Best of 2008: Thao Nguyen

enchantingIt wasn't the best edition of Secret Santa, was it?

Thao Nguyen's "We Brave Bee Stings and All" was the first album that I knew would end up on my year-end Top 10 list. Since its January release I've kept coming back to the Falls Church, Va. native's record full of bouncy indie-folk tunes, sing-songy vocals and anxious lyrics. It was a busy year for Nguyen and the Get Down Stay Down. She estimates she played around 250 shows. I caught up with her on a rare day of rest, when she called early in the morning (for her) from San Francisco.

Would you say that 2008 was a breakout year for you?
I would say it was busy. I would say most of it was spent in a van. That's pretty much the only perspective that I got. It was definitely exciting for us to step into a phase where we could commit to playing music and make it our living, trying to. It was a transition into more of a possibility of that happening.

You played on some pretty diverse tours this year, from Xiu Xiu to the Hotel Cafe Tour. Was it weird playing for such different audiences all the time?
It was, yeah. This year was definitely an eclectic mix. We did that Rilo Kiley tour, too. It was very interesting, a challenge. Definitely the Xiu Xiu tour was the biggest challenge to engage their audience in our sound, which is a lot different. A goal is to always try to appeal to people and it was definitely ... (laughs) interesting to see whether or not that worked. But people were receptive and kind and hospitable to us. It was interesting. It is the best to play to your crowd though, because it's better for morale.

I guess you have to do those opening slots and package tours to make it your crowd.
Definitely. I acknowledge the due paying. When those tours were booked, how it works is basically wherever you were four months ago is what that will reflect. So we were totally grateful to just be on the road. Because with Xiu Xiu, our record had barely come out and if we were trying to headline our own tour it would have a level of venues with very few audience members. Towards the end of this year we did our first headlining tour and so we could tell it had definitely benefited us to open for these other bands.

The record obviously has a much fuller sound than your first one. Are you happy with how it turned out with the full band?
Oh yeah. I was incredibly pleased. These songs and the approach I was taking to playing music, it was definitely geared to the full band and this collaborative energy. I don't really have the ... well, I wouldn't say I wouldn't do another solo record but my interest in music making doesn't lie there anymore. I'm totally into the band sound and our live show is just much more fun to play with other people.

The songs are upbeat almost a little jaunty, but the lyrics are full of loss and uncertainty. Is that intentional?
I think it's intentional in that that combination is what appeals to me the most, as a listener. I love Motown and '60s pop and folk and rock, so I'm really into catchy sounding stuff but as a writer I'm more attracted to the melancholic undertones. So yeah, the only reason that happens is because those are my two favorite things and I like to try to pair them.

(More after the jump.)

Let's talk about your singing style. That was the first thing that grabbed me, the way you go up and down and don't like to stay on the same note too long. It sounds fun.
(Laughs.) I think it might be fun and also maybe I just can't hold a note for that long. I'm the first one to acknowledge my vocal limitations and I think that I would never consider myself a vocalist. That's just how it happens. I'm just working within my bounds and I think I'm pretty familiar by now with what I'm capable and not capable of and I don't want to force it. But I do like changes in cadence, it's more interesting to sing and I think it serves the melody better. Or the melodies that I write are better served by my style of singing.

So since you are a female who plays guitar and writes songs, it is a rule that you must be compared to others who do the same. How annoying is that by now?
(Laughs.) It only touches me when I do interviews, sometimes when I read stuff. I actually had to make a rule not to read anything anymore. But when people ask me how I feel about Cat Power ... I really don't feel anything. It's funny to be cited as being influenced by an artist you don't even know who they are or you are pretty certain you've not been influenced by them. You can't really do anything about it. I understand that with a new artist people need a point of reference but I don't necessarily agree with what they say. I should be glad that they don't liken it to Paris Hilton or someone awful. I've heard a couple people say that I sound like a young boy. Or a teenage boy. And I would rather that, actually, than a lot of the other things I hear bandied about.

On the same note, you played the Hotel Cafe tour which was a very "female singer-songwriter" thing. Did you feel that you'd be pigeonholed if you did that?
I had considered it. I started to view it more as just being able to play my music for people who probably otherwise would not have come across it. And so that was more decisive than my misgivings about it. But yeah, it is kind of tough to enter into that situation knowing the stigma that people have and the preconceived notions of what women who write songs and sing them will sound like. And I guess at that point you just have to convince them otherwise. And that was pretty much it. And if they came to a live show I would hope it wouldn't fall into that category of whatever this idea had become, that I think is totally not justified. For anyone.

Do you feel any sort of connection to D.C. scene?
It's always good to go home. My family's there. The support is always fantastic. It's funny because I left D.C. and went to school and that's when I really started playing so I don't know how involved I really was in the D.C. scene. But we've always been treated very kindly as though it were a proper homecoming. So yeah, you know, I like to go home, maybe go to Target.

A famous D.C. institution.
(Laughs.) I've been searching the world over and in all my travels I have not seen one Target! Except for the one by my mom's house.

By David Malitz |  December 24, 2008; 2:37 PM ET Interviews , Year-End Lists
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