When 23-year-old Thao Nguyen was a child, she boasted a talent that perhaps a fair percentage of her generation could claim as well — an almost limitless capacity to absorb television. But even for a child who can concentrate on the tube’s benign blather for nine hours at a stretch, there comes a point when enough really is enough.
For Nguyen, that point came around age 12, when the Virginia native decided that the bland entertainment value of television was no longer sufficient to stimulate her young mind, and she began searching her environment for something more active to take its place. That’s when learning guitar supplanted the allure of television programming.
“Loneliness is a big motivator and even I had my limits for passive recreation,” says Nguyen with a laugh, back home in Virginia after an uncharacteristic break spent in Mexico. “It was the only thing lying around the house and I had loads of time. It surprisingly kept my attention … I think I’ve always had a pretty low attention span.”
As it turned out, Nguyen had an even greater capacity for guitar than she had for television. She began soaking up the influences of her surroundings and crafting her own songs from the broad palette of her inspirations.
“When I first started I was and still am a huge fan of the Country Blues,” says Nguyen. “That incredibly dexterous style of picking was always awe-inspiring and I tried my best to emulate that, with moderate success. And that Appalachian, oldtime picking style. I’ve always liked guitar that was intricate but also progressed the song. I’m not so interested in stopping the song for a guitar solo, which is a lot of what guitar-laden Rock is.”
By the time Nguyen hit high school, she had advanced to the point that she was playing various open mic nights. The experience also opened her eyes to the kind of backhanded sexism that unfortunately still permeates the music scene to this day.
“When you’re just starting and people notice or start asking questions about it, it was a disservice to me that I was a girl trying to play guitar,” says Nguyen. “There are inherent stereotypes and ideas and stigmas about women who play, and I think I sensed that really early on. So it was a preoccupation of mine that if I was going to play guitar that I would not need a qualifier, that I would be good, not just good for a girl. I don’t know how good that’s turned out but I have paid attention to my guitar parts for that reason.”
Nguyen was clearly paying attention to her songcraft as well. While in college, she recorded and released an EP, and her full-length debut, Like the Linen. Although she claims to have been less than aggressive in her self-promotion efforts, her love of singer/songwriter Laura Viers’ work led her to make a momentous connection with then-head of the Kill Rock Stars label, Slim Moon.
“I e-mailed Laura Viers’ Web site and asked to open for her,” says Nguyen. “I was kind of lazy and never really thought out gigs, but I was just starting college and didn’t have any plans to do this seriously. Slim was her manager and fielding e-mails at the Web site, so he heard Linen and got in touch a few months later.”
After opening a number of shows for Viers here and in Europe and scoring a track on the Kill Rock Stars 2006 The Sound the Hare Heard compilation, Moon became Nguyen’s manager. She signed with KRS and began planning her label debut. Released back in January, We Brave Bee Stings and All — credited to Thao and the Get Down Stay Down — is a combination of Nguyen’s darkly serious, highly personal yet obtusely universal lyrics and sprightly melodies in an Indie Pop mash-up that exhibits the naive verve of Jonathan Richman and the propulsive artiness of early Talking Heads and The Cure.
“Bee Stings is definitely more of a collaborative band effort and I wrote most of the songs with the band in mind,” says Nguyen. “I would hope that the songs are better songs and the lyrics are better lyrics. I wrote a lot of Linen and the EP in my latter years in high school and they’re very young sounding songs. Bee Stings is a lot bigger sound and there’s a lot more energy there.”
Nguyen and the band wrapped up the Bee Stings sessions late last year but they’ve been so heavily scheduled on the road since then that there’s been scant time left for her to work on new material. And she’s feeling the pressure of working on new songs as she and the band are scheduled to hit the studio again after the first of the year to start work on a new album.
“I have one new song and a few more maybe,” says Nguyen with a laugh. “I’m in the thick of it right now but it’s hard to get in the right space about it. I’m hoping it’s sort of like a college term paper where you just use the time that you have and even if you had more time, you wouldn’t use it.”
THAO NGUYEN plays the Hotel Café Tour stop at Bogart’s Monday with Rachael Yamagata, Meiko, Jaymay and Alice Russell. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.