Born and raised in the DMV, Thao Ngyuen has six albums under her belt. Back with her latest album “Temples,” Thao is kicking off her 2022 tour full of confidence, self-awareness and vulnerability. We caught up with Thao before her stop at the 9:30 Club on March 31 to talk about her love of the 9:30 Club, her ever-evolving sound and about reconnecting with her love of music.
District Fray: You’re originally from the DMV area — what was it like growing up here as a young musician?
Thao: I grew up in Falls Church in Northern Virginia, but it’s basically eight miles outside of D.C. I played a ton of open mic nights when I was a teenager starting around 15 and then as soon as I got my license, my mom let me drive around and I would play all throughout Northern Virginia and D.C., and sometimes Maryland. It was a great way to cut my teeth and start developing my skills as a live performer. Open mics are great for that.
Any favorite local venues?
Thao: Well 9:30 Club is definitely one of my favorite venues that I’ve ever played in. And it always feels so meaningful and like such a gift to be playing there. I grew up reading City Paper and just checking out what shows would be coming in every weekend to 9:30 Club. It’s always a bit of a childhood dream come true that I get to play there.
I have so much love and appreciation for them, and, to be able to be back in venues and knowing what a struggle it’s been for everyone to stay afloat, I’m just very grateful that we get to go back again.
How did you initially get started in music?
Thao: As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a performer. I taught myself how to play guitar when I was around 12 and pretty immediately started writing my own songs and doing open mic nights. I would also be trying to save up money to rent time at a recording studio in Vienna, Virginia.
And then when I got to college, I realized I really wanted to pursue music full-time. I wanted to be a touring musician, but I knew I had to finish college first. I even actually tried to drop out of college, but my mom was not having that, which I’m grateful for. So, I got my degree, then I graduated, and the next week after my graduation, I was on tour and have been doing it ever since, thankfully, somehow.
I feel very lucky that a lot of things aligned and I was able to get my first record deal while I was a senior in college.
You’ve been performing many years now — can you describe how you’ve grown and changed as an artist during that time?
Thao: My first record came out on Kill Rock Stars in 2008, and so the sound definitely has changed a lot since then. The past few records are influenced a lot more by hip-hop production — they feel more punk. There’s more raucous and riotous energy that I have in my later records that I didn’t explore as much in the first few records.
In the beginning there are more elements of Appalachian music because I grew up in Virginia. I played mandolin and banjo as well, so I was always trying to infuse that instrumentation into more of a rock band. But the past couple of records feel more rhythmic and vibrant — there’s more of an edge. I play more lead guitar now and it’s a little grittier.
Where do you think this ‘grittiness’ comes from?
Thao: I think the edge and the sharpness just comes from more freedom. I have never felt as free in my work and in my public facing life. And with that comes more of an honest depiction of who I am and what I want to sound like.
Your latest album “Temple” is about being both proudly Vietnamese and queer — themes you haven’t touched on in your work before. What’re you most proud of regarding the album?
Thao: What I’m most proud of is how difficult it was to make, but that I did it cause I knew I needed to for my own sake, for my own personal evolution and my own professional ones, and artistic movement. I’m proud of the vulnerability of it, and that I can be present and vulnerable, but still be fully in control.
The pandemic has allowed for shifting perspectives and exploration of new interests. Was there anything you learned about yourself during the pandemic that surprised you?
Thao: What was so fortunate for me was the opportunity to realize how much I love music, and the pandemic really afforded me with the chance to get back into it. I think because I have been doing it for so long, I was so tired and worn out from touring and the album cycles that I had become a little bit dissociated from my love of music. And it’s been so nice to expand. I got way more into production and engineering, things that I’ve always wanted to learn more about, but never had the time or space physically and mentally. It was a chance just to re-engage and recommit.
Right before “Temple” I wanted to quit. I was thinking that I was done with this life and figuring out what else I wanted to do, you know? But when touring and performing were taken away, it just was a really great reminder and a chance to rebuild my entire team, rebuild how I think about music, and be able to appreciate it for the gift that it is. The fact that I get to do it for a living is remarkable. And so it was just really nice to chill and have that reckoning.
What’re you most looking forward to about touring?
Thao: I love performing so much and that’s why I’m out there and because most of touring can be exhausting. It’s tough to take yourself out of your daily life, your routine, and your family, but performing for an hour and a half makes it worth it somehow. And that’s such a testament to how powerful that is, that it makes it all worth it. The connection to the audience and being able to engage and be sort of an energetic communion with people — it’s what I looked forward to the most.
Any surprises fans should look out for?
Thao: I think every night there’s a potential for surprise and that’s what I love — the rawness and the spontaneity of each performance. But yeah, we’re cooking up some things.
What’s next for you?
Thao: The other thing about tours is how to balance writing songs for the next record. So I have been working on my next record, but it kind of has to go on the back burner a bit when I’m this close to heading out to tour. But yes, definitely working on new songs and getting the next album.
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content. Support local journalism and start your membership today.