“We the Common,” Nguyen’s new album with her band, the Get Down Stay Down, came out last week. It’s her strongest effort yet — a dozen songs where affable melodies (very California) blast their sunshine onto a grid of mildly anxious rhythms (very D.C.).
For Nguyen, leaving the area was about growing up and moving on. But for other musicians who have moved their careers out of Washington, it’s often about finding things our city can’t provide.
Why is that? Plenty of indigenous music gets produced and performed in the District these days, but it hasn’t been enough to Febreze the city’s eternally stuffy reputation. Despite a nightclub boom over the past few years, the District offers few of the music-biz resources that abound in New York, Los Angeles or Nashville. And perhaps the biggest obstacle for any young Washington artist: The rents here are increasingly ridiculous.
“Having a dedicated arts district where rents are kept in line so that musicians can afford them? That certainly could help,” says John Simson, president of the National Recording Academy of Arts and Sciences’s D.C. chapter. “But with New York and L.A. — that’s where the record companies are based. . . . That, you can’t change.”
We asked a handful of ascendant ex-Washington musicians why they left home. Like their respective locations, their reasons were across the map. (Their responses have also been edited and condensed.) But the artists all shared one common trait: None of them plan to boomerang home anytime soon.
That includes Nguyen. She loves San Francisco and says she would consider moving back only for family reasons. And while her loved ones still reside in the area, her old practice space is history.
Mom recently sold the laundromat and retired.
Singer-songwriter of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down
●Moved to San Francisco in 2006.
“I played every open-mike night in the Washington, D.C., area — Jammin’ Java, Firehouse
Grill in Fairfax, Iota, Galaxy Hut.
. . .
One summer, I was the lunch-hour music at a Potbelly. You had to play three hours, you could only play covers, and it paid $20 an hour. With a sandwich. Not one sandwich every hour, though.
“When I was 22, I went on tour and never came back. It was ‘can’t stay where you grew up’ for me. I knew that if I were to pursue music to the hilt, I wouldn’t be stationary no matter where I lived. So it came down to, ‘Where did I want to come home to?’
“In San Francisco, the pacing was more relaxed and more my speed. It’s a walking city. I could exist here without a car. There’s access to water, access to really amazing food, really fresh fruits and vegetables. It was definitely a quality-of-life thing.”