Julia Egan sat down with Matt Nakoa—a promising young singer/songwriter Elmore’s been following for a while—before he hit the stage along legendary folk singer, Tom Rush, at Pace University’s Schimmel Center. Nakoa’s been “living the dream,” aka hopping from state to state and hotel room to living room couch with no permanent residence, for over two years. He opened up about getting in touch with his feminine musical side, famous classmates and “project band” at Berklee and his big plans for 2017.
Elmore Magazine: How are you doing this evening, Matt?
Matt Nakoa: I’m feelin’ pretty good, pretty happy.
EM: Great! All right, so Matt, where did you grow up?
MN: I grew up in the middle of nowhere, up in central New York state. Kind of on a goat farm, actually. My parents were sort of hippies, and they had goats. And at some point I showed up. There was nothing for miles, nothing to do, except for walk around in the woods, and go fishing and all that.
EM: Did you like growing up there?
MN: Loved it. Yeah, it was amazing. I think it was the best way to be a kid. Farming is really fun when you’re a kid; there’s always something to do– run and get the eggs from the chickens, or whatever it is. And I love that, and everything was honky dory until school I think. Public school was pretty miserable [Laughs] For me in that small town, that was tough.
EM: So how did you get into writing music?
MN: Wow! I think the first time I wrote music was because I wanted to play, and I could not read well enough or fast enough to make it work, but I wanted to practice anyway. I played trombone first, so I had a passion for music, and I had some musical knowledge– but I knew this bass clef stuff, and when it came to the piano, which I discovered a few years later, I couldn’t figure out how to read the treble clef and so rather than do the work of practicing and studying, I thought it would be fun to just come up with some things to work out my fingers, to practice with that way. So I would come up with just simple things, like this note and then ten notes away it sounds really nice together, and if I keep my hands ten notes apart, like it always sounds consonant. So I would just kind of move around the keyboard that way. I discovered arpeggios by mistake… and would just do it really quickly and really not that fancy, but it sounds fancy.
EM: Yeah, it does. [Laughs]
MN: So you know, girls would walk by and I would go [sings].
EM: Yeah, that’s the best way to get the ladies.
MN: Yeah [Laughs]
EM: So you’re mostly self-taught, or a mix of both?
MN: It’s a mix of both. I mean, I think I’ve always led with self-taught, because I’m always– when something comes musically, a new frontier musically, I don’t wait until I have the right information, I just go and try to figure it out. It happened with the piano that way, and I was playing with just three fingers on each hand until maybe a year and a half or two later, I finally got lessons and they said, “no no no no no break those habits,” and the ruler came out and I had to learn how to use all five fingers. And the same thing happened when I picked up guitar. I’m left handed, and I picked up a right handed guitar and just turned it over backwards, and by the time somebody told me it was wrong, it was too late. And that’s just what I do.
EM: Well, that’s good. I have a friend in Rochester who actually plays overhand, ’cause he’s a lefty.
MN: Yeah, it’s a wild thing– it does work, it just takes a little bit of flipping in your head. But yeah, I can’t say that I haven’t had any wonderful training, because I’ve had just about the best, I mean, I’ve had incredible teachers.
EM: How was it uh studying at Berklee?
MN: Berklee was very cool, there’s so much to do there. There’s a lot of great teachers, a lot of quirky teachers… it’s a very quirky place. You know? And I think it’s like anywhere you have to be– you have to know how to find a teacher and you have to know how to listen to them. I learned a lot there. I actually learned a lot from my peers there, I think I may have learned an equal amount from my peers, maybe even a little more…
EM: You went to school with Esperanza Spalding, right? St. Vincent?
MN: Yeah. Yeah it was funny, I always remember Esperanza. We had this thing called “project band,” and it was for the students who had scholarship to be there. Part of your responsibility as a scholarship student is to perform in a “project band,” which is when somebody’s final project is due, they write, let’s say, a big band arrangement or something.
They then need, you know, musicians to perform for their exam. So it was just sort of our responsibility to do that, and I always remember it was such a drudgery. Like “ugh!” You go to project band at whatever time in the morning, and like sing somebody’s horrible project or something, and I just remember going, and Esperanza was in there and she’d just like–because she was there singing–I think she was singing in the project, she wasn’t even playing bass… But she’d just have, like, a burrito, just be like munching on a burrito and not paying attention [laughing] I just thought she was such a star– she was such a rock star.
EM: Yeah, always.
MN: Like checked out in the coolest possible way–she was probably thinking about something actually important and amazing.
EM: [Laughing] But so, sounds like school was fun, to say the least?
MN: Yeah, Berklee was fun. It was fun until it wasn’t. I think academia is a funny thing, you know? You can go along and be an allstar at school, and then the minute it’s over there’s a lot of disillusionment–there was for me anyway. Like, well, so what now? I could take any gig under the sun, but which ones should I take? And which ones are actually important to me? And what kinds of songs do I actually care to sing, and what kinds of songs do I actually care to write? And that took as long as I was in school to figure out, and it’s something school can’t teach you.
EM: When you got out of school, you were performing in the piano bar scene. Was that a type of gig that you just took, or did you actually enjoy it?
MN: Well, I learned to enjoy it, because I feel like I learned to be really good at it and that scene has its own glamour. It’s like, the most fabulous dead end street you’ve ever been down. And I busted my ass playing in piano bars, and people became fans and they came every week to hear me and all that. And I knew hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of songs, and I would make them my own, and I felt really good about it. I felt like it was making me a better musician. And it was going somewhere, but then it wasn’t. At some point, it’s just like “this isn’t going anywhere.” I don’t regret those years, but people will have an amazing time, they might have the best night of their life. You know? And they’ll say “Gosh!” you know, “Oh, my head. Who is that guy that played that fabulous Van Morrison song last night or whatever it is–Billy Joel song?” Right?
“Oh, anyway, I don’t remember, but he did a great Billy Joel.” And they remember Billy Joel, they don’t remember who I am, and there’s a problem there at some point, just because what people really want is true artists like Billy Joel or Van Morrison. They want those people and they want…
MN: New, great songs– they want something that will become timeless, and that will never happen if they continue to consume the thing they already know. So you have to, at some point, push the envelope of new ideas, new thoughts, new artists– support somebody and their own songs, and then maybe in a few years you’ll find yourself going, “I was there when that person was starting out.”
EM: So what kind of stuff do you like to write? Or what’s the style you would say you like to write the most?
MN: It actually sort of runs the gambit. I’ve been a rock person for a long time. I’d really love to sing with a rock band, so I’m constantly telling myself “ok, you have to learn how to strip this one down, because you don’t have the rock band tonight, you’re gonna have to do it by yourself with an acoustic guitar.” And so I’m constantly looking at my songs and saying, how are the lyrics? How’s the story–the narrative of the song? Is it compelling as it can possibly be, even without drums and groove and all that? So something that’s very important to me is the lyric and the story of the song– and the place it puts people in. But I also really love to just sing high notes and rock out with a band– it’s something that is very important to me. I come from this classical background, so when I’m tired of entertaining, and my voice is tired or whatever, I love to light candles and drink tea or red wine and compose instrumental music. I do a lot of pretending it’s the 19th century and I write waltzes and mazurkas and things like that.
EM: It’s a great exercise– or it always was for me– trying to write classical guitar music.
MN: Yeah, it’s also, I think it’s every bit as relevant as a pop song. It’s just that people don’t remember that, because it’s a different part of you? Maybe a different energy that everybody has–let’s say it’s like a more feminine energy than a masculine, four on the floor. It’s more yielding, like 3/4, it’s got like a yielding, feminine quality to it, and everybody has that in them, it’s just do we embrace that or not? And I certainly, sometimes, embrace that. I wish I could do it more. In fact, I’m gonna put out an album this coming year that’s all piano. Or I’m gonna do a salon tour, and everybody comes in costume. Even though it might sound antiquated, it’s brand new, and it puts you in a quieter mood– in a mood that you may have been in before there were computers and Facebook and Twitter and all that stuff, you know? A quiet place.
EM: Can you talk to me more about your first two albums? Do you have a favorite one?
MN: They’re both my favorite, they’re just different animals. They’re two different things. The first album that I still– I call it the first, there were other things, but they shall be forgotten– but my first solo album that I put out is called Light in the Dark. And this is really something that came out of my years playing in a rock band. And so most of the songs on the record are imagined with a band, and it’s sort of like I took all of the things that I really loved about Beatles records, Queen records, Pink Floyd records, great bands that didn’t just sound like one thing. They had a scope, a sweep to them. And I put that all into this record, so it really goes from 0-60 in five seconds– and then back.
So the first record’s very sweeping and cinematic. And I’m very proud of it. I think the lyrics are very good on it too. But it seems that people find it less lyric-centric because of the band arrangements. But anyway, the second record I did was almost a response to a challenge to do something acoustic and folksy, because I found myself playing, sometimes in the middle of a field, with no amplification at festivals or whatever, so I thought, “Well, ok, I’m gonna write this batch of songs around the acoustic guitar and the kinds of music that would sound good on that.” So it still sounds very much like me, but it’s just more pithy and intimate.
EM: Sounds like you’re quite the orchestrator.
MN: I like that. I like orchestrating. I think, personally, that the arrangement and the song– not always– but I’ve learned to think about them as two different things. But when you look at Beethoven, the Fifth Symphony is written for that instrumentation and it’s written for that instrumentation for a reason. Because it’s how he imagined it. And that’s the point–it is synonymous with that. And yes, Liszt made a piano arrangement, and you could do that, but it’s not the same, and that’s kind of what happens to me, is I quickly hear arrangements. As soon as the song is out, there’s an arrangement appearing–or simultaneously– and that’s not to be denied. And sure, you could take it and I do, live, I take it and change it for fun, but yeah, arranging is a part of composing for me. It’s one and the same.
EM: So are you touring right now?
MN: Yeah, I’ve been on the road for a few years. I was living in Brooklyn for a number of years, and then I thought, “Why am I paying this rent for four nights?” I saw my place for like four nights a month, because I was always out doing gigs and I thought, “Why am I doing this?” So I just uprooted myself, and I thought it was a crazy idea– I thought I was gonna be homeless and broke. It turned out that there’s a home everywhere, and there’s lots of opportunity everywhere.
EM: So you’re just kind of in transit right now?
MN: Uh huh. Show to show, hotel to hotel, it’s like living the dream! [Laughs]
EM: Is it a fun dream or is it a stressful dream?
MN: I mean, it’s both. It’s mostly rewarding. When I get to the stage, then it all makes sense why the driving happened, and all that, you know? And people are lovely everywhere I go, so I can’t complain. I am ready for a break. [Laughs]
EM: Yeah, I was gonna ask that. What do you think is next after the tour?
MN: Well, the holiday season is upon us, and I’m gonna retreat to the mountains somewhere, and rest my voice a little, and work on some piano music, things like that. The quiet part of myself. And then come out full force next year. I’m gonna have a few new records, I think three records will come out this next year. Because I’m sort of backed up– I’m overdue, I guess that’s what I should say. So I got three slated to come out.
They tell me I’m supposed to do them one by one. It’s like bad for business if you do them all at once… but we’ll see.