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Rocker Thao gets down with prisoners' rights

Thao Nguyen

Thao Nguyen Credit: Thao Nguyen

Singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen found the inspiration for her band’s latest album, “We the Common,” in an unlikely place: a women’s prison.

After years of touring, Nguyen took more than a year off from music to help her regain some perspective on life. She spent much of that time volunteering with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

amNewYork spoke with Nguyen, who performs with her band The Get Down Stay Down.

How did you get involved in prisoners’ rights?
I went to school with the intention of getting into women’s advocacy work. In the end, music won out, but I made a promise to myself that I’d stay as involved as I could.

What did you learn from working with prisoners?
I found it pretty life altering. You can fall back into taking things for granted and not appreciating what you have. ... It’s very grounding. It keeps you honest and keeps you grateful. You can snap yourself out of a selfish moment more easily.

Do you think the time away made you a better songwriter?
I can only hope. I do think the time off has given me greater perspective and a greater objective to not waste words and make sure I’m saying something I think is useful and productive. It made me consider my place in the world versus writing songs about myself.

You’ve described your band’s music as a mixture of old country music and hip-hop. What groups were you listening to when you made “We the Common”?
Hip-hop and old country music have always been very close to my heart. I was listening to OutKast’s “Stankonia” a lot. Also The Byrds, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, John Prine. It was a pretty funny mix.

You play a different instrument on almost every song when you play live. How many do you travel with?
I usually have a banjo, a mandolin, two guitars and a slide guitar. When I was recording the album, I didn’t think about how much it would cost in baggage fees.

Thao & The Get Down Stay Down is at Hudson River Park’s RiverRocks Thursday at 6 p.m., West 44th Street and 12th Avenue, FREE.

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