Growing up in Falls Church, Virginia, a city so small it makes nearby Arlington look cosmopolitan, you pick up inspiration where you can. And so it was that Thao Nguyen gleaned some serious life lessons from her childhood pet chicken, Jennifer. "She was so smart," she says. "Very gentle and strong-willed—very independent. And I look for that in anyone I'm close to. I don't like for anything to depend on me too heavily."
When she was 12, Nguyen took that lesson in self-sufficiency to heart and decided to teach herself to play the guitar, practicing at her mother's Laundromat between making change for customers and folding laundry. A decade later, she signed to indie powerhouse Kill Rock Stars and formed her eponymous project, Thao With The Get Down Stay Down. On their latest, Know Better Learn Faster, she dispenses an incredible amount of truth and wisdom and walloping wit beyond her 27 years as she unwinds hard-learned lessons about love, sex and human relationships. It's not all gloom and doom, though: As Nguyen acknowledges on the record, "Sad people dance, too," so her clever, self-deprecating lyrics are set in warm, elaborate instrumentals and irresistibly charming and upbeat melodies.
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But she didn't always know music would turn into a career. Before the band took off, Nguyen was headed toward women's advocacy. In college, she worked with domestic-violence and advocacy groups while pursuing a sociology degree. "There are some things that resonate very deeply with me: seeing people treated unequally, various injustices around the world," she says. And although Nguyen ultimately pursued music, she made a commitment to herself to always stay involved in social work.
Nguyen's love of helping others came back in a big way when she linked up with her musician friend Mirah, a staple of the Pacific Northwest indie-rock scene since the late '90s. "I'd always been a fan of her music," Nguyen says. "I think she's an amazing songwriter. And the fact that we were friends—we were able to hang out, work on a project together—is just good fortune." Two of the more distinctive and accomplished voices in the overlapping Kill Rock Stars/K Records families, Nguyen and Mirah turned out to be fantastically complementary collaborators, and what began as a single set together at last year's Noise Pop Festival in San Francisco blossomed into a tight musical relationship and a record, aptly titled Thao & Mirah, out last month on Kill Rock Stars.
The work with Mirah has allowed Nguyen to incorporate activism into her music, using the success of their recent collaboration as a platform to speak out against domestic violence and sexual abuse. They also donate a portion of their ticket sales to local nonprofits that work with survivors of such assaults. "There's a lot of darkness out there that we could dwell on, but there's also a lot of amazing people doing lots of amazing work. You have to be optimistic if you want to keep going," she says. "I think if people make sure they're doing what they need to do to take care of themselves and be happy, then the rest will come."
This article appeared in print as "'Sad People Dance, Too': Thao & Mirah fight the darkness with the amazing."