She stood alone onstage, armed with only a banjo, and played a blues so hard it hurt. This was Thao Nguyen — sans backing band the Get Down Stay Down on this Sunday night at Public Works — scraping through the title track of her latest album, We the Common, stomping her brown cowboy boots on the stage, her electrified banjo sounding ragged and untamable. For the chorus her voice zoomed up into a soft peak, a refrain so heartworn it didn't even have words. The verse ends, "Oh, how we the common do cry" — and then Thao delivers just a fluttering wail. On the record these chorus vocals are multi-tracked; they sound like a little army of commoners. With her alone it lost the optimism of company: just one sad lilt wafting through the room.
This is a song about a real person — Valerie Bolden, a life-without-parole inmate at Valley State Prison for Women near Fresno — and the conversation she and Nguyen had the first time they met. (Nguyen volunteers with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.) Goddamn if it doesn't exude every bit of the hurt and hopelessness that it must be to know you will live in a cage for the rest of your life and your children will grow up without you. "All they wanted was a villain, a villain, and all they had was me," Thao sings, channeling the long tradition of American prison ballads. And yet she sounds so relevant to right now, in the same way that the old songwriters of that tradition would grapple, almost out of obligation, with the events of their time. This is by design: "I think my songwriting has become less selfish, hopefully," Nguyen has said of her latest album. "I wanted to try to actually be a real live person, rather than just singing songs about them."
You can't help but feel this realness and relevance in Thao's "We the Common," both on the excellent recording and that night at Public Works. It makes me wonder: Why don't more artists aim for this? Why do so many of our serious young songwriters think they should be both the narrator and the subject of their songs? Why don't they go find some story or feeling, something few know — it doesn't have to be the existential plight of a prisoner, the world is a big place — and make music about that? We're all swamped with songs (and books and films) about the neurosis and privilege of this narcissistic creative class to which many of us belong. Meanwhile the world is full of people with deeper, harder, probably more compelling stories that mostly don't get told by people with the skills to make us want to hear them. Artists shouldn't be scared of those, they should chase them and tell them. Done right, songs from Out There, from the opposite of selfishness, can still be fun and catchy — and they have tremendous power almost by default. The rewards are more than worth the effort. Just look at Thao's example.