Posted May 13th, 2009 (10:38 am) by Matt Midgley

A few days ago, singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen sat down with us for a chat about her upcoming album, touring, and Jay-Z's influence on her music.

IYS: We Brave Bee Stings and All was released over a year ago to basically unanimously positive reviews.

Thao Nguyen: I’m so grateful for that. I’m sure there are negative reviews out there though.

IYS: Well, it’s cool to hate.

Thao: Yeah, totally. [Laughter] God, I wish people were more uncool.

I think we were quite fortunate with how warm the reception was.

IYS: So the “splash”, if you will, of the album was significantly more than that of your previous album [2005’s Like the Linen], which was self-released, right?

Thao: Yeah, well only my mom knows that one. It was essentially self-released. It was released on a small label in Virginia. It was their first release, I think. Maybe the last as well. No, they released two albums -- one of which was ours -- then it sort of self-destructed shortly thereafter.

IYS: Well, with having what was essentially your debut recieved so well -- Has the last year been significantly different for you as a result?

Thao: It was really different. When Like Linen was released, I was still in school, and it wasn’t my main focus at the time. I mean, my main focus was to graduate -- because if I didn’t my mom would have been angry...

So with the release of this record, it was a lot more real than I had intended, or that I had any concept of. I knew that I wanted to play music for a living; I didn’t quite know what that meant at all. This year has been pretty educational. [Laughter]

Sometimes I have this imagery of a blow torch that’s trained on me, or on something, and whatever remains is what’s left at the end of the year. What’s left of you. Not to be dramatic or anything, I just mean that we are a very young band still -- we’ve been together maybe three years -- and we just didn’t know what we were in for. I didn’t know. I didn’t know what I was doing when I was recording the record, I didn’t know what I was doing after... I barely have an idea now.

It’s just... I liken it to a shotgun wedding. Here we are.

IYS: Well, that’s pretty lucky then -- most shotgun weddings don’t last.

Thao: Yeah, certainly. Well, we’ll see how long we can go. It’s definitely very revealing; You see the underbelly of it.

IYS: Well you’re out on tour now -- can we expect any new material in your set?

Thao: Yeah, for sure. We’re pretty much done with our new record. It’ll be out in October. There are a few songs from it that we’ll be playing, but we try not to play too much new stuff to keep from alienating the crowd. We like it when the audience is familiar with the songs.

IYS: So will we get to see you out on tour supporting that record again this Fall?

Thao: Certainly. Almost no break. Well, this summer we have it pretty light, to be honest. If we don’t, I’m going to make it that way. You’ve gotta take some time out for your sanity. [Laughter] It’s been a long year.

So the record is basically done. We have about another week of fine-tuning and recording in July, and then we’ll tour another few weeks ‘bare-knuckles’. I hope for a bit more of a sane schedule than last year though. I know that we’ll do a Fall tour, and then Spring and Summer again. We’ll take the holidays off.

IYS: Does this October release have a name yet?

Thao: There’s a tentative one. I can’t share it... only because I don’t make up my mind well. So, the day that they need it -- definitely-- for it to go to print, that’s the day when I’ll decide.

IYS: Bee Stings had an upbeat, almost jangly pop sound, juxtaposed with darker, more serious lyrical themes. Does that sort of contradictory pairing continue into this new album?

Thao: Funny you should ask that. I think this record, while I did not intend it to be so, ended up being a lot more emotional. I think it is our most intense effort to date.

There are some songs that are written that... Well, let’s be real, it’s primarily a reaction to the end of a relationship. So a lot of it is what you might call the chronology of the end of a relationship. There are some songs on it that I wasn’t able to... I just wasn’t into the juxtaposition anymore. When it feels shitty, it is shitty, and I was terribly sad, and some of the songs are really terribly sad.

Not to say that that contradiction isn’t there at all, because I’m still interested in that as a songwriter, it’s just that some of them -- there was no way around it. You just let it punch you, you know?

So in those cases, the lyrics are much more straightforward, as I felt that was the best thing I could do to represent that.

IYS: So the sound is significantly different than Bee Stings?

Thao: Well, yes, but it is still much more energetic. Underneath it all, there’s this... Well, listen, I don’t know how candid you want me to be, but I was kinda crazy the whole time the writing was happening. We were off tour for one month, and during that one month break in which I had to write all these songs, unfortunately (or fortunately) it coincided with this thing. So I spent that month in this sort of crazed, weird frenzy. I was drunk all the time. It was.... [dryly] awesome. So there is this sort of resigned frenzy, this weird sort of maniacal resignation thing going on throughout the album.

So yeah, I think this album is a lot “bigger” sounding than the last.

IYS: Many bands and artists have a signature sound. Do you think you’ve found yours, are you still looking, or do you think that doesn’t apply to you?

Thao: I think whatever [the new album] was is whatever it was, you know? I don’t know. I think it would be pretty ambitious for me to say that any one album has a particular sound. I would say I deal with the compositions on a more song-by-song basis.

The most I can say with all honesty is that [this new album] is the most accurate a representation that I could have rendered at the time. [Laughter] ...of the ridiculousness. That’s all I have ever intended to do when I’ve been writing songs.

IYS: Your live shows are fun and energetic -- even moreso than the album -- Would you say that for you, playing a show is more about recreating your recorded music in a live setting, or would you say that the challenge is the other way around, in trying to capture that live sound in a studio?

Thao: You know, for this record, one of our intentions was to convey more of our live personality. When we recorded We Brave, we were barely a band. We were two months in, and I had no idea what I wanted or what I was doing -- I just wanted to get these songs down. And so, this [new album’s] sound is a lot more accurate to our live show feel. There’s that level of energy that we tried to convey.

And as far as our identity as a band, you know, I’m not sure what it is yet, but it isn’t how we sounded on We Brave. So with this new album, it’s really about representing where I was at the time, and to give a better representation of our live show. Those were the main priorities.

IYS: We Brave was recorded so shortly after your formation as a band. Do you feel like those songs have evolved at all over the course of playing them live for over a year now?

Thao: Definitely. I think that’s especially true about ‘Beat [(Health, Life and Fire)]’, which was my favourite on the record because I knew as we were recording it and as I listened to the finished product, I knew it was the direction the band was headed in. That kind of songwriting and that kind of drive. The engine of it was more what I wanted.

That’s actually the most fun song for me to play live, because there’s a lot of aggression that I get to release. [Laughter] You know, ‘Bag of Hammers’ is a lot of fun to play as well. Then ‘Violet’ has actually totally transformed in my mind. I don’t know what happened, but I think I’ve become more... I won’t say angry... but definitely more.... something. [Laughter] Something has changed in the way I am and the way I play live since those songs were written.

It’s the same with the band. In trying to forge that connection with the audience, we’ve found that the most effective way for us is to “bring it” as much as we can.

IYS: What’s in the tour bus CD player right now?

Thao: Right now? Jay-Z’s Black Album is what we’ve been listening to. [Laughter] I’ve been listening to The Clash’s London Calling a lot -- especially when I was writing the new record. Outkast, Stankonia. The Birds and 70s Elvis. Yeah. And a lot of Simon and Garfunkel.

IYS: Do you feel like any of that reaches into your writing on the upcoming album? Perhaps a bit of Black Album influence? [Laughter]

Thao: Well, actually, there’s one of the new songs, it’s called ‘Body’. I brought it to the guys and said, you know, when I play this, I hear the beat from ‘Big Pimpin’ [from Jay-Z’s Vol 3... Life and Times of S. Carter]. So it’s in there. All of these guys have certainly informed the music, and on our quest to hear the kind of things we want to hear, we’ve absorbed a lot of it. Again, that energy we were talking about -- that’s something from The Clash that I really wanted to capture.

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