Artist Thao Nguyen doesn’t mean to repeat herself, but she can’t help it. She’s happy. Or, more precisely, she’s relieved. Nguyen, who until quite recently fronted the project Thao & The Get Down Stay Down has since shed the extra words and is prepared to forge ahead as a musician under her own name. The change, which she posted about recently on social media, is both an essential subtraction and a symbol of larger shifts in Nguyen’s creative and personal life.
As much as any artist since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Nguyen has undergone new pages and chapters in her life, which have required deep self-investigation and public acknowledgment of her identity as a queer person. Nguyen married her wife in 2019. These aspects of identity are important to identify inwardly and outwardly. They are the threads of our personal tapestry. And this is what was on Nguyen’s mind as she reimagined the extra tracks on her new release, the deluxe edition of her acclaimed 2020 album, Temple, which is out today (October 29).
“Not to belabor the concept,” Nguyen tells American Songwriter, “but light. I feel really light.”
Nguyen is as thoughtful, introspective, and articulate a person as you’ll come across, especially when it comes to the dissection of emotions and personal insights. These investigations can feel devastating, at times. They can crush. But there is no rebuilding without a little bit of rubble. For Nguyen, life began one way and now it needs to move in another. The same can be said for her musical directions.
“I love a party,” Nguyen says. “And I want for people to come to a show and have a good time and for it to feel very energetic. But at some point, I found [that the band’s concerts] veered more toward a party atmosphere. Moving forward, I want shows to be more—for there to be more emotional bandwidth for art.”
Today, the frontwoman says she feels “more liberated” and “more in my own body and identity” than she ever has. She wants to focus on that and so she wanted to drop the rest of her project’s moniker, which felt, she says, more like a hindrance than a pedestal.
“When I was first starting,” she says, “I had a lot of apprehension and misgivings for how ethnic my name looked. I was afraid and it was a different time. People would dismiss it more and wouldn’t consider it further. A part of adding ‘& The Get Down Stay Down’ was adding a level of accessibility. But it’s always irked me a little, it never sat well with me.”
It was well documented at the time that Nguyen’s music video for her song “Phenom” was the first great (only great?) pandemic offering of its kind in early 2020. The stunning track took advantage of social distancing like none other, somehow presenting energy that leaped out of your screen. In a way, that video was a precursor to Nguyen’s life. It was the furnace that helped to propel her upwards, and thus, the sandbags on her hot air basket had to be cut.
“It’s been very clarifying, this period,” Nguyen says. “I’ve shed some weight and baggage and dissolved relationships that needed to be dissolved. Before the pandemic, I was in a tough spot with my career because I wasn’t happy with where I was and wasn’t happy with the work I was trying to do. I felt like I wasn’t productive and expansive in the ways that I wanted to be. I think I stood in my own path a lot. So now, I think the trick is to not regret and just keep pushing forward.”
Nguyen cites the rap group Run the Jewels, and the duo’s song “Never Look Back,” as inspiration. In the song, the emcee Killer Mike says, Never look back, you will only get bitter / If you get bitter, you will never get better / Never get better, then you never get bigger / Never get bigger then you never make cheddar. It’s a concise, important lesson. Own your future.
In the past, music writers would often assume Nguyen’s breakup songs, for example, were about men. She never corrected them. Some may take that occasion to harbor anger against those who never asked. But Nguyen doesn’t have time for that. Instead, she’s making her declarations and setting sails forward, she says.
“There are endless instances of that,” she says. “Injures that I incurred to my own psyche throughout my career.” She adds, “Not to over-simplify it, but now I feel light. I feel like I’m fully alive in the world.”
The artist brought these feelings of vibrancy and clarity to the new Temple Deluxe Edition. To make the lush new bonus songs, which are themselves overflowing with thoughtful string arrangements, Nguyen recruited a friend of hers in Seattle. It was a collaboration that started during the pandemic. Nguyen needed strings for a Tiny Desk recording and, for that, she tapped two cello-playing neighbors and arranger Alex Guy. And so when Nguyen needed strings for the deluxe release, she asked Guy, who helped happily.
“It was a chance to highlight the lyrical content of these songs,” Nguyen says. “And the emotions behind them. With full rock band arrangements, which I love, different attentions are paid in different ways. For these songs, I wanted to highlight their emotional bones.”
On the new version of her song “Marauders,” for instance, Nguyen’s voice cracks, you can hear the heft of emotion breaking her down. She was thinking about the recent passing of her grandmother, her hectic tour schedule. Truly, her life has been both an external and internal whirlwind. But, Nguyen says, she’s through much of it, even if the world around her is still sorting itself out, one crisis at a time.
“It’s strangely freeing,” Nguyen says about her recent months. “This period you’re catching me feels great. Those inner-workings, those machinations, that true grit, and dirt and really ugly stuff that is involved in the examination of one’s self, in the habits we want to break and ways we want to change, that stuff happened earlier. And it totally sucked. It was so painful.“
On the original Temple, Nguyen dove deep. Now she’s back up for air. As such, she can see the sunlight breaking on the waves. It’s the result of the hard work that comes from recognizing errors in judgment, both outward and inward.
“Do I wish I had done it differently?” she wonders aloud. “Definitely. But do I recognize the context in which I was releasing music and trying to build a career in indie rock? The things I encountered throughout my life, growing up as I started to play music, how I was dismissed, and disparagements that I think I incurred in part because of how I look, in addition to being a woman? Yes. So, I had a lot of grappling to do.”
She adds, “I take inspiration from people who have always been proud of who they are and where they come from regardless of what was happening in media and pop culture.”
Lately, Nguyen has been on the road, first in support of acclaimed singer-songwriter Julien Baker, and now with a group of artists, including Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, to benefit the Women’s Refugee Commission. And as she looks to the future, she says she’s excited to get back into writing, demoing, recording. It’s another chance to sort out her abundant, precise thoughts. And in the end, it’s all because she wants to tell the world something. Nguyen sums up her reason in three words, her ‘creative why’ for being the musician and person she is today.
“The energy transmission,” Nguyen says.