When Thao Nguyen's parents split up, she picked up a guitar to deal with the frustration and turbulence. It came in handy when she had to do a book report. "One of the first songs I ever wrote was for an English project in eighth grade for Lord of the Flies. It was very intense, in a minor key—maybe the best thing I've ever written." This is unlikely, since her new album contains some of the most uplifting and enjoyable folk-pop this side of Island of the Blue Dolphins. But if the joyous energy contained on We Brave Bee Stings and All is uncomplicated, its sentiments and inspirations are not.
"We splash our eyes full of chemicals just so there's none left for little girls," Nguyen sings in "Swimming Pools," a tribute to sacrifices made by older generations. After her parents' split, she watched her single mother run a drycleaner and laundromat, a thankless job that required long hours and no days off. "I bend back with an eye full of mud and I take it on the chin, then I patch you up," she sings in "Feet Asleep," a ode to her mother's hard work, in which she assumes the voice of her mother and complains in a way that her mother never would. However, the song's ragtime groove virtually bursts with love and gratitude. She's mastered the time-tested songwriting trope of pairing a melancholy lyric with an upbeat tune, but it's rarely a deliberate trick.
"It's conscious as far as both those elements are what I really enjoy in music as a listener," she explains. "It's more fun as a writer and a performer to do upbeat music. But when I write, there's probably something bad going on, something not as cheerful."
While the songs may be personal, her backing band, the Get Down Stay Down, radiantly augments them. "Willis [Thompson] and I went to school together at William and Mary. For a while it was just us two playing around." Eventually the other members came on board, and their contributions to Bee Stings move effortlessly from soul to folk to jazzy shuffle. The band is wrapping up a long tour with pointy-headed labelmates Xiu Xiu, whose odd, confrontational music seems a strange pairing with Nguyen's laidback, welcoming charm. "It's a big contrast. We've certainly had Xiu Xiu fans who want us off the stage immediately. But there are people who are showing up to see us, which is awesome. We're glad to have this tour."
And the road continues, with dates stretching throughout the rest of the year, including a European tour, an upcoming appearance at the Sasquatch Festival, and an opening slot on Rilo Kiley's East Coast tour as well. For Nguyen's second Portland appearance in as many months, however, things will be relatively stripped down, returning to the original duo of Nguyen and Thompson. "It's cool, it gives us a little more room for each of us to be busier on our instruments. And you'll see how it was in college."