“Can I be honest with you?” asks Thao Nguyen, sitting on a curb in Charleston, S.C., where her band, Thao with the Get Down Stay Down, will open for Rilo Kiley tonight. “I hate those girls, because they’re setting us back in ‘the movement’ hardcore. I do not appreciate anyone who uses their guitar as an ornament.”
Nguyen’s not one of them: Technical but not showy, melodic and sweet yet not overly saccharine, Nguyen deflates any notion that a female lead singer can’t also be the star of the strings. The Virginia native’s been chiseling her playful style since her preteen years, and, on her sophomore effort, We Brave Bee Stings and All, she presents songs devoid of pretension and struggle, delivering instead a kind of calm joy and a faithful recreation of how it feels to sit at the little kids table once again.
IMITATION: I don’t do it. I don’t think it’s good karma. I don’t think it’s good for personal enhancement or cultivation. And I don’t do covers, not since I worked at this sandwich flat called Potbelly’s on the East Coast where you would climb up into a loft and play covers only for three hours. You got 20 bucks an hour and you got free lunch. But it totally sucked. It was so bad for morale. But those who I have such admiration and respect for as musicians, I don’t even want to try. Not that other people can’t. It just doesn’t make sense for me.
INDEPENDENCE: I’ve never really celebrated the Fourth of July. But I don’t really celebrate things in general because I feel it’s too much pressure, and I never know how to make it as good as people expect it to be. And also, it’s always very hot, and I have a very short attention span so I can’t watch fireworks. And for that matter, I can’t watch movies or read novels, which is becoming a problem. I’ve only really been into issues of National Geographic and short stories lately.
I have always had an incredible appreciation towards my independent label [Kill Rock Stars]. I don’t have to get dressed up or get a boob job. The label president and I joke around because I often say that I have found a “Buy One, Get One Free” coupon. If he puts down money for the first boob, we’ll get the second one, too.
INNOCENCE: People have asked me about my lyric writing and how it resonates with a sense of childhood, and I agree to an extent. Only because I think the way children speak and formulate thoughts is so incredible. So I actually end up stealing from babies because I’m really into the obtuseness of their language yet how it’s really direct, and how they have to describe things in a different way. And somehow we have all lost that as we’ve gotten older.
ILLINOIS: Our rental van, the one we have right now, has Illinois plates. We are huge fans of Chicago, except that every time we go there, some kind of revenge is enacted upon us. The first time, we had my mom’s minivan, and it was hit in the night by a drunk driver. Totaled! And we had to get to San Francisco in like 30 hours. The second time, they stole Adam’s bass.
Also, the silent ‘s’? That’s fine, I guess, I just don’t think it’s practical. I mean, if you’re going to put it there, why don’t you use it? That’s what kills me. The same could be said for my name though. I guess I am sort of a hypocrite, but I didn’t decide that, and I don’t have enough time to get it changed. More phonetic honesty, you know.
INSPIRATION: You know what I think is inspirational? People who play music that have no interest in other people listening to it. And I often wish I could be one of those people. But I’m not. A friend of mine who’s in a very successful band, he told me once over breakfast that he thinks anyone involved in music or show business craved attention when they were young, and this is the way they are seeking it. …
It’s a shame but the worst things are the most inspirational for me [in my songwriting]. I write the best when something bad is happening. But also, when those things happen, you’re inspired to forget, so you go out and have way too many beers.
Thao with the Get Down Stay Down plays Local 506 Friday, June 20, with The Love Language. The 10 p.m. show costs $8.