Touring musicians lead hermetically sealed lives. Hotel rooms, vans and stages take up their entire world.
So singer Thao Nguyen decided to break that static pattern – in a most dramatic way, no less. During a year away from life on the road with her celebrated indie band, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, Nguyen did volunteer work in a woman’s prison in Chowchilla, Calif.
“I wanted to be part of the community,” she says. “And one of my dear friends had been working with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners for years. After my first visit, I could not, not go back.”
Naturally, the experience found its way into her music. Nguyen opens her new CD, “We the Common,” with a song dedicated to a woman she befriended in prison — Valerie Bolden. She’s serving a life sentence for fatally stabbing her husband 17 years ago. According to Nguyen, Boldon claims to be the victim of spousal abuse and considers her violent actions self-defense.
Oddly, the track has a sprightly tone, with impish rhythms that recall early Edie Brickell, and a vocal that mimics Melanie’s little girl come-on from her 1971 smash “Brand New Key.” “My conversations with Valerie were often very lighthearted,” Nguyen says. “And I wanted to harness a positive collective energy. The chorus is a rallying cry that we’re here to take care of each other.”
That collective spirit pervades the CD, which has the most uplifting sound of Nguyen’s three works with the Get Down Stay Down. They’ll bring their quirk-filled style to two shows this week, Friday at Bowery Ballroom and Monday at Brooklyn’s Bell House.
Everything on “We the Common” sounds willfully disjointed. It’s all dents, angles and points, with herky-jerky rhythms, crinkly guitars and clucky vocals. It’s a style critics might describe as “freak folk” if that term hadn’t fallen from fashion.
Nguyen has collaborated with other stars corraled in that realm, like Andrew Bird and, on the new CD, Joanna Newsome. She shares with them a love of handmade sounds. “I like tones that are raw,” Nguyen says. “Anything smoother or more refined wouldn’t be included in the same breath.”
Nguyen has been making music since she picked up the guitar at age 12. She grew up in Falls Church, Va., which explains her use of the banjo on the new CD. “I heard old-time bluegrass and Appalachian music growing up, so I’ve always had an affinity for banjos and mandolins,” she says.
Yet the way she plays them sounds far less like Earl Scruggs than like the odd ukulele of friend Merrill Garbus (who performs under the name tUnE-YaRdS).
Nguyen’s mother, who raised her daughter alone, ran a laundromat. The singer worked from age 12 until college. “She worked so hard, so long,” she says of her mother. “I felt an obligation to help her.”
At the same time, Nguyen began playing in bands, inspired by the female-led Lillith tours. An early version of her band released her debut, “Like the Linen,” in 2005. Later, Nguyen moved to San Francisco, where she still lives. She got signed to the Kill Rock Stars label and released two CDs with the Get Down Stay Down. At the time, her songs explored more personal subjects, the usual love woes. They did well enough to keep the singer on the road nonstop.
That’s the pattern she chose to break before “We the Common.” It helped that at the time, she was between contracts. For the new CD, she signed with Brooklyn’s Ribbon Music. Along with the new CD, the label also issued a 7-inch disc that includes the song that “We the Common” recalls: “Brand New Key.” “I love the intrigue of the lyrics,” Nguyen says of Melanie’s hit. “There’s mischief in it.”
Ironically, the woman she dedicated “We the Common” to — Valerie Bolden — hasn’t heard it. “The red tape of trying to get a song into prison is very difficult,” the singer says. “I’ve read her the lyrics, though.”
Nguyen feels Bolden might not have received such a hard sentence had her defense been better. That has only strengthened her sense of connection. “Playing music can be a great unifying tool,” Nguyen says. “But when you’re with the prisoners, you have to show up in a much more intense way. It’s a sense of connection that’s life-altering. It’s being part of something real.”
THAO AND THE GET DOWN STAY DOWN
Bowery Ballroom, 6 Delancey St., (212) 260-4700
Fri. at 8 p.m.
The Bell House, 149 Seventh St., Brooklyn, (718) 643-6510
Mon. 8 p.m.
LIVE FROM NEW YORK:
– Madeleine Peyroux
Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.
Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway and 60th St., (212) 721-6500
On jazz chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux’s latest disc, she redoes some songs made famous by Ray Charles, giving them her own patented whimsey and perspective.
– Helen Reddy
Sat.-Sun. at 8 p.m.
B.B. King’s, 237 W. 42nd St., (212) 997-4144
Few singers brought more demented songs to the top of the charts in the ’70s than Helen Reddy. From “Angie Baby” to “Leave Me Alone,” Reddy’s hits gave us a host of crazy ladies, though she’s best known for the righteous one in “I Am Woman.” In all her songs, Reddy has attitude, told in a nasal, Aussie twang that gives her songs edge. After 10 years of retirement, it’s good to have her back.
– Sigor Ros
Mon. at 8 p.m.
Madison Square Garden, 33rd St. and Seventh Ave., (212) 465-6741
Sigor Ros make ambient music, as open and mysterious as the Icelandic landscape that first inspired them.
– Jose James
Wed. at 8 p.m.
Music Hall of Williamsburg, 66 N. Sixth St., (718) 486-5400
Jose James may offer up soft-serve jazz-soul, but there’s nothing flaccid about it. His resounding baritone has a pitch deep enough, and a tone rich enough, to anchor most anything.
- Dream11 Team Prediction Central Hinds Women vs Northern Spirit Women Women's Super Smash 2019-20: Fantasy Cricket, Captain And Vice-Captain For Today's Match 4 CH-W vs NS-W T20 at Bert Sutcliffe Oval, Lincoln
- Baby P's vile mother Tracey Connolly 'oggles fellow women prisoners in the gym' as she tries to lose weight after ballooning to 18 stone while scoffing sweets and crisps in her cell
- From Delhi's Jamia to Sudan and Russia: These Images of Women Standing up to Tyranny Defined 2019
- Australia is turning a blind eye to violence against Indigenous women, but we will not stay silent — our lives matter
- Dream11 Team Prediction Northern Spirit Women vs Central Hinds Women: Captain And Vice Captain For Today Dream11 Super Smash Women 2019-20 Match 4 NS-W vs CH-W at Sharjah Cricket Stadium 2:30 AM IST December 15
- A 'hellish world': the mental health crisis overwhelming America's prisons
- Nebraska inmate seeks to overturn prison’s pornography ban
- 100 Women Directors: Actors, Producers, and Twitter Users Suggest Even More Names
- New Uber initiatives to empower women, youth in India
- African women filmmakers break down barriers and challenge taboos