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From Laundromats to Radiolab: Jad Abumrad Peers into Thao Nguyen’s Old Soul

“The first real song I wrote was a book report for Lord of the Flies.”

By Jad Abumrad

We asked Jad Abumrad, co-host of popular WNYC radio show and podcast Radiolab—a self-described “show about curiosity”—to interview singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen, who has been performing with him on stage for the show’s live tour, “Radiolab Live: In the Dark”. The live show has been called “a kind of vaudevillian revue” (by the LA Times), and a “nerd circus” (by fellow touring comedian Demetri Martin).
Tell me about your first memory of hearing music. It sounds like I have orchestrated this memory, but truly I remember laying down in front of the speakers listening to Smokey Robinson singing “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.”

Really, when was that? Young—maybe five or six? That’s the first clear memory I have.

And what mood or feeling is associated with that memory? Deep fulfillment. I think that I was maybe the most content I’ll ever be in my life.

Wow. And to think you got it out of the way so early. I know, now I’m just killing time.

Did you come from a musical family? Not really. I think that my dad, my parents listened to music but no one really played music. There was a guitar in the house but no one really played it. I just picked it up eventually when I was eleven or twelve. I was just very bored and lonely and I picked it up.

Your father—he didn’t by any chance play music, did he? He played guitar a little bit. I think he had really good taste in music. He listened to old country, he listened to Marty Robbins. You know that song “El Paso”? It was really funny to hear a man with a very specific Vietnamese accent singing it like that. Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl. He would always sing that.

Marty Robbins sings “El Paso.”

What did your parents do? My mom when I was really young worked… I don’t know what she did, really. I think she was a stay-at-home mom, and then my parents split up. My dad was an electrician. Or something. And he took his leave and then my mom—we were sort of left in the lurch and so she had to scramble to provide and she got a bunch of loans together and she bought this laundromat and drycleaner’s when I was twelve. So that was my life and I worked there all the time. And that’s been her life. I’m twenty-eight now, so for sixteen years she’s been there, seven days a week, fifteen, sixteen hour days. And you know, I saw her when I was there but otherwise… working. She just sold her shop last week and she retired.

You said when you were twelve, you worked there? Yeah. We didn’t have a change machine so I had to make change by hand. And then I sat at the counter, and then I also folded laundry because there was a wash dry and fold service, which was sort of the bread and butter of the business. People—mostly middle-aged bachelors—would drop off laundry and my mom would wash it and I would dry it and fold it. For-ever. Forever. I haven’t folded any laundry in my adult life because I had to take a stand.

(Jared Kelley / Courtesy WNYC)

I bet there’s all kinds of sordid tales to tell about working in a laundromat. Oh yeah. There’s a few.

Like people bringing you their dirty clothes? There must be some strange bags that you open. Oh yeah. But mostly, when they come to pick it up and you look at them in the eye, you look at them and you tell them, I know about you.

Your family comes from where exactly? Comes from Vietnam. But my parents, they met in North Carolina. And they were both sort of relocated. They were both involved in the South Vietnamese government and so at the end of the war they were not able to return. And they were both abroad. My mom was in Laos and my dad was—I guess he was flying missions. I don’t know. I never paid enough attention. And then they both were relocated to what I guess you would call one of those refugee camps—

In this country? Yeah, in this country. In North Carolina. It was sort of a holding pattern for folks while they waited to get sponsored, and they were sponsored by a church in North Carolina.

Were they religious, or that was just what they could get? No. That’s just what they could get. But then, somehow my brother and I both ended up going to Catholic pre-school, and we’re not a religious family.

I can’t imagine you in a Catholic school. It was terrible. I cried every day for the first day. And Jad, can you believe this? This also sounds orchestrated, but the teachers who took care of us—they were Miss and Mrs. Sour. It was a mother and daughter.

What? That was their name? Yeah. Miss Sour and Mrs. Sour.

Oh god. Awful. Well, I don’t know if that’s awful or appropriate. It was appropriate. Yeah. They were sour.