Editors’ Notes After the release of her band’s fourth LP, 2016’s A Man Alive, Thao Nguyen, the lead musician behind the San Francisco-based band Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, was at a crossroads. “I wasn't sure if I was up for continuing that touring lifestyle,” Nguyen tells Apple Music. The singer-songwriter-guitarist had been recording and touring extensively for 15 years, and had begun to explore other career paths, from doing film scores and theatrical works to guest-hosting the podcast Song Exploder. Nguyen was also hesitant about addressing some of the more personal aspects of her life, concerned about the reaction she would get from being queer in a family that holds cultural traditions, norms, and expectations in high regard. “The subject matter I knew I would tackle was so heavy, and it was so entwined with my life and my family, that I just knew that I had to get to a place mentally and emotionally where I could do it,” she says. “But I also knew that it was the one piece of work that I had to commit to and see to its completion—the songwriting was pretty painful and arduous.” Temple, the band's joyous fifth album, is about celebrating and claiming ownership of her own life. “It's insane, the lightness and the liberation that's been so long in coming,” she says, as she walks us through her personal journey in this track-by-track guide to the LP. “Everyone takes their own time getting to where they need to go—there's so much struggle along the way, but it's so freeing.”

Temple
“‘Temple’ is a prime example of my collaboration with my longtime bandmate, our bassist, Adam Thompson. I knew pretty quickly that I wanted to produce it with Adam, because it is such a culmination of a long career of making music together. I've always trusted his ear, and he hears things I don't hear. I knew that I wanted this song to be focused and built around this guitar riff, informed by this sort of psychedelic rock from Saigon in the '60s, with the influence of the American GIs. That presence—because that's where my parents were at that time. It was just a part of capturing their lives before the war and before they had to flee, before they lost their country. We had talked about how we wanted it to be a dance track—to capture, especially lyrically, how my mom loved to dance when she was young. In her voice, she's blessing my own life and how I choose to pursue it. 'Temple' is the heart of the record. It's honoring who I come from, and also, it's like belonging to them, but also belonging to myself.”

Phenom
“This one I always view as the direct descendant to ‘Meticulous Bird’ from A Man Alive. It has this kinetic energy, or I was intending that, and it's channeling a very kind of dark chaos, but there's also elements of optimism. But it's extreme frustration, extreme disgust—like a point of reckoning, but also with hope. I was reading a lot of science fiction, and this was the closest I've gotten to imagining a different world. I was so excited to do it live, because it felt like I wanted another 'Meticulous Bird'-type opportunity to just lose my s**t onstage.”

Lion on the Hunt
“There's a dance company called Pilobolus, in New York, and I had scored a live piece for them. There are some parts of that score that ended up in this song—that groove—and I built different bass riffs and different samples around it. Then Adam also contributed a different portion. I wanted a very bass- and groove-forward song, and I wanted, lyrically, to have this swagger. It's exciting in its own way, but I'm talking a lot about gender equity in pay and the real-life applications of such.”

Pure Cinema
“This one is referencing a lot of my touring life, but also my life in general up to this point, feeling very adrift and often feeling like I'm watching myself in my own life and just being so scattered and transient. When your livelihood requires such transience, it's really hard to figure out what your center is, and I've dealt with that for a long time. But to me, it's the most self-help song. It's like a great chorus telling you what to do.”

Marauders
“I wanted this one to open up and be that breadth, but it’s also the most sincere effort that I've embarked upon for a love song. That part where it opens up and it says, 'I am here now'—that's a nod to all the baggage we bring to a relationship, all the family stuff, all of the s**t that your partner accepts and is willing to work through.”

How Could I
“The reason we sort of arrived at that pace was I wanted to convey this very particular kind of urgency, and the story behind the song is my grandmother helped raise me. I grew up with her in the same house. She came over from Vietnam when I was five and raised me with my mom. Anyway, she was very close. She was in hospice, and this was just a couple years ago. I was on tour—I had seen her, but then I had these shows that I couldn't cancel. It's me rushing back to her, but I'm too late, because she's already passed away. But also, in the breakdown, there's this sort of interlude, and you can hear me—it's several tracks of my voice chanting this Buddhist mantra, which is this prayer that we were all chanting around her deathbed.”

Disclaim
“‘Disclaim’ is definitely one of the darker ones on the record. This is like another vessel for all my frustration and disgust, but it is in the voice of impervious and insolent men. It was written in the realm of the #MeToo movement, but just in reaction to all of these men excusing their behavior.”

Rational Animal
“This one is more of a narrative. The way I imagined it, it deals a lot with the idea of a person's humanity and who gets to define that. It encompasses a lot of different instances of that. It's about queer people and civil rights and their civil rights. A lot of the crises at the border were taking place when I wrote it, and it was the idea of who decides who gets to be human. Who determines the sanctity of your own life? So when it says 'good riddance,' to me, it's whoever's been subjected to this kind of earthly cruelty and who's lost their life because of it. They're sort of bidding farewell to this world, because it's so cruel. They're saying, 'I believe I'm a person. I believe I'm sanctified,' even though it's sort of their afterlife.”

I’ve Got Something
“There's a lot of love in this one. There's also a lot of grief, because it's kind of a message. At a certain point, I had to prepare to be apart from the family I grew up in because of being queer and being publicly queer. It was just this sort of exchange of 'I have to be ready to live my own life' and 'I have to be up for sacrificing connections,' if they inhibit my own life. So it's sort of like, 'Yes, you can't imagine how much love I have, but you also won't imagine it. Why would you deny me this?'”

Marrow
“It's like the entire record sort of lined up with real-life happenings as they were developing. I wrote 'Marrow' right before my partner and I got married. There's grief, too—that's a nod to inherited trauma. That's a nod to just all of the weight and all of the burden that you bring into something. If you're lucky, someone will help bear that with you. This is a true celebration, though. I wanted the album to end on a hopeful note. There's obviously a nod to sadness, but there's a note of hope and optimism and a movement into the future.”

SONG
Temple
1
4:10
 
Phenom
2
2:39
 
Lion on the Hunt
3
3:14
 
Pure Cinema
4
4:29
 
Marauders
5
3:29
 
How Could I
6
3:16
 
Disclaim
7
3:12
 
Rational Animal
8
4:19
 
I've Got Something
9
4:41
 
Marrow
10
3:29