“I wanted to try to actually be a real live person, rather than just singing songs about them.”
Having grown up in Falls Church, VA, Thao Nguyen first picked up a guitar at the age of 12 and began performing in a pop country duo in high school. She spent most of her 20s touring, supporting one critically acclaimed album after another. She’s worked with a laundry list of vaunted artists including Andrew Bird, Mirah, Laura Viers and producer Tucker Martine. She even toured the U.S. with the nationally syndicated NPR radio program “Radiolab.” But a little over a year ago, Thao stopped and settled finally in San Francisco. There she spent time establishing a life off the road. That included thinking about things besides music and participating in her community, most notably advocating for those incarcerated in the SF county jail and CA state prison system.
At the end of that transformative period, Thao collected her work and stepped into the studio with producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Bill Callahan, Explosions in the Sky, The Walkmen). The result is We the Common, a major step forward from this already-beloved artist. The album is raw and rollicking, homemade and reckless, 12 songs capturing this utterly unique writer and performer like never before.
What was the first song you wrote for this new album?
“Holy Roller” was the first of this batch—I was trying to write for the banjo, and meanwhile I also was trying start conducting myself in a new way. So the song became my attempt to figure out how I would even begin such an endeavor. It almost had the feeling of a revival—hence the title.
And did it work? Did you figure it all out?
Well, that sort of became the quest for the whole album. The next song I wrote was “Move,” which came very quickly, maybe mostly just so I could have the chance to scream “To be free!” again and again. I could hear that moment from the beginning—it’s my favorite part of the record.
The title track is listed as “for Valerie Bolden.” Who is she?
Valerie Bolden is a woman I met on my first visit to the Valley State Prison for women—I go there with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. We sat down and immediately started talking and joking, almost like old friends. We kept it mostly light, but then she’d matter-of-factly talk about missing her daughters, about believing in God but not understanding what she was supposed to be doing in prison, about not wanting to die behind bars. But she’s sentenced to life without parole. After I left, I found I couldn’t stop thinking about her and the things she told me and the way she told them, and a lot of that ended up in “We the Common.”
Were those prison visits part of a new direction for you?
Definitely. My membership in CCWP and the work I’ve been doing in prisons and the San Francisco County Jail are the most deeply I’ve ever dedicated myself to a cause outside myself. I’d been working with great groups like 826 Valencia and ATC and Oxfam America, but not in such a profound and personal way, and not with an organization that I felt needed me as a community member, not as a musician.
And this motivation toward citizenship, in a way—a commitment to my life away from music—that shows up a lot throughout the record. Especially in “We the Common” and “City”—I was trying to capture the incredible resiliency of the people I was meeting and working with. I wanted to let that ignite the songs, to try to collect energy from people around me and give it back to them.
In the past your songwriting has often been very introspective—did this evolution also shape that side of you?
I think my songwriting has become less selfish, hopefully. I still write about myself and my life, but not in a way that just laments or broods. I spent most of my 20s on tour, so most of that formative time was spent hopping from place to place. Even though I wouldn’t trade those adventures, there are parts of me that didn’t have a chance to develop—things I didn’t quite realize I was missing. But in the past year I started feeling the desire to be an active part of my life, instead of just watching it pass by. I wanted to try to actually be a real live person, rather than just singing songs about them.
I feel I can sort of hear that transition in “Age of Ice.”
The song came the easiest of anything I’ve ever written. The images of unfreezing and returning to live in the feeling world, with some nostalgia for how I’d been but knowing it wasn’t sustainable—it all came so clearly to me, both melody and lyrics simultaneously. That never ever happens for me. Never ever. I think I was tired of being so tough, or trying to be, or pretending to be.
How did the collaboration with Joanna Newsom happen?
We met on a songwriters retreat at Hedgebrook, which is a Virginia Woolf–style farm paradise where women writers get their own cabins and write all day and meet in the evening for dinner. Can you imagine what a gift that is? Joanna and I became fast friends, and I somehow convinced her to demo that song with me, and then she somehow agreed to record it for the record. If you ever get an opportunity for a solo Joanna Newsom harp show in a cabin in the woods, then you will know the incredible fortune I had.
It sounds almost too perfect. That kind of time and space was unusual for you, right?
Right. For the two previous albums, I would finish tour and then get maybe a month before I was due in studio. But this time I had over a year to just live my life and absorb experiences and think about things and then write songs about them. And if I didn’t like those songs, I could change them or discard them or swear I was never going to write another damn song again—and then get over myself and continue writing.
The album was produced by John Congleton, who’s worked with a really diverse group including Bill Callahan, St. Vincent and Explosions in the Sky. Why did he feel like the right fit?
I really love the sounds John gets on his records, so distinct and striking and raw. He captured our energy and looseness and rhythm. On one of our first phone calls, John said he wanted to make a dangerous party record, a party where you get to the door and you don’t quite know what will happen—you just hear these beats coming though the walls. We also mentioned a lot of the same references for these songs.
Mostly we talked about `90s East Coast hip hop—early Outkast, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Sheep. But at the same time I was also listening to Paul Simon, the Kinks, Neutral Milk Hotel, the Byrds. The album is somehow a mix of all that.
And now you’re finally heading back out on tour. Are you looking forward to that?
I am. Playing music for people is my favorite part of the job—and especially for this record, which is so much about being together and sharing that collective energy. I’m so grateful for the chance to be a part of that. It’s going to be a long tour, we hope, but fortunately I’ve used my time away to research hotel-room exercise regimens.