Singer songwriter Nahko is best known as the frontman of the world music collective, Medicine For The People. He started playing piano at the age of 6, and his songwriting moved to a more grassroots style in about 2012, when he travelled around the US with his van and his dog. Nahko’s album, ‘My Name Is Bear’, is in essence a prequel to his work with Medicine For The People, with songs written primarily between the ages of 18 and 21 (with a few more recent than that).
Lisa caught up with Nahko while he was visiting London to promote his new album.
*We apologise for the noise in the background – it was a busy pub and couldn’t be avoided – this transcript is as much to convey the spirit of the interview as anything else.
EP: Welcome to England!
N: Welcome to the show folks!
EP: We have someone in common – Phoebe Dykstra! I first heard about you when she first discovered you – it was a while ago…
N: It was at least two years ago!
EP: And she was tweeting about you, and Instagraming about you, so I contacted her and said “I’m going to be talking to Nahko!” But she’d said, she’d seen you off over here, and she’d done the Run4Salmon?
N: Traditionally Native Americans will do these runs, or walks for peace, peaceful protest, but also like a way of following Songlines, it’s a prayerful journey. The same way religious people will go to Church, Natives will go and walk the land. Run4Salmon in particular is a 350 mile journey that follows the river from the ocean to the mountains, and it’s about bringing awareness for the return of the winter run Chinook salmon to the northern rivers of California. It’s a collaboration between the public and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe which is the ancestral land of the place where the salmon are from.
EP: So how long did that take?
N: That was 2 weeks. The first week was like a run, and a walk, and a boat and then a bike and then the part that Phoebe came on was the four day horseback ride.
EP: Oh okay! Yeah she said she loved your horse. And she showed me a photo of your horse.
N: I think she rode both my horses.
EP: You really love your horses as well!
N: Yeah! They’re my babies!
EP: She showed me a photo of the black one.
N: That’s Foxfire.
EP: I was listening to your album today, I only listened this afternoon, so I’ve got right to the very last song, but it’s so so good.
N: Oh thanks!
EP: It really is! I’d only heard ‘Dragonfly’ before this, and that’s completely different to the rest of the album.
N: Yeah you know all the songs are kinda little different. If you really want to look into their genre [EP: I suppose so] But when you’re making a record you want to be able to, if you’re going to have so many songs that have a different vibe to them, you still have to paint them in a way that they’ll fit the entire record right? So I think I did that, because I’ve listened to the whole thing back to front, back and forth many times, it works to me. But yeah, rhythmically there’s different instrumentation, and different drums etc, all different kinds of stuff, yeah it’s the only one on there that’s like that.
EP: Yeah cos the rest of the songs seem to be, they’re not all, there’s a lot of upbeat rock of songs, and a lot of sort of…yeah I really really enjoyed it. It’s going to be good when it comes out.[N: Yeah!]
EP: So it’s 16 songs, and you wrote most of them between when you were 18 and 21.
N: With a few exceptions!
EP: What were the exceptions?
N: Like an age range, for instance ‘Alice’ was written when I was probably 22. And then ‘Die Like Dinoz’ was like 23 maybe. The ones that were the exceptions had the vibe I was going for, and it felt appropriate.
EP: What’s made you go back to these songs, that you’ve written X number of years ago, rather than write new ones altogether? What’s so special about these songs?
N: I always knew I would go back to record them, and it was just waiting for the right time. It’s volume 1, so there’s volume 2, there’s other songs that are waiting in the archive. [EP: Cool!]. I have tons of new songs as well but they’ll be on the next Medicine For The People record. But I took the opportunity that I had so far as the time, to give these ones life, to let them live in the world – *like normal songs*!
EP: Instead of living in the cupboard they get to live!
I’ve been listening to ‘Dragonfly’ because I’ve had it for a few days. You’ve said on your website that it’s a rite of passage between youth and adulthood, and each piece fits into the next and so on. When I read that in the lyrics I thought it sounded like those nesting dolls, you know those Russian dolls? You start out with a little doll and then you’ve got a bigger doll…
N: Oh yeah! Or the other way around…
EP: Or the other way around yes! But don’t we start out small?
N: Aren’t there those ones where you [makes unscrewing motion]…and you get smaller and smaller and smaller…those aren’t Russian are they?
EP: Yeah but I’m starting from the little one…but you know what I mean don’t you? It’s kinda like life isn’t it, we start out small…but what do you mean though, each piece fits into the next?
N: I reckon it’s like there’s chapters in your life. There’s some pretty obvious times in your life where you go through massive transformation. That’s the oldest song that I’ve written that’s been recorded, and it’s a clear nod to…I want to say the first transformation that I consciously could be aware of, but it’s not, you go through lots before that, but it’s the first time I was coming to terms with my mortality, tasting real loss for the first time. Tasting like what it means to be on your own truly, and feeling a little bit scared, about this world without any knowledge of like where I’m going, how I’m going to get there. I don’t have a place to sleep, I don’t have any money, all I have is my songs, and I’m on the wind. And that can be a little scary, but it can be a little empowering.
EP: If you have that actual freedom, because it is a kind of freedom isn’t it…
N: But it’s also a decision to make…I dropped out of college, moved to Alaska…I worked, playing piano, but I just didn’t know if that was where I was going to go, where I wrote this song was actually in Louisiana, down in the gutters…
EP: How did you get to Louisiana from Alaska!
N: Followed a girl! but I drove cross country… [EP: The age old story…] yeah the age old story…followed love across the country…
EP: I was thinking about dragonflies, they’re under the water, then they come out and grow their wings and so on…
N: Yeah. They’re a symbol of courage and strength.
EP: That makes sense. So do you think some people never change into that dragonfly?
N: What are you getting at?
EP: I don’t know what I’m getting at…
N: I would say that, let’s consider the dragonfly a symbol of something you do transform into, everyone’s going to have their own time plan. [EP: So you can be a pupa for longer than others…] Let’s say you’re going to be whatever, a creature of the night, you know, you’re an owl, or a bat, or you’re a dragonfly. There’s no way you’re not going to be one, but we’re not going to know what kind of dragonfly you’re going to be….[inaudible]
EP: Phoebe said I would love ‘Hamakua’, and I really really do. You wrote that in Hawai’i. So how did you get to Hawai’i?
N: Well I was 19, and I was in Alaska, and I wanted to go somewhere [EP: Somewhere warmer…] and my friends said it was usually cheap flights from Alaska, and then they told me about this programme called WWOOF…
EP: Oh yeah Willing Workers On Organic Farms…
N: Yes, so I signed up for that, flew over to Hawai’i and like spent a year working on a handful of different farms, and by the time I’d left – that’s in my first year – then I went and spent the summer in the States, and went back in the winter, and moved to Hamakua, moved onto a farm where I lived for nearly a decade…Hamakua means “the breath of God” – “ha” means “breath” and “akua” is the Creator’s name in Hawai’ian, and the chorus is in Hawai’ian as well, and means “while the earth still moves do I…[inaudible] The song is about going through a transformation again, struggling to adapt to a lifestyle where I was going through a loss of love…[EP: there’s that love again!] Yeah! Your teens are rife with it…
EP: But it’s good isn’t it! [N: Oh yeah!] What’s your favourite song on the album, and why?
N: Right now it’s ‘Creation’s Daughter’. It’s a waltz. I love waltzes. There’s something very old about it, it’s a simple waltz song, it’s actually about Burning Man, the one and only time I went, about being alone by myself there, and that feeling of, kind of feeling despondent, and you feel…you’re among 60,000 people, in the desert, and you’re all there for a similar reason, not to find God but to find a reason…and there’s a sense of longing that I feel from the song that is just so beautiful. I really love that song a lot. And the girl that’s featured on it, I met in Bali years ago, and she approached me at a show and said “I want to sing that song with you” and she sang amazing, and so when I recorded it I hit her up and she sang on it.
EP: That’s cool How does the songwriting process work for you?
N: It’s different every time. Sometimes it’s based on the moment, and sometimes it’s in exactly what’s happening right in front of me.
EP: So do you just go, “Oh my God, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to sit down…” and get your guitar…
N: Yeah like sometimes it’s a line that I’ll hear, or a phrase, or I’m going through something and I start tapping or strumming on chords, but then I start hearing a cadence, of my words…
EP: So that’s how you put them together…
N: Sometimes though…it’s really weird I don’t know how to explain it, because it’s not really the same every time, like I can take the last five songs I wrote and go, yep they were all really random different things…but you know when it’s happening, because you’re like…[EP: You can’t do anything else]…yeah if you wanted to…[EP: Sorry life. I have to stop and write this song. I cannot do anything else.] Yeah. Then you’ve got to give it a break, and step back from it and let it breathe and go back to it.
EP: So what are your inspirations?
N: You mean like in singing?
EP: I don’t know! Anything! What inspires you? In life?
N: Nature inspires me quite a bit. People do too, people who are really focused and doing beautiful work. Quite inspired by the plight of people who are oppressed, that inspires me…
EP: That’s been a big thing hasn’t it…
N: Oh yeah. It’s kind of been my work for the last ten years you know, and horses inspire me, the ocean inspires me, I love surfing, the relationship humans can have with nature is pretty remarkable…and just to go beyond like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, to strive for more than anyone else considers possible.
EP: I am really impressed, in reading what you’ve been doing, reading what you stand for, and you’re still so young…do you see yourself taking on more things, more issues as you go on? What do you see…
N: Gently I will pile on my workload, for the right thing at the right time. There is always going to be something else that I know I will use music and my presence to affect change…
EP: So music is always going to be the core, do you think…
N: It’s certainly my most used tool in my toolbox…[EP: It works!] I’m still sharpening my knives, but like I have plenty of other skills to use in my life to help create symbiosis and metamorphosis.
EP: Changing into that dragonfly.
N: Thanks for joining us mates! Cheerio!
EP: Sorry if it all sounds like a mish-mash but it’ll all work out in the edit…
N: Not to worry, not to worry…I’m a bit of a mish-mash myself!
EP: You do that rather well!
‘My Name Is Bear’ is out on October 20, and Nahko will be touring the US and UK to promote the album, starting in Boston on October 18. Find out more about Nahko on his official website. Preorder ‘My Name Is Bear’ here.