Thao Nguyen wants to challenge the notion that people in prison are monsters.
“Most of the women in prison that we see, in general, are victims of abuse that defended themselves,” Nguyen tells EW over the phone. The lead singer and multi-instrumentalist for Thao & The Get Down Stay Down took a hiatus from a life of nonstop touring in 2012, and at the encouragement of some her pals, began doing advocacy visits at California’s former Valley State Women’s Prison. (Now the all-male Valley State Prison, the facility was featured in a 1999 prison series by Nightline in which one of the prison’s doctors infamously stated that female inmates “like to be examined — it’s the only male contact they get.”)
“That’s what drew me in and keeps me coming back,” Nguyen says. “It could be anybody.”
These visits are why the rollicking folk-rock band’s 2013 album We The Common, a fiery love letter to activism and civic engagement, is dedicated to the women of the state prison. The title track is for Valerie Bolden, one of the inmates she befriended at Valley State. “All they wanted was villain, a villain / And all they had was me,” Nguyen sings with a sort of triumphant indignation. Occupy Oakland inspired the driving track “City.”
“This album is a lot more outward looking,” she says. “It has a lot less to do with my personal relationships or personal struggles,” adding that she wanted to “capture the energy of people sticking up for one another.”
Nguyen has always been a deft lyricist, mining tough emotional currents for elegantly simple, poppy and punchy songwriting. And this latest record is no different, save for the more conceptual content. Activist albums can often sing themselves into corners of over literality, brushing too closely with kitsch, but Thao & The Get Down Stay Down avoid these traps by tapping into the timelessness of human struggle.
For Thao followers, We The Common may sound different from the band’s past work for more instrumental reasons: banjo and mandolin.
“I’ve always been a fan of old time and Appalachian music,” the Virginia native says. “I got bored writing songs on the guitar.” But don’t expect any traditional picking; in true Thao Nguyen spirit, she bends the banjo and mando to her own angular, alt-folk aesthetic with fantastic results.
“‘Holy Roller’ and ‘We The Common’ didn’t exist in any form until I wrote them on the banjo,” she says. “It took me writing on the banjo to write them.” If the Sam Bond’s show is anything like her Mick Jagger-esque performance at WOW Hall in 2011, than we, the common, are in for a treat.
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down play with Seattle’s Deep Sea Diver 9 pm Friday, Sept. 6, at Sam Bond’s; $6.