Her album’s title is We Brave Bee Stings and All, but singer/songwriter Thao Nguyen is braving a hell of a lot more these days. On the day of our interview, it’s a sore throat and a faulty phone connection. Tonight, it’s a sold-out show on the Black Cat’s backstage. Every day, it’s the dizzying buzz her album has picked up—NPR, Internet radio stations, and music blogs can’t get enough. Big stuff for someone who was finishing college just two years ago.
Back then, Nguyen was already wowing crowds, sometimes playing her guitar with a toothbrush, always delivering the goods. Cut to the present: Small school venues are out, a national headlining tour is in, and Europe is next. Quite the whirlwind, really. What’s remained unchanged through it all? Nguyen’s knack for greatness with the guitar. And the toothbrush. Read on for our full interview.
While we both were attending William and Mary, I saw you play one of your songs on the guitar with a toothbrush—using the handle to pick the strings. I remember being blown away. Do you still do that at shows?
We still do it pretty frequently, but towards the end of the set now because it’s one of the older songs. We’ll do it to liven up the show if we think it’s necessary, or if we’re having a good time.
Critics are tripping over themselves in their praise for you and the record, We Brave Bee Stings and All. What does that feel like?
It feels hilarious. It feels essentially like nothing, really, you know? I think it’s dangerous to take those comments too seriously. I’m glad people have received the album warmly—it’s awesome, really. But I try not to focus on it, just like I try not to take criticism to heart. It helps you maintain a sense of reality. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t really mean anything. I’m still in a van in the Midwest.
Has the sudden attention and praise affected you in any way? Do you feel an added pressure now when you sit down to write?
No, I don’t think it’s affected any sort of filtration or distillation system that I have in terms of my songwriting. In the end, if I don’t like it, I won’t use it, and if I like it, I’ll keep it. I don’t think that anybody’s opinions have informed what I consider good or not good.
As a new artist, comparisons are inevitable. I’ve read a lot—everything from Cat Power to the Shins—but no one has asked you who you think your music is similar to.
It’s funny because I haven’t heard anyone say this, but Neko Case I like a lot. I would say that the album sounds more like that than a lot of things that people are throwing out there. I actually get a lot of Modest Mouse comparisons, which is cool. I think they’re a great band. No artist likes to be reduced to a comparison, but I do understand that some points of reference are necessary.
In terms of this record, what inspired you?
I would say this record is very equal bits of Thao—the way I was brought up in my family, the things that happened in my family, and my relationship with my parents. Also, how those things inform my day-to-day interactions with people. It’s all very emotional.
How does the songwriting process work? Do you collaborate with your band, or are these very much your own lyrics?
I am very protective of my songwriting. I’m really not a control freak, but when it comes to songwriting I am. I write the songs and bring them to the band; my guitar parts and vocal arrangements are there. The band writes their own part, and then collaboratively we put the pieces together. So the songs exist before them, but they add these amazing, cool musical elements.
The song “Swimming Pool” seems to have a strong feminist message. I was wondering, since you have a degree in sociology and women studies, if you think these studies inform some of the album’s writing.
I write from a very personal perspective, so I’d say the biggest connection would be that the motivations I have for the fields I studied in school come from the same roots of where I write from, but I wouldn’t say it informs my writing. I think it’s all just very personal: The reasons why I wanted to do women’s studies at William and Mary are the same as the reasons why I write about my mom or about women or about whatever.
Speaking of school, are you planning on making an appearance at William and Mary anytime soon?
We are, actually! We’ll be back in late April. I think we’ll head back there after our US tour, right before we go to Europe.
Any perks of being with the Kill Rock Stars label? What’s the relationship like?
Well, I’m wearing one of their hoodies right now. We’re all decked out with stuff, really. The label is really supportive—and supportive in all the right ways. They stand back and don’t impose themselves creatively.
What’s next for Thao?
Right now we are in the middle of a five week tour in the US, and we have maybe a week off before we go for a monthlong tour in Europe. Then we’ll come back and be on our headlining tour—I think we’re actually going to be on tour for the rest of our lives. But we are going back into the studio in January, and I am starting to write songs for the new record.