’t, I really appreciate that exchange of energy. I think there’s something very sacred about an audience in a live show.
It’s so sweet when you see people and how they’ve taken your music and made it their own in really, really touching ways. But it reminds you that all of that is a bonus. I made this record because I needed to and releasing it under these conditions just reminds me that I made it for myself.
What’s your writing process like?
The lyrics are the most important part for me and I spend most of my time on the lyrics. When I’m in that process, I try to write every morning. I wake up and write and then just spend as much time as I can generating content and lyrics. Nothing happens until the music exists and then I’m writing to the music. So the other stuff is just sort of like collecting ideas and trying to frame different narratives and capture different emotions that I want to convey.
How long was the writing process for this album?
This one was so arduous. I would say this one took four years. There was so much that I had to prepare to confront and I think I had to get to a place mentally and emotionally where I would be okay with being disconnected or estranged from my family if it got to that point.
Were there points where you thought this record might not make it out there?
For sure. There were parts were I was like fuck music, I’m tired of touring, I have no real life. There was this whole other life that I wanted to lead. My partner and I were in the process of buying a house, we were gonna get married. I knew that by releasing this record I would be on tour for two years. That’s hard to accept but I chose that.
How is your relationship with your parents now?
It’s pretty amazing now. It took a long time but my mom has been trying so hard. We’re both trying really hard to be close. The progress she’s been trying to make is pretty remarkable. That goes for the rest of my aunts and uncles too. Because I was so disconnected from them before, once I decided I had nothing to lose and I opened up more about my life, it actually brought us closer together.
Everyone operates with so much shame and fear. It takes a lot to get out from under it. But once you do, once you can see it, it just feels like it should have always been like this. It’s so much easier this way.
Who has been a queer icon for you?
There’s not so many people in the music industry, but outside of that I’ve looked up to Lena Waithe. Just watching her get her Emmy and what she said while accepting it, I was like “What the fuck am I doing?” Anyone who has been willing to just be so honest and open and encouraging, I’ve always been inspired by that and I’ve always felt like I was overdue in helping contribute to that narrative and to the ideas of representation.
Let’s talk about the masterpiece that is your music video for Phenom.
It was a total group effort. There were two directors, one of them was also the choreographer. My partner Molly, designed the album art and also was going to be the artistic director for the tour. It was her idea that I was the head of the body. One of the directors Jeremy basically just watched the Zoom tutorial and absorbed everything that you can do on Zoom.
Erin Murray is the choreographer and director. She just worked for two and a half days straight, just recorded herself in every square figuring out how to do all the dance moves.
The original treatment was going to be a dance video. We were going to shoot that in LA at the end of March. She was going to direct and choreograph so we just asked her to basically move it to Zoom and see what she could do. She smashed it.
What’s the first thing you’ll do when you’re out of quarantine and the world is back to normal?
I’m gonna go out for Sushi!
Temple is the latest album from Thao & The Get Down Stay Down and is available now!