Thao Nguyen has laid her roots in a number of cities over the years. She was born in Virginia, and has spent time in New York, San Francisco, and Portland. For now, the singer songwriter and band leader of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down has chosen a laid back, west coast lifestyle for herself. "I love Northern California and San Francisco in particular -- I spend as much time by the ocean or the Bay as I can". This love of the seaside is definitely evident in songs from her album Know Better Learn Faster
...songs like "When We Swam", which is filled with images of drinking saltwater and washing up on beaches. Although, as if purposely trying to contradict herself the coo-coo voiced singer adds, "normally I wouldn't say I find inspiration in nature."
So what is her inspirational wellspring? The girl is pretty good at stitching together a solid love song or two, even though Know Better Learn Faster
is more about the loss of it. But Thao has been strumming the guitar since the ripe old age of 12, when she was getting the creative juices flowing via her middle school reading list. "The earliest song I can recall was written in the eighth grade. I can't remember the title but it was about the Lord of the Flies. I wrote it in lieu of a traditional book report. It was very dark and intense, in A minor. A lot of heavy strumming. I performed it live for the class."
You have to respect a middle school attempt at showing artistic vulnerability; those are the year's most of us wouldn't so much as get the wrong color braces more or less sing an original piece to an English class filled with 13 year olds. But Thao's a pretty tough chick, and even though she might have some failed relationships under her belt, she's not afraid to let you know what she's thinking. The new album cover features a gigantic heart piata Thao admits is "a reference to me busting my own heart, kind of intentionally, with people watching and celebrating, almost inappropriately exuberant."
Funny, that's exactly how Know Better Learn Faster
feels; "inappropriately exuberant", injected with a definite air of musical maturity since her celebrated debut, We Brave Bee Stings All
. The new album is produced by Tucker Martine, the band's self proclaimed "not so secret weapon" who, besides being a big fish in production is also a good friend. Thao offered us some praise of Martine; "he has an incredible ear and a fantastic sense of song. He is very gentle yet demanding and he cares even more than you do about getting the right take."
Maritime also arranged to have Andrew Bird make a guest appearance on the band's new album. "We didn't know Andrew Bird before this," admits Nyguyen. "But he's a friend of Tucker's and just happened to be in town. Tucker sent him a track and asked if he'd be willing to guest on it. We are all great fans of his, and we came to the studio in the morning greeted with the news that he might be in that evening. He did show up and we sat there in awe and shrieked like children in the control room and he made all these amazing sounds and we were so truly impressed and then he left and we tried to act very cool on his way out."
In addition to Bird's exciting contributions, Eric Earley, Laura Veirs, and Nathan Crockett also make cameo appearances on the record. The more the merrier I suppose when it comes to publicly shattering one's own heart...like a group therapy session except, instead of talking it through with some fellow neurotics, you get to belt it out with some pretty great musicians; not a bad deal.
When it's all said and done, when the album is cut, and the artistic process is over, does the heartbreak still linger on after the confetti clears? Thao's got quite the poetic answer for that. "I think all that intense energy has run its course and now the record resonates with me more as a very personalized souvenir. Like a very detailed, to scale snow globe I have found it is very difficult to know better or learn faster — by the time you realize you should have done either it is too late."
Thao and the Get Down Stay Downs' new album Know Better, Learn Faster
is out October 13th on Kill Rock Stars. The release will be followed by a two month tour of the US (with a few shows in Canada) accompanied by The Portland Cello Project. -amelia trask