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“Holy roller, roll over me/ I’m looking for something else to see/ lasts so long/ hurts so bad/ But I want love in the aftermath,” sings Thao Nguyen of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down during the song “Holy Roller.”
This was one of two songs Nguyen and her band mates recorded for WERS’ On the Verge program, which showcases up and coming musical acts with promise. Nguyen and her band have been touring as a group since 2006, and released their first studio album, Like the Linen, in 2005. Nguyen herself has been making music since she was the age of 12 in her hometown of Falls Church, Virginia, but to date she has not created anything like her group’s latest album, We the Common. The young artist shared during her on air interview that much of the writing for the album was inspired by her work with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP). Through this she was able to visit women inside of the California State Prison system, particularly around the San Francisco area, where she now resides.
After her set she elaborated on her work and her involvement that began over a year and a half ago, “Women’s advocacy work has been really important to me, so this is just an extension of that. I have really good friends of mine who are amazing activists and who have been long time members of CCWP and they asked me to fill in.” This became possible because Nguyen had decided to take a break from touring, which she claims had left her drained. “They asked me to do an advocacy visit where you actually go into a state prison and meet with folks all day long,” says Nguyen, “And I filled in one day… It was unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. The people are incredible and it’s this really stark, devastating reality that’s a parallel of our lives. And… no one talks about it.”
The second song of the day was “Kindness Be Conceived,” which allowed for a bit of Nguyen’s signature rock and roll vibe to shine through. The voices of both Nguyen and keyboardist/vocalist Johanna Kunin wove together sweetly, yet powerfully for the whole number. “Kindness be conceived/ when we wake in the California light,” intones the chorus.
Not only did Nguyen’s experience with the CCWP inform her lyrics and her songwriting process, it made its way into every aspect of her life: “I think it makes me a lot more appreciative and grateful for my life and my freedom,” Nguyen asserts. This directly works its way into her performances. “A lot of this record is about community and so I think it does translate to our shows. I want it to be a very kind place. And we like to have a good time, but I like for there to be baseline humanity there in ways that didn’t occur to me before.”
Nguyen acknowledges that her work with CCWP is politically charged and difficult to discuss, especially at shows. But when introducing the title track “We the Common” at shows, Nguyen stresses to the audience that above all else it is about “taking care of each other.”