Thao (of the Get Down Stay Down) has been incredibly generous for this year’s Little BIG Fest (Nov. 4) including taking the time to thoughtfully answer our questions (below) and hosting a special songwriting workshop for the campers of Girls Rock! Des Moines! In our interview, Thao reveals her impression of Des Moines after her 80/35 2016 performance, what we can expect for her solo set at Little BIG Fest this Saturday, and how to cut through the bullshit as a young, female, and/or non-binary musician.
Des Moines Music Coalition: The goal of Little BIG Fest 2017 is to showcase successful female-identified and non-binary musicians. Our vision is for the music industry to embrace a wider variety of musicians as festival headliners. What changes have you seen in female representation at music festivals and in headliner slots during your music career?
Thao Nguyen: Thank you for your vision and your efforts toward that vision and thank you for having me! Yes I have seen it go from not much to more representation in the last few years and I would of course love to see more and I don’t think we could see enough. The trick is how do we get headlining variety to be normal and not a circumstance of note.
What do you feel needs to happen within the regional and national music industry to help close the gap in female representation on festival lineups and in headliner roles? How can artists themselves enact change?
I will only skirt the edge of the rabbit hole here. Ripples would claim all realms: the decision makers, the economics, who has access to building larger audiences, which audiences have access/resources/desire to attend festivals, who are bookers, who are promoters, who are artist managers, who has access to music education in their youth, who has access to actual instruments and music equipment, who is encouraged to play and lead in their youth and into adulthood, who has access to the higher rungs of the music business and industry side, how does live music space/touring life/industry life/normal life become safer, physically and psychologically safer, for female-identified and non-binary artists.
Touring artists can have a greater voice in who they take on tour as support, they can lobby for bands whose members are of communities they’d like to see better represented on the scene. Artists who have reached more success and stability in their careers can start/continue to give back to their own communities, they can help kids get interested in and have access to music, they can encourage expression through music and art and use themselves as examples. They can show parents that kids can not only have music as a hobby, they can have it as a viable career, and the pursuit of music and art is a worthy, noble, and professionally sustainable journey that is also necessary to the health of our communities and society at large.
Get good at what you do. Become friends with other bands whose music you admire, who are touring, working a level up from where you are, ask if you can open for them, play out live as much as you can. I’d say getting on bills with other bands who have followings outside your local scene is your best bet. Be honest with what you want to make, make sure you believe in it. Get really good at what you do so people want to work with you. Record your music and get it out. Be kind and hard working. Talent is great, hard work is better. People like to tour and work with kind, easy going, hard-working, good musicians. Go to the shows of bands you admire, whose audiences you think would be interested in the music you make. Building up your own networks and audience makes it easier to eventually get a booking agent who can help you get on bigger bills. Or book shows and do that all yourself! Maybe the internet is very helpful in skipping steps and old systems of network building are no longer relevant? I am older and came up in a time before the internet ate everything; I can only speak from my own experience. Conduct yourself professionally, do not become enamored of or distracted by the myth of the free wheeling, reckless and partying musician. That is annoying on tour and a liability.
Also, trust your instincts and your ideas and do not abide condescending bullshit.
Our vision at the Des Moines Music Coalition (DMMC) is to establish and maintain Des Moines as a nationally recognized music city. Beyond putting on kickass festivals such as 80/35 and Little Big Fest, what can the DMMC be doing to put DSM on the map as a nationally recognized music city? What attracts successful artists to perform in particular cities or regions?
I really admire and appreciate your mission to encourage the participation and success of female-identified and non-binary musicians. That’s the reason I am coming! I also remember Des Moines had very beautiful sunsets and cool public art and I’d like to take more of a gander around town. Speaking only for myself and my artist friends, we are drawn to a city or region by good food, easy access to other forms of art, cool dive bars, friendly people, audiences who love music and dance, nice parks so you can exercise because staying fit on tour is really important, and queer-friendly spaces/mentalities.
Everyone was so incredibly nice, everyone. I couldn’t believe it. Such a friendly atmosphere. And the crowd was so kind and receptive. We had a fantastic time at 80/35. I also remember the sun beating down relentlessly but everyone was such a good sport about it and seemed to have enough UV ray protection. I remember my feet were burning up through my shoes so I had to dance around even more than I usually do.
Pictured: Thao performing with the Get Down Stay Down at 80/35 2016
How will your solo performance differ from your performances with the Get Down Stay Down? Can we expect any creative dance moves like in the video for “Meticulous Bird”?
My solo performance is a much more intimate engagement, I talk and joke around more in between songs. There’s a different kind of intensity that has more to do with the lyrical content. I play more instruments and my playing is more intricate because there’s more sonic space. There will be less creative dancing than the M bird video, but mostly because I have to play guitar and stay behind the mic. If I had a wireless mic it would be a dance-a-thon; that is something to consider for next time.
Little BIG Fest is an annual festival featuring roots, country, singer-songwriter, bluegrass, blues, jazz, and soul music. The goal of Little BIG Fest 2017 is to showcase female-identified and non-binary musicians successful in the music industry and to spark the imagination of talented performers of all ages in Des Moines. Little BIG Fest’s vision is to grow the number of women and non-binary artists playing music in Iowa and for the music industry to embrace a wider variety of musicians as festival headliners.