ON A RECENT Saturday afternoon, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down came to town to perform an in-store at Jackpot Records. People packed in close for an opportunity to hear a handful of songs from the band's new release, We the Common. The album has a thunderous and celebratory undercurrent, and while the band's folk-rock roots are maintained, Common bursts with volume. Thao Nguyen and producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, the Walkmen) sought an edgy, feisty sound. "Our aim was to capture the energy we have live. That restlessness and vitality is one of our strengths," Nguyen says. "I wanted it to sound dirty, to sound fucked up."
We the Common is Thao and the Get Down Stay Down's first record release since 2009's Know Better Learn Faster. During Nguyen's "time off," she has toured with Mirah, the Portland Cello Project, and Radiolab Live. Recently, she made San Francisco her home, and delved into a community partnership with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Her efforts to facilitate self-empowerment groups greatly informed the new album and contributed a burning, collective energy to her work.
"The most influential element of my time off was working with amazing activists and talking with so many women inside who were incredibly inspiring, resilient, and strong," Nguyen says. "The humanity of it all; being a person and being there for people, it worked something up. This record is about trying to harness energy and gaining perspective on how to be better in the world."
With track titles like "The Feeling Kind" and "Human Heart," it is immediately apparent that the album is both inspired by and dedicated to embracing common human decency and connection. I found myself chanting along with the song "City," which begins with a heavy guitar riff and a sassy howl before giving way to booming drums. Nguyen says of the song, "The ideas of redemption and revival and being a participant in your own life had a lot of teeth. I wanted something we could all share, and sort of declare and devote ourselves to ourselves."
"Kindness Be Conceived" is a collaboration with songwriter Joanna Newsom. The two artists met at a women's musician retreat at Hedgebrook, a farm on Whidbey Island close to Seattle. Nguyen had written the song with a harmony in mind, and was thrilled when Newsom agreed to sing. "I was curious to hear what Joanna would sound like; we recorded the demo there. It sounded so awesome, I asked her right then to be on the record. Luckily she said yes. I was expecting a very gracious decline," says Nguyen.
Taking a break from constant touring has proved to be creatively valuable, as We the Common illustrates, but Nguyen confesses she is excited to get back on the road. "My favorite part is performing for people," she says. "Everything else you do because you have to. The traveling, all of your relationships crumbling, those come along with the territory, but the feeling of playing for kind and energetic people is what keeps us coming back."