Falls Church native Thao Nguyen is poised to break through.
The singer and songwriter's last album with her combustible pop trio, the Get Down Stay Down, was the best-selling album for the respected Kill Rock Stars label last year and was heralded by writers at both The Wall Street Journal and Spin magazine.
Her recent release, “Know Better Learn Faster,” a playful, more lyrically mature album about her recent breakup, is racking up rave reviews. It was produced in Portland, Ore., by Tucker Martine of Spoon and the Decemberists and features guest spots by Andrew Bird, Laura Veirs and Steve Berlin of Los Lobos.
“When we recorded the first record, we'd only been a band two months and were not fully formed,” Nguyen, 25, says. “With two years of consistent touring, I think we're a lot more comfortable. It's evolved into something more high energy and I wanted that intensity better conveyed on this record.”
So are the personal songs hard to perform every night?
“I've formed a healthy detachment from them. Your priorities with them change,” she explains. “Our job now is just to put on a good live show.”
Nguyen majored in sociology and women's studies at the College of William and Mary and says living there helped develop her interest in country-blues picking, which can be heard anchoring her sleek pop hooks. Willis Thompson, who also performs with local songwriter Liza Kate, backs her on drums. She and Thompson met their bassist, Adam Thompson of the OK Bird, at Harrison Street Coffee Shop in Richmond.
She now lives in San Francisco, supporting Oxfam and tutoring kids as part of writer Dave Eggers' 826 Valencia program. When Thao and the Get Down Stay Down aren't on the road with the likes of Rilo Kiley or the Avett Brothers — whom they supported last summer at the National — they are headlining a tour like this, bringing old friends and Richmonders David Shultz and the Skyline along.
“I'm not a huge fan of touring because I think it's an unsustainable lifestyle, but people show up and they know the words,” she says. “They sing with me, we make eye contact, and it sounds clichAc but it's a connection that transcends everyday interaction. Kind of spiritual. That's the most extraordinary product of what we've been doing.”
The Virginian's breathy twang has often been compared to Chan Marshall of Cat Power (“I think we're only now getting out from under her shadow”), but she doesn't understand the Southern artist tag. “I wish I was from real Virginia (laughs). Northern Virginia is a whole another bubble,” she says. “Falls Church is one big strip mall, in my opinion. I don't go home much. I only stop in to say ‘hi' to my mom.” S
Thao with the Get Down Stay Down performs with the Portland Cello Project and David Shultz and the Skyline at the Canal Club downstairs Saturday, Nov. 7. Show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are $13. For information call 643-2582.