Interview: Thao Nguyen shares her musical journey

We interviewed indie musician Thao Nguyen as part of our 2021 Substack On! Conference. Thao started writing For the Record, a newsletter about her journey of creating her 7th album, where she gives subscribers and chance to read, hear, and watch how her work unfolds, in real time. She is interviewed by Dan Stone, who's on the partnerships team at Substack.

Dan: I’m wondering if we might go back to the beginning when you first started as a musician. What led you to picking up the guitar?

Thao: I grew up in Falls Church, Virginia, and I was a huge music fan. From early on, I just was really taken with songwriting. I remember being very young and paying attention to lyrics and melody. I would listen to the oldies station Oldies 100 on WBIG, and I have an older brother who listened to the Fat Boys and Digital Underground. It was a really perfect blend. 

I picked up the guitar around 11 or 12, and I just started teaching myself chords and then fingerpicking. Guitar was the one instrument that I had access to – there was one around the house that my dad had played. I remember him playing only once actually, but I remember being very taken by it.

My mom ran a laundromat, so I had to work there all the time. My job was the wash, dry, and fold service. In between making change at the counter and folding strangers' clothes, I would play guitar and work on my writing. 

From there, how did you start playing gigs and later commit yourself to being a musician professionally? 

I think my first true live show was an eighth grade English project for Lord of the Flies. I wrote a song and performed it for the class. I remember it was in A minor and very moody, with really emphatic strumming. In high school, I started playing open mic nights. When I got my driver's license, my mom would let me play at events throughout Virginia, Maryland, and DC. 

By the time I was a sophomore in college, I'd begun pursuing gigs more seriously. I was a huge fan of the songwriter Laura Hughes, who is now a friend of mine, and sent her an email asking to open for her when she came through Virginia. Her manager at the time was Slim Moon, one of the founders of Kill Rock Stars, and he heard a demo that I had sent. He said, "We're not going through Virginia anytime soon," but he requested that I contribute a song to a songwriter compilation.

So that was the beginning. As soon as I graduated college, I had this tour scheduled with Kill Rock Stars. I knew I would give this all I had until some external force told me otherwise.

This past year has been difficult for musicians, many of whom rely on touring. What kinds of challenges have there been this year?

It's been a remarkable year for so many reasons, of course. I think this year showed many touring musicians the complacency we stumbled into regarding the music marketplace. How we're paid for our work has changed over the years: nobody buys music anymore, and so we have been incredibly reliant upon touring. 

It takes a lot of determination and a different kind of verve to say, "I will not be on this streaming service. I will not do all of the things that everybody's doing, and I will just assume that risk of not letting my music be heard and available everywhere it can be." So everyone's touring all the time, because that's the only way you can make music and the only stable source of income. It's such a tough way of life in so many ways.

It takes a lot of determination and a different kind of verve to say, "I will not be on this streaming service. I will not do all of the things that everybody's doing.”

Because those tides were so strong, it has been hard. It's been shocking and devastating to so many of us. Everyone's scrambling – there are so many musicians that for the time being can't make a livelihood. It's just tough to know that we fell into that hole, because all of the momentum was leading us to this place of, "If we can't tour, what are we going to do?"

It has sort of forced musicians to find new ways to connect with their audiences. I've seen you do really interesting things this year, like an online show where you basically live scored a drawing class for kids.

I think when you are touring and promoting records and getting into that grind, you lose sight of your love for music, and you also lose sight of the reason you get to do it – the connection to your fans. For all of the difficulties of live streaming, I am so grateful for the opportunity to actually pause and recalibrate, and reassess what's important. 

In the past few months, I've been lucky enough to pick up different scoring work or a live stream here or there. Everyone's getting quite creative and scrappy figuring out this patchwork, which is why I'm so grateful that Substack gives another opportunity to connect with fans who I otherwise would not see or be able to communicate with. 

I'm grateful that Substack gives another opportunity to connect with fans who I otherwise would not see or be able to communicate with.

With Substack, I want to bring people along on the journey of whatever leads me toward this next thing that I will be putting on record. I named it For the Record, because it is. It's an interesting time in my career where I feel lighter and more free than I ever have, and I want to present this on my own terms to people who are receptive and willing to join me, to see where I'm headed next.

When you're in the process of making a record, everything can be used. It's such a meandering journey. You need life experience. You need things to happen. You need to figure out what is so important for you to say that you can't not say it. With my last record, it was a trip to Vietnam with my mom. I brought her on tour with me, and I had no idea the emotional heft and impact that it would have. This will be my seventh full length album, and I'm excited to share how I get there. 

I think there's something so courageous, intimate, and vulnerable about revealing the inner workings of the creative process with your Substack. Is it scary to offer that kind of public access to your personal journey?

It's scary. It's like this pebble that I've kind of glossed over because if I really thought about it, I probably would not do it. Just earlier today, as I was doing the dishes, I said, "What am I doing?" I have never offered any glimpse into an early demo of a song. It's terrifying to me.

What is compelling me to do it is finding a different level of communication and sincerity and communion, which is something that I've always been interested in. I feel that one of the things I've loved about songwriting and performing live is an emotional connection and the sharing of joy and grief and gratitude. It's a form of gathering, and we can't have that for a long time. I feel that offering this side of myself is a different way to connect, and it gets after that same level of vulnerability that I appreciate in other people and aspire to have.

I think there's going to be so much that people from all backgrounds will really enjoy. What are some examples of what readers should expect from your publication?

There's going to be writing from me – I write a lot of short stories and personal essays and poetry to pilfer for lyrics. On the last couple of records, I've been producing a lot more of the beats that end up as the beds of songs. I've also been doing video art. Everything is grist for the mill, and everything that I've done in the past will be available. 

I have a lot of friends who do really different work, but we all orbit in the world of arts and entertainment. There'll be conversations with artists about how they push through, what inspires them, and what keeps their minds healthy as they work. In 2019, I was a guest artist on Song Exploder, so that gave me so much insight into asking about how people work.

I love having conversations about the struggle, and the triumph, and the glory of creation.

I love having conversations about the struggle, and the triumph, and the glory of creation. It’s about making sure it's clear that the process totally sucks and is so hard. It can take years in between albums. The process is so deeply harrowing that if I didn't know what other people went through, I would have given up. I love learning about the challenges endured and the really potent levels of self-doubt. I need to hear all of that so that I know that I can proceed as well. Everybody gets through it, and I think I want to be part of that conversation because I find it so helpful myself.