What: Thao & The Get Down Stay Down
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Where: Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer St., Denver, 303-291-1007
More info: larimerlounge.com
S tart Thao & The Get Down Stay Down's We the Common right from the beginning, the title track. It's warm, feel-good, come-together folk pop.
That sentiment is born out of sadness, though -- some on frontwoman and songwriter Thao Nguyen's part, and more from the song's parenthetical namesake, Valerie Bolden. When she was feeling tired of constant touring, Nguyen settled down for a while in San Francisco, where she volunteered with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and met Bolden, who is serving a life sentence. Her stories inspired the mix of gut-punch lyrics and joyful melodies in "We the Common."
"I wanted both," Nguyen said. "I think how poignant our conversation was -- it was very light hearted, but I felt really connected. There were moments when she talked about missing her daughter and not wanting to die in prison. Equally represented in that song was that I wanted a rally cry, and that's what the chorus is."
The rest of the album, in all its edgy-folk-pop glory, reflects a similar theme of humanity. Taking a year to sink into one place and dedicate herself to a group of people ended up being songwriting fodder for Nguyen as much as it was a way to change the pace of life.
"The people I've met and worked with at the Coalition for Prisoners -- there's a humanity that I've never witnessed before and I think that humanity found its way into these songs. There was a lot of introspection regarding how I could be better," she said. "[The year in San Francisco] was a really large part of the perspective on this record, and the content of the songs had a lot to do with being a part of my community, of being more part of my life, as opposed to years of touring, as opposed to being a spectator of other people's lives."
Another community farther north, and another notable person, left a mark on Nguyen that turned into a song. When she attended a women's writing retreat in Seattle called Hedgebrook, Nguyen met Joanna Newsom, who appears on We The Common's "Kindness Be Conceived."
"It's this farm and there are several cottages on the farm, and each writer get their own cabin and they take care of everything for you," Nguyen said. "My vision for [the song] was that there'd be a lot of harmonies and I asked her if she'd sing on it, and we just sang in the cabin and she sounded amazing on it."
But Nguyen's life isn't all quiet introspection and meaningful volunteer work. Sometimes it's just goofy. She and the members of The Get Down Stay Down have been filming a video series -- scripted, but based in reality. Mostly they're just endearing.
"I don't know how serious my songs seem, but I wanted to show people that I'm not that serious," Nguyen said. "The first couple came out before the record was released and so it was envisioned as promotional videos, and I wanted to give a behind-the-scenes look at the process and we knew that people were only so tolerant for such things. It was a really good opportunity to have a good time and release things that hopefully would be more entertaining to watch and give people a glimpse of the band and of me, and share."
One of the most recent Shorts, titled "Fruits of My Labor," shows Nguyen showing up two hours late to rehearsal with a raver-type friend and not remembering how to play her songs (and adorably hiding from the band in a giant duffel bag).
"This tour is gonna be the debut of a lot of songs live, and so we are quite excited," she said. "I actually don't remember how to play some of them. That sketch is not that far from the truth."
Don't worry. She'll get it together.