Tomo Nakayama Tells Us Exactly What He Means

Best Folk Act: Tomo Nakayama

The story of Tomo Nakayama’s upcoming album, Pieces of Sky, begins in the terminal of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. But this isn’t a story about getting away.

As part of the Port of Seattle’s “Music at Sea-Tac” program, Nakayama journeys to SeaTac two times a month with his acoustic guitar in hand. There, in the terminal, he busks, playing sets that last between three and four hour for an eclectic crowd. With an audience literally in transit, gaining attention, and maybe a dollar in his case, required him to find common ground.

“Playing at the airport I was doing a lot of covers” says Nakayama. “Simon and Garfunkel, old Beatles songs, Velvet Underground. … It made me kind of realize what I like about certain songs and what sort of feel I wanted to go after.”

The more time Nakayama spent at the SeaTac Airport the more he started incorporating his own songs into the mix—stuff from previous albums, including 2015’s Fog on the Lens and the soundtrack to the Lynn Shelton film Touchy Feely (in which he played, essentially, himself), as well as pieces from his time with the orchestral pop group Grand Hallway. Then he started to play some new songs, writing his new album along the way.

“I was going at about a one-song-a-month sort of pace,” Nakayama says of the new album, which will be released next month. “It took a really long time, but it became a nice snapshot of that year.”

And 2016 was quite a year to base an album on. Nakayama says that many of the songs on the album were influenced by the election cycle. He wrote about difficult relationships and about hope and resilience. The songs Nakayama wrote before election night took on new meanings afterward. What emerged from this process was an album that differs in both sound and lyrical content from his previous work.

In a decade of writing and recording his own music, Nakayama has shown a gift for complexity and nuance. This was certainly the case Fog on the Lens, which, Nakayama says, was about the process of making art itself.

The title track, in particular, is filled with the kind of lyrics that one might delight in disassembling.

“Fog on the lens little signals they bend in the air,” he sings, impressing the listener with his high vocals and floaty contemplative melody.

Many of the songs of Pieces of Sky, on the other hand, are more intimate. They’re the kind of songs you could sing around a campfire. Nakayama says the songs are more “immediate” than those on the last. They are more specific and personal, rather than abstract. There’s a clear message too, which Nakayama claims came from his time playing solo.

“The older I get the more I’m drawn to really literal words,” said Nakayama. “Like Cat Stevens—people who just kind of say what they mean. They confront you with these kind of emotions that aren’t cloaked it metaphors.”

The fourth song on the album is titled “My Life is Better Because You Are In It.” Nakayama wrote the song the night after attending the memorial service for a good friend. He wrote it on his phone, as a text to her.

“I wasn’t even thinking of it as a song,” Nakayama says. “It was just stuff I wanted to say. I didn’t want any ambiguity about it. And there’s no other way to say that—this is what you mean to me.”

The immediacy he mentions is clear in the song. “You know, you must know, you must hear it all the time,” he sings, “but I don’t think you get it, so I’ll say it again.”

The song doesn’t conceal some deeper meaning with new sounds or cryptic lyrics. It is clear and unambiguous.

Asked what prompted the change in his writing, Nakayama shrugs. “I think just being more sure of who I am and knowing what it is I want to say,” he says. “Not being worried about what people think.”

Then he makes an admission. The drum sounds on the album come from an iPhone app, he says, before breaking into a big smile and letting go some machine gun laughter.