“I wanted to try to be a real live person, rather than just singing songs about them,” singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen said about the turn her life took after releasing Know Better Learn Faster, her second album with backing band The Get Down Stay Down. For Nguyen, that meant the unlikely choice to settle down in San Francisco and become involved with prison reform by getting to know female inmates. Ultimately, she felt this time enriched and re-centered her life, bringing a freshness to her songwriting that imbues her latest release, We the Common, an album that brings her experiences to life without resorting to didacticism or platitudes.
The Rumpus: So, how’s your tour going?
Thao Nguyen: It’s just finished, actually. It went really well. Everyone was just really nice, and we’re pretty tired.
Rumpus: I was out of town when you came to where I live, so I didn’t get to see you then, but I saw you years ago when you opened for Xiu Xiu.
Nguyen: Oh wow. That was our first tour. That was actually the first outing we had as a band.
Rumpus: That was the first outing you had as a band?
Nguyen: Yeah, that tour was—we were very green. And young.
Rumpus: I’m still unsure about this. I should’ve done my homework, but: have you kept the same lineup throughout your recording career? Aside from the project you did with Mirah.
Nguyen: This last record was the first one where we had a different drummer. It’s always been Adam Thompson, who’s our bassist. He’s been there since the beginning. And then this record is a different drummer. His name is Jason Slota, and he also tours with us as well.
Rumpus: Was it hard making an adjustment to having a new drummer?
Nguyen: No. No, I don’t think so. I think we were excited to work with a different style of player. And we lost a great friend. But we had parted ways a while ago, and so we had time…I’d been playing with a lot of different drummers for the past couple years. So it wasn’t too difficult.
Rumpus: I want to come back to your music, but I’m very interested in and I’ve been reading a lot about your activism work, especially in prisons. This sounded like it was a very liberating thing for you to do, and in one interview I was reading, you were talking about feeling much freer now and secure. I was wondering if your activism contributes to a steadier sense of self.
Nguyen: Yes, definitely, I think that the activism I’ve become involved with informs and enhances my life in a lot of ways, and definitely career-wise. This record wouldn’t exist [without that activism], for one. When I started doing these advocacy groups, it sort of propelled and compelled me to write songs, because otherwise I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do, music-wise. I wasn’t particularly motivated to write songs. But this level of humanity and spirit that I witnessed greatly impacted and so inspired me, so that I felt this sort of renewed vigor to write music. As far as how grounding it is, yeah, it’s the ultimate amount of perspective.
Some of the folks we see are in for defending themselves against their abusers, or drug charges that, because of the California state prison system, they have mandatory sentencing and life in prison for three counts of simple drug possession, or whatever. I find it not only helpful but, I think, necessary in maintaining my grounding and my perspective. Because music is such an unrealistic job to have. It’s a really lucky job to have, but it’s also very unrealistic.
Rumpus: Is there anything you think the average person can do to improve the situation of incarcerated women?
Nguyen: Yeah, actually, I think that’s a great segue. You’re based in Madison, is that right?
Nguyen: But the Rumpus, that’s a San Francisco market? Or is it separate? Only because this—in California, this thing just came out today that basically there’s a three-panel judge system that’s brought Governor Brown to task saying that he’s really dragging his feet on releasing thousands of folks who are eligible for release or parole, and so I just actually finished posting stuff on our social media to ask people to get involved. But it is the smaller things, like becoming more politically involved, and holding our local leaders accountable. And then, you know, everyone asks people to do that, and even I have a slight aversion to it, because I’m not sure always of the efficacy.
The lead single is about this woman named Valerie Golden, and she said it was okay to post her information so people could write letters if they wanted. When she first heard there was a song about her, the thing that came up for her, what she said was, “Well, maybe I’ll get more letters.”
Nguyen: Yeah, I think it’s just maintaining that kind of humanity.
Rumpus: Is there any kind of organization or something that will match you up, so you can be pen pals with women in prison?
Nguyen: I don’t know of any national organization, but I’m sure that within your state…like the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, that’s the organization I work with. There’s not necessarily an organized pen-pal system. That’s a very good idea. I’ve never heard of it in a true organized fashion.
Rumpus: My background is creative writing, not journalism, and especially in undergrad, I did so much activist stuff and got really burned out for a while. But I know my creative side and my activist side are related, but it’s a very complicated relationship. I was wondering if you felt the same way, or if you feel that one predates the other.
Nguyen: I think it is really complicated. When I was in college, I wanted to work for a women’s advocacy group and do nonprofit work and it just ended up…well, I worked in this women’s shelter, and I just couldn’t handle it emotionally. I just didn’t have the constitution for it. And as this was happening, I was becoming more involved with music, and then when I decided to pursue music, I promised myself that I would use it to support the causes that I hold so dearly. So in that way, it fueled it. In a way, it makes me more ambitious in my career, because I think that I can use that influence, my efficacy would be greater with my music than I would just as myself, working in an organization. So in that way, it propels it. And I think I wouldn’t be as ambitious if I didn’t have these things that I care about that I thought I could try and get people on board with.
Rumpus: I was really impressed at how you can employ those topics that you do on the new record without being at all patronizing, and the songs are still really catchy. They have that fun, and that’s definitely something I aspire to. It’s like, “How do I address big issues without standing up at the pulpit?”
Nguyen: Right. Thank you. Thanks for saying that. I think what helped the most was I was meeting these women and their stories. You know, I thought about storytelling even before all of this. It’s what I would relate to the most. And it’s what I hope people would relate to the most as well.
Rumpus: Is there a reason why you took up the cause of women in prison as opposed to a different focus?
Nguyen: Well, a few reasons, one being that I have really good friends who have been involved with this group for years, and I always noticed how dedicated and devoted they were on an emotional level. It was something I’d never seen in people in different organizations. I’ve worked with a lot of great ones, but the emotional connection wasn’t as strong as what I saw here. They asked me to fill in on an advocacy group event when I was home from tour once, and that’s how that started. As I’ve said before, a lot of the women are battered women who are in prison, and they’re in for defending themselves. But for a few twists of fate, it could be my mom in there, you know? Because that’s what’s unique in the beginning, and after you just meet more folks and talk and hear stories, there’s just no way that you can not come back.
And that so many people are inside for lack of resources and nothing else, you know? It’s primarily poor people, primarily people of color. There’s a reason.
Rumpus: In one of the interviews I was reading with you, whoever was asking the questions mentioned the lyric about “the end of want,” and you said the end of want was gratitude. Do you remember that? What do you think is the best way to show gratitude?
Nguyen: Well, I think it should start with acknowledgment, and the first thing you do is recognize it and make sure you believe it, and then you can consider showing it. I was raised Buddhist and I didn’t really know what was up until a few years ago, when I started looking into it on my own. So when I can, I try my best to meditate a little bit every day, and that helps a lot. I think that just taking a minute, or however long you can, and really acknowledging everything that you have. Acknowledging what you have, and at the same time, acknowledging what other folks don’t have. And you know, you don’t have to feel guilty about it, but definitely to feel grateful is the first step in giving it back.
Rumpus: Turning back to the idea of women’s rights activism. What do you think it would take to actually empower women, not women in prison, but just women in general. Have you thought about what it would actually take to achieve equality?
Nguyen: I have, yes, but in that grander overarching sense, that’s so overwhelming. I consider it in smaller ways, because once we get too intimidated or overwhelmed then we’re sort of paralyzed, and it’s best to take it in bites, you know? I think it starts with youth. It starts when girls are young, and how they’re taught to love and respect themselves, and I think that is the kernel. The role model thing, often, and whether or not they’re told they can—they are capable of anything.
Rumpus: By the same token, I don’t think men often get educated on male privilege at all, and it’s almost like it’s completely invisible to them when they’re exercising that male privilege.
Nguyen: Yeah. It’s hard. They’re raised a certain way as well, and it’s so inherent and so insidious. Yeah, I think that those issues of sexual power and dynamics play so strongly in how a young girl or woman will view herself, and what she’ll do to that end.
Rumpus: I have one last question for you, which is my favorite question to ask everybody I interview. Which is: What do you like to read, or what are some of your favorite books or writers?
Nguyen: Oh, awesome. I have the perfect answer to that. You know, a lot of this record is influenced by a lot of the stuff I was reading—this record more than others. For the record, I was reading Denis Johnson and Lidia Yuknavitch—
Rumpus: Oh, did you read The Chronology of Water?
Rumpus: I love that. It’s one of my favorites. It’s so good.
Nguyen: So good. I actually took a writing workshop with her a few months back. I flew to Seattle to do it. Then…Grace Paley, always. I think she’s influenced my songwriting the most, her economy with words is unparalleled. And let’s see. Just recently, I’m obsessed with George Saunders, like everyone else, I guess. But I think he’s a genius, the way he infuses humanity in his work I think is something that anyone should aspire to write. I can’t believe how he presents humans in the weirdest and most original ways. By the end, he really makes you want to be a part of life. And I really respect that. And that’s who I’ve been reading lately.