Last February, just minutes after taking off her jewelry, handing over her Social Security number, and removing her bra, Thao Nguyen found the inspiration for her new album, We the Common.
The setting was Valley State Prison for Women, an institution that Nguyen visits four or five times per year as part of her work with the nonprofit California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Gaining entry meant submitting to a background check, and forfeiting the right to wear bright colors and — for fear of an underwire being weaponized — certain undergarments. Her muse was Valerie Bolden, an inmate to whom the album's title track is dedicated. Bolden, who is serving a life sentence, spoke to Nguyen about the two daughters she hadn't seen in 12 years, and about her fear of dying while incarcerated. Nguyen remembers a visit characterized as much by its moments of poignancy as by its "insane" power dynamics.
"I couldn't shake this conversation ... the sadness of it and the humanity of it," she says. "It's a really bizarre setting to be in. There's a lot of stark contrast in that — to know that she was sentenced to life, and that I would go, and she would stay."
When Nguyen and her band, The Get Down Stay Down, headline San Francisco's Noise Pop festival this weekend, social justice will figure prominently into their performance. In addition to its title track, the album is devoted to Bolden and her fellow prisoners. The anthem "City" was written as a reaction to the Occupy Oakland movement, and much of the album's lyrical content is nakedly political. Although explorations of gender, power, and idealism are not new stylistic territory for Nguyen, We the Common represents the band's tidiest marriage of these themes to hooky buoyancy. It is at once celebratory and incisive, wide-eyed but also pragmatic.
"The idea of revival and redemption and taking care of each other and being better is throughout," she said. "[The album] is definitely inspired by the people I've been working with."
As far as titles go, We the Common is both appropriate and perhaps a little too humble for the 28-year-old songwriter. Sure, there's Nguyen's modest musical history: picking up a guitar at age 12 because she was "so lonely in the suburbs"; driving her mom's car from one D.C./Virginia open mic night to another throughout her teens; touring exhaustively as soon she finished college.
But there's also a shrewdness pulsing throughout the record — an impression that each whimsical turn of phrase and soaring chorus was subjected to a vigorous polishing before being released for scrutiny. How else could a song like "Holy Roller," in which Nguyen blends mind-twisting lines like "I've been looking for the end of want/ I don't want it but I need it" with unflinchingly optimistic ones like "I want love in the aftermath" come about? How else could "Kindness Be Conceived," a chipper two-step featuring Joanna Newsom, be so succinct and heartbreaking at the same time?
Add to that the fact that Nguyen, despite doing her best to defray attention from herself (at a performance earlier this month, she talked more passionately about San Francisco's parking ticket policies than about her album or tour), has lately become a commodity. Ask, for example, how she and Glee's Dianna Agron got together to raise money for Oxfam America, and she'll talk about "really fortunate friendships that lead to projects." Ask specifics about recording We the Common, and she'll inadvertently shorten the name of celebrated San Francisco producer John Vanderslice to "J.V." Inquire about her time soundtracking the WNYC show Radiolab's live tour, and she'll patiently explain that she met the Radiolab people through her friend Ira Glass. How, perchance, did she befriend Ira Glass? Why, through Dave Eggers, of course. Such modesty might come off as sanctimonious were it not for the likelihood that these personalities were the ones who sought out Nguyen's attention, not vice versa. Such is the magnetism of Thao.
For these reasons, it's perhaps no surprise that Nguyen doesn't have much to say about a pretty impressive list of upcoming tour dates — stops at places like the Bowery Ballroom in New York, Chicago's Lincoln Hall, and of course the (now sold-out) Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.
Ask about the next visit to a women's prison, however, and she's all yours. Her most vivid memory from the last time was of an old vending machine that suddenly, inexplicably, began to feature fresh oranges.
"Some women hadn't seen or had an orange in like 12 or 13 years," she says. "The last visit was near Christmas, and they said, 'This is like Christmas, to be able to eat this orange.' Things like that never leave you. It's pretty impactful."
Something sweet, delivered unexpectedly and with mechanical precision, amid dreary uncertainty? Nguyen — having just released her bounciest, most pointed, and most unabashedly earnest interrogation of doubt and love and pain and fear yet — could fill volumes.