The Morning Edition Song Project, in which musicians compose an original song about the COVID-19 era, returns this week with multi-genre singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen, leader of the band Thao & the Get Down Stay Down. Early this September, the San Francisco-based musician stepped onto her porch to find polluted air and falling ash — the fallout of the wildfires raging on the West Coast.
“It was cinematically post-apocalyptic,” Nguyen says. “At that point, you know, we’re months and months into a pandemic. We knew the fires were coming and it was fire season. But to see it manifested in the color of the sky, to just look at it, you would be quite taken by it: this vivid, supernatural, unnatural color. The color that my friends’ kids called ‘orange juice.’ And we didn’t see the sun the entire day, but in lieu of the sun was this really eerie orange pall.”
Compared to a lot of people, Nguyen says, she recognizes she had a relatively easy time with the fires. Still, the moment felt like a bleak distillation of everything that had happened in 2020 so far.
“It was just was this culminating event to capture unspeakable despair and defeat,” she says. “You can’t help but reckon in a more existential way — to ask, what have we wrought? What have we desecrated? What is sacred, and how do we protect it, and are we willing to? I mean that in the environment, I mean that in people. What lives matter? Where is our grace? Anyway, that’s what happens when you look at kind of the physical manifestation of a deeply dark time.”
NPR’s David Greene spoke with Nguyen about finding humor in darkness, embracing her Vietnamese heritage and turning the day smoke blotted out the sun into a new song, “All This and More.” Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
David Greene: The title of the song, “All This and More” — I wonder how it came to you. I couldn’t tell if there was a little a slice of humor there, because that sounds sort of positive.
Thao Nguyen: Yes, I did want to include dark humor in it, because it is — I mean, at this point, we’re beyond absurd. It was a nod to not only the fires, to the pandemic, to our state as a nation. What kind of Groupon discount did we sign up for?
Thinking about the moment when you and I are talking right now, our country has gone through quite a political moment in recent days with this presidential election. How did you react to that?
I was [laughs], um, incredibly stressed out. I don’t know what happens as far as moving forward and how divisive things are. And I, again, want to consider how I can be a more productive part of all of us moving forward.
I am so struck by your personal story — and especially the image of you as a kid, a pre-teen, writing songs, playing your guitar while you were working with your mom in her laundromat in Virginia. She’s a refugee from Vietnam. How do you reflect on those beginnings, your journey since and your family, in the context of this political moment?
Thanks for bringing that up — I haven’t taken much of an opportunity to pause and reflect on that. You know, I’ll say that I was much more politically involved in this most recent election than I have been. And it was because I found this progressive Vietnamese-American group called Pivot [aka The Progressive Vietnamese American Organization].
I spent a long time more distanced from my family — for many reasons, but one was being queer in the culture, I wasn’t quite sure how to navigate that. And then another was, I didn’t feel that my progressive values had a place in the culture. But with this group, it offered me a chance to really appreciate who I come from, to be so proud of my family and my mom and how she built a life in which I could pursue my love of music and writing. When I was coming up in music, I didn’t ever reference my Vietnamese heritage — to avoid being reduced or distilled to it, I avoided it. So it’s been so gratifying and so overdue to come back and be quite open with what my heritage is, and be proud of it.
I have to ask, at the end of the song, you say you want to feel light. Are you feeling it?
You know, what’s so funny is that I actually feel lighter than I ever have in my life — outside of what’s happening. But sometimes I think the service of a song is just to capture a moment or an emotion, and I really loved the catharsis of a more plaintive and plain statement.