Coping with the backhanded compliments are just one pre-occupational hazard for musicians as they take stumbling baby steps toward the mighty kingdom of mad skills and Thao Nguyen, she of Thao with the Get Down Stay Down, is no exception.
"I used to sing even more off-key, if you can believe it," says the 24-year-old matter-of-factly. She’s hunkered down behind a cup of green tea, knuckle-length sweater sleeves shielding her fingers from the chill wafting in the door of a Haight District café. When Nguyen first slung on a guitar and began to find her voice as a Lilith Fairinspired teen, one of her uncles would respond to her performances by offering her a plate of food. "Which is terrible to do to a kid," Nguyen recalls with amusement. "He’d say, ‘Here, you’re moaning as if you’re very hungry. I brought you food so you would stop.’ Which is funny but also terribly demoralizing when you’re 15!"
"So all that to illustrate that I’ve never considered myself a vocalist," Nguyen continues, not feeling sorry for herself in the slightest. "I started singing because I started writing." The sensuous, alto rasp of Lucinda Williams and Nina Simone are her vocal models today. "But yeah, I’d never call myself a singer. A taxpayer, tax evader, maybe," she jokes, "but…"
Taxes are at the forefront of the songwriter’s noggin: she’s just back from Portland, Ore., where she and the Get Down Stay Downers Willis Thompson and Adam Thompson recorded the unvarnished beginnings of her followup to her 2008 Kill Rock Stars debut, We Brave Bee Stings and All, with that recording’s producer Tucker Martine (the Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens). Now she’s content to settle briefly into a Haight sublet, though amusing yarns about her tour adventures, sprinkled with charmingly self-effacing, witty asides, spill from the songwriter. With her hair spraying in spikes from a rough bun atop her head and a slender build beneath thin layers of knits, Nguyen is the poetic pal you’d happily rope into a larky day trip, an impromptu art project, or simply a mug of tea: smart (she successfully graduated from the College of William and Mary with a degree in Sociology and Women’s Studies in 2006, despite following her performing muse throughout with fellow student Willis), slightly distracted, and surprisingly grounded (women’s advocacy work is a passion; she’s worked at domestic violence shelters and yearns to volunteer at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls; and then there’s those taxes).
Bee Stings reflects its maker in its sprawling, multi-hued, shambling assemblage of tunes. Loose, lovable, and surprisingly hook-laden, this album sets Nguyen and her hungry-ghost wail in an inviting landscape resplendent with frisky banjo and jittery rhythms, rubbery moments of spare twang, slouching blues guitar, and a lazy horn section plucked from the swampy South. She describes her little-distributed first album, Like Linen (Trust Me Incorporation, 2005), as folkier with Bee Stings one can imagine an attempt to capture the mercury glimmers of Nguyen’s very essence.
"I’ve always had a very low attention span, and playing music is the only thing that has ever … adhered," says the vocalist, who grew up helping out at her mother’s Laundromat in Falls Church, Va. When she returns, she still helps fold other people’s clothes. "The one gratifying thing about tour is that it serves short-term memory. As far as anything you experience whether you like it or not it’s done in an hour, and you can either aim for that experience again or avoid it. So it’s an interesting way to spend your time, like a fruit fly."
And fly she has, by playing music and penning eloquent, intelligent lines like "You are mine / So I never would mind / I work my arms so hard / Just to give you an airplane ride" from "Feet Asleep," a song written from the perspective of Nguyen’s hard-working, self-sacrificing mother. That tune, as well as the feisty, thrumming "Swimming Pools" and the CD’s very title, Bee Stings, testifies to the strong women who raised Nguyen, in addition to her own quirky travels and travails.
Bee Stings has literal and figurative roots: stemming from an incident in which Nguyen jostled a bee hive, felt a bee crawl up her shorts, ran into a house, pulled down her pants, and was, as she puts it, "stung in the ass" for her trouble. Likewise, she adds, her mother, grandmother, and aunts have taken the stings and pricks of life on a daily basis. "I’ve seen them absorb so much," the songwriter says. "They’re all incredibly resilient women, and it’s a tribute to them and to just being a woman in the world, which is sometimes incredibly difficult and very specific and idiosyncratic." Nguyen sounds like just the woman to encapsulate that.
With David Dondero, Sean Smith, and Colossal Yes
Feb. 26, 7:30 p.m., $14
Swedish American Hall
2174 Market, SF