I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the phrase “desperation breeds ingenuity.” On one hand, it’s an optimistic way to look at a setback, a silver lining in the midst of a crisis. And certainly, we’ve needed to find as many silver linings this past year as possible. On the other hand, the idea that one needs to be pushed to the brink of anguish in order to invent a new way of doing something is tragically dire.
Either way, here we are. In a “make it or break it” moment where ingenuity should be running rampant if desperation truly is the mother of invention. For musicians, after an entire year of not touring, that means coming up with new ways to make money off their craft. In the streaming era, which is built on a model where it’s nearly impossible for artists to get properly compensated, that’s no small feat.
But Thao Nguyen, best known as the frontwoman of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, has a plan. She’s recently partnered up with Substack, a platform originally made to help writers get paid for their work via a subscription-based model, to help support her livelihood. For a fee, fans can subscribe to what she’s calling For The Record to get access to exclusive recordings, written pieces, video performances, interactive forums, and more. A truly ingenious stroke of desperation.
Despite releasing her fifth record, Temple, just this past May, the lack of ability to tour has pushed Nguyen to already get started on its follow-up. Through For The Record, she’ll be sharing the record-making process in real-time, with subscribers being able to witness snippets becoming songs and songs eventually turning into an album while sharing feedback along the way.
It’s Brené Brown-levels of vulnerability to share your work before it’s fully shaped and Nguyen is truly braving the wilderness, especially in light of the current violence and hate towards Asian Americans. KEXP spoke with her about For The Record, her regrets about releasing Temple during the pandemic, and how her relationship to her identity as an Asian American will play into this new record. Read below.
KEXP: I'd love to talk mostly about this new partnership you have a Substack on the making of your new album, which is super unique and interesting. Can you tell me a little bit about where this idea came from and how it's going to work exactly?
Thao Nguyen: Sure, sure, yeah, well, I was talking to folks at Substack about how I could use the platform and what did I most want to capture, what did I most want to focus on moving forward. And it's a very unique time of no tour like this long, sometimes seemingly endless stretch of no live music. And, as you know, the music industry, as always, has been in such flux for so long and been in this continuous realm of rebuild, but nothing like what we're experiencing now. And so it's just really, I think, a necessary time and a great opportunity to explore how to strengthen relationships that I've built with fans over the course of my career. How do you protect that connection? How do you move forward and protect the sustainability of your career as a musician? And to be able to maintain this kind of autonomy and retain the rights over what I make within this platform was really important. I think of it almost as more of like a multimedia publication.
Right. Is there any label behind it that gets any sort of part in it, or is this completely just you on your own?
No, it's just me on my own. And anyone who's on the Substack platform, there are different models of how they draw revenue from the subscription. You know, it's all subscription-based and then they take a cut of paid subscriptions.
Right, got it. I think that's honestly a great idea. All musicians right now are trying to figure out how to make money right now and you've talked a lot this year about how without touring, it's just become so much clearer how the digital streaming platform model for musicians is just honestly...fucked up. It's ridiculous how musicians can't make a living wage without touring. So it's awesome that you're coming up with a different model, a different idea of how fans can be engaged and contribute to your work. Currently, all your music is still on digital streaming platforms but have you considered pulling a Taylor Swift and taking it all down?
[laughs] No, I haven't. And I don't know if anyone besides Taylor Swift can pull a Taylor Swift. And I think that that's part of the reality is that for all of the evolving realities of what DSPs are and what they have been and the remarkable influence they've had on the way that people consume music is really different than when I was starting out.
You know, when I released my first record in 2008, streaming was present but it wasn't what it is now. And I think it's taken me a long time to accept how different it is and that the consumption of music is so platform-based that unless people change the way they consume music, there's not another way. And unless you're a giant star, it behooves you to have your music on these platforms.
The effect and the impact of what that exposure could have is still great enough that I wouldn't take my music off the services. And there are strengths...you know, it's such a dynamic and evolving scenario that it's hard to say with any great clarity and certainty what is or what isn't supposed to be happening moving forward at this point. And that's taken me a while to come to embrace and and accept.
Right, absolutely, the whole model would have to change, from the consumers to the labels to musicians, everyone would have to.
Yeah. And then when I see younger musicians coming up now, I don't think that they have any problem with [DSPs]. There are musicians now who have only ever known digital streaming platforms and different digital service providers, that this is the way the music gets disseminated. This is how you build a following now. You know, before it was just you make an album and you tour it relentlessly, which has its own drawbacks.
Oh yeah, for sure. How involved will fans be in the process of making this album? Like, are they able to give you feedback?
Yeah, you know, that's a really interesting question. What I really appreciate about For the Record and what this will do is a lot of it – and I've tried to be quite upfront – is I don't know exactly what's going to happen. And I'm open in a way that I've never been open before about my process and the vulnerabilities they're in. And one of those things is, typically, no, I don't share any demos and I definitely don't ask people what they think. I don't ask anyone in my life what they think about my songs! [laughs] There's not a more surefire way to extinguish an inspiration.
So, yes, fans and subscribers will totally be a part of it and I want to share the process. The things that I'm excited about getting feedback around are like, for instance, I'm making more different forays into production and electronic music and in beat building and all these things that I don't have a great handle on. But I'm so excited to learn and to be able to open up questions to subscribers and to have that kind of feedback is really exciting. To kind of open up that that element of community is exciting and it's all nice people, I don't think anyone would go to these great lengths to be malicious [laughs].
Yeah, it'd be a little extreme to pay for your content just to drag you! [laughs]
Right, right! My hope is that no one has that kind of money to burn. [laughs] But who knows? We'll see.
Yeah, exactly. I mean, this is an incredibly vulnerable position to put yourself in, letting people see the imperfect bits before the song is fully put together. Are you nervous at all about revealing all of that?
Yeah, I think in a healthy way. I think I'm nervous about it the way you should be if you want to keep growing and expanding and if you want to foster connection as opposed to closing down around it, and I think in the past, I would say that I've been on the more closed side of everything. So it's nice. This is such an inflection point for everyone and I'm no different. I want to show my gratitude to people who supported me for so long. And I want to be more accessible not just as a musician, but just as a person in the world who acknowledges that it takes a community to do anything. And to be able to be a part of one in whatever way we can, given the circumstances, is something that I want to embrace.
Absolutely. Do you already have any ideas or fragments that you're coming into this with or are you literally going in with a blank slate, with everything coming together right before our eyes?
It's a little bit of both. I have some fragments. The timing of the launch is such that I've been clearing away a lot of...you know, last year, as we all know, was a rough one. So there wasn't necessarily a lot of space or time to be creating anyway. And so I have fragments of a lot of different instrumental things, but lyrically, I don't have anything yet. And content-wise, it's all been based on different experimental compositions.
Do you have at least maybe an idea of a thematic idea that you think you'll want to explore with this record?
You know, as of very recently, I'm compelled...I think it will be more about my Vietnamese identity and being Asian in America. And given the recent rhetoric and how horrifying the violence has been lately, I can't really think about anything else right now. And Temple, which was released in May of 2020, definitely was addressing my heritage in ways I never had before.
That album's just as much about me being proudly Vietnamese as it is being proudly queer. And given that I have 15 years to look back on my place in music and what my career, the arc of it, what it's been, there just a lot of elements of being Asian-American that I've not yet addressed and never felt comfortable enough within the realm of indie rock that I inhabited to address. It's just a different time and so drastically different now, what is being talked about and the levels of tolerance for casual racism within the industry. Everything is different and I'm glad that I'm still here enough to address it now.
Are you planning on bringing any collaborators in to help with the making of the new record?
I am certainly open to it, I don't have anyone specifically in mind, but that'll be part of that journey as well.
Yeah, that's right! [laughs] "We don't know who's going to pop in!"
"Subscribe to find out!"
I need to subscribe to find out!
It'll be a surprise for everyone! [laughs] But, yeah you launched your first post this week featuring some fun piano and guitar noodling and showing off a new lapsteel you recently acquired. What is the response from fans been like so far?
You know, it's been so sweet. I made it a point to ask people to really get in touch if they wanted to, just so that they knew that I would be reading everything that came in and then responding. And it's just so nice to hear from people who are sharing memories of old shows that they've been to. I didn't realize that that kind of deprivation that we all are going through, that lack of...what I miss so much from touring and being able to connect with people is it's a very sweet, basic humanity between people, you know. And it's been so great to be reminded of it because it's also so easy in this time to kind of turn inward and forget that you are a part of a greater thing.
Absolutely. So important. I mean, now that we're a year into the pandemic, where would you say your head is at and how you would describe your personal experience this past year?
You know, I would say that I feel lucky and ready and that if you could make it through this year without really grave loss, which I have been able to, thankfully, then the perspective is such that what else can we do besides move forward in ways that will honor what we've learned?
Like you said, you released Temple in May, did you have any hesitations about releasing it in the middle of the pandemic? Did you think about pushing it off a little bit?
Definitely. Well, you know, at that point in May...so things had only really shut down around mid-March so when SXSW was canceled, we were starting to understand that something serious was happening, but there was no way to know the extent. And even by mid-May, we thought maybe things would be back in the fall. So, knowing now that it would be two years before I could tour again, I think I would have made different decisions. But at that time, it just seemed like everything - you know, a couple of singles had already been released, all the gears were in motion. And so it didn't make sense to stop everything. But also we were working with different information.
In retrospect, do you wish that you would have held off a little bit longer?
I do. I do, yes, only because the emotional content of Temple was something that I was really excited to share live and I was excited to perform these songs. And I don't know when we finally can all be out. I don't know what of Temple will be moving forward with me, so, you know, it was a moment in time that I wish had been either postponed or captured at the time.
Yeah, so it could have had its due time in the sun kind of thing.
Right. Yeah. Yeah.
And by the time you tour, you might have another album!
It's true! It's really hard to know what...of course, when I am touring, I want to be sharing a lot of the songs from Temple live. But yeah, at that point who knows.
Right. I mean I'm optimistic, especially with the vaccine rolling out and everything. And it just feels like by summer I don't see why we couldn't at least have outdoor shows happen. But that, of course, is all up in the air. Have you booked anything?
You know, the original tour, the one that would have happened in the spring of 2020 and the summer, that was pushed to 2022. And now I think it's just this...it seems like quite a frenzy where there's a lot happening and a lot trying to happen. But no, my team hasn't tried to book anything before 2022.
I think that's smart. You don't want to have to just keep moving dates like when everyone was changing their tours to fall 2020 and then just had to move those.
Yeah. Which we did! We totally moved it to the fall of 2020 and then it went into 2021 and now it's 2022.
Just like, "Let's just put it back a whole year just to be safe."
Well, we can't wait to have you in the KEXP studios again! I mean you've visited so many times that you've probably been asked this question before, but I also think that the answer could change over time and especially over the past year so I'm just going to go for it. Since KEXP is the station where the music matters, why does music matter to you?
Oh! Music matters to me because it's been the one constant in my life that I could escape to or take solace in. It's the only thing.
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