Thao Nguyen is into taking chances these days.
While the Falls Church native has always been applauded for her astute lyricism and sonic charm, her fourth studio album “A Man Alive” (Ribbon Music), produced by close friend Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards, finds her totally comfortable assuming the role of badass.
This is a career-defining collection of songs that harnesses primal ferocity and honesty while tackling everything from absent fathers to surviving sexual assault. It’s also an incredibly danceable album with game-changing breakbeats and funky bass lines.
Nguyen and company, including Richmond’s own Charlie Glenn of Trillions and Avers who played on the record, have been performing nonstop since a breakout week at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas.. Despite being tired and having voice problems before a Nashville show, Thao chatted with Style by phone where she reflected on early Richmond gigs, writing with brutal honesty and why we should always challenge ourselves to ask — Why not?
Style Weekly: Would you say you challenged yourself to get out of a comfort zone for “A Man Alive”?
Nguyen: Yes, but I would also add that this record is the embodiment of what I’ve wanted for a long time but wasn’t quite sure how to get there on a lot of levels, both songwritingwise and sonically. Confidence was one of the major factors. I didn’t spend a lot of time questioning myself this time. I wasn’t worried about this record because I knew we’d made the record I wanted to make. Songwritingwise, the level of directness and frankness with which I wrote was not something I was scared of or had reservations about.
I rode that wave as best I could.
A lot of people came out of South by Southwest this year saying you haven’t heard Thao until you’ve seen the band live. That seems especially true with this album. What’s been the best part of taking the songs out of the studio?
We were always excited about the potential of these songs live, so it’s nice to see that manifest and connect with the audience so strongly every night. There’s definitely a more powerful connection happening with this record given the vulnerable terrain. More emotion is being exchanged between us and the audience.
A standout track is the fierce “Meticulous Bird” which you dedicate to survivors of sexual violence at your shows. Is that song resonating with folks?
People do come up to me after the shows. It’s incredibly meaningful and has been one of the most gratifying parts of playing it. I feel like that removes any kind of pretense between a show goer and whoever just played. I’m grateful for that.
How do you feel about the deconstruction of very personal songs once they’re released into the wild?
I stay away from direct contact with interpretations [laughs]. I welcome people listening to the songs and connecting in whatever way and forming whatever thoughts they might have. The important part is that they’re willing to listen. If I didn’t want people to connect with them, I wouldn’t release them.
What makes a good songwriter?
One who speaks in their own voice, not to sound clichéd. A good lyricist has the ability to say something familiar in a different way. Also, being hooky doesn’t mean anything beside the song has a good hook and it’s catchy. I believe in going for hooks.
Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards is a close friend and produced this record. What did you take away from working with her?
She’s been such a big part of my musical life for years now. I’ve learned steadily through that. Her fearlessness taught me to say, ‘Why the fuck not?’ We took a lot of songs directly from demos, for example. Why not? You always think you shouldn’t. That kind of thing is really freeing. A lot that confidence that I harvested for this record came from Merrill whose opinion I value so much. Hearing her say, “Of course that’s good enough, why wouldn’t it be good enough?” meant a lot.
What haven’t you tried that you’d like to?
I want to get into making beats more. I was able to do that a little for this record in my own piecemeal ways. “Meticulous Bird” was so fun to do on many levels, to deliver lyrics influenced by hip-hop. I was rapping to an extent (laughs).
What would people be most surprised to know about Thao?
I can beat box and hum at the same time.
You are a native Virginian and spent a fair amount of time Richmond. What are your some of your fondest memories?
Black Sheep sandwiches! [laughs]. In a way, the band formed in Richmond. My bassist Adam and I met at Harrison Street Cafe. I would drive up there from William and Mary where I was going to school. Played a lot of open-mic nights there. I don’t even remember the last time I played in Virginia show, so I’m thrilled to be coming back home. S
Thao and the Get Down Stay Down plays the Broadberry on April 17 with Avers. Tickets $12-15. Doors open at 8 p.m. The show starts at 9. thebroadberry.com.