Thao Nguyen

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Thao Nguyen
Nguyen in 2016
Background information
Also known asThao
Born (1984-03-19) March 19, 1984 (age 40)
Virginia, United States
GenresFolk rock, indie folk, indie pop
InstrumentsGuitar, banjo, slide guitar
Years active2005–present
LabelsRibbon Music, Kill Rock Stars

Thao Nguyen (born March 19, 1984),[a] also known as Thao, is an American singer-songwriter originally from Virginia and now based in San Francisco.[1] She is the former lead singer, songwriter and figurehead of the defunct band Thao & the Get Down Stay Down,[2] and has collaborated with Joanna Newsom and Andrew Bird.[3] Outside of the band she has collaborated on projects with several artists including Merrill Garbus, The Portland Cello Project, and Mirah. Her music is influenced by folk, country, and hip hop.[4]


Early life and education[edit]

Born in Virginia and raised in Falls Church, Nguyen began playing guitar and writing songs at the age of 12 while helping out at her mother's laundromat.[5][6] Her parents are Vietnamese refugees who met when they were resettled in North Carolina.[7] She describes her father as "incredibly charismatic and ... unreachable and tyrannical."[7] Her father left when she was 11 or 12, about the time Nguyen started playing music.[7] She began performing in high school as part of a pop-country duo with friend Brenna Clerkin.[8] She attended Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County and studied at the College of William & Mary, where she double majored in sociology and women's studies.[5][6] After recording an EP that differed from her initial style, she began performing as a soloist with her acoustic guitar. With her fellow college students Adam and Willis Thompson she formed Thao with the Get Down Stay Down.[5][6] After graduating she toured extensively, both with the band and as a solo artist.[6]

First albums and early collaborations[edit]

Nguyen playing with Thao & the Get Down Stay Down in 2008

Her first album, Like the Linen, was released in 2005 and led to a tour as a solo artist supporting Laura Veirs the following year.[5] In 2007 she signed to the Kill Rock Stars label, releasing the Tucker Martine-produced We Brave Bee Stings and All album in 2008.[5] In 2008 she duetted with Zach Rogue of Rogue Wave at the 'Revenge of the Book Eaters' benefit show in New York City.[9]

In 2009, Nguyen appeared solo on the nationwide Hotel Cafe Tour. She collaborated with labelmates The Portland Cello Project and Justin Power on the album The Thao and Justin Power Sessions, released in June 2009 and featuring versions of Nguyen and Power's songs.[10][11]

Move to San Francisco[edit]

Nguyen moved to San Francisco around 2009, and has been based there since.[12] Over the next few years she began working with outreach projects including the non-profit organization the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, partly to help her to integrate with her new community.[13][14][15][16]

Thao + Mirah[edit]

Nguyen onstage with singer-songwriter Mirah, holding bongos. Their collaborative album peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard 200.

In late 2009 Nguyen met Mirah and the two decided to collaborate.[17] They performed together in early 2010 at the Noise Pop festival in San Francisco.[18] The two later announced a 2010 North American tour, billed under the name Thao and Mirah with the Most of All.[18][19] The album Thao + Mirah, co-produced by Merrill Garbus, was released in 2011 on Kill Rock Stars.[17][20][21] The album allowed both artists to experiment with different instruments, with Nguyen playing banjo and percussion in addition to guitar.[17]


Nguyen has also fundraised with Dianna Agron for humanitarian organization Oxfam America.[14] In May 2010, a video for the song "Body", directed by Agron, debuted on the website of Oxfam America. The video features a prelude of Thao and Dianna talking about their friendship, the making of the video, and their work on behalf of Oxfam.

The same year, Nguyen collaborated with Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards as 'Merrillthaocracy' releasing the "Tuvalu" single as a part of the Fey 7-inch series.[22]

Also in 2010, Nguyen's song "When We Swam" was used as the title song for the Australian TV show Offspring.

In 2012 Nguyen performed as part of WNYC's Radiolab show's 'Radiolab Live: In the Dark' tour. This self-described "nerd circus" also included Radiolab hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, comedian Demetri Martin, and modern dance troupe Pilobolus.[23]

In 2013 an album with the Get Down Stay Down, We the Common, followed, the album's title track dedicated to one of the women she met on her prison visits.[5][12][14]

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down released their fourth studio album, A Man Alive, on March 4, 2016. The highly personal album primarily explores Nguyen's relationship with her estranged father.[7][24] The album was produced by Merrill Garbus, who also produced Thao and Mirah's collaborative album Thao + Mirah.[25]


On May 15, 2020, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down released their fifth album, Temple, Nguyen's first album since coming out publicly to the press as queer.[26] The A.V. Club wrote that the album marks "the reconciliation of her queer identity and her Vietnamese culture with a 10-song set that similarly combines post-punk deconstruction with hi-fi grooves."[27]

Thao self-released a two song ("Ambition" and "Relax/Rejoice") 7-inch titled The Get Free Set Free 7" to coincide with her September 2021 tour.[28]

Musical style[edit]

Nguyen's voice has been compared with Cat Power, Fiona Apple, Sinéad O'Connor, and Regina Spektor.[12][15][29][30] Her music has been described as "country-tinged indie folk-pop", and a blend of folk, country, blues and pop.[29][31] Her lyrics deal with relationships and childhood and on We the Common more political themes, including the Occupy movement.[6][12][14]

Nguyen describes herself as a fan of country music, blues, and Motown, and cites Lucinda Williams as a major influence.[32]

Nobody Dies[edit]

A 2017 documentary by Todd Krolczyk, Nobody Dies: A Film About a Musician Her Mom and Vietnam, follows Nguyen and her mother as they visit Vietnam—Nguyen for the first time, and her mother for the first time since the Vietnam War. Over the course of preparing for and during the journey, Nguyen explores the sometimes conflicting cultures, Vietnamese and American, that informed her childhood and helped to shape her family, her music, and her relationship with her mother. Funded by the Center for Asian American Media, the short film has also been broadcast by a number of PBS stations.[33]




  • "The Get Free Set Free EP" (2021), self-released – as Thao
  • "Swimming Pools" (2007), Kill Rock Stars – as Thao
  • "Bag of Hammers" (2007), Kill Rock Stars – as Thao
  • "Tuvalu" (2007), Common Cloud – with Merrill Garbus as Merrillthaocracy

Guest appearances[edit]

  • Emancipator – "When I Go" from Soon It Will Be Cold Enough (2006)
  • Simone White – "Never Be That Tough" from Silver, Silver (2012)


  1. ^ Duncan[14] states that she was 28 in 2013, while Miller[6] states that she was 25 in 2009.


  1. ^ Romanov, Petya (October 26, 2007). "Thao Nguyen Is Releasing a New Album, But Dat Nguyen Was One of the Most Underrated Middle Linebackers in NFL History". Tiny Mix Tapes.
  2. ^ Spinelli, Lisa (November 4, 2009). "Thao Nguyen and The Get Down Stay Down at Middle East". The Phoenix.
  3. ^ Wild, Matt (August 15, 2013). "Thao Nguyen on touring, taking time off, and this weekend's Lebowski Fest". The A.V. Club.
  4. ^ Lau, Melody (January 9, 2013). "Thao Nguyen Talks the Sound of 'We the Common,' Her Joanna Newsom Collab, and... Rapping?". Exclaim!.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Phares, Heather "Thao Nguyen Biography", Allmusic. Retrieved January 4, 2014
  6. ^ a b c d e f Miller, Dan (2009) "Thao Nguyen Rejects 9-to-5 Life for Music Career", Washington Post, April 17, 2009. Retrieved January 4, 2014
  7. ^ a b c d "Thao Nguyen on Songwriting, S.F. and Sorting Through Her Troubled Relationship With Her Dad". KQED News. April 3, 2016. Retrieved July 3, 2017.
  8. ^ "The Story Behind We The Common Archived 2014-01-04 at the Wayback Machine", Retrieved April 27, 2013
  9. ^ Maher, Dave (2008) "Paul Simon, Dept. of Eagles, Ira Glass Do 826 Benefit", Pitchfork Media, September 22, 2008. Retrieved January 4, 2014
  10. ^ "Thao Nguyen, The Portland Cello Project: "Tallymarks"", Pitchfork Media, May 15, 2009. Retrieved January 4, 2014
  11. ^ Hyclak, Anna (2009) "Hot New Band: Portland Cello Project", Spin, July 6, 2009. Retrieved January 4, 2014
  12. ^ a b c d Brownstone, Sydney (2013) "The Revival of Thao Nguyen", Mother Jones, March 25, 2013. Retrieved January 4, 2014
  13. ^ Taylor, John (2013) "The Fruit of Thao Nguyen's Labors", Interview. Retrieved January 4, 2014
  14. ^ a b c d e Duncan, Byard (2013) "Jailed Heart: Thao Nguyen Finds Inspiration in Prison", SF Weekly, February 27, 2013. Retrieved January 4, 2014
  15. ^ a b Rusli, Andrew (2013) "Thao Nguyen's Uncommon Life", Hyphen, April 4, 2013. Retrieved January 4, 2014
  16. ^ Pan, Arnold (2013) "First Person, Singular and Plural: Thao Nguyen's Collective Consciousness", PopMatters, March 31, 2013. Retrieved January 4, 2014
  17. ^ a b c Jacobs, Justin (2011) "Two Cooks in the Kitchen", Billboard, April 16, 2011, p. 26. Retrieved January 4, 2014
  18. ^ a b Katzif, Michael (2011) "First Listen: Thao And Mirah, 'Thao And Mirah'", NPR, April 17, 2011. Retrieved January 4, 2014
  19. ^ Mirah and Thao to Tour Together
  20. ^ Thomas, Fred "We the Common Review", Allmusic. Retrieved January 4, 2014
  21. ^ Grandy, Eric (April 27, 2011). "Thao & Mirah: Thao & Mirah". Pitchfork Media.
  22. ^ "Fey 7 Inch Series on Twitter". Twitter. July 22, 2010. Retrieved May 4, 2023.
  23. ^ "Radiolab Live: In the Dark". WNYC. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
  24. ^ "Thao Nguyen Gets Down and Gets Personal: "Everyone Is Just Trying To Communicate"". Noisey. April 7, 2016. Retrieved July 3, 2017.
  25. ^ Primas, Tyler (2016) "[1]", 7X7, February 18, 2016. Retrieved April 9, 2016
  26. ^ Griffiths, Sophie (May 29, 2020). "DIVA chats to Thao Nguyen all about her new record, coming out to the world and Zoom music video magic". DIVA. Retrieved June 16, 2020.
  27. ^ "5 new releases we love: Perfume Genius gets loose, The Magnetic Fields return, and more". The A.V. Club. May 15, 2020. Retrieved June 16, 2020.
  28. ^ Listing on Thao's website for "The Get Free Set Free 7"
  29. ^ a b Phares, Heather "We Brave Bee Stings and All Review", Allmusic. Retrieved January 4, 2014
  30. ^ Allen, J. "Know Better Learn Faster Review", Allmusic. Retrieved January 4, 2014
  31. ^ Lau, Melody (2013) "Thao Nguyen Talks the Sound of 'We the Common,' Her Joanna Newsom Collab, and... Rapping?", Exclaim!, January 29, 2013. Retrieved January 4, 2014
  32. ^ Goldstein, A.H. (2009) "Monolith Q&A: Thao with the Get Down Stay Down", Denver Westworld, September 11, 2009. Retrieved January 4, 2014
  33. ^ Bote, Joshua (2017) "Thao Nguyen Tells Her Own Story in Intimate Doc 'Nobody Dies'", KQED Arts, September 3, 2017. Retrieved December 31, 2017
  34. ^ Roberts, Christopher. "Thao & The Get Down Stay Down Announce New Album, Share Video for New Song "Temple"". Retrieved April 15, 2020.

External links[edit]