From Fiona Apple to Florence Welch, the indie music genre has always produced strong female role models with killer voices and knacks for songwriting. A particular female artist who has left an unmistakable mark on the indie music scene is Thao Nguyen of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down.
Following a year-long hiatus, Thao hit the studio to write and record We The Common, her third full-length with the accompaniment of The Get Down Stay Down. Her most recent endeavor, however, was an early 2011 collaboration project with fellow female indie songstress Mirah (Thao & Mirah).
Looking at the timeline, the follow-up to the group's sophomore LP, Know Better Learn Faster, is well overdue. And after a quick glance at their latest production, the value of Thao's supplemental incarnation with Mirah is certainly established as it has led to fresh sonic experimentation on her latest, making the past three years well worth the wait.
Early last month, we were given a chance to speak with Thao who provided some insight on her year outside the studio, how she's settled into her authority as a musician, and how a longtime love 90s hip-hop and old time country music influenced her latest album.
So, you were off for a year, pretty much, right?
Yeah, I was essentially off. I had these radio live shows about once a month, but I was definitely not touring extensively.
How was that?
It was amazing. It was really nice to be a person.
Where did you spend the year?
I spent it in San Francisco. Which is great because I moved here years ago but I've been on tour for most of it so it's nice to become part of the city I live in.
After recording the collaboration with Mirah, how did it feel to be back in the studio with your band?
It felt great. It was a different experience. Recording a record with Mirah, we had a great time - it was sort of a shotgun wedding style. You know, we're in for a few days and we're out and the idea, from the inception, was for it to be very casual and loose. Not to say I'm...well, I hope I'm never that uptight. Doing something - more of my slow work - definitely requires more dedication. It's a different endeavor entirely because there's more resting on it. The record with Mirah, they were half her songs and half mine, and there was a different vibe to it - more freewheeling. It was a fun project, and we wanted that. This is more representative of myself and where I hope my career goes. It means more in a way because it's wrapped up in the trajectory of my music career.
As a seasoned artist, at what point after your short hiatus were you inspired to get back in the studio?
I think it was that I felt that I had something else to write about - that I felt compelled to try again, and I could have a journey to put myself out there. After a while, you forget how parts of it are quite uncomfortable- being vulnerable- and making something that you care a lot about and sort of just pushing it into the world and hoping people don't say mean things about it. It's challenging, but I was also really excited to get back to touring; to be better - to be a better musician, a more welcomed player and performer. Those are challenges and exhilirations that you can't get anywhere else. And I missed being in front of people. And I also thought I could do it a better way than I have. I had something to prove to myself. Which you know, still remains to be seen.
Looking at the album without it being released, how do you feel about it?
It's funny to say, because I haven't said it before, but I feel proud of it. I think that the part of the motivation and excitement of getting back in the studio and beginning the entire process again - I have the benefit of a few years of doing it now, and I have a level of gifts and concentration that I hadn't found before. I had the luxury of time to write. This time, to the best of my recollection, I was there the whole time and I can say that I tried as best I could.
How did the environment of San Francisco impact the sound of the album, or just the album altogether?
Mirah and I recorded in San Francisco, but this was the first full-length solo effort that I recorded in there - the players involved are friends of mine, friends that I've worked with, or they've guested on other recordings or live shows, so there's a heightened level of familiarity. The atmosphere was very relaxed and casual. Friends passed through; it was fun.
How does the mood compares to Know Better Learn Faster - it definitely seems a lot more settled and relaxed. How would you compare it?
I think that there were a few almost contradictory elements going into it, but it is more relaxed in a way that I think I've settled more into my authority, but there's a frenzy about it, and there's a sort of a rock quality that we definitely wanted to capture because I think that's what strengthens the live show that we've been trying to capture, and this is the most successful attempt thus far. There's a friskiness to it, and a restlessness, and an energy - a liveliness and optimism that feels different.
Did you pick up anything new from the collaboration with Mirah that may have carried over into this new album? In the song "City," it seems to have some of the Merrill Garbus tribal percussion - I noticed a few similarities like this throughout the record. Was this intentional?
No, not intentional. I think making that record definitely did influence me as far as the percussion, not just textually, but a tone in that song that was definitely influenced. Mirah sings on the record and I think she's an amazing songwriter. I know that both Merrill and Mirah have been big influences.
And the big duet on the album is "Kindness Be Conceived," which is pretty outstanding, is there a background story to that?
For the writing or the pairing?
Well I'm a huge old country fan and I wanted a song that borrowed elements of that and paid tribute and acknowledged the influence. And so I wanted a song with Appalachian harmonies and very bare bones old country-western kind of thing. My favorite line in that song is, "Kindness be conceived in the California light," and it's actually about a one night stand. It's how to be kind to one another when you're both - clearly people don't mean to hurt each other, but it doesn't mean that they won't. I think that that line came to me almost as a prayer. Just for people to take care of each other in one way or another. That's probably one of the more meaningful songs to me. They all mean something, of course, but that one hold a special spot for me. And then, Johanna [Newsom] sounds amazing on it. We met at a songwriting retreat for women songwriters called Fish Hook and I was juggling the song, I asked her, I had this pipedream that I wanted her to sing harmony on it. And so one night we just worked on it and then she agreed to record for it, which was very kind of her.
And you mention the old country vibe that goes on...it seems like that sort of rustic vibe carries out throughout a few songs.
Yeah, definitely. I've always been a fan and I've tried in my way to honor that. I've always loved banjo, mandolin, and bluegrass instruments. I don't necessarily play them in the traditional sense, but I wanted their sounds on the record. It's funny, there's definitely like an old country western vibe but then John Congleton and I, in the meetings before we started the record, we kind of bonded over our love of 90s hip hop. And I told him I wanted those beats, that kind of vibe, which I kept in mind while I was writing. I knew that these would all be, essentially, folk and country songs, sort of laid on top of hip-hop beats in a sense.
Any 90s hip hop in particular that you're a huge fan of?
Yeah. A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and I was listening to some early Outkast and some early Jay Z, and Black Sheep.
And did John [Congleton] have any other impact? How was it working with him?
Yeah, oh he's amazing. His ear, the sounds that he can get in the amount of time that you can refill your water bottle is incredible. And especially the sounds he gets from the drums and bass are truly awesome. Actually, anything. I just trust him completely. I trusted him completely to understand what we were going for and to be able apply that sonically and very justly as well. I think he has a great sense of song and he understands the structure of things. I know if he didn't think something was necessary he would be certain to tell me. He makes a lot of dirty jokes. But we made it through, so...
Just one final question we've been asking a lot of the artists we've talked to - what are some of your favorite albums that came out in 2012?
This year...well...I'm really embarrassed to tell you if I have heard things that have come out this year, but I'm trying to think is that lame? Yeah, there's some that are fresher than most. I don't know if I've heard anything that's come out this year. Only because I don't really know how to use the internet. I'm sorry man. I might have to get a subscription or something.
A subscription to internet?
Yes, do you know where I could get one?
There's guys that come through neighborhoods and knock on doors for that.
Listen, I bought a vacuum cleaner the other day, I don't know why they didn't offer me a two for one deal.
We The Common is due out February 5th. You can pre-order it here.
Listen to the title track and "Holy Roller" below:
"We The Common"
A few years back, we caught Thao and The Get Down Stay Down at the First Unitarian Church, watch the full concert below: