Photo by: Eric Einweiler
Thao Nguyen has been playing music for a long time. Her unique and heartfelt sound is undoubtedly the work of someone with an undying passion and love for the craft—and for Thao, that began at the age of 12. Drawing influence from a wide breadth of inspiration, Thao creates riffs that are extremely catchy. And alongside these funky, pop beats are raw lyrics, truthful to Thao’s experience as a queer Vietnamese American woman.
After years of performing as Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, she is now utilizing her first name as a mononym. On tour now for the first time in a long time, ELEVEN was able to catch up with Thao on the sacredness of live performance and some of her lifetime influences.
Eleven: I’m excited that you’ll be in Portland soon! It seems like a pretty momentus tour. This 2022 tour was originally scheduled for spring of 2020, correct?
Thao: Correct, yes.
11: Does it kind of feel like a time warp, after putting out Temple and not being able to tour it until now?
T: It does! I mean, at this point, I’m just so grateful for the chance. When the album came out, shortly thereafter, it just looked so bleak. I didn’t know what would happen with touring and a part of me just kind gave up on the idea of ever getting to play the album live. I had essentailly made my peace with that, so it’s really nice. It’s such a gift to get to play shows again.
11: Are you playing some newer songs on this tour as well, or mostly from Temple?
T: It will be a couple newer songs that have not been released. There’s definitely a newer batch that I’ve been working on in the past year, so there will be representatives from that batch—then older songs, of course—and then Temple.
11: That’s exciting that you get to tour it afterall! Has not being able to be on tour for so long changed your outlook on touring at all?
T: It has! I think before the pandemic, I would have said that I was getting tired and not sure of how sustainable a life touring was. But that was the luxury—getting to tour so much. For years, I had off and on struggled to maintain the right balance between home life and tour life, so I was in a place to be able to take it for granted a little. And the pandemic definitely changed that and helped me clarify what it was that I loved and wanted to maintain. It’s certainly changed my perspective. It’s not that I don’t love tours, it’s how I was doing it. I needed to rest and recalibrate and figure out how to approach it with positivity.
11: Does this tour feel different in that way, after having so much time?
T: It does, it feels lighter. It feels like everyone in the crowd also understands that being at a show together, gathering in this kind of space, I think can be sacred. It’s this moment of communion and something everybody really missed. So it’s a lot easier to be appreciative of the moment and I think people are more present. And we also don’t know, with the shifting variants. Now when I play a show, I don’t actually know the next time I’ll get to play a show. So there’s that awareness as well. I don’t know if somebody in the band’s going to get Covid tomorrow and we have to cancel the rest of the run. So everything we have before us should be appreciated.
11: That’s a good outlook. It is really interesting how through the pandemic, it’s been pretty bleak, but it’s also brought upon these new mentalities of holding things sacred and realizing how temporal things are.
Something I noticed about this tour, that I’m entirely in awe of—I’m really happy to see a line up that is all queer bands on the bill, with Blackbelt Eagle Scout and Quinn Christopherson. I feel like growing up, this was almost unheard of and it’s really empowering to know that things are perhaps changing a little bit. I’m wondering how this line up came to be?
T: I’m a fan of both. It’s not often where all the moving parts align and you get to have the bill that you were hoping for. Both were requests on my part. I’m so excited. It’s a delightful way to spend tour—to also get to see bands that you’re a fan of every night and get to know the artist better. It’s kind of a way to make new friends. People whose music you appreciate. And I appreciate what you’re saying—with the all queer line up. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s really difficult to come by and until very recently, quite unlikely and unsupportive.
11: I hope that this becomes more of a normal state of things and that people feel embraced and comfortable to be out. You’ve been writing songs with you were 12. Do you have any advice for younger musicians who are just starting out?
T: Yes, my advice would be to believe your ideas are good but to never stop trying to get better. To start with the foundation that you’re good enough to be doing it and to grow from there.
11: That’s great advice. Are there any artists or musicians whose music has really inspired you or helped you out when you were young?
T: You know what’s so great about being young? The way I would listen to music when I was young is so different than the way I listen now. It was so pure and so all consuming. All that to say, there were a ton. Basically I tried to immerse myself in music from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed. Just to be able to listen to music as a fan—just purely a fan—is such a gift.
When I was kid I just had access to what was playing on the radio. I listened to a low of Motown. There was a local oldies station that I listened to all the time. Whatever pop music: a lot of Madonna, all the top 40 stuff that I loved. My brother had a couple tapes that I listened to. I loved Salt-N-Pepa! That was the first cassette that I bought with my own money. I listened to The Fat Boys. As I got a little bit older, when I started playing guitar [12 or 13], I started listening to a lot of country/blues. A lot of Muddy Waters and as I got a little bit older, a lot of Lucinda Williams.