Quick Q and A with Matt Nakoa

I can say without reservation that Matt Nakoa’s got my vote for one of the freshest and most vibrant singer-songwriters I’ve heard in a long, long time.  Every time I see him perform, he continues to impress.  A recent Boston Globe feature writer said this about him: Between his piano chops, charismatic stage presence, and heartfelt originals on guitar songs, he drops jaws.” Bingo. The music world is cluttered with mediocre and that is not a word that belongs anywhere near Matt.  He’s an award-winning songwriter and creates a joyful space during his performances that makes his audiences smile and feel good about the future of music and about the world in general.

To learn more about Matt, visit his website.

Here’s guitar Matt.

Here’s piano Matt.

A goat farm? Did you really grow up with kids and their goat parents?

I did! We even kept kids in the house and bottle fed them to a certain age. The goats had beautiful names like Trace O’ Magic, Broken Hatchet, Mary-Yellin’ … Zenda & Zulu were sisters … and I named a newborn baby Pumpernickel.  I was there when some were born. I was there when some died. I remember I’d fill up my red thermos cup fresh from the udder. Made me a pudgy baby! We also had chickens, turkeys, pigs … gardens and orchards.

Did you gravitate toward the piano as a young boy?  What were your favorite pieces to play?

I sang first and played trombone for a number of years before I discovered the piano. I was about 12. It was strange how much sense piano made to me. I just knew how it worked. Once I came home from school very late, after dark, and was interrogated about what manner of trouble I’d been causing. Truth was, I’d hid away in the school auditorium to play the piano!

I made up my own tunes to play at first, because I couldn’t read piano music.

Were you so focused on classical music that you didn’t pay much attention to popular music?  Or did you dip into other genres of music along the way?

I’ve never been good at (or interested in) distinguishing between genres of music. I fell in love with melody, texture, rhythm, the smell of the instrument oil, of the wood, the paper. Classical music became my thing because it was shapely and sexy and adventurous and no one seemed to understand it. Perfect for an adolescent boy! I would fall asleep with headphones on. Pictures of composers hung on the wall at school and I wanted to know them and hang with them someday. I liked music that commanded my attention. For that reason I also liked some of the grunge rock coming out at the time. Around age 15, I got into some sugary pop stuff. It was like a sugar addiction and it seemed like everyone was hooked! I would pull apart the ingredients of those songs to see what made them POP. Around age 17, I got into Led Zeppelin and Hendrix and I didn’t even know why! They were often sloppy and abrasive. Turns out it wasn’t music for my intellect, it was a lesson in Mojo – the emotionality and spirituality of rock n’ roll.

And then came Berklee.  Is this when you truly began thinking of yourself as a singer-songwriter?  Was it empowering to discover that you had something to say and sing about?

At Berklee I wanted to sing and write songs but I was also wildly self-conscious. (Now, I suspect everyone there was.) I learned the tools the best I could, but my efforts were just crap until I got into the world and got my attention off of myself. There were many dis-empowered years when I felt perhaps I had something to sing about but it never came across.

How would you describe your time at Berklee?

Disillusionment. A fire. Dissolution into ash. Emergence from the ash.

After you graduated from Berklee, you worked at piano bars in NYC, most notably Brandy’s Piano Bar.  What was that scene like?

It was like the most fabulous dead-end street I’ve ever been down. There’s an old world, working class glory in those late night gigs (9:30pm-3:30am) with the drunken hecklers and the broken pianos. It’s like being a boxer and just trying to last until the bell rings. I had the grittiest and most graceful performances of my life in the piano bars. I just hope somebody remembered in the morning.

You’ve got two albums of your original compositions out, Light in the Dark and A Dozen Other Loves.  How do they differ from each other?

I wrote Light In The Dark to play with a band of my closest friends (I’ve always wanted to belong to a rock band), so it’s a sweeping record with some adventurous arrangements. A Dozen Other Loves was the product of economy. I needed songs that I could pick up a guitar (nobody has pianos anymore!) and play any ol’ place. This aesthetic has received more favorable nods in the folk world, but I will assert that some of my better songwriting may be on the funky record.

You’ve also scored the music for a short film.  What was that like? How many times do you end up watching scene after scene in order to get the mood and tone right?

The scoring of Tumbleweed Tango (Google it. You’ll smile hard.) was more an issue of timing than anything else. I wrote a tango but they had already animated most of the film without adhering the movements to any sense of tempo! I had to play piano while staring at the screen, looking for the jump, turn, fall, etc., slowing down here and speeding up there (gradually, as not to compromise the musicality!) in order to accentuate the visual with the music.

It took a few tries! In the end it was a joy and success and I’ve since adapted the tango for the concert hall.

You’ve played quite a bit with folk icon, Tom Rush, the last couple of years.  What did you learn from Tom and how have those lessons impacted you?

Tom’s been trying to teach me how to open a beer bottle with another beer bottle. I don’t have the hang of it yet, but I hope to perfect this old wisdom and pass it along to future generations.

Your bio says that you have played in India.  What was that like?  Were you playing your own music or was it part of some other kind of tour? 

I went to India primarily to perform at a Darjeeling hotel. I was joined by a singer friend and we drank tea and entertained folks vacationing from Calcutta, London, etc. One night, the local nuns came to the show. I had crushes on a few of them, but they were nuns. Anyway, it started out as a cover show, mostly standards, but soon I was being asked to “play the moonshine song!”.

We need to know about your trip to the White House. How did that come about?  

The folks at The White House were very generous and hospitable. I pet the first dog, played their Steinway, drank their scotch, and ate their Christmas cookies. It seems they wanted to bring some of the piano bar experience to The White House for the Holidays so my singing bartender friend and I went and gave ’em the razzle-dazzle.

What’s next for you?  Can we expect a new recording soon?

I have three albums written. I just need to stop touring, win the lotto, and record them. One is glam-folk, one is dance-rock, and one is neo-romantic piano. #DontFenceMeIn

What are your short term and long term goals related to your music?

My short term goal is to make a comfortable living through the making of original music. Meaning: A living that facilitates the making of more original music. I’m tired of playing “Sweet Caroline.”

My long term goal is to die knowing I contributed my very best to humanity’s evolution toward divinity.


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