KEXP Q&A: Tomo Nakayama

Local Music
Jake Uitti
photo by Beth Crook

Lead vocalist and bandleader of Grand Hallway, and solo artist in his own right, Tomo Nakayama has a beautiful voice and a calming presence. He's one of those artists that, when you see him, you are soothed and introspective at the same time. On November 4th, Tomo is playing 14 shows around the city of Seattle, sharing his work and celebrating an album release in intimate venues. We had a chance to catch up with him and talk his favorite musical memories, what it was like working on a music set for Laggies and more!

Personally, I came to know you from the movie, Touchy Feely. What was it like being a musician on a movie set? Did you get the same type of nerves performing as from a club show?

It actually felt surprisingly natural and easy, which I think was a product of the amazing talent Lynn Shelton assembled, and the relaxed, open atmosphere she creates on set. Lynn has a genuine gift for making each person feel absolutely essential to her creative process, regardless of their position or prestige, and it really makes you want to do your best for her in return. I think Jeff Garlin said a similar thing about working with her in Laggies. You just want to do whatever you can to please her and make sure she's not disappointed. Most of my scenes were with Ellen Page, Scoot McNairy, and Josh Pais, and they're all such amazing and generous actors, all I really had to do was follow their lead and react in the moment. I never felt like I was "acting" in front of the camera, if that makes any sense. It was especially cool talking to Ellen between takes about our favorite music, coffee, movies, little stuff that made it easier to imagine our characters' friendship. In a way, the collaborative nature of film making is not that different from playing in a band, I think. It's all about working together to realize a common goal.Do you experience this collaborative buoying energy in Seattle too, on the whole?

I do, though I do tend to collaborate with people from all over the place, Portland, New York, LA, Iowa, Tokyo. It's all about finding commonalities with people you love and respect, and drawing inspiration from them. But yes, Seattle is my home and I feel very fortunate to live in a city surrounded by so many creative, hard working artists and musicians.

I guess what I’m saying is that the location doesn't matter so much as the people in it. There's good people everywhere you go. Any sense that I have of a city is informed by the people I know there, and that would ultimately paint an incomplete picture. I will say that Seattle has a really nice balance of culture and urban infrastructure and proximity to nature. You can go see a legendary touring band like Kraftwerk come through town one day, and go off the grid on the San Juans the next. You can see that balance inform a lot of the music that comes out of Seattle, I think.

On November 4th, you're playing 14 shows in one day all free! What about playing live inspired this full day for you?

The marathon came from a desire to play smaller, more intimate shows with minimal amplification, and playing solo has really freed me up to do these types of shows. The most fun I've had performing lately have all been house shows and DIY venues where I can see everyone's face and tell when they are really listening. I was also inspired by playing at Bumbershoot this summer, and then running down to KEXP and playing on Audioasis right afterwards. It felt really good to just set up quickly and play right away. So I started by booking 3 or 4 of these shows, but in talking with friends about what I wanted to do, I started getting more and more ideas about places to play. It made me think about the parallels between small businesses and independent artists, and also about the constant presence of music in our every day lives. Going to the grocery store, getting a hair cut, hanging out at a coffee shop, these are places where you always hear music. So I thought, why not bring the music live to people in these places? I'm not sure how it will be received, but it's going to be an interesting challenge, both physically and mentally, and I'm just really curious to see how it turns out!

How did you start playing music? What age? What instrument? How did it stick in your life?

My first instrument was the viola, which I learned in school orchestra. I got an acoustic guitar when I was 14 or 15, and started writing songs shortly after that. I would record on a little cassette boombox, until I graduated to a 4 track. My parents had a lot of Japanese friends who were only living in Seattle for a few years for business, so whenever they would move back they'd leave us a lot of their belongings, which included an old piano and drum kit. So I taught myself those instruments bit by bit, in the process of writing and recording on my 4-track. I think that's when I really started actively listening to music, breaking down the parts into individual instruments and figuring out how each part worked to serve the song as a whole. I'm fascinated by sounds and songs, the way lyrics and music can merge sometimes so perfectly to express an idea and emotion. Plus it's super fun to play with other people. It brings me joy and peace and purpose, so that's what I do, I make music.

What’s the best memory (or two) you have from your career making music?

It's hard to pick just one... Touring in Japan with Grand Hallway, that was pretty special. Hearing an orchestra and a children's choir playing my songs for the first time. Singing at both my sister and brother's weddings. Performing with Gold Leaves for inmates at a women's prison. Playing "I Found A Reason" in a tiny club in New York the day Lou Reed died. Singing at Jherek Bischoff's show at the Moore a couple years ago with Mirah and Zola Jesus. Making a record by myself at Town Hall, and then getting to work with Yuuki Matthews in the mixing process. Those are a few of my favorite memories.

You can watch Tomo playing live at KEXP here:

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