What she saw live, Nguyen thought, stuck in her mind more than much of what she heard on the radio.
She said, "It depends on the song, but there's always roots of that music in what I write."
Nguyen picked up her first guitar when she was 12.
"It was an old beat-up guitar nobody played in our house," she said. "I played that for a few years."
Later, she got a job at Guitar Center and picked out a nicer one, but before that, she was writing songs. She started writing songs almost at the same time she was learning to play.
In college, while studying sociology and women's studies at William & Mary, she often performed solo at bars and coffeehouses in the surrounding cities, which was where she met bassist and keyboard player Adam Thompson.
"We were both on the bill at the same coffeehouse," she said. "I was in school in Williamsburg. He was in school at Richmond."
The two of them hit it off, and Thompson helped her put together a backing band that evolved into the Thao and the Get Down Stay Down.
"I was going on tour, but I didn't want solo shows," she said. "I wanted more of a rock band."
Critical success has followed, along with a heavy touring schedule and five records. The latest is "We The Common," which is partly inspired by Nguyen's life after she relocated from the East Coast to San Francisco.
"I love the pacing of San Francisco," she said. "And I love the fresh produce. Fresh produce is really important to me; it's almost disproportionately important to me. And I love the proximity to water."
It's probably a bit more than that.
Aside from settling in California and taking a break from life on the road, Nguyen got involved with California's Coalition for Women's Prisoners, a grassroots women's prisoner advocacy group that, among other things, visits prisons, lobbies state government and tries to inform the public about prison conditions and abuses.
Nguyen said she planned to tour for the next couple of months but hoped to get home to San Francisco some.
"I'm just so well-suited to the place," she said.Reach Bill Lynch at ly...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.