July 23, 2024

Best track in 2021: Thao Nguyen’s Marrow

Thao Nguyen’s Marrow is a masterpiece.

I particularly like the strings version.

Its the freshest and most interesting track I’ve heard all year.

Everything on the track is pure fascination.

Nguyen’s vocals are hugely varied. She sings softly and so slowly, its almost talking.

Its as catchy as hell with poetic shrapnel, including:

I’ve got grief in my marrow.

I live as a quite apology.

I was the drought and you were the coast.

What could it all mean?

It’s acknowledging what I have asked of my partner, and basically apologising for all the ways that I’ve denied elements of myself, and what I’ve asked her to deny.

Thao nguyen on her new tracks “marrow” and “Marauder”

The music, the strings around it are beautiful too. There’s a lot of going on.

Marrow is taken from the Temple EP.

If I was going to make comparisons, I’d say that, stylistically, the EP is

Mercury Rev v Sufjan Stevens.

Or, to add a little detail: the high pitched lament of Mercury Rev v the luscious arrangements of Sufjan Stevens.

And now that I’ve found her, she announces her band is splitting!

She’s been around for a very long time, and appears to be pretty well known in the States.

I was an island
Was I treading? Was I fleeing?
I was silent I could barely hear me breathing
You dawned upon me
To the least goes the most
I was the drought
And you were the coast

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Thao Nguyen is a US citizen, born in Virginia. Her parents were born in Vietnam. Apparently, they were refugees, and its for that reason that they ended up in the States. Anyhows, Thao, has been releasing music since 2005, which is a pretty long time. Long time, but I no hear. Beyond that, Thao, it would appear, paints, in addition to making music.

So, I’m having some thoughts. We are bought up with nationalist and consumerist narratives. They are everywhere. In our news, in our movies, on our advertising, in our history, on our iconography and in our daily conversations. We are taught a narrative that is linked to the land in which we live, that is controlled by the ruling political grouping. The story is presented as an evolution throughout time, bound and separated from, although sometimes affected by what is going on elsewhere in the world. The point is, is that those of us who live in that land, are taught that everyone and everything that matters and mattered, are people who were living in our land. Not only that, when we come to consider the history and importance of other people, or people living in other places, again we are told that their history is about the people who lived on their land. In this way anyone who has history which involves people who lived in other places is rubbed out, or at least that part of their history is rubbed out. It is nothing. It is annoying needless detail.

Thao Nguyen got me thinking about this. I am fascinated by her music. But, uh, I’m struggling to place it in a genre or a narrative or a movement. And so, in this way, my interest in it wanes. I mean, when I think of an American Vietnamese woman, I’m thinking, initially that’s cool, that you’ve got a different type of face fronting a band, doing their thing. But then, I always think of music in terms of movements, in terms of scenes, and I haven’t a clue what kind of scene Thao Nguyen would be part of. The video to Temple appears to be set in Vietnam. The lyrics too, appear, in part to be about Vietnam (though I could be wrong). So, so, what. So, for me to get into Thao’s music, to get in to this track, for example, would require a big effort right, beyond being titillated by the aesthetics of the singing and music, I’d need to understand more about the American-Vietnamese experience, but this isn’t a story that is trumpeted, it doesn’t find itself imbued and celebrated in the statues of Washington DC. I’d have to work damned hard to understand, and once I did there’d be no-one else, who cared, to share my learning, interest and excitement with. Who cares?

Although I’ve said that Thao is Vietnamese, I’ve just read that she only went to Vietnam for the first time in 2015. She said her band had been invited to play in the country. She took her mother. For her mother, the trip was the first time she had been to Vietnam since fleeing as a refugee, some 43 years ago. Thao took a documentary filmmaker with her, and they made a film, which you can see here. I haven’t yet watched it.


Its an absolute aside, but I have, personally speaking, been on a bit of a mission over the last fifteen years, doing therapy, and then meditation. And I’ve really learned alot about my own personal limitations in being able to process experiences and information and make sense of them. In particular I’ve learned, and imagine it applies to all of us to one extent or another, that we have a very limited capacity to really learn from what is going on in the moment. For this reason it is well worth spending a great deal of time, meditating and reflecting, bringing back into the mind’s eye, events, experiences and feelings, so we can learn from them, or ‘process’ them. I say all this because Thao herself talked about going to Vietnam as being intense for her, and it made me think about how I can, when meditating, revisit places, experiences, feelings and encounters. And how in this way, meditation is an incredibly life affirming, healing and valuable practice and way of being, that helps to male life valuable and beautiful. Was it not Socrates who said, that a life that is not reflected on, is a life not worth living. Thao said that it took her a whole year to consciously consider that she had experienced. This in turn, led her to a conclusion that there were things that she needed to change about her life.

This, I think, is incredible. I wonder what she says next. She talks in the abstract about internalised racism, being rejected and homophobia, which is intriguing, but essentially sufficiently vague to really dissapoint. Though she does point out that all these things formed the bedrock of the Temple album. Which the article says was released in 2020! I am always so late to the show.

But Thao says that Temple is about being Vietnamese and queer. She talked about how when her father left her family, her connections to the Vietnamese community withered. I find this intriguing too. Why, if her mother is Vietnamese too.

I am intrigued by this comment.

I came up in music at a time when emphasizing my ethnicity all too often meant being reduced or distilled to it, or offhandedly dismissed because of it, so I avoided my ethnicity as best I could. Avoiding it became a bad reflex. Fifteen years in, Temple is the first batch of songs wherein I acknowledge and honor my heritage.

Interview in Talkhouse

I am intrigued because although it sounds obvious. In the States, as in the UK, people who are not white, are defined by not being white. They can be seen, on the face of it, in a positive way, as exotic. But that is probably, essentially negative. And so, one reaction, to avoid being pigeon holed in that way is instead to deny that influence or that identity. But Thao points out that that was ‘a bad reflex’ – but why? Instinctively I get it, but I want to explore it, see it described and explained. All of this reminds me of a speech by Slavoj Žižek. He points out that the problem of White people, white liberals he puts it, feeling guilty about racism, and apologising for racism, and for advocating identity politics, is that it continues to essentialise the myth of race. In this way it maintains the power of the categorisation, on which racism is founded, we ‘whites’ are guilty about what we did and do to ‘you others’. The fact that the very conversation starts of with ‘you’ listening to ‘us’ about what ‘we’ think about what ‘we’ did to ‘you’ shows you that we still want to be in power, and we want you to be subject to it.

Identity politics itself is a continuation of this structuring and separation of ‘whites’ and ‘non-whites’. ‘Us whites’ are bad to ‘you guys’ so you need to have ‘your own spaces’ where you can talk about and resist ‘us baddies’. In some ways, Thao’s negation of her Vietnamese identity, may have been an attempt to resist the racism in the white liberal apologism. I want to be one of you, I want to be us, I don’t want to be continually defined by you as the victimised other. And yet, her life and experience is undoubtedly wrapped up in what happened in Vietnam, and in their experience and in the experience of her parents. So, now we see Thao, responding to those experiences, to spending time meditating on them and beginning to explore them in her work and art. Those experiences are not shared by everyone, those experiences do not fit the national narrative, those experiences will provoke hostility in some. Undoubtedly when someone has a different narrative, has an immigrant story, they may find that their story provides a certain level of discomfort and incongruity with others. There is surely no easy comfortable route to nirvana here. But at least, one feels, that Thao must have experienced a deep sense of satisfaction in being able to connect with a set of personal emotions, stories and histories, which allow a deeper connection with herself and many other Vietnamese people. The bigger story, the bigger challenge, as Slavoj Zizek puts it, is to create an atmosphere, in which there is a pervasive genuine equality and respect for people, which has a universal, global dimension. That’s the ideal.

She says something else too.

I am always either giving too much or too little. In some instances, I am telling a part of my life I am not sure I was ready to tell.

From an interview with talkhouse

This quote is talking about the video of her experience of going to Vietnam. But I ask the same questions about her music too. Listening to her music makes me feel uncomfortable, as much as I love it. Its because its so damned personal. And I’m thinking how can it be healthy to sing so intimately about what is going on in your life currently? How can your intimate life possibly benefit from that? Even though you might reap the gratification of the engagement of countless anonymous members of the public – fans. In this way, Thao, though I only know her music only very lightly, through the Temple EP reminds me, a little of Karl Ove Knausgård (look him up if you don’t know) and Tracy Emin.

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