Thao Nguyen, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down

Earlier this week I posted my interview with Mirah, and today it's Thao's turn (of Thao and Mirah, as well as Thao & the Get Down Stay Down). Thao and Mirah begin touring in May to support their album that comes out April 26 on killrockstars. I've interviewed over 80 songwriters for this site, and few (probably enough to count on one hand) mention exercise as an aid and a regular part of their writing process.  But both Thao and Mirah exercise regularly and use it as a way to boost creativity.  Which makes me think that if they haven't already, the should run together if they decide to write and record again.  Maybe train for a 10k together.

Read my interview with Thao after the video.

Since we're talking at 10am your time, I have to start by asking if you are normally creative in the morning.  Because this time is almost unheard of for a musical artist.

Yeah, I am much better in the morning.  If I can get an early start on the day, it's great.  I have a routine that I like to adhere to.  I prefer to get up early, go running, meditate, then write.

I've interviewed 80 songwriters for this site, and you might be the first to mention the word "routine" to describe your writing process.  Most songwriters seem to resist the idea of structure in their creative process.

Ideally, I have a routine, but I haven't been that successful lately.  When I'm off the road, it's easiest for me to have discipline.  But it's really hard.  You can excuse it by saying that nothing is coming, but if you don't create space for it to come, then it probably won't.

I agree with you completely.  Discipline is key to being a good writer, no matter what you write. Have you always been that way?

No.  I graduated college and went on tour immediately.  I've been on tour pretty consistently for the past two or three years.  Without a routine, without structure, I don't do well and I'm not as creative. I'm just productive. It's only been through a lot of trial and error that I've found that I need a routine.  Not that I'm always successful at it, but it's what I'm working towards.

How did you arrive at that?  By reading about other writers?

I've read what seems to work for other writers.  I grew up Buddhist but only recently turned to practicing on my own, and I think that meditation really helps. 

What would be your ideal daily writing routine?

Get up, go running, meditate, eat, then write throughout the day for an hour at a time, with ten minute breaks in between.  So we're looking at a 9-5 day, then have dinner and try to have a social life. So ideally, it would be a workday of writing.  That would be a dream of mine. 

Do you ever write on tour?

In the mornings, if I wake up early enough, I'll write.  But then I sacrifice my well-being, since I've probably been up since two or three in the morning.  In my experience, touring is exhausting.  My needs and instinct become primal; I basically eat and sleep, do interviews, then do a show.  I do a lot of writing in the van, just little phrases, because I get motion sickness.

You mention that you're a runner.  I use running as a way to boost my creative output, and there's actually a tremendous amount of evidence indicating that aerobic exercise boosts creativity.

I believe it.  I sense that while I run.  Tons of ideas spring forth while I run.

You mentioned the last time we talked that you write short fiction. That type of longer form requires a different type of discipline than songwriting, since I you have to sit for longer periods of time.  Does writing short fiction make you more disciplined as a songwriter?

It has, and it's been a relief to write the longer form stuff when the songs aren't coming as readily as I want. As long as I'm writing something, I don't panic.

It sounds like when you get writer's block with songs, you just switch genres.

Definitely.  When I get writer's block with songs, I go to short fiction or personal essays.  I'm able to siphon lyrics from whatever I'm writing, and that rejuvenates the songwriting process. I also read other people's writing, and hearing those voices also helps me get unblocked.

So who are some of your favorite writers?

My favorites are Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, and Joan Didion.

What about them do you like so much?

I love their economy with words and I love how they write about normal things, rendered in a way that I've never thought of before. That's what I strive for in songwriting.

Take me through your typical writing process.

I work on the guitar part and melody first, like one guitar line or chord progression.  Then I get a vocal melody. Then I fit a lyric to it.  Lyrics come last, and I probably don't know what the topic will be until I hear the melody.

There's usually one line that I've come up with before I sit down to write, and I try to fit that in somewhere.  I have a notebook and napkins full of those one liners.

Where do they come from?

Just when I'm out in the world.  Conversations I overhear, things I see when I'm running. I got the title for my song "Beat (Health, Life, and Fire)" from a sign outside an insurance agency. It said, "We insure health, life, auto, and fire."

What about that line made it so memorable?

It's about life insurance, and all the tragedy and calamity within it.  It was really engaging.  You have health and fire, and there's a lot of humanity in that phrase. And the song is about disappointing yourself and others.  All my songs are about relationships in one way, and that sign just plays into that theme.

It sounds like you are pretty active in seeking out inspiration.

I try to be.  I find that when I'm not, I still need to be creating. It's my livelihood to create, and the pressure of having to do it, and then not doing it because you're standing in your own way, can be detrimental and stressful.  In other words, I have to create, and when I'm not, it's my fault.  So I have to be open to anything that comes. 

Back to your process, what makes a good melody?

I know I have a good one when I write it, walk away, and it pops up later on its own. That's my test as to whether I should keep it. 

When you write lyrics, how much do you revise?

I follow my instincts, and I won't touch them if they can stand on their own.  I have a pretty discretionary filter.  I try not to be too hard on my lyrics, but lyrics above antything else are of utmost importance to me.  I won't let it go if I don't think it's perfect.

What's your ideal emotional state in which to write?

It's pretty stereotypical, but it does help to be sad or anguished. I'm trying to grow out of that, because it's not healthy. Laughs.

Why is it not healthy?

If the emotion is already there, that's fine.  I'm optimistic that discipline in writing can make up for an extracurricular drama.There's enough to write about without needing that emotional state.

How important is your writing environment?

I would love clear, open space. An empty room with a desk.  I don't have that, because I'm very messy, but I would love that setting.  I prefer fresh surroundings and unlimited hot water.

When you write lyrics, do you use a computer or pen and paper?

 I have to use pen and paper.  I need to see it written in my handwriting.  And if I'm not pleased with my handwriting, I'll rewrite it until it's neat enough.  It's disrespectful to the process if it's too messy.  When I'm working on lyrics and I get stuck, sometimes I'll just keep on rewriting what I have until I can continue.

How much have you learned about yourself as a writer since you started writing?

I've learned that lyric writing is a deeply personal and private exercise and I can't co-write lyrics. Mirah and I both knew that about ourselves before we decided to work together, and we both prefer to write lyrics separately.  I've also learned that I'm very private about lyrics and that I'm not open to discussion or debate about them.  I don't workshop lyrics.  But I would workshop instrumentation or arrangement for any song. 

What's the easiest part and hardest part of your own process?

The hardest part is the psychological obstacles I put up for myself.  There's a lot of self-doubt sometimes, and because of that I start and stop a lot of songs during the creative process.  I'm too concerned with how people will receive it, and I wonder if I'll ever write another song again.  Sometimes when I write, I think it's the last song I'll ever write.  Then I can't believe I wrote another one. I thin the easiest part of the process is that I have no problem being honest.

How do you know when a song is done?

When I feel full from an emotional perspective.