Hot New Band: Thao With the Get Down Stay Down

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Photograph by Jonathan Ratcliff
WRITTEN BY
Abigail Everdell

Thao Nguyen has a strange feeling about loitering in airports. "I love it!" exclaims the sweet-voiced singer-guitarist. "You can even ask the dudes" -- bassist-keyboardist Adam Thompson, 25, and drummer Willis Thompson, 26 (no relation). Though the jaunty folk-rock trio came together nearly four years ago on the Virginia college club circuit, each member has since settled in a different city (San Francisco, New York, and Richmond, respectively), making air travel essential. "Every time we plan to meet, we have to wait until everyone's plane lands, and then we can all get in the car," Nguyen, 25, explains. "It's just like Ocean's Eleven!" Or a fairy tale. "The band's career has been charmed," she says.

It's hard to disagree. In 2005, acting "totally out of character," she e-mailed a download link for her self-released Like the Linen album to Laura Veirs, one of her favorite singers. That message was intercepted by Veirs' manager, who helped place Nguyen's country-soul toe-tapper "Feet Asleep" on the 2006 Kill Rock Stars comp The Sound the Hare Heard. A record deal followed. Thao's KRS debut, 2008's wry We Brave Bee Stings and All, became the venerable indie's best-selling opening shot ever, outdoing efforts by the Decemberists, Gossip, and Elliott Smith.

But success has its costs. Last December, Nguyen found herself beat from two years of touring, bummed about a broken romance ("I think touring that much contributed," she says), and due in the studio. The majority of the band's second Kill Rock Stars full-length, Know Better Learn Faster, which includes guest spots from Veirs and Andrew Bird, was written in a week. Not surprisingly, it's an album of frustration and heartbreak, but with a hopeful undercurrent exemplified by the opening line of the gently noirish "Easy": "Sad people dance too."

Despite the personal toll, Nguyen will fill most of next year with more touring. "I don't know if I can do this forever," she says, sighing. "But what other job can you do where, when you're done, people clap for you?" Let alone offers as much time to poke around in duty-free shops.

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