Story by Ada Tseng.
In so many ways, music defines a generation or a culture, giving us the soundtrack to our multilayered, bicultural landscape. And the 10 women we highlight here not only lay it all on the line and bare their souls in their music but, each in their own way, do much to round out a picture of what it is to be an Asian woman in America. Our cover girl Yuna defies the modern definition of pop star with her inimitable voice juxtaposed with a girl-crush-worthy style of chic turbans and covered-up ensembles. We have the gossamer voiced Priscilla Ahn, whom we feel like we’ve grown with as her life journey (and music) goes from melancholy to bliss. Then there’s the flame-haired Hmong American hard rocker and an indefinable artist whose voice is featured in one of the hottest hits of the year. From sweet little ditties to feminist anthems, from odes written in the throes of love to songs that feel more like a cathartic purging, their music moves us, inspires us, rocks us. Take a glimpse into the meaning and memories behind the melodies.
Born and raised in Virginia, Vietnamese American Thao Nguyen began playing guitar and writing songs as a pre-teen, before starting the alternative folk rock band Thao & The Get Down Stay Down with two of her College of William & Mary classmates in 2005. Last year, after years of touring and numerous albums, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down released their third full-length record, We the Common, which was inspired by Nguyen’s volunteer work at the California Coalition for Women Prisoners in San Francisco, Calif. The title track, “We The Common [For Valerie Bolden]” is dedicated to the first prisoner Nguyen ever met. Though Bolden, who is serving life without parole, has not heard the song — there are strict rules about bringing music into prison — Nguyen has read her the lyrics. “I just had a very intense interaction with her that stayed with me,” remembers the 29-year-old. “She talked about how she doesn’t want to die in there. She wants to see her daughter. I was struck by how lighthearted and casual our conversation was, yet it was punctuated with very poignant moments.”
“The Feeling Kind,” their latest music video for another single off the new album, made local news when the California Highway Patrol had to halt the shoot mid-production. It was the first music video to be shot on the new San Francisco-Oak- land Bay Bridge after it opened last September. “We had a salsa dancer dressed in full carnival regalia,” explains Nguyen, “and the outfit was beautiful but also revealing. I think traffic on the bridge came to a dead stop.” Luckily, they had gotten enough footage to make the parade-themed video.
After finishing up their We the Common tour early this year, Nguyen and her bandmates will begin working on their new album, tentatively scheduled for early 2015.
First Musical Memory: Listening to Smokey Robinson for the first time on the radio. And playing my brother’s Casio keyboard.
First Song: The first song I ever wrote was a rap song in the third grade. I had a choice to write a book report on Charlotte’s Web or to do something else, so I wrote a rap about Charlotte’s Web. My secret dream was to become a rapper, so it was a no- brainer that I would do a rap song at that age.
Best Advice: When I was 17 and living in Virginia, in the suburbs of D.C., I went to a small coffee shop show to see one of my favorite musicians, Erin McKeown. I got her to sign something, and I told her, “My dream is to do what you do.” And she was very direct and straightforward with me. She said, “It’s not a dream. You just do it.” I took that to heart, and she was right.
Inspirations: I looked up to Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders, Cowboy Junkies and country blues players. I didn’t know any Asian American musicians when I was growing up, so I want young [Asian American] girls today to see that it’s a possibility to make music your career.
Check out Thao & The Get Down Stay Down at AudreyMagazine.com/thaonguyen
This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here.