Thao Nguyen is awesome. That’s really the best way I can think of to begin this piece. Unlike a lot of the songwriters I often feature here, Nguyen doesn’t have a decades-long body of work behind her, no loud trail of evidence which the majority of music fans have encountered in some form or another. She’s all of 24 years old (or thereabouts), started releasing records in 2005 (her new one, Know Better Learn Faster came out this month) and though she’s been playing guitar for most of her life, she’s basically in the early years of her career.
Nguyen’s free-spirited and confident stage manner, her deft guitar playing, her cool band (The Get Down Stay Down), and cute-indie-girl look all likely play a part in her growing popularity, but the real secret weapon she wields is her disarmingly unique vocal style — her voice and melodies are some of the freshest things you’re likely to hear this year.
In my opinion, Thao Nguyen has significant cross-generational appeal. Young folks of course are already taking to her music, but I also recommend her stuff to any Boomer or Gen X’er who is interested in finding a Millennial songwriter to really dig into. Seriously — the artist that Thao Nguyen most reminds me of is Laura Nyro. Not so much on the direct musical/lyrical tip, but I do get a Nyro-like vibe from Nguyen in the intangibles — the raw sincerity, confident singularity, and pure physical force of the work.
What was the first song you fell in love with, and what is your current relationship to the piece?
It was Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me”. I love it still, I think it is perfect. We covered it last year, in tribute.
Who is your favorite “unsung” artist or songwriter, someone who you feel never gets their due? Talk a little bit about him/her.
Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies — her voice and delivery are so moving — she has incredible warmth and richness and sadness in her tone, and at the same time a subtlety that is just as devastating.
Is there an artist, genre, author, filmmaker, etc. who/which has had a significant impact/influence on you, but that influence can’t be directly heard in your music?
Grace Paley — my favorite short story write — my college roommate introduced me. My love and admiration for Paley’s work has endlessly guided and motivated me in my lyric writing. She doesn’t do anything unless its necessary. And I named my touring company and a song after her story Goodbye and Good Luck.
Do you view songwriting as a calling, a gig, a hobby, other…?
I view songwriting as the thing I need and take for granted the most.
Name one contemporary song that encourages you about the future of songwriting/pop music.
The Avett Brothers’ “Will You Return”.
Check out the video below of Thao Nguyen with The Get Down Stay Down’s 2008 song “Bag of Hammers” to get a vibe, and visit thaomusic.com for information on their new album, Know Better Learn Faster, as well as lyrics and more.