Get her behind a microphone, and Thao Nguyen turns into a beast.
Her coos evolve into screams, and her murmurs amplify into shouts. She’ll whip her hair so fervently that her entire head will become a blur — and her guitar, you’d think it would break or at the very least pop a string given how aggressively she handles the instrument.
Not that Nguyen, the frontwoman for the Bay Area folk-rock quintet Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, has always been this way. Far from it.
“The stereotypical Asian cultural thing of a girl being raised to be very obedient, docile, and respectful — I was definitely raised that way,” says Nguyen, whose parents are refugees from Vietnam. “So I grew up not speaking that much.”
Learning how to express herself and be more bold took years to master, but discovering music in her late teens helped speed the process. Learning to accept her Asian-American heritage, however, was much harder.
“It took me a long time to purge all that internalized whatever,” she says. “I didn’t want that to be how people viewed me.”
For years, Nguyen shunned invitations to perform at Asian-American concerts or festivals and was rankled by the many articles that referenced the fact that she was Vietnamese. Instead of calling her music “folk-rock,” some publications dubbed it “Vietnamese bluegrass,” and she still recalls one album review that packed in mentions of foxholes, bamboo, and the Tet Offensive all in the first paragraph.
As time passed, she and her band became fixtures rather than newcomers in the local music scene, and references to Nguyen’s ethnicity abated somewhat. But in their absence, Nguyen began to see the pros of embracing her heritage. When Nguyen first started making music, she had few role models that were similar to herself to turn to. Asian-American artists, especially females, are scarce in the music world, especially in the indie-rock scene. She realized that if she could get over her annoyance with constantly being labeled “Vietnamese” or “Asian,” she could embolden others to do the same.
“I embrace that part of myself so much now,” she says. “I consider it part of my privilege and responsibility to be visible just so that people know that it can happen, it’s an option. I want young girls, if they were raised to be so quiet like I was, to know that once you reach a level of autonomy, you can do this. You can be and do anything.”
Helping others — be it through role modeling or volunteering — has always been a priority for Nguyen. She studied sociology in college and intended to go into women’s advocacy work until a stint at a local shelter for women and children changed her mind.
“I didn’t have the constitution to work on the frontlines like that,” she says. “So when I decided to pursue music instead, I knew that I would stay as aligned and supportive as I could and try to incorporate the causes I care about.”
And that’s exactly what she’s done. In addition to volunteering and working with organizations like the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Oxfam America, the Women’s Building, and 826 Valencia, Nguyen has written a bevy of songs tackling social justice and human rights issues. “We The Common,” the first track on her 2013 album of the same name, is a twangy, banjo number about Valerie Bolden, an incarcerated woman Nguyen met through her work with CCWP.
“What struck me the most was I could see my mom, I could see relatives of mine in the same positions as these women,” she says. “I could just see that once you’re pushed to the point of defending yourself or your children, who knows which way that could go.”
In “City,” a grungy track soaked in reverb and electric guitar, Nguyen voices her support for the Occupy Oakland movement. And in her most recent album, 2016’s A Man Alive, she addresses sexual violence and the abuse of power in the fuzzed-out, psych-rock jam “Meticulous Bird.”
In addition to feeling dismayed and worried, Nguyen says she finds herself feeling particularly stimulated by the upheavals of our new presidency.
“Yes, I am working on a song about the predicament we are in now,” she says, adding that she’ll most likely release it as a single instead of waiting to include it on her next album, because she doesn’t “want to wait that long.” Nguyen also claims she has a music video in the works, the proceeds of which will be donated to Planned Parenthood or the ACLU.
“The guiding force behind the things that I create and how I present myself are always in line with the things that I believe in,” she says.
Still, satisfaction is hard for her to come by.
“I feel like I can’t do enough,” Nguyen says, blaming her recording and touring schedule for hogging up much of her time.
Fortunately, when she feels this way, she has a comforting mantra she can turn to that she learned from volunteers at CCWP.
“They always say, ‘There’s no guilt because it’s just a shitty world and everyone’s doing the best that they can.’ ”