Thao Nguyen has made a lot of friends in the past year, but they're not friends she can connect with in the typical ways, via e-mail and phone.
They live in the Valley State Prison, in California. A little more than a year ago, Nguyen began visiting the prison with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. The people she met there have had a profound effect on both Nguyen's life and her latest album, We the Common (Ribbon Records). Nguyen visits the prison when she's not on the road, generally every six weeks.
"I had never been inside a prison before," she says. "It still is incredibly unsettling. It's everything you think it is. It's barren. You can't believe there's this parallel universe that you're circulating around. And then they're forever."
"It's emotionally difficult at times, because you develop friendships with people," she adds. "A lot of them are non-violent offenders, but because of three strikes, they've been sentenced 25-years to life."
The title track of her new album is dedicated to Valerie Bolden, who was given a life sentence 17 years ago for killing her husband. Bolden claims her husband was abusive and she killed him in self-defense; the song is a jaunty tribute to perseverance, as well as a meditation about the complicated notions of guilt and justice. "All they wanted was a villain, a villain/And all they have was me," Nguyen sings.
The song was a slight turn for Nguyen, as she wrote about someone else's life rather than her own experiences and emotions. She says she didn't feel pressure, because nobody was expecting her to write the song.
"It's inspired by her, but as I've continued to visit the prison, everyone there inspires that sentiment," she says. "It's just that Valerie is the first person I met. But all of these people are going through the same things."
(You can read mini-profiles of other prisoners' Nguyen has befriended on her blog.
"We the Common" is overtly political in criticizing the country's criminal justice system, but Nguyen avoids preaching. "The dangerous territory of political songs is you risk alienating people who otherwise would be listening," she says. "I don't deny the political roots, but the priority of mine is always to maintain human connection."
Bolden hasn't heard the song yet—Nguyen has yet to go through the complicated process of getting the CD into the prison's library. But she's heard the lyrics and appreciates them, Nguyen says.
Raised in Falls Church, Va., Nguyen—pronounced Win—began playing guitar at age 12, while working in her mother's laundromat. In high school, she played in a country band. After college, in 2005, she released her first album, Like the Linen. She's released five more albums since then, some as solo projects, others as collaborations. She's toured relentlessly, including a stint with the syndicated radio show Radiolab. Although she's called San Francisco home for years, only recently was she able to settle in there.
"It's only in the past couple of years that I've been able to be home more often and be party of the community," she says. "It's really calming."
It has juggled her creative routine slightly. With her constant touring, Nguyen grew accustomed to working on the fly. "I'm more used to writing in hotel rooms than in a place."
Her songwriting process usually starts with a melody written on a guitar or banjo, which she then matches to a lyric. As she's grown, she's learned the importance of editing. "I throw a lot away. It's kind of a wonder that anything gets done," she says. "I can sense when it's going nowhere and I just throw the whole song away."
Her attempt to stay put, at least temporarily in San Francisco, can be heard on the We the Common. The record is the result of a conscious attempt to connect with and reflect her community. "The songs are more about survival and gratitude and wanting to be a part of my own life," she says. "It's rooted in feeling that I belong somewhere."
For now, she's back on the road. Nguyen is doing a stint of shows opening for Neko Case, with a break to play a solo gig at Pilot Light on Jan. 29.
She admits that touring can be exhausting, but says she loves performing live.
"It's a true privilege to be a touring musician and make my living this way," she says. "You try your best not to be on the road longer than six weeks. You try not to drink too much and eat healthy, exercise, keep in touch with friends."