“I don’t really read anything that’s written about the record because it is so personal and I don’t want to know if things have been misinterpreted.”
A Man Alive, the latest release from Thao & the Get Down Stay Down is a blow to the sonic and emotional viscera. Musically, Nguyen and close friend/co-producer Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs have crafted an artful record filled with starts and stops and gentles twists of the earlobe that send us reeling with musical ecstasy while also reeling from the emotional impact of the lyrics. It’s a record to feed the head and the heart. It’s also a record that is born from personal pain.
“It is heavy, isn’t?” Nguyen says with a laugh. “And it’s, what, 10 in the morning?” She’s in Portland, Oregon rehearsing for upcoming dates in support of the album and fielding questions about the record’s lyrical depth.
Portland was the same city where the seeds for writing those lyrics were planted. She was in town, having breakfast with a friend and talking about their fathers. Nguyen’s father had left the family while Thao was still in her youth. The wounds were still there but she was also aware that time was marching forward. Her friend was navigating the same emotional waters.
“Her dad was really sick and she was afraid that he was getting to a point where they wouldn’t be able to address their relationship because he was close to death,” Nguyen says. “That conversation was one of the factors that stands out the most as far as compelling me to think about what was happening with my own father. Because you can only go so long, so many years as you get older without addressing really pivotal and influential issues in your life. And with a lot of my friends I could see that they were starting to deal with the mortality of their parents—and often they had close relationships with their parents. So I just started to wonder what was happening with my dad and if anything would be resolved in the larger sense.”
The reasons for her father’s leaving, she says, were complex but she adds that they weren’t necessarily selfish. “There were a lot of transgressions on a lot of levels. Maybe he left to protect the family in a way,” she says. “Maybe that was the best thing he could do. But I don’t really know him at all. My memories of him are from when I was kid, so I don’t have a real sense of his character.”
On songs such as “Guts” and “Nobody Dies,” Nguyen references those feelings of abandonment from her youth, which are made more complicated by the shadow of her father’s presence. He didn’t die. And he didn’t completely disappear. In fact, she says, “I could easily get in touch with him now. I could ask a cousin what his number is. We have friends who have seen him in Maryland. So one of the most compelling parts and what’s so peculiar is what keeps us so solidly inert.”
That she was dealing with such weighty emotions was part of the reason she turned to Garbus for help with completing the album. Their friendship clearly runs long and deep but as both have become more successful their schedules have kept them spinning in different spheres much of the time. “When I’m home, she’s usually on the road and when I’m on the road, she’s usually at home,” Nguyen says. An early compromise was that Nguyen would only ask Garbus to produce one track. But management suggested that a full album would ultimately be better. And so the two booked time at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone in San Francisco and got to work.
“This record really wouldn’t exist without her,” Nguyen says. “I trusted her completely and she knew me as a friend and new my history. She has a fearlessness that I’ve always loved and we ventured into territory that I wouldn’t otherwise venture into.”
Nguyen is quick to praise Vanderslice as well, a man she refers to simply as “JV” and calls “a pillar of the community.” She adds that Tiny Telephone offered the right level of comfort for creating a record that found her diving so deep into the world of the personal. And although talk turns to some of the quirky instruments found in the studio or Vanderslice’s special tea blends it’s not long before the subject matter behind A Man Alive comes back to light.
If the listener feels a push and pull in the record, a hope for and lack of resolution within the album’s lyrics, that’s because they’re both there. Writing those lyrics, Nguyen says, was a monumental first step in the process. “It brought me to a level of acceptance that what I think should happen is not necessarily what will happen. And it doesn’t need to happen,” she adds. “There are really optimistic points in the record where I think I’m going to get in touch with my dad and repair our relationship, make peace before the inevitable happens. But then as time went on I started to think that maybe would be in the cards. And that’s fine. I had to get to a point where I could see that whatever has to happen will happen and that it’s not necessarily what you think the right thing is. There’s a lot of peace that I’ve reached around that.”
With the record coming out and old fans returning or new fans stumbling upon the music Nguyen and her band have made comes the possibility that an audience will grow around the record that has limited awareness of the personal nature of the music. Or that the audience will create its own meaning for the music. And she is OK with that.
“I think I’m lucky if it becomes anything to anyone,” she says. “Our priority was to make something that people could tap into however they would. And that’s why we also made it fun to perform—you can dance to it and don’t necessarily have to think about the lyrics. Because I don’t necessarily want to think about that every damn night. And,” she says, “I don’t really read anything that’s written about the record because it is so personal and I don’t want to know if things have been misinterpreted.”
And then, of course, there is her family. “I didn’t tell anyone in the family what I working on,” she says. “And that’s also indicative of the family that I grew up in: No one really talks about anything. So there really hasn’t been an opportunity to go deep. It was a First Listen on NPR with a description of the record and I sent them that, so I’m assuming they know. But they haven’t said anything. But I guess every family that has an artist has somebody talking about things that they shouldn’t.”