Thao Nguyen's music career got its start amid the rumble of the spin cycle.
A native of Falls Church, Nguyen practiced guitar at her mother's laundromat between making change for customers and folding laundry. Now, about a decade later, she has gone on to release two albums with her band the Get Down Stay Down and toured with indie superstars Rilo Kiley.
Nguyen's second album, 2008's "We Brave Bee Stings and All," received widespread critical praise, including an enviable 7.7 rating from taste-making music site Pitchfork Media.
But judging from her high-achieving academic career, Nguyen seems an unlikely candidate for rock stardom. She graduated from the competitive Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, although she seems baffled by her enrollment because of her interest in the arts.
"It was a weird fluke that I got into that school because I'm totally not inclined towards math or science," said Nguyen, 25. "I just went because I got in and my mom would have been really angry if I didn't go. Since I found music and became interested in it, everything else faded in priority."
After graduating from Thomas Jefferson, she attended the College of William and Mary, double majoring in sociology and women's studies. She admits to having been a bit of a recluse, staying in her room to practice her songs. She traveled to Richmond, Washington and New York to perform on weekends.
Though she claims to have considered a more traditional career in women's advocacy, she also concedes that the decision to pursue music full time came easily.
"It was obvious to me. From early on I've known that I have a really low attention span and don't focus well," she said, laughing. "I knew that I would never be interested in a nine-to-five dynamic."
After college Nguyen stayed busy with music, touring with her band and as a solo artist. She now lives in San Francisco, with the other members of the group (drummer Willis Thompson and bassist Adam Thompson) based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Richmond.
The band begins its spring tour at the Black Cat tonight. "We Brave Bee Stings and All" consists of 11 dreamy tracks featuring Nguyen's soft but soulful voice and her guitar-playing that reveals jazz, folk and rock influences.
From her own perspective, Nguyen says most of her influences are drawn from the past: She's a fan of Motown and old country music.
"I would say most of the stuff I listen to is definitely from previous generations. Only because I think it's kind of dangerous to listen to what your contemporaries are doing," she said. "It's easier to maintain your own identity if you don't."
Lyrically, Nguyen's songs deal with romance and longing, often bringing up the topic of childhood, such as on the songs "Swimming Pools" and "Big Kid Table."
"When I was writing the songs, it wasn't a conscious decision to touch upon childhood. I think a lot of those songs are what I grew up with and how it informs how I interact as an adult," she said. "I think childhood is where everything good and bad begins, and you kind of take it with you. There are some things you think you leave behind, but you don't."
For its part, "Swimming Pools" is a standout track on "Bee Stings," propelled by a driving banjo and shimmering guitars. The song is also the source of the album's title (" 'Cause we, we brave bee stings and all/And we don't dive, we cannonball/And we splash our eyes full of chemicals/Just so there's none left for the little girls").
On stage, Nguyen and her band place a high value on putting on a show, talking with the crowd between songs.
With either a dry wit or a frank grasp of the facts, Nguyen notes: "It helps to be drunk beforehand. Not too drunk -- just enough to be fun. I think we put a really high price on being engaging and entertaining."
-Dan Miller (April 2009)