JOY IN RELEASE Thao With the Get Down Stay Down

Thao Nguyen had to
learn fast in order to know better.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

Thao Nguyen says that she may not really have been ready to
process a romantic break-up at when she first started writing the brutally
frank songs that make up Know Better Learn Faster, her second record as
Thao With The Get Down Stay Down. She had just come off an extended tour, for
one thing, and for another was still feeling wounded and vulnerable. But studio
time for her band’s second full-length had already been booked, and Nguyen was
feeling pressure.

 

“There’s definitely an undercurrent of helplessness,” Nguyen
explains. “It was not the ideal time. It was something very important that I
was not quite ready to write about it.”

 

Maybe that’s why she exhorts herself to “Know Better Learn
Faster,” in the album’s title track, while recognizing that you can only learn
as fast as you learn. “I have come to find you can’t know better or learn
faster until it’s too late,” says Nguyen. “The title is kind of a joke.”

 

Maybe so, but Thao Nguyen has been learning pretty fast
lately. She’s been making music since she was a pre-teen, at first toting her
guitar to open mics in her hometown of Falls Church, Virginia, and later
gathering a trio of like-minded musicians around her while studying at the
College of William and Mary. Her band, The Get Down Stay Down, includes college
classmate and drummer Willis Thompson and bass player Adam Thompson (no
relation), who turned up at one of her earliest tour dates. A self-recorded
debut Like the Linen caught the ear of Laura Veirs in 2005, and she put
the band in touch with producer Tucker Martine. At about the same time, Kill
Rock Stars founder Slim Moon took Nguyen under his wing as manager. Kill Rock
Stars included Nguyen’s “Feet Asleep” on its 2006 The Sound the Hare Heard compilation, and a few months later, “Young Man” on the Kill Rock Stars Winter Holiday Album. The band’s first wide
release, We Brave Bee Stings and All, came out on Kill Rock Stars in
2008. The band, and Thao herself as a solo act, toured endlessly, an exhausting
process which nonetheless yielded dividends when it came time for another
album.

 

“When we recorded Bee Stings we were barely a band,
Nguyen remembers. “We’d been a band maybe two months. We were on all counts
unsure of what was going on. We had not fully formed our identity or our sound
yet. Over the last two years of really consistent — some might say incessant
— touring, we’ve become a lot more comfortable with ourselves.”

 

They also got the chance to work with Tucker Martine again,
the Portland-based producer who has realized multi-instrumented sonic
architectures for bands like the Decemberists and Sufjan Stevens. “We trust
Tucker’s ears more than we trust our own,” admits Nguyen. “I think it’s really
important to have more of an objective voice, a voice of reason when you’re
totally immersed in these very personal songs and there’s a lot of pressure
involved. But also he has an incredible ear and he has an incredible sense of song.”

 

Martine also helped Nguyen and her band mates blow out a
sparse and sometimes prickly sound into large-scale, pop gestures, as on the
closing track, “Easy.” “The mix in that song is very important, because it is
such a driving, consistent pace and feel, that to have variation in it you have
to bring in a lot of different elements,” she explains. “Tucker has a great
balance of respecting and staying true to what we are as a band but also
enhancing it. He encourages the sort of polish that we might not otherwise
have.”

 

Working with a well-connected producer also makes it easier
to draw in guest artists. Martine brought Andrew Bird on board for “Know Better
Learn Faster” and his partner, Laura Veirs, also contributes on the album.  Sometime tourmate Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards
also makes an appearance, playing ukulele and singing the buoyant, counterpart
on “Easy.”

 

Although there are many voices and instruments and sounds in
Know Better Learn Faster perhaps the
most distinctive is Nguyen’s voice. She draws on influences in pop (Margot
Timmons of the Cowboy Junkies) and country blues (Karen Dalton), but coming up
with something uniquely her own. She can be gutsy and earthy in one song (say,
“The Clap”), and engagingly, infectiously pop in the next (“Cool Yourself”). Fluid
at times, she also has a tendency to break melodies into bits of staccato tone
that are sharp enough at the edges to cut your finger on. “I’m wholly
untrained,” she says, when asked about her unusual approach to singing. “It’s
mostly what I’m capable of, as far as what my range is. It’s finding out what
you can do with what you’ve got, to make it pleasant for everyone involved.”

 

That voice is often wrapped around revealing, frankly sexual
imagery, drawn directly from Nguyen’s personal experience. Asked if she
considered the difficulties raised by having to perform songs about a
relationship that ended painfully and had, in any case, been over for some
time, she pauses to consider.

 

“I did consider it, but I also realized that those songs
that I write tend to be pretty personal,” she says. “I couldn’t really get
around that, you know. I couldn’t change my songwriting style. It sort of
dissects my private life. But I think after a certain point, the detachment
forms and the songs become something else. When you play them live it’s more
about putting on the show and connecting with the audience.”

 

Music fans will get a chance to move and be moved, as Thao
With The Get Down Stay Down are touring relentlessly again this year. They’re
currently traveling with the Portland Cello Project, whose members join in for
“Know Better Learn Faster” and “The Give.”

 

And as for the sense of triumph that lurks in these bitterly
honest songs? “There’s a lot of release in this record,” Nguyen says. “It’s
like when you lock yourself in your car and you just scream. There’s joy in
that, joy in the process of release.”

 

Thao with The Get Down Stay Down – When We Swam from Toolshed Media on Vimeo.

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