Thao Nguyen was thinking maybe she was ready to move on. Struggling with whether or not 15 years of touring was finally enough, she accepted an invitation to perform in Vietnam at a celebration marking 20 years of normalized relations between Vietnam and the United States. Nguyen invited her mother to join for what would be her first return trip since fleeing Vietnam as a war refugee in 1973. Transformational for both, Nguyen rendered the experience into her powerful new release, the dramatically impassioned Temple.
The record opens with the title track written in her mother’s voice, this portrait of war and regeneration closes with the lines, “But we found freedom what will you do now; Bury the burden baby make us proud.” This liberating moment sets the tone for the record. Nguyen explains, “I wanted to start the album in her voice, to bless my pursuit of my own happiness. In the song ‘Temple,’ my mom is telling me to let go of our compiled pain, and live.”
Her happiness is hard-fought as Thao must do exactly that – let go of once persistent pain caused by not feeling able to live out in the open as her true self, on account of the sometimes deadly risk of growing up gay in more culturally restrictive settings. Now it’s her time to show off a genuine version of herself instead of one built by outside interpretation as she was wont to do. “This record is about me finally being specific. If you listen to my music, I want you to know who you are dealing with,” she says.
This determination for authenticity permits Temple to be the album she always wanted, one born of her complete control. Co-producing with bandmate Adam Thompson assured its fate as such, the two styling first the underlying grooves, then working the lyrics on top from there. A sonic gem, Temple feels full and progressive. Next-level Rock n’ Roll rounded out by pop edges and infectious beats, the sound brought fully to form with the help of sound engineer Mikaelin “Blue” Bluespruce (Solange, Carly Rae Jepsen, Mariah Carey). The end result, according to Nguyen allowed, “more fidelity, more upfront beat and groove-heavy mixes that are filled out and immersive, that really widened the register of the song. High highs, low lows, lush tones.”
Love and acceptance spread throughout the content, “Pure Cinema” is a loving ode to a touring family, “Mauraders” and “Marrow" are open tributes to what is shared between Nguyen and her now wife, with “How Could I” expressing grief for a beloved, declining grandmother. Then there’s the intensely confrontational and dystopian “Phenom,” a song she describes as a continuation of A Man Alive’s "Meticulous Bird.” Ultimately, “This album is about me wanting to have a life with someone, and to do that I needed to be my full self at all times, in all places. I knew I had to go there, where if I had to, I would give up some of my family in order to have my own,” remarks Nguyen.
It’s undoubtedly difficult to sit on new work without venues in which to share it with an audience, but Thao & The Get Down Stay Down are not without radio attention, finding spins at KUTX, WDST, KSLU, WTMD, and many, many more.
Photo by Shane McCauley