Interview: Thao Nguyen of Thao And Mirah - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Outside of their work as Thao And Mirah, Thao Nguyen and Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn each have their own successful music careers. Thao is the front woman and vocalist for her San Francisco-based folk-rock group The Get Down Stay Down; since moving to Washington from Bala Cynwyd, PA, for college, Mirah has released a handful of albums on K Records (as well as numerous EPs). The success of the collaboration is clear in the effortlessness of their harmonies and lyrical banter on their 2011 self-titled debut, yet each has maintained a distinct independence since coming together as Thao And Mirah. They often do interviews separately, are quick to say that they don’t feel comfortable speaking on the other’s behalf, and are still involved with projects outside of their work as a duo. Where their interests intersect is where the magic happens—from Mirah’s fated move from the Pacific Northwest to Thao’s home of San Francisco, to both women’s passion for social justice. Prior to Thao And Mirah’s performance at First Unitarian Church on Thursday night, The Key spoke with Thao about juggling musicianship and social advocacy, recording an album with Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards, and learning to write “pretty” for Mirah.

The Key: Could you talk about the organization Air Traffic Control and why you add a dollar to your ticket prices to benefit women who are victims of domestic violence?

Thao Nguyen: Air Traffic Control, they’re amazing. We both work closely with them, and they do all sorts of work with musicians and activism. That’s their main objective. I met them last year, they invited me on a musicians/social-activists retreat to New Orleans, and Mirah was on that same trip this year. So we knew that, as we were making this record, we wanted to team up with them and really focus our efforts with the release and with the tour to align ourselves more closely with a project we care deeply about. And so the tour, all of the organizations either have to deal with the prevention of domestic violence or the prevention of child abuse.

TK: How did you come into contact with that realm of advocacy? Was that something you sought on your own?

TN: I think it was a very fortunate marriage. Well, I’ll speak only for myself, because Mirah will talk about it in interviews herself. But to me, it’s always been important, and a priority of mine to stay working in that realm. When I was in college, I was a sociology and women’s studies major, and I intended to go into women’s advocacy work—but I didn’t, and I ended up playing music. I was committed to staying as involved as I could, but that’s tough to balance. And so with Air Traffic Control, it really opens up what we’re able to do and how effectively we’re able to do it.

TK: Do you know of other bands that are also working with Air Traffic Control?

TN: They work with all sorts of bands. They’re the ones that produced the Tibetan Freedom Concert… They’re amazing, and they’ve been working in the industry for years. They’ve worked with anyone from, I don’t know, Pearl Jam to Coldplay to Metallica to, you know, little mosquitoes such as ourselves and everywhere in between. All genres and realms of music. So they’re everywhere. There are lots of bands that work with them that don’t necessarily talk about it, so its up to the bands, the degree to which they want to publicize that.

TK: What was it like working with Merril Garbus of Tune Yards on your last record with Mirah?

TN: It was amazing! We’re all friends, and she’s obviously very creative, especially rhythmically creative, and a great producer. We all co-produced it together, but it was really helpful to have an outside ear, someone who could come in fresh to the song and be able to hear things we don’t hear. We all approached it as a very free-wheeling, relaxed session. That was a lot of the merit, and a lot of the assumptions were that it would be a chance to play a bunch of instruments we don’t normally play, and do things we don’t normally do.

TK: What’s been the most surprising result of working with either Mirah or other people like Merril in collaborative ways? As opposed to working wth the Get Down Stay Down?

TN: It’s been such an outlet, and I embraced this opportunity so that I could write songs I wouldn’t normally write and play the drums… I think the most surprising part was how fulfilling it was. I mean, we were excited to do it, but I didn’t know how much I valued the freedom and the new perspective that both Merril and Mirah brought to the recording process. And the empowerment of doing it together, and working with women, and having us all lead this project… It’s really nice to be in charge in all realms.

TK: Do you still involve the other members of the bands you were both working with before coming together? Who fills your line up for tours?

TN: Well, this tour in particular, Mirah and I always knew, early on, that we would tour with an all-woman band and crew. Sort of in honor of Beyonce—but Mirah, she doesn’t like Beyonce.

TK: So what have you been doing in 2011 other than touring?

TN: I’ve been pretty busy. I just scored this film, a documentary called American Teacher, and I still pitch in for The Get Down Stay Down, and I’m writing right now so that we can go into the studio in July. But the most recent project was making the music for that film.

TK: How did you get involved with that?

TN: Well actually, Dave Eggers is a friend of mine, and I’ve worked with his organization a bunch of times. He just called me up. He produced the film with the Teacher’s Salary Project, and its all about how undervalued teachers are in America, and he asked me to do the music. And they made a beautiful film, and Dave called in a few favors and I think got Matt Damon to narrate it. I haven’t gotten to see it yet, because I’ve been on tour.

TK: That’s a very different realm of musicianship—making music for a film. How did it go?

TN: It was a challenge, but one that I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to make music for a soundtrack, but I’ve just never been able to. And I said I could and would do it, and I sort of had to make it up as I was going. I approached it as making a record, and brought a bunch of friends in, and each scene or whatever was like a song. And all the time that I had was a week before I left for tour and traveling, so it was pretty high pressure. I didn’t sleep much that week…It was a lot of fun though. And the film was great, and I really believe in what they’re trying to do… And, you know, Dave Eggers pumps you up.

TK: Yeah, I can’t imagine having Dave Eggers be your cheerleader would be too bad.

TN: [Laughs.] No, not bad at all.

TK: How do you feel the collaboration with Mirah in the last year has gone? Are there certain songs that are indicative of your work together, or do you think you can still always hear your separate styles and voices?

TN: We are obviously very different songwriters. But in writing songs for this record, anything that we would have written separately, I wrote some songs knowing that Mirah’s voice would be on it, and being really excited about that. It made me try to… just be more pretty about things. I think that has shown up more now, and I’m more acquainted with writing from a softer place. I tried, at least.

TK: You’ve both had successful careers before you came together. Do you think this collaboration will be temporary? Do you think there’s going to be a time when you’ll both feel done with this and move on?

TN: Well we haven’t discussed it much yet, but we do know what’s up next for both of us individually. And it’s hard to think beyond a certain point in this job, as I guess with life in general. But who’s to say what happens after that?

Thao & Mirah performs with Bobby and Led To Sea at 8 p.m. Thursday, June 9, at First Unitarian Church; tickets to the all-ages show are $14-$15. —Danielle Wayda

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