Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney
Whenever it's the truth ye seek about someone else, it's wisest to go to a second player to reproduce the character than it is to take it direct from the horse's mouth. It's almost guaranteed that what you'll be told will be the most worthwhile matters and attributes of the person in question - likely without the watering down or the beefing up, the superlatives or the hyperbole. Why you'd ever need to worry about not getting a frank answer from Virginian and soon-to-be San Franciscan singer/songwriter Thao Nguyen, regarding her thoughts and her life, is a good first question. If Nguyen were an old-fashioned letter writer, she would write volumes - pages and pages, reams of correspondence between herself and someone or no one in particular. She would record the intricate details of her days - of the finer tastes and freckly embarrassment, equally - and present it in an unabridged form that would be forever consulted as the authority, for there would be nothing left to throw in as an appendix. Nothing. She's immediately open and immediately a confidante. She's the person - whether it would be true or just flat-out fabrication - you'd expect to be introduced to as, "This is Thao. I've known her since grade school." But that right there is where she gets as slippery as a bar of soap and a lane in a bowling alley, rolled into one.
Her music and the songs it lives in, breath dual lives in such a way that, for as chatty and chummy as Nguyen instantaneously becomes in the first few seconds of introduction - in this case, her emptying of a rotting-from-the-inside cooler as if it contained nuclear waste products - her depth is probably like that of an iceberg. It must - just simply must -- stretch the length of Florida beneath her surface, where we cannot spy. She gifts us with Tallahassee and Pensacola, but everything below Gainesville is mystical and unknown. She's fascinating in her randomness and her songs - these winged creatures that seem powered by pixie dust, youthful wonder, dogged wisdom that's advanced beyond her years and a delicate, but uproarious blaze that's got the heart and the legs of a jet stream. She gets interested in working as a farmer's apprentice after reading a story about potato farming in a copy of National Geographic so she signs up to do some hard labor and leaves for Maine the day after her last tour - in support of the Kill Rock Stars compilation "The Sound The Hare Heard," on which she has a song. She gets there and has two hippie co-workers, entrenched in the idea of living off the land and sowing and reaping and the holy communion of nature. She was supposed to be there for three weeks and leaves after three days.
"I don't know why, but it really appealed to me," Nguyen said of the farm life. "It was very romantic to me. Then I realized that I would have to get up really early every day and work for 12 hours. I had to sleep on a bus that was parked on the property. It was too much like tour. I already know what it's like to rough it. The bathroom was in the farmhouse and I had to use a flashlight when I was walking to it at night. The one I had always cut out. I was exhausted by the fear and the dirt.
"One day I cut my finger while I was working and I didn't even realize it until the end of the day and I was like, 'What in the hell happened?' That was enough for me. I needed my fingers to play guitar. I was only there for three days, but that's long in farm time. It's worse than college. The two hippie kids really dug it and I could tell that they kind of despised me a little bit. The guy who owned the farm was totally sweet and he kind of had this attitude of, 'I don't give a shit all of the time.' My friend was kind of the person who convinced me to leave. She came up there with me and she kept reminding me, 'We could be eating lobster in Portland in an hour if we leave right now.' So we left, but lobster was too expensive for us."
Her fingers are better. She's scabbed and dropped the scabs already. She prides herself on her immune system - seriously. Nguyen also prides herself on being really athletic for a non-athletic person.
"If you threw a football at me, I'd catch it," she said. "On tour, I brought a football with us and we'd play at every rest stop."
Nguyen grew up in Northern Virginia before she went off to William & Mary University, where she met drummer Willis Thompson and bassist Adam Thompson. She and her mother lived in the one of the same neighborhoods that were terrorized in 2002 by snipers and serial killers John Lee Malvo and John Muhammad, who shot 14 people and killed 10 of them during a month's time.
"He was seriously right down the street," Nguyen said about Falls Church, Va. "That was our Home Depot."
Since Nguyen was 12, she's been playing her guitar and writing songs, though her non-musical parents didn't assist in any of the technical or enrichment areas, listening to Lionel Richie and Yanni in heavy doses.
"I'm a child of the Lilith Fair, let's face it," she said. "The whole image of the female musician standing up and strumming her guitar gets a bad rap. I didn't want to be anything like that. I'm really into country blues and I'm also a product of not having lots of friends when I was growing up. I just really wanted to have an outlet. I think the first song I learned to play was "Everybody Hurts" by R.E.M. If it wasn't so cheesy, I might bring it back. Maybe I will."
While attending William & Mary, where she graduated in May, Nguyen found the colonial town a tough place to find shows.
"There was one Barnes & Noble and they'd pay $150, which was pretty sweet," she said. "But the city has an ordinance from back in 1702 or something that says you can't have bars. So everything's called a deli. I played at the delis a lot."
She was able to have a couple trips - for special occasions - to Washington D.C. or the longer haul to New York City for gigs. One in particular is paying off huge dividends. On a whim, but not such a fantastical prayer, Nguyen sent Laura Veirs a copy of her debut record "Like the Linen" and asked to open for her sometime. Veirs granted her a support slot at the Mercury Lounge. This week, Nguyen is finishing up a two-week European tour with Veirs and preparing to spend a week in August with Veirs' drummer and super producer Tucker Martine to work on the beginnings of a new record. Martine just finished work on the forthcoming Decemberists album and Nguyen may just get the chance to sing into one of the same microphones that Colin Meloy did, "unless he brought his own in and they were gold-plated." All of this stems from Veirs and Nguyen reaching out to her.
"For a while, her manager was Slim Moon, who's our manager now. This was before she signed with Nonesuch. I thought it was still in the realm of possibility that I might be able to open for her. I don't know if she ever listened to my record. I think she just trusted Slim," Nguyen said. "When she called to ask if I'd like to go on this European tour with her, I was at the market and I dropped all my fruit. I was holding peaches or something. I said, 'I never thought this would happen.' That's what I said to her."
The opportunity to record with Martine has not escaped Nguyen's drummer Willis Thompson, "I'm pretty excited to be recording with Tucker because a) he's a sweet drummer, b) the records he has produced have been the most fully realized musical ideas I've heard in a long time. And that's probably the most important thing I look for in music right now -- a record where you can tell the band thought out all the parts and constructed the best songs they could at that time, to create something that completely expressed their ideas at that point. Hopefully the same will happen for us with Tucker's guidance. c) I'm hoping to borrow a bicycle of Tucker's to ride through Seattle in the morning before recording (I haven't asked him yet though). d) He gets amazing drum (and band) sounds. I'm excited to hear how my playing will come across to the listener's ear, given his ability to mix drums that fit well within the entire context of the song. For us, the most important sounds are Thao's vocals and her innovative guitar playing. But now, with the band, there are three fellows contributing great parts to the record. I think Tucker will be able to capture those performances and mix them to best represent us."
Remember the earlier assertion that Nguyen was a complicated person, full of random curiosities? Here's another one to add to her steadfast belief in her super-healing body, her non-athletic athleticism and her urge to be a farmer's apprentice: she loves Dan Marino.
"Peyton Manning would be no where without Dan Marino," she said. "I was in love with NFL football third grade to maybe eighth grade. I loved how passionate Marino was. He wanted to win so badly. Him out of the shotgun was unstoppable."
Over the course of the last tour, Nguyen and the two Thomsons (not the Thompsen Twins)
Do you also remember earlier when the idea was forged that the best way to understand Nguyen might be to hear what she's like from others? Here's what others, namely Thompson and Thompson had to say.
Adam said, "Thao and I sat on the back porch in a swing on White Lake, Mich., attempting to work out my vocal parts for a new jam she was working on. We fucked around for a bit and came to a few ideas, but playing through the last idea a few times, the flowers came out and truly blossomed. Looking back now -- at the moment I'm sitting in a high school hangout coffee shop with chatty Cathy's in my ear unfortunately - there are a few glorious points to make about the object of the question. Thao has an ear for pop, and not your cheesy, money-making shit -- turn on your local 103.1 FM radio station and it probably holds this reference -- but well-crafted and beautiful, country-tinged 'indie (pardon me!)' pop. She also has one of the most luscious and honest voices I've come across in playing out or listening to music. Coming back, we ended up mapping out a fantastic song in a matter of 10 minutes, and I'm not saying that there are people out there that can't do that, but she does it in a way I've never seen, in a playful and outrageously intelligent way. Maybe that gloated a bit too much."
And Willis, "Thao as a songwriter...She has a new song, 'Violet,' that was inspired by an argument she saw in the street between a husband and wife. She knew it would make a great song because of how the husband yelled 'Violet!' What a great name. Each new song gets better and better, exposing a different side of Thao. I really think she's still finding her voice and style of songwriting. So it's really fun to play all these different styles of songs as she creates them. There's another new one called 'Gunpowder' that I'm still trying to figure who it is about. We put in these three handclaps that she gets all giddy for. The main thing we try to get across to the listener right now is an organic feel that just happens and feels good to hear."
She projects the mood of a dreamer and a realist, a pessimist and yet it's the same person who will gamble the farm that everything's going to turn out alright when the credits roll. It would be difficult to image her in a sour mood or getting all penitential. She allows her words to be airy and to carry themselves appropriately through sightlines and unsightliness, resting on a feather mattress at the end, slightly panting with a little sweat broken. She also loves her projection game, a tour fancy that plays off of the latent desires of the various riders. Some of the more popular projections: "'Willis, it's like your dream to be driving this van right now.' 'It's like you dream to eat spinach and humus.' Everyone loved spinach, humus and pita as a main meal of the tour, but at times we pretended like we didn't like it and then projections would ensue saying we still loved the humus. 'You love this record. It's like your dream to be sitting there, listening to the Violent Femmes' I expressed how I hated the Violent Femmes on tour. These are just projections I imagine happened on the tour," said Willis Thompson.
Nguyen's own projection involves fantasy girl talk in the various European hotel rooms she's sharing with Veirs this week and last.
"It's Laura Veirs' dream to do that," she said, before conjuring a vision of pillow fights and Babysitter's Club reading marathons. "And she'll have chocolate smeared all over her face. She loves chocolate."