Thao Nguyen is in a phase of rearrangement. The songwriter and leader of indie folk-rock band Thao & The Get Down Stay Down is at her Oakland home working on translating songs from the group’s new album, Temple, into acoustic renditions for her signature guitar fingerpicking style.
Temple was released on May 15 and is outstanding in its minor details: Deliberate spoken cadences and meticulous storytelling prowess complement lyrics with rich imagery, woven into narratives and character studies over riff-filled electric rock.
In the time since the band’s previous 2016 release, AMan Alive, Nguyen has been solo touring. In 2019, she hosted the popular podcast Song Exploder, a platform where she explored the songwriting talents of songwriters including Hozier, Brittany Howard, and Sheryl Crow.
The band hasn’t been able to spend time together in person but Nguyen has been determined to involve everyone in the visuals for their new album. Their first single, “Phenom,” had the band dial into an endearing not-so-business-as-usual Zoom call. It seemed to work wonderfully on the fly and serves as a fitting time capsule.
Their most recent single, “Pure Cinema,” is a band-centric tune with subdued grooves. Over the phone, Nguyen explains the concept of its video, directed by Justin Mitchell. “I knew I wanted the band to be featured especially given the content of the song,” she says. Surrounded by an inflated white parachute with projections of homemade clips shot on phones by her bandmates, they communicate the message of working together while apart. “You know, it’s such a weird time.” Nguyen says. “We haven’t had a chance really to celebrate as a band. I would say the most that we’ve been in touch is when making the video for “Pure Cinema.”
The album’s opening track, “Temple,” is written from the perspective of Nguyen’s mother, a South Vietnamese diplomat who was forced to flee the country because of war. “I wanted to make this song more than any others,” she says. “It’s really specific and based on the imagery of her life before the war—going dancing, building this career in diplomacy. The images of her fleeing, I’ve only learned in recent years. She was very matter-of-fact. She said she had an hour to pack two suitcases and that she ran for the river. So I fleshed [the song] out based on that information and the other imagery is just what [her story] has always evoked for me throughout my life as I have processed overhearing my mom or my relatives talking about it.”
Nguyen is yearning for a return to her sacred space, live concerts. But for now she continues to arrange solo versions so that she can continue performing, be it in person or over the internet. In the meantime, she seems content enough focusing on her personal life and the positive. “Now is a great time to reassess how we all want to participate and how we can do this in a healthier way,” she says.